The Bleak Reality of UCL History Department’s Redundancy Crisis

Robert Delaney 

Higher education is in a bad place. Those reading who were at UCL last year know exactly what I mean. Marking boycotts, strikes and post-coronavirus abnormalities have made this university a nightmare to navigate for teaching staff and students. Yet, despite all the disruption of the last few years, 2023/24 has been hailed as a great year for UCL; it is The Times’ University of the Year after all. Nonetheless, the reality of the university beneath the mirage of accolades is quite bleak. The History Department, located at 23-26 Gordon Square, is a prime example of this desolate, and rather desperate, reality. 

Over the last few weeks, it has transpired that much of the History Department’s teaching staff will be made redundant at the end of the academic year. There are a considerable number of tutors being made redundant, who cover a wide range of subject areas and time periods. One source in the History Department told The Cheese Grater that the number of redundancies was as high as 12. Resulting from this exodus of teaching staff, there has been a great reduction in the range of module choices for anyone studying History. Dr Jack Saunders, a lecturer of modern British History and the History Department’s University and College Union (UCU) representative, told The Cheese Grater of how this situation came to be, and what this means for the department more generally. 

‘There will be double figure redundancies’, Dr Saunders explained, with he himself being one of the many prominent and well-liked academics facing unemployment come the end of the academic year. This, argued Dr Saunders, is resultant of “contingent hiring, short-term finance-driven decision making and the university’s lack of any real interest in continuity of employment or in staff-student relations”. 

How, then, did this all start? Dr Saunders, an expert in British employment and trade union history, noted that UCL has ‘profited greatly’ from the removal of the cap on student numbers, announced in 2020 by Gavin Williamson (the ex-education secretary and accidental national security threat) in response to the infamous A-Level algorithm crisis. Indeed, the “Covid year-groups” (those who joined UCL in the 2020/21 and 2021/22 academic years) are the largest on record, and have provided ample fiscal incentive for keeping student numbers high. Dr Saunders recalled there being ‘around 175-200 in each year group pre-Covid’, with this number exploding to ‘nearly 300 after Covid’ due to grade inflation and more people meeting the conditions of their offers than anticipated. The 2022/23 history department undergraduate headcount, which included those who joined in the aforementioned Covid cohorts, totalled 734 students, and accounted for nearly 18% of the Social and Historical Sciences Faculty undergraduate population (4130). The total undergraduate cohort of the History Department in the last academic year before Covid, 2018/19, totalled 611. Whilst the number of students across UCL is decreasing, it is unclear if UCL will ever return to pre-Covid levels as, to quote Dr Saunders, ‘to UCL, student numbers are everything’ (all the above stats for student numbers can be found here).

To cope with the larger cohorts that enrolled at the start of the 2020/21 and 2021/22 academic years, respectively, UCL hired new teaching staff. As Dr Saunders explained, academics, like himself, were brought into UCL on ‘fixed-term contracts, to cope with the expanded student numbers.’ Dr Saunders has been on fixed-term contracts for over a decade now, telling The Guardian in 2022 that, because of the lack of permanence in his employment, ‘each job is a stop-gap’. This contingent hiring via impermanent contracting has been cited by the UCU as part of their Four Fights against university management. With such wide-spread use of these impermanent contracts, Dr Saunders noted that UCL (and other universities across the country) ‘disregard staff and academic continuity and coherence’. Ultimately, once such contracts run out, they are rarely renewed in the long term. 

Not only are those who were employed on fixed-contracts during the Covid-19 Pandemic facing redundancy, but even some of those employed prior to the pandemic are losing their jobs. One such academic, who has asked to remain anonymous, told The Cheese Grater that it ‘seems that everyone [losing their jobs] is being targeted’. The academic also explained that UCL is failing to engage with him via a ‘consultation exercise’, designed to mitigate the effects of a redundancy ‘with an open mind’. Such a consultation is legally mandated for those who have been employed at the same place for over 2 years, and yet UCL, according to this out-going lecturer, has not made any attempt to ‘engage in this type of discussion in an open-minded way’. Moreover, the academic explained that there has been no offer of ‘suitable alternative employment’ in the department, which is also a legal obligation. This is despite a new role being created that is almost identical to the academic’s current position. The reason he has not been offered this position is stated by UCL to be due to the pay scaling, which despite remaining at Grade 8 in both roles, has been contrived and stated by UCL to the UCU as being a promotion, and thus not ‘suitable’. This practice, which could be considered a form of ‘fire and rehire’, is a complex legal issue, but it seems as though UCL is doing its best to avoid and evade taking legal responsibility to ensure academic continuation. 

