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10 tips for handling restructuring in FE and HE

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At the risk of seeming immodest, I am probably the perfect person to write this blog post. I know a little about universities, with some global awareness because of a link to the QS World University Rankings, but admittedly less about schools and FE. My wife works at a distinguished British university, paid for out of a soft-money research contract. And I am a journalist, nearly 13 years into self-employment after the second golden goodbye of my career.

As journalism has become more like other professions, especially by the emergence of journalism degrees as the basic entry certificate, so other professionals are learning to live with the insecurity that I have always regarded as a routine part of my working life. In addition, the growing presence of women in the educated workforce means that there are more and more academic couples for whom white-collar job insecurity is a reality for both partners, not just one. In that spirit, here is my 10-part list of things you need to bear in mind in this new world, compiled with the help of Jenny Thompson, the University and College Union’s regional support official for the East of England and the Home Counties.

  1. Louis Pasteur was right when he said that “fortune favours the prepared mind.” In a world of reduced job security, you need to think about where your next job might come from, how you can look good to your current employer and your next one, and what happens if you are ejected from your current post. How much money will you get if you are made redundant (in academe, typically a week per year of service)? How much money do you really need to live on? How long can you last on your savings? How long till your pension kicks in?
  2. If you are fired, it’s not your fault. If you were incompetent, you’d have been found out long ago. Thompson says that alongside the financial and employment issues involved in redundancy, you need to think about your own emotional health at this tough time. The college may offer counselling and you should consider taking up this option.
  3. Cuts in further education colleges are increasingly common, and they are likely to get worse. Costs are always rising and funding is on the way down.
  4. In universities, my ally Laurie Taylor likes to write about the peril to the nation’s philosophy departments, but in fact it is high-cost subjects such as engineering and chemistry (let alone something like geology that involves expensive field trips) that are in danger if they fail to bring in students, or are seen as “not strategic” by managers. One area of teaching that has gone badly out of fashion is adult provision, and this affects both HE and FE. The new (and highly welcome) political emphasis on apprenticeships means that budgets for adult education are in the firing line, while in HE, funding is not available for students wanting to take “equal or lower qualifications” than they have already. This too affects mainly older learners. So if you have a life mission to work with this group, you may end up in an insecure role teaching people who are mainly learning for leisure. Thompson expects further significant cuts in adult education budgets next year.
  5. Big redundancy rounds are more common in FE than in HE, and can involve hundreds of people. Or there can be smaller reorganisations that threaten just a handful of people. If there are 20 or more posts under threat, the union has to be consulted, but is often brought in when smaller numbers are involved.
  6. You don’t have to buy into the college’s argument that your course needs to be abolished. Is the college 10 miles away recruiting for the same subject successfully? Could your college improve its offering?
  7. Nor do you have to accept that compulsory redundancy is the right approach. Voluntary redundancy, a hiring freeze or some other option may be better. In additions, says Thompson, the college is obliged to make a fair choice of who gets dismissed, from a properly-chosen pool of candidates, without bias and taking individual circumstances into account. So they can take absences into consideration, but not if they are associated with childcare or disability.
  8. Metrics. Yes, you hate them. I am among the perpetrators, in my life with the QS Rankings. But if you are in a university, it is just basic life planning to have publications on the boil for the REF, some visible impact, and a respectable score in the student satisfaction stakes. Make it easy for the university to decide to keep you on, by being (say) the link to global research, or the person who gets out there and attracts students, or the person with the best student satisfaction outcomes.
  9. The Union is your friend. This is happening to you for the first time, but they see it every day. They may help you avoid the outcome you fear, or maybe just ensure it costs the university or college as much as possible. Those dues are worth every penny. For example, Jenny and colleagues may be able to get you more than your statutory redundancy money (which is subject to capping if you earnings exceed a threshold), or help you get pay in lieu of notice, or negotiate a leaving date that suits you. Colleges are keen to avoid compulsory redundancies and may be willing within reason to spend money to avoid them. She adds that universities have less money that FE colleges, and therefore less room for financial manoeuvre.
  10. You have probably underestimated your powers of self-reinvention, and now’s the time you need them. If you are a researcher, can you teach research methods as well as your specialist subject? If you want to teach, are there business audiences as well as scholarly ones for the thing you know about? What do you want to do with the rest of your working life and how can you make it happen? If the worst does happen, start the next day’s planning with a blank sheet of paper if you possibly can. 


About Martin Ince 

Photo of Martin InceMartin Ince is a freelance journalist specialising in science and higher education. He chairs the advisory board for the QS World University Rankings and is president of the Association of British Science Writers. He has been self-employed since 2002 after a career with THE and other magazines and newspapers.