Tag Archives: recruitment freeze


A moderately populated Great Hall played host to the final all-staff meeting on Tuesday 25 June, led by Vice-Chancellor Professor Mark E Smith, CBE, before his imminent departure to southerly climes. The majority of those present, apart from the conflagration of senior managers [is this the correct collective noun for senior managers? Readers are welcome to write in with alternative suggestions] that routinely accompanies the VC to such events, appeared to be Professional Services (PS) colleagues. Leaving aside the general reluctance of academic colleagues to turn up to such meetings, this may have been as much to do with it being exam board season as with concerns about the freeze, err, control on new recruitment, which affects only PS staff.

‘Let’s kick off’, said the VC, perhaps showing his enthusiasm for what may come to be regarded as one of the main legacies (or white elephants, perhaps) of his tenure, Lancaster’s very own football university. A little later, UA92 also got its own slide, and according to the VC everything is going swimmingly, with the first intake of students due to start in September and recruitment apparently very close to being on target. He was keen to stress, however, that UA92 had a very ‘different model’ for student recruitment, with multiple entry points for students, and that it definitely was not in any way comparable with the normal university recruitment cycle. It would of course be churlish to assume that this means that UA92 has in fact recruited very few students!

Before going sportsy though, the VC was keen to highlight the good news. Financially, the HE sector is in pretty good health, with Lancaster at the top of the distribution. The phrase ‘Expanding Excellence in England’, rather than applying to the VC’s feelings about his own emoluments, is the name of a Research England fund which will contribute £7.6m, alongside LU’s own £5.6m contribution, for the ‘Beyond Imagination’ project housed in LICA. There will be a new School of Architecture, with students starting their degrees from 2020. And there are a host of building initiatives on campus in progress or about to start, including the Health Innovation Campus, a £1m refurb of Edward Roberts Court, the LUMS Space Programme (he didn’t mention the multi-million pound stuff-up that delayed it in the first place), a £6m expansion of the Sports Centre, the Library Phase 3 (whether there will be any staff left to work there is another question he did not address), a 400 seat lecture theatre, an upgrade of our district heating system, and a refurb of Bailrigg House.

The VC claimed that these developments showed that the University was increasing its physical infrastructure at the same pace as increases in student numbers, and that the new lecture theatre provided physical proof that this was true. Staff who have had to teach after 6pm this year might wonder whether in fact this was true, or whether the new lecture theatre should in fact have been built a few years ago to prevent evening teaching in the first place. And staff who have been denied a regrade, or whose departments or units have had vacancies turned down might wonder if all this spending on making the campus look prettier could have been put to better use (more on this later).

The VC whizzed through a few other international developments – the new Leipzig venture will offer degrees in Business from later this year, and in Computer Science from 2020, and there will be a ‘Future Cities Research Institute’ jointly hosted by Lancaster with its long-standing partner in Malaysia, Sunway. And closer to home, he outlined the changes to the University’s senior leadership, most of which had already been shared via the news portal, with the addition that Professor Sharon Huttly’s Pro-VC role would expand to encompass responsibility for not only Education but also Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI). This was a change from the previous plan, which was to have Stephen Decent look after EDI as part of the ‘people’ part of the Academic Development brief (which includes planning and resourcing). While the VC was keen to stress that all of the senior leadership had EDI as part of their brief, this move ‘created more bandwidth at senior level to work on EDI issues’. It will certainly be a welcome move for staff and students who have been campaigning on related issues to have EDI explicitly named in one of the Pro-VC titles, and with the greatest respect for Professor Decent, the optics of having yet another white man in charge of this portfolio were not great.

We have known since May that Professor Mandy Chetwynd would be retiring, and no doubt many subtext readers will wish her well and appreciate her long service to the University. What is not quite clear, which also came up in one of the questions to the VC, is what impact laying down the role of Provost for Student Experience, Colleges and the Library would have on… Colleges and the Library. Colleges in particular appear to have been under attack for a considerable period, with SCRs being closed, bars moving to central control, accommodation blocks spread around campus due to building work, and various college staff roles being reduced or centralised. It may be the case that this move represents the final nail in their coffin – until they are resurrected as nothing more than a convenient label for where students live in their first year.

The last substantive points in the VC’s speech, apart from a few warm words about the forthcoming graduation ceremonies, a reassurance (supposedly) that the Augar review could have been a lot worse, and a hurrah for our league table positions, were to do with the gender pay gap and the professional services freeze – sorry, vacancy control management. On the gender pay gap, the VC reported that there was reporting, reports, and engagement – but there seems to have been little actual action in the 15 months since Lancaster’s terrible pay gap statistics were first published. And this is hardly surprising, given that the expenditure on staff who have EDI work as their lead responsibility at Lancaster is considerably less than at many other HE institutions. And for the few roles we have, the pay also seems to be below par. Various reports are due to be published over the coming months (no doubt choosing to publish these in the summer when fewer staff and students are around is entirely accidental), so we will see what they contain.

