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A critique of the Size and Shape project

The University of Sussex has justified the timing and scope of the Size and Shape project under the heading ‘Why Size and Shape is important, Read about what we need to do and, therefore, why this work matters.

In response to this document, we contend that the Size and Shape project is poorly thought out, lacks consultation, and is being rushed through at a time when staff are under significant stress and strain. We argue that if there is a financial ‘gap’ at Sussex it is neither an existential threat nor an urgent short-term problem. Against the backdrop of the arguments that Estates and IT need urgent investment, we consider some of the University’s unusual and expensive blunders relating to Estates and IT.

We also ask why all recent Senate papers on Size and Shape remain confidential. We ask why the outside company The Knowledge Partnership is being commissioned to write reports on Size and Shape, why staff are not being consulted in the writing of these reports, and why these reports are not being shared with staff as a matter of policy.

We remind the University community that Council and the University Executive Group (UEG) have repeatedly refused to rule out Compulsory Redundancies as part of the Size and Shape project. We discuss possible timelines for staff cuts as a result of Size and Shape and how any potential industrial action may be most effective in preventing Compulsory Redundancies.

Academic Vision, Strategy and Engagement

The Size and Shape project claims to be more than about finances, with strategic aims to

  • deliver research excellence and impact in a number of specific areas

  • be a beacon for sustainability

  • foster a positive, inclusive culture and willingness to change

And states

Beside the effects of Covid-19, there has been a decline in demand for some of our courses. We must address this trend if we are to deliver on our Strategic Framework.

These points are highly relevant. We welcome ‘willingness to change’; indeed, groups across campus are calling for change. But in asking how and why we change, we need evidence, consultation and reflection.

Yet, every paper on Size and Shape at the Senate meeting of 3 March 2021 remains confidential.

Senators are unable to represent the staff and students who elected them on such incredibly important strategies for the University if the papers are confidential [2].

The webpage covering ‘How staff can find out more’ is sparse. It refers to regular updates, such as the VC’s Open Forum (recordings of which, at the time of writing, have not been updated since November 2020).

The only two stated ways to express views on Size and Shape are:

You will be asked to engage in proposals that Council could approve to progress.

You can help decide the size and shape of Sussex by getting involved.

Engagement without access to information is not engagement at all, and there is insufficient information about what these engagement processes actually are, when they will take place, and what will enter into the scope of this engagement process.

The Knowledge Partnership

The Knowledge Partnership (TKP) has been contracted by the University of Sussex to produce reports on programmes and course viability with the aim of informing the Size and Shape programme. TKE is a marketing and consultancy company bought by Times Higher Education (THE) in December 2020. THE was acquired in February 2019 by Inflexion Private Equity, who are owned by Bridgepoint Group, who focus on mergers and acquisitions, and who returned €3 billion for their investors in 2019. It is not known how much TKP services cost the University of Sussex.

The terms of reference of the TKP reports remain unavailable. Consultation on the terms of reference did not seem to extend to any staff, in fact we have heard multiple reliable reports that even requests from Heads of Schools to be consulted as part of the preparation of the reports were rejected. There appears to be an air of secrecy around the production of TKP reports that is not in keeping with meaningful consultation on the future of the University.

We understand the reports were shared with Council, then with Heads of Schools before the Easter break, but there is no policy to share the reports with staff. Rather the decision to share the report has been left to individual Heads of Schools, some of whom may feel that with no meaningful staff consultation having taken place, members of their School would struggle to support any conclusions and recommendations. However, given the potential consequences of the Size and Shape project we are asking for the full publication of all the reports without delay.

The Financial ’Gap’

A Financial ‘Gap’ of £15-20 million was identified by the Vice Chancellor at his Open Forum on 30 November 2020 [30:00] (at the time of writing, the VC open forum on 9 February remains unavailable on the website). At this Open Forum an extremely pessimistic graph of student number forecasts was presented. However, as reported in ‘Why Size and Shape is important’, student numbers for the academic year 2020-21 are only about 500 below those for 2019-20. The actual reported figures, then, exceed all the forecasts presented on 30 November and are only just below the original target attached to the 2025 strategy.

Figure 1. Data extract from VC’s graph at Open Forum on 30 November 2020 [30:00]. The added line of ‘Actual reported’ is based on the Size and Shape of report of numbers as ‘about 500 below where we were in the previous year’.

