Chaotic Recruitment, Student Distribution, and the Four Fights

For background on this topic, please see our TL;DR.

We have a motion about student distribution for the 29 April, 2022 HEC, commonly framed as student number controls. There’s an open letter you can sign and you can optionally provide some info for preliminary research on the topic.

A highway meme with an overpass that has a road sign for going straight or taking the exit. There is a blue car swerving to the exit with smoke billowing out the back.

Meme text on the straight arrow: "Too many"; on the curved exit arrow, "Too few"; on the car "We're not in control!"

– We over recruited again.

How many?

– Nearly double!

Will we get any new staff?

– Maybe a fixed term teaching position and “use more GTAs”

Where are we supposed to get the GTAs from?

– We struggled to recruit again.

How few?

– Well, we won’t exceed my three year old’s ability to count.

Oh no! What will happen?

– They might close the programme; there will be redundancies.

These are lightly fictionalised versions of real conversations. Conversations that we are hearing up and down the country. They are conversations about scenarios that are playing out over and over again, across the sector. They are not purely hypothetical.

The UK’s university student recruitment system is a mess (though there are significant regional variations). Fundamentally, we have a hyper “free market” system, which is nevertheless highly regulated, with governmental constraints seemingly designed to maximise chaos in ideological pursuit of pushing some universities toward insolvency or full privatisation. This isn’t too surprising given the Government’s often repeated goal of shrinking the sector, coupled with its well-documented incompetence. 

Chaotic recruitment causes problems everywhere, for everyone: for students and staff, for ‘high prestige’ institutions and for more ‘lowly’ ones. It exacerbates the Four Fights issues in a variety of ways: student starved schools struggle on pay, student glutted schools produce high workloads and casualisation, and both cases tend to exacerbate inequalities.

Two elected members of UCU’s higher education committee (HEC) who are also members of UCU Commons have submitted the following motion to the next meeting of HEC, which will take place on Fri 29th April this was canceled and we’re not sure when it will be taken up (there’s also a version you can comment on):

Taming the Chaos: Modelling New Student Distribution Mechanism

Proposed by: Ruth Holliday seconded by: Chris O’Donnell

HEC notes that:

The lifting of caps on student distribution between HE institutions has led to a chaotic marketised free-for-all which causes damage across the sector to institutions, staff, and students.

Under-recruitment threatens jobs while over-recruitment increases workloads. Chaotic recruitment is used as justification for casualisation: casualised workers provide “flexibility” in the face of surges and drops in student numbers.

Both programs teetering on elimination due to low numbers and overstuffed classrooms run by exhausted instructors severely damage the education of students.

HEC resolves:

to commission staff (with member input as helpful) to produce a report to HEC which:

• documents the current situation,

• models alternative student distribution management mechanisms for UK HE, particularly with an eye to how they address issues raised in the 4Fights,

• develops potential or indicative action plans at the local and national levels, as appropriate.

150 words

First, feedback and evidence are welcome. The motion asks UCU staff to collect data and compile a report. However, we recognise that these staff – following multiple ballots and various disputes, many ongoing, in both higher and further education –  are extremely overworked at the moment. Therefore UCU Commons will be working on input into any report and we would welcome collaborators. Data, personal stories, anecdotes, technical analyses…these are all welcome and needed!

Second, as documented in a previous TL;DR, the higher education committee is divided on this topic. This motion is framed to be as unobjectionable as possible. It proposes that UCU does some research and then decides how next to proceed in the light of that research. But if you think this motion should pass, then to maximise the chance of it we recommend lobbying HEC members. You could:

  • Pass a motion in your branch that endorse it (only works if you have a General Meeting before the HEC meeting which is on Fri 29th April; but if your exec can endorse it, that’s good too);
  • Expressing your support for the motion in public – via social media, for instance;
  • Contact members of HEC, telling them you support the motion;
  • You should feel free to contact the HEC via the form or individually if you know HEC members.

If you believe, as we do, that the “market” in students is deeply damaging to everyone in HE; staff and students alike, then we think step one is signing the letter and asking your HEC members to consider this motion.

This post was written by Bijan Parsia and Ruth Holliday. There was significant editing, proofing, and feedback from Jo Edge, David Harvie, and David Hitchcock. The motion is based on a prior one by Leon Rocha, Dave Hitchcock, and Mark Pendleton.

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