Due to such issues, many refrain from contesting suspected instances of unfair dismissal due to the difficulty of winning against wealthy institutions like UCL. As such, the endemic casualisation of labour in UCL, and higher education institutions more generally, has left countless academics without steady employment. It seems Dr Saunders is right to say that ‘UCL doesn’t care about institutional memory or the economic security of its staff’. 

What does this all mean for students and staff still in the History Department? According to Dr Saunders, for staff who avoid redundancy the ‘workload will increase a lot’. With student numbers remaining higher than pre-Covid levels, but teaching staff decreasing, the ‘already high workload of tutors and post-graduate teaching assistants will increase dramatically’. Staff wages are also not going up with the rate of inflation, spelling out more work for less money for those who remain. Whilst UCL History has advertised five new permanent job openings, they do not account for all those who will be forced out by the end of this academic year. 

For students, the redundancies spell out two main things. First, module diversity has been decimated and choices of study are therefore limited. This will evidently impact dissertations, the crescendo of any humanities degree. One second-year history student, Lily, told The Cheese Grater that ‘I feel as though my dissertation, which is what I have been building up to over the last two years, is severely limited now’. Lily went on to talk about how ‘there are barely any modern British special subjects [her area of interest], and all the rest are really niche’. Moreover, Lily spoke of how she chose modules according to lecturers due to her dyslexia, as ‘some are much better than others with that sort of thing’. But with the redundancies, ‘all the lecturers [she] had a good working relationship with are gone’. One first-year historian, who decided to remain anonymous, explained that it is ‘greatly disappointing to see such a lack of variety in what I can study next year’ and expressed anxiety about potentially ‘being forced into unfamiliar subject areas for [his] second-year research paper’. 

Another History student, Annabelle, noted that her ‘experience at UCL has been defined by [her] professors’. She explained that ‘there are a handful of brilliant and talented tutors who have truly made my time [at UCL] enjoyable, without whom my final year will not be the same’. In response to the situation, Annabelle said that the ‘redundancies are unjust, not only for the hardworking individuals they impact, but also for the students they leave behind. Our education is being compromised and, our module selection minimised, and our passion for learning threatened by the loss of those academics who have inspired us’. 

The abovementioned academic suffering from a case of seemingly unfair dismissal also told The Cheese Grater that their modules were incredibly popular, so there was no business case for their dismissal. This is the same with many others losing their roles at the end of the year. The academic noted that ‘students often ask me if there are spaces on my programme every year’, to which they have to answer ‘no’. This begs the question of why UCL is making positions redundant that draw students to the History Department in the first place? 

As another first-year historian noted, the situation is an ‘absolute state’, where the ‘experience of the students… does not feel like the faculty’s priority’. The Cheese Grater can report that one Department Leader said in a full-year lecture to the first-year cohort that students should embrace ‘different time periods and subject areas than [they are] used to’ when considering their second-year module selections (supposedly due to the great limitation in European, economic and intellectual history modules available – which are generally the most popular). But when your dissertation and Master’s applications can rely on what you study and write your research paper on, the limited module choice seems to hinder the future prospects of students whose interest lies outside of the parameters of the History Department’s narrowed module prospectus.

The redundancies show that UCL cares not for their students’ role as a ‘consumer’. With the marketisation of higher education, something that has been critical in making universities neoliberal hellscapes, the student has been poised as a customer, rather than a learner. University is now meant to be a means to a greater end, with that end solely being employment. But even with this in consideration, the way in which UCL has treated their students here shows the ‘customer’ to have nearly no say in how the service, for which they pay upwards of £9250/year, is provided. Much of the money coming from student fees is spent on the assumption that the range of modules available would not be mutilated at such short notice. Indeed, this evidences the monopoly UCL has over its ‘customers’ and begs the question of how much the institution really cares for the fulfilment of their students’ requests. 