International students numbers are lower, but the signs are that international students do want to study in the UK: international UCAS applications to UK universities for the 2021 intake are up by 9% on a year earlier, and the fundamental drivers of international student demand look strong. We are also in a demographic dip, yet currently home overall UG UCAS applications for Sussex are, as reported widely across Schools, significantly increased from the same time last year.

On the general state of the University finances, as has repeatedly been stated by the VC, the University is financially sound. The underlying surplus last year (2019/20) was £12.7 million, and there are cash reserves of £250 million. Sussex is in a very good place to weather the pandemic. You can read more about the University 2020 Financial Statements on the Sussex UCU blog.

If there is a small financial ‘gap’, it is not serious and should not be used as a pretext for driving through a rushed review of the University’s academic vision and staffing during a pandemic.

On ‘Why we need a surplus’

‘Why Size and Shape is important’ states:

We need a surplus to give resilience against the need to act swiftly in case of further shocks and to protect against risks. This gives confidence to invest in capital and IT, including generating further funds for investment.

If we need surplus to give resilience in case of further shocks, then there is a clear argument that we need to use previous surpluses to act in the current shock. Instead UEG seems to be arguing that we need to act to create a surplus now, while in a shock. This does not make sense.

With regard to investment in IT and Estates: since 2017 the University has invested around £4 million a year in a student records system, only to discover in 2019 that the system wasn’t legally compliant in the UK. The project, with a total expenditure of £12-16 million, on top of staff time and resources, has now been abandoned and its costs written off. We await the report into its failings, as requested by the three campus trade unions at a CJNC on 17 March.

The University has also very recently spent £10 million buying and refurbishing an office building next to Brighton Station, Block J. Reported as a New Sussex Innovation Centre in Brighton and Hove Annual Report 2017, the building is yet to open. The purpose of Block J is not clear, and we have been unable to find a business case for the project in any University papers. The imminent purchase was noted in the Council Minutes of July 2020, so it is clear there are spare funds to invest in new estates and their refurbishment.

Many people at Sussex will remember the abandoned Life Sciences project and the associated loans of £100 million with two annual covenant conditions. This project was cancelled within a year at an official cost of £6.8 million. The staff time and resources invested in the project are not reported in the financial documents.

Possible Timeline and Potential Industrial Action

Council met on Friday 26 March 2021, and again the Agenda shows all papers relating to Size and Shape are confidential and for Council members only.

The next Senate Meeting is 9 June 2021 and the next Council Meeting is 2 July 2021.

UCU has continually asked for assurances that there will be no Compulsory Redundancies as part of the Size and Shape project. UEG have declined to give any guarantees on this. As such, it is worth considering how such a move towards redundancies might take place. Any plans for compulsory redundancies will need Senate and Council approval [1]. The earliest date for a Section 188 for compulsory redundancies to be issued is therefore early July. There are then 30 or 45 days for consultation, depending on the number of employees the University is planning to dismiss (above 20 or 99 respectively).

The University has the power to publicly take Compulsory Redundancies off the table for at least the current academic year and it is refusing to do so. Even the UK government has extended furlough until the end of September to protect jobs. Given the absence of meaningful engagement, the impact on workload that the cost of change brings, and the ongoing impact on equalities and mental health, it is unreasonable and even cruel to leave staff in a position whereby they do not know how the future size and shape will impact on the University’s work or even whether their jobs and their colleagues' jobs are secure.

For all these reasons, and having received views from members, we are making preparations for an indicative ballot on industrial action.

Sussex UCU Exec and Reps

[1] Footnote added 15 April 2021. To clarify, the University of Sussex Charter and Statutes state that Council ‘shall be responsible for the revenue and property of the University, its conduct and activities, and shall exercise all the University’s powers’, but they also state that there ‘shall be a Senate of the University which shall, subject to the general control and approval of the Council, be responsible for academic standards and the direction and regulation of academic matters.’ They further state that ‘Senate shall have the power to discuss and declare an opinion on any matter whatsoever relating to the University and to request that the Council consider such opinions’.

[2] Footnote added 19 April 2021. We are pleased to say that, following representations from our JNC negotiators, the Size and Shape Senate papers for the meeting of 3 March (S-265-4 to S-265-6) have now been made public on the Sussex Direct Senate page, as have the corresponding papers for the Council meeting of 26 March (C-256-8a to C-256-8e) on the Sussex Direct Council page. We urge members to read these papers. We remain concerned that staff did not have access to the Senate papers in advance of the Senate meeting, so that at that meeting Senators were unable to properly represent their constituents as per the role of elected Senators, as set out in the Organisation of the University.


Photo credit for main image ArturoYee


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