BBC News Magazine

Page last updated at 13:24 GMT, Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Journey of a cut - how Salford University took the pain

Salford University's cuts in 1981

With all parties committed to cuts in public services, how is a cut actually made? Who decides on it, who enforces it and how do the rank-and-file react? Rajini Vaidyanathan unpicks just one example from the early 1980s.

It was much more than anyone had anticipated. Staff at Salford University expected the institution to face cuts, but never as high as the 44% they turned out to be.

"The first feeling was one of disbelief - could there be a typing error," recalls Malcolm Winton, an employee at the time.

david aaronovitch
It was the moment when all of us began to realise that everything had changed
David Aaronovitch, then NUS president

The year was 1981, and Margaret Thatcher was prime minister. Then, as now, talk of cuts in public services had become common parlance. Money needed to be saved, services would have to suffer.

Higher education was one area the then prime minister earmarked for reductions. In the 1960s it had benefited from expansion and growth. But by 1981, as one academic put it, "the party was over".

It was a moment that today many services - which have benefited from years of investment - are steeling themselves for.

For newspaper commentator David Aaronovitch, then president of the National Union of Students, 1981 was "the moment I think when all of us began to realise that everything had changed".

Back then universities received as much as 80-90% of their money from central government. Today, Salford's receives just 36% of its overall budget from central funding.

Crash course

Mrs Thatcher decided spending on universities overall should be cut by around 15%, but the decision as to which budgets got slashed, and by how much, was passed down to the quango responsible for handing out university cash - the University Grants Committee.

It decided not to spread the cuts evenly, but to finger three institutions in particular- Aston, Bradford and Salford. Salford, a technology college, was the worst hit with a 44% cut in its budget over three years.

Margaret Thatcher visits Salford University
When Mrs Thatcher visited, students held a silent protest, waving black flags

One newspaper at the time described the position Salford was in as an "emergency crash course to save money".

The man it became a crash course for was its newly-appointed vice chancellor, John Ashworth.

He remembers a "dreadful" atmosphere at the university at the time he arrived.

"I was told that there were some members of staff who just sat weeping in their offices and refused to come out. It was very difficult to convey the sheer depression of the place and my first job was to say… the other side of a threat is an opportunity."

It's a point that Aaronovitch is keen to press home today, noting how Salford learned to attract outside investment.

"There were people who said there should be no attempt to mitigate [the cuts], but this was a bovine strategy," he says. "Resisting wouldn't have got anybody anywhere… although the cut in Salford was swingeing, the paradox is that it forced the institution into a wholesale change of strategy."

Persuaded to leave

Mr Ashworth, now Sir John, set about trying to minimise the impact of the cuts to ensure no students would be forced out. But even then, some actions were inevitable.

"Universities are essentially labour intensive, so cuts of that size must mean job losses," he says.

Protest march in Salford
Salford became a focus for protest, hosting a national march against cuts

That meant persuading 500 members of staff to leave. Deciding who went and who stayed was complicated. Those who were lecturers were on contracts of academic tenure, which meant they had to be persuaded to quit, rather than be sacked.

Malcolm Winton, who worked in personnel at the time and had to balance the books, recalls some "awkward and stressful" discussions.

"I can remember one or two quite difficult conversations with relatively senior professors who perhaps felt that they were above this sort of thing, but the vice chancellor made it very clear that nobody was outside this exercise.

"Senior staff had to take their share of the pain and a fair number of them had to go as you had to lead by example, there was no point saying it was everybody else who went," he says.

Book sharing

Staff who retired were given "generous payouts". The university established partnerships with local businesses to help get lecturers who had left, back to work. In other cases some were kept on, on a freelance basis. For those who left, a charitable fund was set up to assist people in particular financial difficulty.

Nevertheless, the impact was plain to see, remembers Brian Iddon MP - then an academic at the chemistry department. He recalls an air of depression in his team as members of staff quit his team.

