For Staff

Our response to the funding crisis - March 2010

image of VC

I've met hundreds of staff across the University in the last month to discuss our response to the crisis in the public purse, funding cuts and other issues.

While most people understand the cause and nature of the problems facing us, the overwhelming concern is uncertainty - not knowing for sure how much we will be cut by, or when.

Until we can make decisions, people are unsure as to how they might be personally affected, and that can be extremely destabilising. The vacuum caused by all
this uncertainty has provided an irresistible temptation for soothsayers and speculation, not all of it helpful.

The University's executive team made a difficult decision last October; to be completely open about the problems facing us and the kinds of measures we would need to deal with them. It's now clear that most universities were planning similar economies; the funding council had suggested we all model a 20 per cent cut.

Leeds attracted headlines because of our openness and our size. An economies programme of £35 million is a substantial amount, but to put it in context; it's seven per cent of our turnover (or ten per cent of 'unrestricted' income), it's £5 million less than it costs to run the whole campus for one month and it's £15 million less than the increase in our wage bill over the last two years.

We chose transparency because of our values, and because we believed our wider collegial community should shape options, influence decisions and share responsibility for the solutions. We also thought that the sooner we began to plan economies, the more we could protect the University and save jobs.

As I wrote last October: "We must do everything in our power to prepare now for the fallout. If we wait until the funding axe falls, as it inevitably will, it will be too late. If, on the other hand, we take strategic action now to make our university as efficient, joined up and focused as possible, when the inevitable cuts in funding hit us, we will be able to absorb them without being forced into crisis measures and thrown off course."

All that remains true. Since then, and despite all the fierce lobbying, universities have been dealt two rounds of cuts and are responding with economy plans of varying severity and transparency. For Leeds, the cuts so far confirmed mean cumulative reductions in government funding of between £14-18 million a year by 2013.

We are pretty confident, unfortunately, that more is in the pipeline. For political reasons as much as any, governments are not likely to impose one, swingeing cut, but they will most likely spin out the misery, with 'serial' reductions of perhaps another 6-7 per cent in each of three consecutive years (2011-13).

We will know more precisely about the funding position for next year (August 2010-11) when HEFCE's letter arrives in a fortnight or so. It's entirely possible that the Spring Budget later this month could identify more cuts. Whoever is in power following the General Election will look for more savings in an Autumn comprehensive spending review, and if the Conservatives form the next government, they're likely to accelerate with 'fast, hard, deep' cuts and a Budget within 50 days of election.

We can take heart from the fact that our economies exercise target remains true and we can continue to plan with reasonable  confidence. A huge amount of 'mitigation' activity is taking place across the campus, including the identification of non-staff savings, a 'severe chill' on recruitment (which has frozen around 100 posts) and the University-wide voluntary leavers' scheme, which has so far attracted some 250 applicants.

Schools and faculties are very clear about one particular aspect of the economies exercise. Just about everyone I've spoken to in the University would prefer it if they could - when the Government has announced what further cuts will be made from 2011 onwards - make just one round of economies, and do it properly.

It's also now clear that some areas of the campus are in a position to absorb these cuts in a relatively straightforward way while retaining their strategic focus and academic sustainability. For others, particularly those facing difficulties even before the cuts landed, the solution will be more complex. So we need to accommodate varying speeds and timetables. Schools ready to make decisions about economies and remove uncertainty will be able to finalise their planning soon.  Others will need more time and, possibly, the assistance of the new review processes we are discussing with the unions.

Last month I wrote about the decision to launch a University fundraising campaign to provide investment supporting our strategy. This being its 'quiet' phase, we don't intend to install a giant thermometer on the side of the Parkinson Tower to see the total rising day by day, but I'm delighted to report we have already received donations and pledges in the last few weeks totalling more than £350,000.

This is a fantastic start, and a real vote of confidence in our people, in their creativity and in the excellence of our great University.