London South Bank University staff sound alarm over drop in courses

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Staff at London South Bank University have raised the alarm over what looks like a cataclysmic drop in the number of courses on offer there, amid mounting uncertainty across the sector over government plans for sweeping changes in higher education.

Data logged with the university admissions service Ucas suggests the number of undergraduate courses on offer at LSBU could be slashed by two-thirds in the space of a year, down from 155 in 2021-22 to just 50 in 2022-23.

The university told the Guardian it was “overly simplistic” to just count the courses and said only two subjects – history and geography – would no longer be taught, but there would be a reduction in subject specialisms. “Overall there has been very little change,” a spokesperson said.

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It is the latest in a cull of courses and department closures – often affecting humanities and social sciences – at institutions across England as universities try to pre-empt a long-feared crackdown on what the government views as “low-value” courses which do not lead to increased earnings.

Proposed cuts have already led to strike ballots, with 1,300 staff at the University of Liverpool striking for three weeks starting on 24 May over cuts to 32 jobs in the faculty of health and life sciences. The University and College Union (UCU) said the action would cause “especially severe” disruption as it coincides with the summer exam period.

Staff are angry with managers’ “rank and yank” approach for the faculty, which the union said represents the first time a UK university has made academics redundant by ranking them on the amount of research funding they bring in. The UCU branch accused managers of using “statistically innumerate” criteria that more than half of comparable academics in the research-intensive Russell Group would fail.

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Meanwhile staff at the University of Leicester have backed a ban on marking and assessing student work over compulsory redundancies planned there. They have urged prospective students not to apply to the university and have launched an international academic boycott campaign which has resulted in events being cancelled.

At LBSU, seven courses in the law and social sciences departments have been abruptly closed, including undergraduate courses in history and human geography, and postgraduate courses in refugee, development and sustainability studies.

There are fears of further closures as the university – which has a high proportion of students from black and minority ethnic backgrounds – embarks on a wholesale restructuring of undergraduate courses.

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The UCU has written to David Phoenix, LSBU’s vice-chancellor, accusing management of failing to consult over course closures and calling for a suspension of the portfolio review which has triggered widespread anxiety. “Everything is totally unclear to us,” said one lecturer. “There is a lot of fear.”

The “failure to agree” letter marks the first step towards industrial dispute. Grady accused the university management of throwing their staff and students “under the bus” in their rush to capitulate to government pressure to scrap arts and humanities courses.

One lecturer in the law and sciences division claimed some courses were removed from the Ucas website without any prior consultation with staff affected. “It was a complete shock.”

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Another senior lecturer said: “In one case a member of staff found their course had been been closed because a prospective student could not find the course on the Ucas website. History had close to 60 live applications when it was pulled. Students who had been made offers had to be contacted.”

An email to LSBU staff, seen by the Guardian, lays bare the way in which universities are reshaping course provision directly in line with government policies to avoid being penalised by England’s higher education regulator, the Office for Students (OfS), which has been given the power to close courses with poor graduate outcomes.

The email from pro-vice-chancellor Deborah Johnston notes that LSBU graduate outcomes are below the sector average in 15 out of 22 subjects and adds: “LSBU must change these statistics as a matter of priority to avoid OfS sanctions.”

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An LSBU spokesperson said the list of courses on the Ucas website was not yet complete and more would be added, in particular vocational qualifications. Undergraduate numbers will remain “stable” while apprenticeships and postgraduates will be increased.

“A simple counting of courses is an overly simplistic and static approach to understanding what students can study and learn at LSBU. The improvements we are making will mean many subject specialisms that had previously only been available in fragmented courses will be reduced.

“For example, LSBU used to offer seven separate psychology courses but will change to one BSc (Hons) psychology course with five specialist pathways, plus two new psychology apprenticeship courses.”

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The spokesperson added: “History and geography were recent additions to the LSBU portfolio but have not managed to excite significant student interest in their current form. Fewer than 20 undergraduate students were enrolled across both these subject areas this year.”

A Liverpool University spokesperson said 32 staff potentially faced redundancy out of a total workforce of about 7,000, adding: “We believe the amended process and criteria demonstrates a considered response to the representations made by UCU … and it is regrettable that industrial action has been called before this consultation process has even concluded.”

A Leicester University spokesperson said its proposed changes would “result in 26 posts being made compulsory redundant – this is out of 3,500 staff”.

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