Set about raising profile of university and building links with business
Converted double-decker buses into mobile education centres - to evangelise technology expertise to business and schools
Initiatives helped generate money from outside sources
By 1991 private funding had doubled to 40% of Salford's overall budget

Although he kept his job through the time of the cuts, he remembers as many as 15 out of 45 jobs going in his department, and attending so many leaving dos that he became "a bit blase" about them.

New lab equipment couldn't be afforded and class sizes grew. Where Mr Iddon might have been handling four to six students, he was suddenly teaching as many as 10 or 12.

"You lost the personal familiarity with an individual," he says. "It was pretty difficult… the first thing that started to happen was that the university library stopped buying essential books and journals. That meant we had to go to Manchester University and get them on inter-library loan."

As well as equipment, some at the time remember walls going unpainted, and repairs being postponed due to a lack of funds.

While Mr Ashworth publicly opposed the scale of the cuts, he believed protesting against them would be fruitless, and set about thinking up other ways to raise funds.

"If the government cuts your budget then you have to replace that money with money from somewhere else or you have to get smaller. But I didn't want to get smaller," he adds.

Black flags

Despite students' reputation for radicalism, the union didn't bury its head in the sand. Jim Mooney, the union president at the time. remembers working "side-by-side" with the university, and the National Union of Students to oppose the cuts, but also make the best of them.

John Ashworth
John Ashworth as vice chancellor - refused to become a victim

But many students felt Salford had been unfairly singled out and, when Mrs Thatcher visited the university, they saw an opportunity to protest.

"We had a huge black coffin with 'RIP The University of Salford' on it, and big black flags. Everybody was dressed in black," says Mr Mooney, who now runs his own media production company. "[Mrs Thatcher] turned up and rather than huge amounts of shouting there was total silence, she got out of her car and everybody turned their back on her."

Salford also became the focus for a national demonstration against the cuts.

With the benefit of nearly 30 years of hindsight, Sir John now believes the university became stronger, attracting outside investment and overseas students.

But others reflect on the change of strategy in a less positive light. Mr Iddon argues the 1981 cuts heralded "the beginning of the end of some very distinguished science and engineering departments".

For those contemplating cuts in the present day, Aaronovitch argues much can be gleaned from the Salford experience.

"There's a really clear lesson that can be learnt from Salford. Don't just wait for the thing to happen to you then lament it and resist it and think your job is done. Be proactive, draw people into the process of deciding how you're going to do things differently."

Below is a selection of your comments

When do the quangos suffer cuts? these organisations oversee massive amounts of taxpayers money, many executives in quango's are paid enormous salaries, yet many quangos are inefficient and unproductive, more worrying is they are unapproachable. NO taxation without representation, bin the quangos.
W Moonie, Denny, UK

I was once a lecturer in England who was eased out of my job because of cuts. The package - not very generous in my view - included a lump sum and a pension. The point I'm making is that the British taxpayer has to go on paying. I simply relocated to the Arabian gulf to a new job. Did this save the country money? I doubt it and I used my expertise elsewhere. We need to see how much is saved for the taxpayer as a whole not by individual institutions
Mike, Newcastle

As a Salford student from 1988-1992, I can say I didn't see any real effect on my education, and maybe the cuts prevented the University knocking down the gem that was the old Lowry Technical College, and replacing it with a concrete monstrosity that was the fashion in the 80s - I see that another the crumbling concrete annex on a different site has gone the way of the dodo !
David J A Lewis, Merthyr Tydfil, UK

In the post Thatcher years, many universities have lost their expensive to run science and engineering departments - no wonder we are reaping it now!
Mark, London

I attended a Northern Polytechnic in the late 80s and at the time thought Mrs Thatcher was a monster, but I was young and very naive. 20 years later, New Labour have conned half a generation of working class kids into believing that all degrees are of equal worth and having one (anyone) will guarantee a life of plenty. Too many universities have been complicit in this fraud, offering courses that in truth equip their graduates with nothing but a mountain of debt. The cuts to HE after the election are inescapable (whoever wins) and the only upside I can see is that many 1,000s of delightful, but gullible young men and women won't have their time and money wasted by the "uni myth".
Simon Turpin, Peterborough

"Where Mr Iddon might have been handling four to six students, he was suddenly teaching as many as 10 or 12."

