Liverpool

Liverpool is a student city. Over 50,000 of us live here during the academic year and we leave our mark on the place. This week, the relentlessly blue skies will see only occasional showers of mortar boards, as another year of graduates celebrate around the city.

The University of Liverpool is the city’s biggest employer, and is splashing £300m (most of which is borrowed) on infrastructure investment. With Liverpool City Council under a constant barrage of budget cuts, it’s not hard to see how this might endear the institution to local politicians. Jobs, particularly in construction, do not come easy. No surprises then that Vice Chancellor Sir Howard Newby sits on the exclusive Mayoral Development Corporation.

As a component of the “Knowledge Quarter” the University has become a key part of the city’s economic pitch, especially the rich link between life sciences research and business. It comprises part of the city’s critical mass of ‘knowledge assets’ designed to attract investors in a period where most big capital is not inclined to open the taps.

However the University has been making headlines this year for all the wrong reasons. In a tactic seemingly inspired by local government and unprecedented in the Russell Group, the University is threatening to dismiss and re-engage nearly 3000 non-academic staff to “secure” changes to contracts. This has done little to ingratiate the management with campus Trades’ Unionists. 600 professors have signed an open letter in the Times Higher Education tentatively suggesting a less belligerent tactic might better resolve the situation.

Meanwhile, earlier this month, an email glitch sent hundreds, perhaps thousands, of students the wrong exam results and final degree classifications. As one student put it on twitter, “they might as well light up a spliff with the data protection act”, although Howard Newby’s apologetic “this is every Vice Chancellors worst nightmare” line was a tad melodramatic.

The angry complaints on social media might come across as petulant to observers but there is a genuine exasperation at the root of the student outcry. One of the statistics not laid out in the prospectus is that University of Liverpool is deep within the top ten in the country for student complaints.

Unfortunately the University does not always have the thickest skin. When Dr Paul Booth, an academic with decades of service to the institution, raised major criticisms internally he was largely ignored. Several years later when he complained about building work in Abercromby Square on Facebook, albeit with some choice language, the Honourary Senior Fellow and the significant research funding that came with him were unceremoniously shown the door with no chance of appeal.

This was done under new rules allowing management to request anything on social media that poses “reputational risk” to the University be removed.

Pro-Vice Chancellor Andrew Derrington, writing for the Guardian earlier this year, was less than sympathetic with critics of management: “If there really is a fundamental difference in outlook between you and the senior management of your university, then someone is not doing a very good job. Are you sure it isn’t you?”

To find out where fundamental differences in outlook might come from, look no further than the big policy reforms underway Higher Education, and how the institution is reacting to them.

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“The student at the heart of the system”

There can be no doubt that changes to university funding, actively lobbied for by the Russell Group, have put University of Liverpool in a precarious position. Although pitched by the government as a free market system, the government maintains a tight control on the number of places available for prospective students.

Changes to how student numbers are allocated for each institution are largely blamed for University of Liverpool taking a 10% drop in UK intake last year. This year the government have relaxed the controls slightly. In doing so it is deliberately taking some pressure off the lower end of the Russell Group.

The numbers drop in 2012/13 would have lost the University £5.5m, but an increase in international intake softened the blow to around £2.2m. As it was put less delicately to me recently “without international students we’d be screwed.”

With Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University in China, (pic above) Liverpool can export its lucrative degree awarding powers. This is an increasingly useful asset as the Home Office becomes ever more belligerent about students coming to the UK to study from outside the EU. The new campus planned for London was also intended to attract international students to courses charging up to £18,000. However it will not be opening this year due to problems securing a building. Professor Derrington could perhaps have picked a better time to pose his rhetorical question.

Just how keen the University is to attract international students is illustrated by its partnership with Liverpool College, whereby students attending the fee paying school from outside the EU “are guaranteed an offer from the university if they meet the minimum requirements. Pupils can apply directly to the university rather than through the centralised UCAS system.”

“The characteristic spirit of individuality, ingenuity and enterprise”

Attracting students, both home and international, is also the objective of the £300m investment in infrastructure. Most obviously this is manifested in the two new campus halls of residence and the new Central Teaching Labs. However demand for city centre digs is also driving a property boom for external private companies. Only this week, businesses in the Hahnemann Building on Hope Street (Maghull Group-owned) have been given their marching orders, as Hope Street ‘welcomes’ another student flat development in the heart of its award-winning conservation area.

Much of the new city centre accommodation is private sector, some which is built with lucrative agreements between the University of Liverpool and developers. Private halls have considerably higher rents (often double or more) than terraces in Wavertree, Greenbank and Kensington.

This is the “student experience” increasingly marketed to young applicants: not just a degree but a sophisticated urban lifestyle to go with it, or at least as much of one as can be squeezed out of a student loan and minimum wage bar work.

This intent is explicit in the names Unite, Opal, Vine Court and Liberty Living which are gradually replacing Greenbank and Carnatic halls named after long forgotten grandees. Writer Owen Hatherley memorably described the former as “junior yuppiedromes.”

The social and architectural impact this could have around the campus has already received our attention. Such developments also place students in an uncomfortable position, who presumably don’t want to be become the kind of overbearing colonial force we are sometimes portrayed as.

“Managerial culture”

A less well reported prong of the University’s strategy has been the reshaping of the internal structures, including abolition of the University Court and removal of one of the two democratically elected positions from the University Council. This also goes along with reform to the University statutes and the amalgamation of departments into large schools, which sees such novelties as Geology and Civic Design shunted under the same umbrella of ‘Environmental Science.’

To the management this is streamlining and efficiency: removing some of the more objectionablely archaic parts of the institutional structure. To critics, it’s an affront to collegiate democracy.

The new Branch Secretary of University and College Lecturers Union told the student paper recently: “we’ve seen a huge change in the education sector with the massive fee increases and increasing corporatisation, so it is more about making institutions and academia much more of a business model.”

In the case of both Dr Booth and the industrial dispute, this shift in culture is associated with an uncompromising response to internal criticism and opposition.

“Changing higher education landscape”

The University of Liverpool intends to fight for its place in what is euphemistically referred to as the “changing higher education landscape” with infrastructure investment, a more business like culture and bringing in as many international students who pay full whack for their courses as possible. Its fortunes are tied to the redevelopment aspirations of the city’s political and business leaders.

There are a fair amount of assumptions and uncertainties implicit in this. It all requires not just that the domestic demand for higher education keeps up with rising fees and living costs, but also that international students still want to come here to study long into the future in the teeth of hostile immigration policy.

For all its Russell Group prestige and red brick heritage in the most literal sense of them, University of Liverpool has been sliding in some league tables even as nearby John Moores is rising. If as some expect the Russell Group looks to have the fee cap raised or removed entirely for its members, will the “characteristic spirit” be enough to justify the premium?

There’s an uncomfortable question permeating all this: what is education for? Life in the junior yuppiedrome, an economic driver for an ambitious city? Industrial disputes and bust ups over Facebook comments do not easily reconcile with the high ideals of liberal education. A lot of this stems from the University navigating a course from education being a privileged right to one where it’s a product to be sold. Whether it graduates with honours we’ll see over the coming years.

  • Interesting article

    University of Liverpool isn’t the only educational provider to play around with staff contracts this year. City of Liverpool College (formerly Liverpool Community College) informed its many part time agency staff at the start of June that there was an overspend on wages and that they wouldn’t be paid for the rest of the school year. It also then emerged that the college was no longer willing to use any agency staff and would be asking all part timers to re-apply for their own jobs, jobs that some had been doing for decades, but now with a 2.5% paycut.