On vacancy control, the VC followed his usual MO when faced with difficult questions, and retreated to technical details and graphs of figures showing the University’s adjusted net operating cashflow, where it was projected to be, and where we needed it to be in order not to get in to difficulties in future. But there was ‘no need to panic, absolutely a need to adjust the tiller’, he said, which may lead readers to wonder what icebergs lie ahead. The University faces no clear financial difficulties, apparently, but needs to be financially disciplined. How long this situation will continue, he said, depends on financial discipline. If student recruitment is strong, the period should be shorter. He was at pains to point out that it was not only Professional Services staff who were affected. The capital plan had already been adjusted – and no vacancy control would mean more adjustment. The consequences would be for example, not being able to address the longer teaching day (he did not mention that not having a prettier campus or not having a bigger sports centre are options). And, don’tchaknow, we’re all in this together: even the VC’s own office has had a vacancy turned down.

As the VC finished his remarks and turned to the questions submitted anonymously via the iLancaster app (human two-way interaction in the room is no longer desirable, apparently), it became clear that he had not, in fact reassured the University community on various issues. Numerous questions, a few submitted before he started speaking, but many during the session, related to the vacancy control. Others addressed UA92, paternity leave provision, the rumours of a closure of Religious Studies, advice for the new VC, neoliberalism in education, and why so few academics were present.

The VC gave a few convincing answers, but overall tended to deflect and refer back to his previous comments. Some of his answers may have given colleagues pause for thought. For instance, the idea that the vacancy controls required ‘imaginative thinking’ on behalf of managers in terms of how to address their staffing needs. No doubt many managers will be left imagining how their staff will cover the same (or higher) workloads with fewer people to do the work. The VC appeared to hint that in future there would also be controls (though he did not use this word) on academic recruitment, but that it was important to maintain staff-student ratios. And to a question about why PS staff were being targeted when there were some academics who apparently had not published or taught in years, the VC suggested this needed to be addressed through performance management, and that the new PDR process would allow this… and thus the seeds of division sown by this process seem to be bearing fruit already. One welcome clarification the VC provided was that maternity/parental leave cover should emphatically not be affected by vacancy control. Whether this message gets through to the people who have already knocked back requests for such cover (see letters, in this issue), or the managers who don’t even bother to apply in the first place because of the continuous pressure to find savings, remains to be seen.


Dear subtext,

It was very interesting to read your article ‘Running out of money’ in subtext Issue 188 regarding the vacancy management control. It was even more interesting that two weeks later there was much fanfare on the Staff Intranet announcing that Edward Roberts Court is to undergo a remodelling project. The remodel appears to include new steps, planting, seating areas and some colourful umbrellas, and all for the bargain price of just £1 million.

I’m sure all subtext readers will be delighted to enjoy this new area where they can eat, sit and relax – it will help take their mind off their increased stress, unmanageable workload and decreased wellbeing.


Danny Cairns


Dear subtext,

Thanks for covering ‘vacancy control measures’ for Professional Service roles in your last issue. As many readers will know, from the beginning of May, Professional Service vacancies are now only being advertised if they are deemed ‘business critical’, and even these have to be approved by a review panel (consisting of Sarah Randall-Paley, Director of Finance; Paul Boustead, Director of Human Resources & Organisational Development; and a Pro-Vice Chancellor) and ultimately signed off by Nicola Owen, Chief Administrative Officer and Secretary, and the Vice-Chancellor. Professional Service staff will also not be eligible for regrades unless these arise as part of a restructure.

Representatives from UNISON first heard about these measures as they were being implemented, and we were not consulted on them. At a meeting on 2nd May we were told that this is ‘not a hiring freeze’ and that the measures are being put in place because the University is exercising ‘financial caution’, there has been no ‘financial mismanagement’. We were also told that the definition of ‘business critical’ was ‘to be agreed’ – we hope that it has been, but we have not been informed of the criteria.

Our members have raised a number of concerns with us about the potential increase of workloads and resulting stress, effects on flexible working requests, and cover for secondments, amongst other things. Perhaps most worryingly, we have heard that maternity cover roles have been turned down because they are not deemed ‘business critical’. We appreciate that this could be rumour; we certainly hope it is. It is worth remembering that the University is currently attempting to renew its institutional Athena SWAN Bronze Award. Presumably the awarding panel will not look favourably upon an institution that does not fill vacancies created by maternity leave.

So far, the measures have led to a significant reduction in the number of ‘Support – Administrative’ roles that have been advertised but have had seemingly less impact on the number of ‘Professional/Management’ vacancies. Is this because the aforementioned review panel does not deem grade 1-6 roles to be ‘business critical’?

