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Thrifty Ulster University should begin its cutting from the top down

By Eamonn McCann

Published 30/09/2015

Minister for Employment and Learning Stephen Farry
Minister for Employment and Learning Stephen Farry

You cannot study German at Ulster University (UU) anymore, or Chinese, French or Spanish. Or take a single honours maths degree. All gone.

History, media, film and journalism studies will be drastically curtailed. Also on the hit-list are the only undergraduate dance degree and the only housing management degree in Ireland. Computing and engineering will lose out, too. Around 1,200 student places and almost 200 jobs are set for the axe.

Vice-chancellor Professor Patrick Nixon blames the Department of Employment and Learning (DEL). DEL Minister Stephen Farry of the Alliance Party says it's the Executive's responsibility - by which he means the other Executive parties. They, in turn, blame the Treasury.

Meanwhile, senior members of staff with fabulous salaries and fancy titles but no obviously useful educational function flit contentedly between the four campuses.

How many of the 185 discarded teaching posts could be saved by taking a hard look at the need or not for five pro-vice chancellors (PVCs) on £120,000 apiece?

Leeds has 32,000 students and two PVCs. Edinburgh has 33,500 students and no PVC at all, the role subsumed into the secretary's office. Swansea, about the same size as UU with around 17,000 students, gets by on two PVCs.

Why does UU need five? What vital function do they fill to justify such a drain on resources? Nobody seems certain. There are three "senior officers" on over £100,000 each - an extra layer of top management most universities appear able to do without.

Professor Nixon is on £250,000 plus benefits. Any chance of him volunteering for a cut? Not while savings can more easily be made by giving teachers the elbow, it seems.

How strapped for cash is UU anyway?

The latest auditors' report shows a surplus of £14,157,000 at the end of last July - up from £11,245,000 the previous year.

The report also reveals that the university has total reserves of £185,052,000 - compared with annual staff costs of £112,447,000.

By and large, businesses are comfortable with reserves of a quarter to a third of annual staff expenditure. UU is in a far more buoyant situation.

If the idea of beginning the cuts at the top was never considered, some thought appears to have been given to closing the most venerable of UU's components - Magee College in Derry (there was a prestigious Magee College in Derry more than a hundred years before UU was a gleam in the rheumy eye of a number-cruncher masquerading as somebody interested in education).

On September 2 the BBC's Robbie Meredith reported that: "Professor Paddy Nixon... said moving to a single campus had been considered as a way of saving money. But he added that had been ruled out..."

We can safely assume the Belfast campus had not been considered for closure, but Derry, Coleraine and Jordanstown were seen as expendable if needs be.

Professor Nixon should be aware that, in Derry at least, this won't be forgotten.

Underlying this sorry, cynical saga is the inexorable commercialisation of education - and of higher education in particular - in the soulless era of neo-liberalism.

Reading through last year's financial statement and other UU documents, you have to remind yourself repeatedly that this is a university we are dealing with and not an engineering factory.

The operative philosophy at UU is exemplified by the opening in the Business School next year of a BSc course in call centre work - "customer contact management".

It will be open to employees of Firstsource Solutions. The documents suggest no other category of entrant is envisaged.

The company will pay the university to deliver courses and degrees tailored to its own needs to its own personnel.

Firstsource workers - the company has centres in Belfast, Derry, Cardiff and Middlesbrough - are perfectly appropriate candidates for higher education. But for the benefit of their employer, their own development no part of the package? That's the direct negation of Newman's Idea. But no doubt it will turn a profit.

As Leonard Cohen had it: "It's come to this, It's come to this, And isn't it a long way down?"

Belfast Telegraph

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