How dreadful. I pay £3,000 a year for my degree and I've had labs with fifty students in. Lectures have exceeded 250. I am glad to know that I am paying for standards worse than those brought in under drastic spending cuts.
Jenna Power, Bath

I was a student at Salford from 1986-1989. By the time I got there, the cuts were over and everything had settled down. There was no sense of gloom or desperation anymore, much more a sense of determination in fact. I believe John Ashworth did a great job of handling the cuts and showed that with a good leader an institution can survive and prosper. At the time the cuts may have seemed harsh, but there was a general sense 5 years later than there must have been a huge amount of waste and that it wasn't so bad after all. After Ashworth's departure however, Salford has fared badly. It used to have a real edge in engineering, but that has all but disappeared as students just don't want to do demanding technical courses so much. I think Salford's decline is sad, but it had little to do with the 1981 cuts. Thatcher was always a hate figure at Salford and I did my fair share of demonstrating and egg throwing. But I think in hindsight she was right on the mark at identifying the enormous waste and inefficiency in the public sector, which sadly there is still too much of.
Paul Taylor, Cambridge

As a student who attended the university in the 80s, a few years after the cuts (and was tutored by Dr Iddon), I have to say that the University of Salford clearly came out stronger from the change, with much stronger links to industry - a key reason I chose it.
Andrew Bruce, Switzerland

I remember this only all too well. I was a junior researcher at Bradford University at the time, on a fixed term contract. When the cuts came, it was clear who was easiest to get rid of - my hoped for career as a lecturer (I taught statistics, psychology and research methods to our MSc Education students), came to an abrupt end. I did manage to get another research job, but a long way away, I'm sure that my young family suffered as a result. They were tough and brutal times.
Brandon Ashworth, Sheffield

Surprise, Surprise. A Conservative government under Mrs Thatcher decided that the most swingeing cuts would be in universities in the North and Midlands. God forbid London or the South East might lose out.
Chris, Preston

As I was receiving money from various sources, including my holiday jobs, I was able to stomach paying the full home fees rate for all of my academic years at university. However, I am now rather tired of universities complaining that they are short of money, despite having received huge increases in income through the introduction of tuition fees, private sector involvement, huge increases in income from international students etc. British society and the government should publicly say that they are not going to give heed to their nonsensical crowing about how they don't have the money to compete with American universities and demand that they provide high-quality education without huge increases in taxpayer funding or else. Universities have received huge increases in their incomes, have not delivered and really need to buck up their ideas.
Graeme Phillips, Northfleet, UK

Unfortunately Thatcher did not carry the process through and legislate to abolish academic tenure retrospectively. The result in many universities was crazy anomalies whereby lecturers where kept on after their departments had closed. You still find them today, older academics appointed before 1981, clinging on to their tenure and based in departments which they seem to have no relevance to in terms of their specialisms.
Ed Richards, London

Dear Graeme Phillips,

I'm sorry you don't like the country paying for world-class education in our universities. I hope the coming cuts will be of some solace to you in later years as you find yourself relying on the smaller number of doctors and medical staff we'll be training over the next decade, and the new tests, drugs and treatments they won't be prescribing for you. The next generation of engineers will no doubt enjoy their call centre careers, and your pension scheme won't suffer too badly from not investing in all the companies they didn't set up. And if, without all those wasteful agricultural and energy scientists, the country becomes completely reliant on imported food and fuel you'll be able to advise the government on how to get something for nothing.
Ted Dobzhansky, Reading, UK

@ Chris in Preston - Chris, if you take your red-tinted glasses off, and re-read the article, it states that the Maggie and the Government were not directly responsible for the fact the cuts were made solely to northern universities.

