University Funding Crisis: How could it affect you?

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by Dr Catherine Armstrong

The university sector in the UK has started 2010 in a difficult state with the Chancellor announcing just before Christmas that universities will have to shave a further £600 million off their budgets in order to make public sector savings for the government.

This comes at a time when universities are more pressured than ever to increase the number of students who are turning to education and skills enhancement as a way out of the jobs crisis.

This article will examine a number of ways that the funding cuts could affect you and your job seeking opportunities this year.

Fewer temporary jobs

Many universities rely on a small army of temporary teachers to do the day-to-day teaching work while the permanent academics have more time to go off and do their important research. This could change under budget cuts and will affect both temporary and permanent staff. PhD students or postdocs looking for teaching experience find it harder to get any work. If you want to go into academia permanently, are building your CV and are offered teaching at your own institution or elsewhere, it is doubly important this year that you take that opportunity as it might not be available next time.

If you have been working in a temporary contract for a number of years you may find that this year it is not renewed automatically, so be prepared to put your case as to why you are essential to your department. Think about your career options in case the worst happens and your contract is not renewed.

For permanent staff already in post this could mean a drastic change in work patterns. You could be asked to do increasing amounts of teaching, picking up the slack from temporary staff. This leaves less time for your research, conferencing and publications activities. Some of this teaching might be in areas that you are less familiar with on survey courses so you will have to be flexible.

Fewer admin positions

Universities may choose to cut back on the numbers of admin staff in order to save money without jeopardising the teaching side of their ‘business’.  This means that administration staff are facing a genuine threat of redundancy this year, so it could be the right time to think about ways of protecting yourself against that by considering career enhancing training, for example.

This also has a knock-on effect for university staff. If you are applying for jobs as a lecturer at the moment you might find that your new job involves considerably more admin work than in the past. This may include, for example, maintaining records about attendance, contacting students, answering student queries and so on.

Cuts to budgets for conference attendance etc.

In the past, universities have supported their academic staff when going on university business to speak at a conference. With budget cuts these sorts of travel expenses might be curtailed and scholars will be encouraged to apply for extremely competitive external funding to support these activities. I am not suggesting that departments will stop funding completely, just that it might be restricted to a few trips per year in the future rather than being available as and when requested.

It is important from the start of your academic career to attend conferences, so getting used to applying for external funding will be a key part of that. You will need good time management skills, planning the details of the application a long way ahead. Each academic field has its own funding bodies, including research councils, charities and other organisations. Your university also has people who can help you apply for this money, such as other academic staff and also often a separate research and development team.

Third stream activities

Because less of the university’s money will be coming directly from the government it will be encouraging all staff to think about how they can engage in ‘third stream’ activities that bring revenue to the institution. This simply means any sort of public engagement that can bring the university prestige and, more importantly, money. So for example, you might think about running short courses for local businesses.

This type of activity is mostly the focus of permanent academic staff. If you’re starting out in your career or working temporary contracts you might feel that third stream work does not concern you. That is simply not true. It is important to show potential future employers that you are fully aware of the issues concerning higher education at the moment. If you can start speaking the language of the third stream then it will show that you are willing to take a full part in the academic life of your department.

Hiring freezes?

Some universities will put plans to hire new members of staff or replace retirees on hold in order to save money on their wage bill. This has the effect of making more teaching work for the remaining staff members in the department but also means that it could be increasingly difficult to move from PhD to temporary contract to permanent contract this year.

Overall, it seems this year will be a tough one for settled staff members and job seekers alike. But don’t give up hope: there could be that dream job out there for you in 2010.


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