On the ground at Luton

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The Independent Online

Luton may be a university in crisis but it appeared remarkably orderly last week. Students busied themselves at computers, lecturers taught classes, bureaucrats pushed paper, and the sun shone intermittently on the university's modern brick buildings.

Luton may be a university in crisis but it appeared remarkably orderly last week. Students busied themselves at computers, lecturers taught classes, bureaucrats pushed paper, and the sun shone intermittently on the university's modern brick buildings.

Decorating the pillars, however, was a flier revealing one of the university's problems. All students owing money for rent or tuition fees this year would be excluded, warned the flier. The deadline was the day of my visit, 26 April.

Luton has now acted to chuck out 206 students with bad debts, which could mean those students don't have their assignments marked and end up without a degree. The total amount owing to the university in the current year is around £3m, a large sum by any standards and one Luton can ill afford. But the actual amount of student debt is higher still; another £3m is owed from previous years.

The university's managers were putting a brave face on the matter, just as they were putting a brave face on the sudden upheaval Luton is undergoing as a result of shifts in the student market. As one of six universities suffering financial penalties for failing to recruit students to target, Luton has been forced to produce a recovery plan by the Higher Education Funding Council (Hefce).

The decision to axe the humanities faculty in favour of developing newer more fashionable, vocational subjects is drastic but makes sense. People believe that the more vocational subjects provide passports to jobs and they could be right. Luton has topped the official league table for getting its graduates into work, beating Oxford and Cambridge and all other top universities.

"We can't buck the trend," says Tim Boatswain, Pro-Vice-Chancellor and dean of the ill-fated humanities faculty. "There has been a steady decline in students wanting to do the more traditional university subjects. The faculty has been subsidising history for at least six of the past eight years. Our long-term plan is to develop the areas we're good at."

But some academics are up in arms. How can Luton claim to be a university if it gets rid of its humanities, they ask. This strategic repositioning is a catastrophe for many of the affected academics. Earlier this year, the university announced that 101 would lose their jobs this summer (around 12 per cent of total numbers). Since then, more than 40 new vacancies have been announced in the trendy areas, enabling the university to claim that only 54 jobs will be disappearing altogether.

That is not much comfort, however, to the lecturers facing redundancy. A climate of paranoia and resentment reigns. In politics, staff numbers are being reduced from 11 to two; and all 11 are applying for those two jobs. Some will be unable to find permanent work elsewhere because they are too old and anyway the jobs don't exist any longer. "It's disastrous in personal terms," says one member of the lecturers' union Natfhe (the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education). No one would give their names for fear of being summarily dismissed.

Just before Easter, staff passed a motion of no confidence in the Vice-Chancellor, Dai John, and in his two deputies, Kate Robinson and Stephen Pettit. The vote was 50 to 369, but university managers point to a low turn-out, claiming that 1,500 staff members were eligible to vote, so more than 1,000 did not.

Certainly, there is a hard core of academic staff, notably those who are losing their jobs, who are bitter about what is happening. They claim that poor management has compounded Luton's problems. Courses in humanities have not been advertised properly, yet Bell Pottinger was hired to redesign the university logo, they complain. Moreover, there has been a lack of strategic planning. Anyone studying the student-demand figures could have seen the crisis coming, they claim. Yet the management did nothing. "At no point have they ever begun any action to avoid the utter shambles that the place is now in," says a Natfhe member. "They could have planned for this by cutting back on one department earlier and asking for voluntary redundancies. But they didn't."

Luton's managers deny the allegations. It's difficult to plan, they say, when you have a funding mechanism that operates on an annual basis but the commitments to students run over three years and longer.

The students are also worried that, once a course is cut, standards will fall for those who are already on it. The university is proposing less choice in modules for existing students, according to the National Union of Students (NUS). Switching to part-time staff on short contracts may help the university save money, but it undoubtedly contributes to declining academic standards and a lack of pastoral care, it adds.

As a new university, which was never even a polytechnic, Luton is at the bottom of the league table for research and has few cash reserves. So it is desperately vulnerable to the falling-off in demand for higher education, the vagaries of the funding regime for universities, and to government policy that has ushered in a new era of tuition fees. Coming from poorer families, or being mature students with commitments, Luton students are the first to feel the financial squeeze.

Everyone at the university is pointing an accusative finger at Hefce and the Government. Policies on tuition fees and grants have depressed demand for higher education at universities like theirs, they say. And Luton is attracting many of the students that the Government wants in higher education ­ from low-income families and ethnic minorities, and mature students. Yet it is being penalised because it is not as successful as the old universities in hitting the targets on overall student numbers.

"We have been doing what the Government wants us to do," says a Natfhe member. "We have been empowering under-represented groups, making links with local communities and providing routes into higher education for those people who would not normally look at it."

It is not surprising the lecturers are so angry, says Tim Boatswain. Until now the universities have been protected from the ravages of the marketplace. But now they are buffeted around by the laws of supply and demand, and handicapped by miserly government rations that work in favour of the ancient institutions. "The change to the business culture has been a big shock to the university system," he says. "This has all been so sudden. If only we had had time, this could have been done differently."