It was the responsibility of the University Grants committee, set up back in 1918 to help with the deficit of funding due to the first World War. It was transferred into the civil service and the Treasury, and then to the Dept of Education and Science in the 1960s... As we all know, the CS is supposed to be impartial and not affiliated to one political party or another. So despite the Conservative government being in power at the time, it was not quite the fault of Maggie after all...
Rich, Sheffield

I was an undergraduate at Salford in the 1970s (& I recall Thatcher was Minister for Education & Science). I was privileged to meet Prince Philip, the then Chancellor. I mentioned to him then that funding was an issue & concern to fellow students. He suggested that the university had been granted its charter there partly to stimulate the local economy.

This has always left me with the idea that public funding shouldn't be cut when times are hard but targeted at areas in most need. Judicious and timely investment is, in my opinion, the best way of kick-starting growth and giving the local populous hope.
Tony Hainsworth, Suffolk

I see daily from the inside the incredible waste and inefficiency of the univerity sector. Layers and layers of bureaucracy (university, faculty snd schools) overlapping and duplicating, hidebound systems that stifle initiative and prevent staff from saving money (eg by using cheaper suppliers, unnecessary work and maintenance, endless unproductive committees creating new systems, rules and sub-committees. I could go on.

Unfortunately cuts seem always to hit the frontline not the structures and management which needs pruning, as they implement them!
Incus, Manchester, UK

Two things really. UK is a big international hub for overseas undergraduate and postgraduate students. Education is a big market (tuition fee alone costs around 20000 pounds per person per year) and cutting University will redirect potential customers to go to US or Australian Universities instead. Secondly if funding is cut for top tier research Universities then this may draw talent out of Britain to places like the US and increasingly South East Asia such as Singapore, where research funding is plentiful and their research institutes are growing in reputation.
Ivanhoe, Oxford

I am a final year student at the University of Sussex and reading this article makes me feel like history must be repeating itself. The chemistry department has been told it must lose 1/3 of its academic staff, the teaching lab can no longer afford to buy new equipment, repairs which are long overdue are still being put off. The mood in the department and on campus is depressed and worried, and lecturers are at each other's throats. Today I walked past half of Brighton's police force outside the administrative building because some "Stop the cuts" student demonstrators had occupied it. Even the students are at odds with one another - half agree with the demonstrations and half don't and call the demonstrators "hippies". However, our vice chancellor earns £222,000 a year and is due a pay rise. Long live capitalism, right?
Jennie Flint, Brighton, Sussex

As a student at Aston University just after these cuts I was surprised at how fast the University bounced back. It became very focused and efficient and quickly became on of the UK's top Universities, with some of the lowest costs.

There was no prospect of its debt being bailed out, unlike for the redbrick Universities, so things had to balance.

Whilst the cuts and closures were no doubt very unpleasant - they also where the fire from which the new phoenix was born.

Aston is now one of the UK's top Universities.
Man in a Shed, Woking, England

I totally agree with Graeme Phillips on this one. And there are many Universities that take on the funding for, in my mind, quite unnecessary courses. A suitable strategy would be to get rid of the daft Mickey Mouse courses, increase the charges on the ultra-popular arts based degrees, and freeze (or reduce) the level of fees levied on science and engineering based degrees. That way, the UK's universities might actually produce graduates that have actually learned something useful - And by the way, I am an engineering undergrad student...
Ross A, Birmingham

There's one thing I seriously don't understand about this whole funding cuts issue... They want to reduce international student numbers who subsidise the rest of us and yet teach more and more domestic students with lower central government funding.

I sincerely hope that they are planning to recruit more PHD people from abroad as unless people happen to have £30,000 lying around (English PHD cost never mind living expenses) there is no way that we are going to meet the demand for those people.
Mat, Keele, Staffs

Print Sponsor

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific