There are winners and losers in today’s higher education marketplace. Universities pocketed so much tuition fee income last year that they had a £2.2 billion surplus. Meanwhile, students may be impressed with the shiny new buildings,but they are graduating with increased levels of debt and stress. And staff have seen their wages decline by some 19% in real terms in the last 10 years, with many in the sector also facing attacks on their pensions.

Now the market is delivering yet another unwelcome product: job cuts.

An audit of universities conducted by the branch solidarity network of the University and College Union (UCU) this summer has found that some 1,400 members of staff have been made redundant or had their jobs put at risk in the last two years, through both compulsory and voluntary schemes. The network’s members heard from only a minority of institutions, sothe real number must be much greater.

These job cuts include announcements of jobs at risk, such as the 104 jobs currently threatened at Middlesex and 70 at Leicester, through to wholesale redundancies such as those announced at Bradford, Southampton, Liverpool and London South Bank universities.

Sometimes they are even punitive acts enforced on individuals, like the sacking earlier this summer of Prof James Newell at Salford University for failing to agree to seek private partnerships for the university and not meeting research funding targets.

There is indeed financial pressure on some institutions, made all the worse by the removal of caps on student numbers and the intense competition between campuses to recruit. This is a contest that is being won by wealthier and more prestigious universities. Some of the worst-off are former polytechnics with an impressive track record in educating students from less privileged backgrounds and offering adults opportunities for retraining.

But these universities are not necessarily tottering on the edge of financial ruin, as would be expected when layoffs are announced. Middlesex, for example, had a surplus of nearly £9 million in 2017 and has healthy reserves of some £70 million.Equally, two Russell Group institutions, the universities of Southampton and Liverpool – which made surpluses of £40 million and £76 million respectively last year –recently announced significant job losses.

Redundancies are often accompanied by the recruitment of casual labour and increased pressure on remaining staff to cover the work of departed colleagues. We believe this amounts to a kind of “wage theft”, a term used by the International Labour Organisation to refer to the denial of wages or benefits rightfully owed to a worker. It takes several forms: failure to pay overtime, violating minimum wage laws, the misclassification of employees as independent contractors, illegal deductions in pay and forcing employees to work off the clock.

Full-time academics consistently work more than a 48-hour week with no overtime pay. Creative workload models allow universities to under-recognise a large amount of work that is required for academics to maintain careers. This includes writing articles that are often not accepted by journals and grant applications that are usually unsuccessful in a competitive pool of declining funding.

Redundancy programmes drain confidence and can turn staff against each other. Yet there is enormous anger across campuses that ordinary workers are being targeted as vice-chancellors’ pay continues to rise and new buildings continue to go up.

Members of the UCU are currently taking part in a national ballot over pay, while unions at some institutions are balloting for industrial action over redundancies and building campaigns to hold back a tide of job cuts that is neither necessary nor justifiable. As staff, we’re getting ready to fight back.

  • Des Freedman is a professor of media and communication studies at Goldsmiths University. This article was written in coordination with activists from affected branches. There will be a session on fighting redundancies at a UCU conference on Saturday 13 October

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