Emergency Open Meeting - Music at Lancaster

Thanks to everyone who attended the Emergency Open Meeting on Tuesday 26th February 2013 to discuss the implications of the proposed redundancies in Music for other FASS departments.

A packed Marcus Merriman Lecture Theatre heard personal reflections, contributions and comments from colleagues from across the university. The meeting voted overwhelmingly in favour of the following motion:


This meeting believes:

  • The decision to close the Music degree was taken in breach of the university's procedures
  • It will have a negative impact on LICA’s reputation and the arts & humanities generally
  • It was driven by a fundamentally flawed institutional strategy that is harming the University

It calls upon the Vice Chancellor:

  • to re-examine the decision, given its damaging consequences for staff, students and the institution
  • to review the admissions policy and in particular the role of the Target Setting Group

It calls upon Senate:

  • to institute an immediate review of the operation of the scheme of delegation in the Faculties.

Background Information

Decisions made by the University Management Advisory Group (UMAG) have caused an admissions crisis affecting a number of departments. Some departments with a solid record of recruitment are finding application numbers collapsing because of increases in their A level entry requirements—in some cases, increases imposed on departments in successive years.

The prospects for departments with low admissions numbers can be grim: we have only to look to the imminent compulsory redundancies in Music announced in January: seven staff members in that section of the Lancaster Institute for Contemporary Arts are facing redundancy, with only two new positions for them to apply for, and a possible third post to see out the degrees of the remaining Music majors.

The latest application figures show the shortfall affecting departments in every faculty. Home-EU undergraduate applications are down by 22% in Biomedicine (FHM); by 20% in Accounting and Finance and 33% in Management Science (LUMS); by 21% in Mathematics and Statistics and 30% in Physics (FST); and by 16% in PPR, 19% in English, 23% in Sociology, 33% in European Languages and Cultures, and a whopping 49% in History (FASS). (The figures are rounded to the nearest whole number.)

Departments are being urged to redouble their efforts at converting applications to firm acceptances but we can’t convert individuals who were deterred from applying in the first place, and it is actually quite plausible that the same factors that made these departments less competitive in applications will compound the negative effect at the conversion stage.

The common factor linking all these departments is that, if we compare their entry requirements in 2012 and 2013, in every case university managers have hamstrung them in the competitive race by increasing the minimum A level grades required for entry: in some cases (e.g., History) for the second year in succession. These departments are facing recruitment crises that will jeopardise their current staffing levels and, if their academic staff numbers shrink, consequently undermine their curriculum, leading to a possible loss of reputation, and hence further difficulties in recruiting. Far from a temporary blip, therefore, management’s attack on the viability of departments’ recruitment efforts may lead them to medium-term decline or worse.

How did this crisis come about? UMAG has ceased to heed the opinions of our local experts—the admissions directors in departments—who used to have a say in setting entry grade requirements. UMAG has instead been handing down “non-negotiable” entry grade requirements. (Officially the entry grade requirements come from the Target Setting Group but UMAG makes the crucial policy decisions.) UMAG has not explained its strategy effectively to the university community, nor to the campus unions, but it appears that university management has been pursuing a campaign of climbing up the league tables at all costs. One factor establishing a university’s league table ranking is its A level entry requirements. Hence the raised entry requirements are part of a strategy to lift Lancaster into the top flight of universities.

A management paper to UMAG argued in October 2012 for “the strategy that Lancaster absolutely has to follow of convincing the market that it is an elite university”. Poor admissions figures already evident in some departments last year should not, the paper argued, lead to “panic” or the “(false) safety of lower grades”. Instead, for departments in FASS hit in a disproportionate way, the dean of that faculty “should be supported when some structural change, as is likely to be the case, is required”. The management strategy is knowing and wilful, and the destruction being wrought was predicted even while management was insisting on further increases in entry requirements. “Structural change” is a euphemism for the fate of our colleagues in Music. How many other livelihoods will be threatened and careers damaged or destroyed in the service of this doctrinaire management policy?

In justifying their approach, university managers have argued that, if the university raises entry requirements, departments simply compete for a different pool of students: a department positions itself to recruit in the AAA pool rather than the AAB or ABB pool once it changes its grade requirements. This was the explicit point made by the deputy vice chancellor in a meeting before his departure from the university.

If prospective students were as naive in their degree choices as university managers believe they are, then the strategy might make sense. An AAA requirement would signal a high-echelon degree and so the best-qualified students would apply here just as they do to other institutions requiring AAA. But grade requirements are not the only factor that prospective students take into account in making their application or acceptance decisions. They also look up league table rankings, NSS survey results, the Key Information Sets allowing the comparison of degree programmes, data on spend per student (a factor that short-changes many departments), staff-student ratios, university reputation, bursary offers, and other factors. Raising A level entry requirements ought to march in step with improved rankings and reputation: as the degree becomes more attractive, entry grades are raised. The strategy of raising the entry grades first so an improved reputation will follow is foolish. If the grade requirements for a Lancaster department place it in direct competition with departments that outscore Lancaster in all or most of the measures of rank and esteem, UMAG is setting up the Lancaster department for failure in the short term at least.

The conventional wisdom is that, when entry requirements at Lancaster have been raised, there is often a falling off in applications, after which they recover and return to their former level. There is no precedent, however, for raising entry requirements in successive years, which makes the current situation impossible to model and its ultimate results impossible to predict. Will those departments that survive the downturn begin once again to flourish? Or will the wounds they suffer have a pernicious effect for years to come? No one knows, least of all management, who show no signs of worrying about that sort of thing. At the university, departments that can still recruit will have their admissions quotas raised to allow in more students and will be rewarded by new posts. That is what has occurred in the Law Department, to which students have flocked in the search for a safe professional haven in a time of high unemployment. Pity the poor Law graduate in three years’ time: even now training contracts at law firms are “like gold dust” according to one former Lancaster student commuting for hours to work as a paralegal. Meanwhile the concept of the university’s educational mission and the design of its curriculum for pedagogical and intellectual reasons go out the window, and responsible stewardship is abandoned as market forces distort the lines of the university. Managers have learned to mimic the language of the market and they talk tough about holding their nerve and not panicking. The truth is that they already panicked when they recklessly set us on a course of action fraught with risks without apparently having any idea of an exit route or retreat strategy when things predictably went wrong. Management are not being tough: they are wandering lost without a map.

If we are going to talk the language of business and the market, then let’s get serious. This is no way to run a business. Management’s approach to setting entry grades is akin to charging the same price for a Honda as for a Porsche and expecting that Honda sales will be unaffected because price is a market signal that means that a Honda is an elite car. There is nothing wrong with selling Hondas. Honda and Toyota are market leaders. They did not get that way, though, by pretending that they could charge Porsche prices without affecting sales, and they would not stay that way for long if their only recourse was to exhort their workers to redouble their efforts when their sales predictably collapse. Some of Lancaster’s degrees are perfectly respectable Honda-class offerings which could compete in quality and value with others but management has raised their price and made them uncompetitive. Perhaps our colleagues in Organisation, Work and Technology can teach our university managers some of the basics of what happens next.

If Lancaster University is being turned into a factory driven by market mechanisms, then perhaps it is time we started to think more like factory workers. Our workloads have been driven up with massive increases in class sizes and no commensurate increase in remuneration. Academic workloads are again increasing by dozens of hours a year because of the Academic Tutoring System. The redoubling of recruitment efforts relies on the additional commitments of staff members to come in for Saturday Open Days, to participate in sixth form conferences, and to ratchet up their efforts in every conceivable way to make up for the shortfall in applications. How much longer will staff feel inspired by their professional ethos to continue to pour their lives and souls into the university if they find themselves treated by managers with the contempt that our colleagues in Music are now suffering?

We ask you to raise this matter in departments and faculties. Talk to your colleagues and let us know what is going on in your sections and departments. Encourage new members to join the union: now more than ever we need a united front in the face of threats to our livelihoods. http://www.ucu.org.uk/join

The UCU branch president, Alan Whitaker, has sought a meeting with the vice chancellor in order to have a reasoned discussion about these matters but his request has been rejected. We will continue to seek every opportunity to pursue talks with university managers. Management must now work to restore the goodwill that their knowing recklessness has begun to squander. We must have a broad-ranging conversation about the wisdom of their approach to entry grades. We must have an immediate restoration of the agreed enhanced redundancy terms that management unilaterally withdrew from the proposed redundancy procedure—especially given a university policy that runs the risk of inducing redundancy situations. And there should be no job losses caused by management’s deliberately risky and reckless policy.

Contact us at ucu@lancaster.ac.uk