Ultimately, the situation is bleak. Staff in the History Department close to The Cheese Grater have noted that many of those facing redundancy have accepted defeat and know that student action will do little to prevent what they see as the inevitable. This is a sad reality, of course, and highlights how little UCL seems to care for its staff members. Those losing their jobs are staff members who took on the essential role of teaching during the pandemic and have seen their pay rise little during the ongoing cost of living crisis. Moreover, the senior leadership’s disconnection from the daily lives of those who actually run the university, namely students and academics, is pronounced and shows the extent to which the university seemingly cares not for its most essential components. As the slogan of the Generation UCL exhibition in the Portico goes, ‘there is no university without students’, but to what extent does UCL actually believe in this statement?

A UCL spokesperson said:

‘The UCL History department is a research-led department where core activity, including teaching, is delivered by staff on academic (teaching and research) contracts in line with the department’s academic strategy. During the Covid-19 pandemic and resulting upheaval and uncertainty, UCL saw unexpected growth in student numbers which required some departments to develop contingency plans to cope with the increased student numbers; this required some fixed-term contracts as a temporary measure. Now that student numbers have returned to pre-Covid levels, the Department of History is undergoing a re-organisation which includes a consultation process involving all members of staff affected.

The anonymous academic responded to the UCL Statement with the following:

1. This dichotomy between ‘Teaching’ and ‘Academic’ contracts is simply a farce: the Terms & Conditions of Academic appointments, which you can view here (https://www.ucl.ac.uk/human-resources/sites/human-resources/files/ucl_conditions_of_service_academic_staff.pdf) and those of ‘Teaching’ contracts (which you can view here: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/human-resources/conditions-service-research-teaching-and-professional-services-staff) are basically identical. It must likewise be emphasised that the 2020 Teaching Concordat makes it very clear that at least 10-15% of ‘Teaching’ members of staff’s workload must be dedicated to research. In fact, in our department, it has been customary since then to give all ‘Teaching’ staff one full day of research time (i.e. 20% of the total workload). Moreover, our department has unanimously agreed that ‘Teaching’ staff’s research output would be eligible for the 2029 Research Excellence Framework submission. This shows, at best, that ‘Teaching’ staff are, de facto, fully regarded as research active, and, at worst, that our department simply wants to take all the kudos coming from our research, without allowing us any of the benefits that ought to come with it. But this also shows something more insidious, namely that these ‘Teaching’ contracts are, in every respect, academic contracts with a much higher teaching load, which confirms their highly exploitative nature (which is widely acknowledged).

2. While it is true that UCL “saw unexpected growth in student numbers”, they did not issue “fixed-term contracts”. The contracts they issued, instead, were “open-ended with an expected end date”. This is a legal fiction that has no basis in the law, which recognises only permanent (i.e. open-ended with no end date) and fixed-term (i.e. having an end date and therefore not open-ended) contracts. The legal ambiguity that UCL is exploiting is nothing but a means of casualising its staff indefinitely. By the way, claiming that these contracts are “fixed term” is very problematic for another reason: the statement you received from UCL implies that the selection for redundancy was made on the basis of the fixed-term nature of these contracts, which are, in fact, common to all people who were pooled as being at risk of redundancy. This is simply illegal, as per the Fixed Term Employees (prevention of Less Favourable Treatment) Regulations 2002, which unambiguously states that selection for proposed redundancy cannot be made solely on the basis of the fixed-term of the employee’s contract.

3. The above statement entirely (and, in my view, wilfully) neglects that at least 4 people involved in this process had regular ‘open-ended’ contracts.

4. The rationale for the redundancy, according to this statement, is the department’s return to “pre-Covid levels”. This is understandable, but, if that is the case, there is simply no business case for the redundancy of those 4 members of staff who have been in post since before the pandemic, but who are also at risk of redundancy for no real reason.

5. Finally, the statement claims that UCL History’s “core activity, including teaching, is delivered by staff on academic contracts, in line with the department’s academic strategy”. This offers absolutely no explanation as to why two teaching contracts have been ring-fenced and declared immune from this ‘reorganisation’.

All of the above amounts to unfair and therefore unlawful treatment of staff by the Department. 

Those wishing to show support for the staff members being made redundant, whilst applying pressure on UCL to reform their employment strategy, are invited to sign the petition below:

https://www.ipetitions.com/petition/end-unjust-redundancies