Protests by academics may be the sign of more serious industrial unrest to come

Lecturers are fighting cuts to higher education, but universities say they are necessary.

Yesterday's strike by academics in London and Brighton in protest at cuts in university funding involved the University of Westminster, University College London, King's College London and Sussex, all of which are hoping to axe jobs to position their institutions for the lean years ahead. They were joined by teachers from 11 further education colleges demonstrating against cuts to their sector, in what was being seen as the biggest wave of strike action for two years.

The attempt to raise public consciousness about what is happening to higher education in advance of the general election succeeded. The strike attracted widespread coverage. It is being viewed by university administrators as a sign of the discontent that is expected on campuses this summer and in the coming years as government cuts back spending on a sector that has expanded hugely in the last 15 years.

The University and College Union is fighting for its members' jobs, although it does not omit students from its rhetoric. "You cannot make these kinds of cuts and expect no consequences," says Sally Hunt, UCU general secretary. "Jobs are at risk in both universities and colleges and fewer staff will inevitably lead to larger classes and increased workloads for staff who survive the cull. Anyone who doesn't think this will lead to a drop in the quality of education is seriously misguided.

"Other leading economies are investing money in education, whereas our political parties seem to think that rhetoric alone can keep the post-16 education sector afloat."

According to the UCU, almost 7,000 academic and administrative jobs in higher education are under threat this summer. At Sussex, 107 redundancies are threatened; at King's 205 posts are at risk; at Westminster the number is 285; and at UCL the plan is to shave £19.8m off the budget and make redundancies in the life sciences department.

All of this is happening as a result of planned government cuts or because the universities have decided they need to take a hard look at their affairs in view of what is expected to happen in the future. Universities are known to be modelling cuts of 10 or 15 per cent. Higher education has been hit with a series of funding cuts that now total almost £1bn, while further education has been told to make savings of £340m in the next academic year.

"Any sensible university is saying, 'We're coming into a period where there will be cuts for several years, so what's our long-term vision and how can we reshape ourselves in the new financial climate?" says Alistair Jarvis, director of communications for the 1994 Group of small universities, which includes Sussex and Exeter.

"When there's plenty of money, you can take a different approach. If money is increasingly tight, you are looking at different ways to achieve your goals, so you adapt your plans."

UCL confirmed that this was the tack it had followed since the decision was taken last summer to reduce its budget by 6 per cent. "UCL sought to find areas where it could make savings in anticipation of a different future," says its spokesman. "We wanted to behave in a more strategic way in view of tighter times ahead."

Of all faculties at UCL, it became clear life sciences was not going to achieve its targets without losing some posts, he added. The UCU, however, sees no financial justification for the cuts. "There may be a global recession but UCL is, in its own words, booming," says Sean Wallis, the UCU branch secretary.

UCU branches are claiming that they have not been properly consulted about what the universities prefer to call "savings", but the universities deny this. A spokesman for King's was deliberately trying to lower the temperature. "We have had very productive and useful meetings with the union," he says. "We're trying to avoid compulsory redundancies, and to date we haven't had any compulsory lay-offs."

Like the academics at Sussex, those at King's have already had one strike this year in protest at the cuts, which include plans to close the engineering department after 170 years on the grounds that it doesn't have enough staff to be a powerhouse of research. King's is also making people redundant in its Equalities and Diversity department and is talking to the union about job cuts in computational logistics and about the loss of the UK's only chair of palaeography. The students have made themselves conspicuous at King's by supporting the lecturers.

All the universities have tried very hard to ensure that students were minimally affected by the industrial action. But a spokesman for UCU said that lectures and classes had to be cancelled in some instances.

Like King's, UCL says that it is very keen to avoid compulsory redundancies. "We are committed to talking further to the unions about what UCL can do to avoid compulsory redundancies in future," says Professor Malcolm Grant, UCL's provost.

The UCU is annoyed at universities spending money on things they regard as fripperies such as the Environmental Sustainability Competition at UCL at the same time that academic jobs are being axed. UCL is contributing £15,000 to a piece of artwork done by staff or students and installed in the front quadrangle from 4 October, 2010.

"The artwork should be spectacular, visible from Gower Street and encourage public interest," says the blurb from Professor Michael Worton, UCL's vice-provost.

Staff and students at King's have protested about the acquisition of the East Wing of Somerset House, which is being developed with a £20m fund at the same time that the college is seeking savings. "It is insensitive that the college is showing off a new building to alumni at exactly the same time it is planning to axe staff," says Jim Wolfreys, King's College UCU president.

Academics from the following further education colleges were on strike yesterday: Barnet; City and Islington; Haringey, Enfield and North East London; North West London; Greenwich Community College, Hackney Community College, Lambeth; Lewisham, Richmond upon Thames; Tower Hamlets; Westminster Kingsway.

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