By Hannah Somerville (MA Arabic Literature)
Calls for clarity were issued last week as SOAS squares up to a deepening financial crisis.
The university is facing a £4.7m projected deficit this year and its executive board has been tasked with finding at least £3m of savings between now and 2020, with fears raised that staff salaries could be in the firing line.
Speaking at an all-staff meeting on Wednesday, October 4, SOAS director Valerie Amos said: “I want to make it clear, because it’s a deeply unsettling situation when you look at these numbers, that we have no plans for compulsory redundancies.”
But she added: “We are all going to have to work together to be much more effective in terms of our management of our money, the decisions we take and our priorities, and where we need to invest.”
A ‘perfect storm’ of increased competition in the UK and globally, the impact of Brexit on the student body and staff, marketisation of the education sector and SOAS’s faltering position in league tables have contributed to the situation.
Partly as a result of the unviersity’s decision not to lower its UCAS tariff for 2017/18, new undergraduate enrolments plunged from 1,069 in 2016 to 864 this year – the lowest since 2011 –and have led to a shortfall in revenue for the university, which relies on fees for 75 per cent of its income. This has been compounded by the tuition fee cap that came into force this year.
The decision taken by the university not to lower its UCAS Tariff for 2017/18, the number of UCAS points required for an applicant to receive an offer, is thought to have contributed to the shrinking volume of applicants.
At present the school is bringing in income of about £95m a year and spending £100m, with at least £1m projected to be saved through its One Professional manage and support service.
Speaking at the annual Student-Staff Forum on Wednesday 18th October, SU Co-President Dmitri Cautain said he understood that a large proportion of the remainder could come from staff salaries.
He added: “A lot of things are changing. People’s jobs are moving around, offices are moving around and the executive board has been given the tasks of cutting millions of pounds.”
Dr Meera Sabratnam, chair of the SOAS Academic Senate and a lecturer in international relations, said over the past five years income at SOAS had increased by about a third – but at the same time staff costs had increased by 22 per cent, and indirect costs by 65 per cent.
She said: “It’s not clear to me where that extra spend is going. We need much more clarity about what exactly it is that’s happening, and where. Information has not been forthcoming.
“I don’t know what mechanisms there would be to produce this volume of savings without some form of voluntary redundancy.”
The news was greeted with incredulity by some staff at the meeting, with SOAS Unison branch secretary Sandy Nicoll issuing what he called a ‘warning shot across the bows’.
He said: “Every member of staff’s job at SOAS is going to be looked at over the next 12 months. There’s a cloud over what the school plans to achieve by restructuring.
“That means the encouragement and enthusiasm of our members to engage is going to be coloured by the fact that they are looking at this as a process that could leave many of them out of the job.
“I’ve seen members of my branch having to confront situations at the start of term, and people put on sick leave because of the stress. We are not going to sit back and let that happen to everyone over the next year. We would appreciate clarity from the School about what its timetable is and how it’s approaching this. It’s a warning shot across the bows on behalf of Unison.”
Dr Richard Alexander, a law lecturer at SOAS, echoed similar sentiments on behalf of UCU, adding: “We feel it would be naïve to think that savings are going to be on professional services; it’s going to be on us as well. It’s the UCU position that should there be threat of redundancies, we will take the appropriate action.”
When contacted by the SOAS Spirit for comment, a University spokesperson said SOAS would seek to return to a surplus position through a combination of income growth and cost reduction.
She added: “ We will take a “zero-based budget” approach, which means we look at all budgets from a zero base and build them up in a cost efficient way to meet our needs and strategic priorities.
“In growing income and making these savings, our commitment is to protect and improve frontline services to our students. There are no plans for compulsory redundancies for staff.”