If any of our members (or indeed anyone else) would like to inform us of how they have been affected by the ‘control measures’, please get in touch via unison@lancaster.ac.uk. We will continue to represent our members and raise issues we know about at meetings with HR.


UNISON Executive Committee, Lancaster University Branch


Dear subtext,

Thank you for your piece on the Professional Services ‘vacancy management control’. It is extremely alarming that requests to advertise for maternity covers posts have been knocked back. My own grapevine (i.e. random chitchat with colleagues across campus) tells me there have been at least three cases. As far as I’m aware, two of those posts did eventually get approved, but not without having to submit a strong business case, through what is a pretty arduous process.

How is a woman in a professional services role to feel now about the prospect of taking maternity leave, knowing that her colleagues may ‘just have to pick up the slack’? How is she to feel about informing her team that she has decided to extend her leave beyond the period she had originally intended to take? How on earth did we get so quickly to a position that a pregnant employee might be viewed as a liability to her team?

And not just pregnant women. What about staff requesting to reduce their hours in order to take on childcare or other caring responsibilities? From a line manager’s point of view, that is now staff time that is lost, with no guarantee that a backfill post would be approved.

Or what about anyone who wants to go on a secondment? Secondments are often the only route to promotion for professional services staff, particularly those based in academic departments. However, the feeling on the ground now is that, as a line manager, you would have to be pretty brave or mad to give permission to one of your team to go on secondment, with no guarantee that you will be able to appoint backfill.

I’m sure that senior management would say that none of these things are in any way the intention of the vacancy controls, and there may well be specific circumstances at play in the cases that have come up. But the point is that the controls are inviting managers to take up attitudes (‘pregnant’ / ‘part-time’ / ‘secondment’ equals ‘problem’), that are already out there and starting to take root. It doesn’t matter if this is not the message that senior management intended to send – this is the message that has been received by professional services staff, and with good reason. This situation is putting line managers in a horrible position, with a choice between, on the one hand, being supportive of family-friendly working and/or team members’ career development, and on the other hand, trying to protect the wellbeing of the team as a whole in the face of increasing workloads.

If there is a large hole in the University’s balance sheet and steps need to be taken to remedy this, then we all need to share the burden. A department’s ability to weather financial storms shouldn’t be contingent on the reproductive / family / retirement plans of its staff. With plans underway for a £6 million expansion to the Sports Centre, and a £1 million remodelling of Edward Roberts Court, I think it would be timely for the University to try and salvage some of the goodwill of a group of staff who are being told, yet again, ‘you are not an asset – you are a cost’.

Best wishes,

Claire Roberts


Dear subtext,

As an undergraduate student, I am a member of probably the least-consulted demographic of the University in the ‘search for a new Vice-Chancellor’. Nonetheless, I was able to sneak into one of the Big Conversations on the topic, a Dame Sue Black-style event involving splitting into smaller groups and feeding ideas back into the middle. While I fear these kind of events will be used as a justification for removing actual democratic participation in University affairs, I was able to contribute what I see as some of the most pressing issues a new VC will face, including student data handling and privacy, institutional inequalities in race and gender, the ethical stance (or lack of it) of university policy, the hostile environment and international students, issues with outsourcing and contracting arrangements, and whether the University wants to serve as a model for regressive policies across the country, such as with the abolition of University Court or the revised protest code.

Everyone else was an academic or in professional services, but the room reached broad consensus that the new VC should focus on the University and wider local community, should avoid making false promises, should focus on the unique aspects of Lancaster rather than trying to become more like every other university, should not fixate on league tables, should be more accessible, and several other things. The current timeline suggests a new Vice-Chancellor in Spring 2020. It will be interesting to see, two or three years on, how much of this has been ignored.


Andrew Williams


Dear subtext,

A response received after an email to Events Office requesting to know how we would advertise Department events on the University Events page – https://www.lancaster.ac.uk/events/ – does explain why the majority of listings are ‘campus tours’:

‘Please keep in mind that for your events to be approved on the Events page they will need to be accessible to the public in terms of content, it cannot be too academic focused…’

Add to this what you want, the Admin in this department found it very funny, leaving us questioning what exactly is ‘too academic’?

Name and address supplied


Dear subtext,

I normally avoid buying food on campus as I know it is a rip off, but today I really needed some carrots. I was faced with a choice of:

1. Central where they sell them at 10p each so everyone takes the largest/best. All that was left was some small manky ones. This approach is obviously going to encourage food waste because people will not buy the small ones. I have been there when they have been throwing those out.

2. Spar where they sell pre-packed 500 gram bags at 85p. That is £1.70 per kilo, approximately 3 times the price of Booths.

Does the University not feel any responsibility to ensure that students have access to fairly priced fresh food on campus?

Olwen Poulter