The vultures are circling at King's College London. Management have taken the controversial step to axe up to 120 staff in the College's health schools in August. The cuts come at a time of high student dissatisfaction and a plummeting reputation in national university rankings. An online petition has already reached 4,000 signatures - staggering considering the usual apathy of the student body. Looking at what they have to lose - a further drop in teaching standards at the cost of mounting student debt - it's not surprising. Yesterday, during a College Council meeting of university heads, students held their first organised, direct action against the proposals.
A number of the students were suited up and disguised in masks with Rick Trainor and Robert Lechler's faces, the principal and vice-principal of the health schools respectively. Others wore lab coats and posed as unsuspecting academics holding balloons. In a performance that symbolised the actions of management, the Lechler and Trainor figures ran around popping the balloons.
Proposals to get rid of up to 15% of health school staff are a sad result of poor financial planning and a callous disregard for employees and their students. Professor David Calquhoun of UCL blogged: "Universities have come to exploit their employees almost as badly as Amazon does." The fact that the College chose the legal minimum 45-day consultation period after the proposals were made public makes this comparison look not too unreasonable.
It's hard not to be cynical about the way the College has gone about their heartless restructuring plans. The pool of 140 staff deemed at risk of redundancy have to fill a two-page document defending their position at the College - re-convincing the institution that originally took them and their grant money that they're still valuable. Academics and professionals are becoming commodities to be bought and then discarded - hardly in keeping with the College's founding principle, 'in the service of society.'
The students protesting against the cuts yesterday weren't consulted before the proposals were made. Given that they're now paying at least £9,000 in tuition fees, a prior consultation would have been more than simply polite. 'The customer is always right' would be an appropriate maxim for such conduct in modern day HE - but it's not yet.
The demonstration highlights all that's wrong with the system today - unaccountable bureaucrats making decisions that will have destructive effects beyond their own tenure. KCL claims to be looking to redeploy staff where possible, to look at the scope for early retirement and are offering voluntary severance packages. But none of these schemes will help the morale of those staff that remain, the students whose work will be unfairly disrupted, or the College's failing reputation.