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[ 2010-06-04 ]

Making the cut and saving a world-class academic asset
The Times' Education Editor reports on how King’s College
London achieved budget cuts
London (UK) – 04 June 2010 – The Times - The head of a
leading British university has given a detailed account of
the “painful process” of making big budget savings and
appealed for higher education to be spared further cuts.

Professor Rick Trainor, principal of King’s College London,
is in the final stages of enacting cuts of 10 per cent
across all departments — a process that triggered a bitter
industrial dispute among lecturers and protests from
academics across the world.

Interviewed by The Times, Professor Trainor spoke of the
challenges of restructuring a globally renowned university
in a climate of instant internet-driven opposition. “It is
difficult,” he said. “It is stressful for the people in the
schools and in the administration who are having to engage
in these consultations. That is inevitably so, “Because we
have given ourselves a fair bit of time to consider these
proposals, then it is easier than it otherwise might have
been. It is a difficult process, but not an impossible one.

“The fact that we have been having an eye to quality as well
— because we don’t want to reverse, or, if we can help it,
even slow down our upward academic trajectory — means that
we have had to take a bit more care over this. But I think
that will be justified in the long run.”

King’s, a member of the Russell Group of Britain’s leading
research universities, is ahead of many in the sector,
having decided to make cuts of 10 per cent over a two-year
period after the initial economic crisis of autumn 2008.

“We saw that as proportional to the likely cuts in
government expenditure on higher education during that sort
of period,” the principal said. “As it turns out the cuts
that have been announced so far for the period to about 2013
are of roughly that order of magnitude.”

Professor Trainor, a softly spoken American, set King’s the
additional challenge of boosting its position as a global
university and protecting and, if possible, enhancing
academic quality.

First to be cut was the university’s administration. Next,
each of its nine academic schools made proposals to cut
budgets by similar proportions. In some cases all academics
had to reapply for their jobs. The final school, medicine,
unveiled its plans this week.

Many decisions were tough. Undergraduate engineering degrees
will be phased despite a national shortage of engineers.
“There is a lot of undergraduate engineering available now
and will continue to be for the foreseeable future in
London,” Professor Trainor said. “We felt, taking everything
into account ... it was better for King’s to concentrate on
other areas of the sciences, broadly defined, including
physics, computing science and mathematics and so on.”

Restructuring arts and humanities provoked fury, with
hundreds of international scholars signing letters in
support of disciplines ranging from philosophy to
palaeography, the study of ancient manuscripts. King’s looks
set to keep its chair in palaeography, with a widened remit,
after revising its plans.

“Despite taking their share of the economies, and by
voluntary means, not compulsory redundancies, this is still
going to be a very substantial group of humanists including
in fields like medieval studies,” Professor Trainor said.

About 160 jobs have been cut, but so far King’s has avoided
compulsory redundancies, helping to ease a dispute with the
University and College Union.

Professor Trainor, a past president of the vice-chancellors’
group Universities UK, urged the Lib-Con coalition to resist
further cuts and recognise British higher education as a
world-class asset and leading exporter, via overseas
students paying full fees.

“Universities are far more part of the solution to the
country’s economic difficulties than they are in any sense a
burden on them because we believe that both in terms of
research and teaching and for that matter knowledge
transfer, commercialisation, universities are already doing
a great deal of good for the British economy.”

Gently but firmly, he rejected the criticism of university
vice-chancellors’ pay from Vince Cable, the Business
Secretary, who accused them of being “out of touch with
reality”. Professor Trainor’s salary was £264,000 in
2008-09, plus benefits of £5,000 and pension contributions
of £43,000 — up 6.8 per cent on the previous year. It has
been frozen since then. “Vice-chancellors are in step with
reality in terms of international competitiveness for
university presidents,” Professor Trainor said.

He was reluctant to advise other vice-chancellors from his
own experience of cuts, but had two observations. “You can
never spend too much time talking to your colleagues about
your plans and the fact that we are now in this good
dialogue with our trade union colleagues, I think, is
hopefully going to give us a positive outcome in what has
been a painful process.”

Then there is the “Facebook dimension” — a global academic
community can be mobilised against cuts — making clear
information crucial from the outset. “There is worldwide
communication now and that affects the kind of discussions
that you get into when you make significant proposals,”
Professor Trainor said. “It is good in a way that there has
been so much attention because it shows that people care
about what happens to the various subjects at King’s and I
think we have ended up with a good set of outcomes.”

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