Balancing Brookes and Budgets: Are Staff Cuts Really Justified?
Course closures and staff cuts under scrutiny as data tells a different story
Data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency shows that over the 2021-22 academic year, Oxford Brookes University spent £130.47m in total on staff costs. This, compared to the institution’s total generated income of £216.6m last year, comprises approximately 60% the university’s total income for that year. Here, one of the chief reasons proposed by the university for its recently announced closures of the Mathematics and Music programmes is highlighted, in addition to reducing the number of salaried academic staff across Anthropology; English and Creative Writing; History; Film; Publishing and Architecture.
The abrupt, mid- semester announcement of the news that multiple courses would cease intake of new students as soon as April 2024 and up to 48 academic staff face compulsory redundancy by January 2024 came as a shock to staff and students across the University, with the UCU claiming it is based on “no meaningful consultation” with affected staff or students.
According to the Royal Historical Society, 6 Oxford Brookes History department professors are at risk of redundancy, with 4 required to leave voluntarily by January 2024 or face job losses in Spring 2024. This would reduce the number of full- time staff to just 8, down from approximately 30 less than a decade ago.
The cuts are part of wider University cost- saving measures, at a time when annual expenditure of UK Higher Education institutions is the highest it has ever been, at £50.89 billion, due to inflation, stagnant student fees and changes to pension schemes.
Despite this claim, statistics from HESA show that staff Oxford Brookes’ staff spending costs are not abnormally higher than similar- sized Post 92 universities, such as The University of Brighton and Teesside University, prompting further speculation about the validity of the cuts at this particular institution.
Furthermore, despite academic and senior staff comprising 45% its workforce according to its 2021/22 Financial Statements, Oxford Brookes actually spends a lower proportion of total staff costs on academic staff salaries than similar institutions in the South East, at just 34.3%.
It is proposed the closures will save the university £2m per year, after a “disappointing student intake” that was £8.8m below target in 2021-2022 according to its 2021/22 Financial Statements. Dwindling student numbers in Maths and Music have specifically been blamed: just 15 students were enrolled in Maths across the university from 2021/22 according to HESA.
Whilst Oxford Brookes aims to reduce its dependency on the Clearing process and admit more students as their ‘Firm’ choice, it can be argued staff cuts to some of its top specialist courses- such as Primatology and Conservation, which is not available to study in any other country besides Japan- will only prove harmful to the university’s wider academic output as subject experts are cut. This was a particular concern highlighted by several international students on this course, who pay even higher fees than domestic students yet were inexplicably left out of the university’s initial communications about the cuts.
Students on other courses, such as Literature and Creative Writing, have also suffered from cancelled lectures and seminars due to staff wellbeing issues directly linked to the announcements. Direct impact on students is worsened for those studying courses set to close, as the “teach out” period has left many feeling unable to plan for future academic years, for example planning dissertation topics without confirmation of specialist supervisors in certain areas.
This discrepancy in communication and justification of redundancies has sparked widespread outrage in Oxford, with multiple online petitions circulated and protests occurring every Wednesday since 29th November in solidarity with at- risk staff.
Yuri, organiser of these protests and a Japanese Studies student whose modules will be impacted by the cuts, said “I think it’s a wider movement of incompetence, a misguided attempt at cost-saving that will really impact our experience.” He added “if it is a short- term problem, [Oxford Brookes] should be able to deal with it: this is what the surplus money is for!”
Reo, a fellow Japanese Studies student, urged students to “speak up- use your student voice because the university will listen to who their money is coming from. Student voice is the most powerful one, the most important one and we must use it.” She went on to question the timing of the announcement, asking “why could we not wait for the academic year to finish, at least? Why is this happening on such short notice- why suddenly just before Christmas, do you have to lay off so many staff?”.
Rosa, a final- year English student maintained that the cuts are “completely not justified, at all. It’s long- term action for a short- term problem. If you reduce staff, there will be fewer students enrolled on that course, and the problem will never be solved.”
Whilst it finalises plans for the cuts, which were described as “remarkably severe” by The Royal Historical Society, the University merely directs students to an FAQ’s page, which has done little to reassure concerned students.
However, students are not completely without support at this stressful time. Brookes Union published an extensive response to the course closures after hosting a student forum on 29th November, reiterating that “Our main concern - as always - is making sure that students are properly represented and their voices heard in these decisions.”
When approached for comment, Jacob Callicott, Union President, added “as a Students' Union, we are committed to supporting students and providing forum spaces for them to express their concerns and expectations during this time. It's essential to maintain open lines of communication and create a platform where students can voice their opinions and be heard.”
Overall, there are certainly questions to be answered about the justification of such extensive staff cuts, considering statistics depicting the university’s financial health. Brookes Union, the Save Our Lecturers movement and the UCU continue to urge the university to provide greater clarity and compassion moving forward.
Oxford Brookes University was approached for comment but unfortunately no response was received in time for publication.