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130 jobs will go as HEA set to scrap its subject centres

Insider says sector may resist changes aimed at streamlining organisation, writes Rebecca Attwood

The Higher Education Academy is to close its network of discipline-based teaching support centres and replace them with subject heads who will report to the HEA's headquarters in York.

Under the new structure, some 130 full-time equivalent (FTE) posts from across the HEA and its 24 subject centres will go - cutting staff numbers by more than half.

Craig Mahoney, the HEA's chief executive, said the new structure would be more efficient, with a higher proportion of resources spent on staff working directly with university teachers.

But subject centre staff described the plan as "a tragedy", and one centre director has already stopped participating in the HEA's senior management team meetings.

At the moment, 100 FTE staff are employed by the HEA in York. There are also about 150 more FTE staff working in the subject centres who are not directly employed by the HEA.

Under the new model, there will be a total of about 120 FTE staff who will all be employed by the HEA or seconded from the sector.

In an interview with Times Higher Education, Professor Mahoney said that his organisation, which faces losing a third of its core funding by 2012-13, was "vehemently committed" to continuing discipline-based work. But he argued that there was duplication between subject centres, particularly when it came to administration.

It was not an unreasonable criticism that the HEA had been "bureaucratic", he said, but this was the case not only in York but "across its entire network".

Under the new model, more of the HEA's income - about 75 per cent, against 50 per cent currently - will go to staff working directly with academics, he said.

The new subject heads will be expected to be "out and about" in the sector, but "will answer to and report to the single site", he explained.

The HEA will also have "academic associates" based in institutions around the country, and some £2 million will be spent on consultancy days.

Professor Mahoney stressed that the 100 staff jobs in York will not automatically be incorporated into the 120 remaining posts. "I want the best people on board...This is not about protecting York jobs," he said.

The work of the subject centres will continue this academic year, but from September 2011 funding will be reduced and the new structure will be in place by summer 2012.

One subject centre staff member, who chose to remain anonymous, said the plan "would not work". "It won't get buy-in from the sector, and it will be met with a lot of anger," he said.

The staff member said it was "crazy" to abolish subject centres when the government was emphasising the need for good teaching and as students were set to become more demanding.

Noting that the HEA is "treated with disdain by most people in the community", he argued that, under the plan, it would be seen as "just another quango".

"For a government wanting to get rid of quangos it seems to be an unwise direction in which to move."

Readers' comments (3)

  • So, last week we heard the new HEA CEO Craig Mahoney pushing for all new staff to have a ‘licence to teach’ ( and this week we see the HEA ‘jewel in the crown’ (HEFCE commissioned Oakleigh report 2008) 24 subject centres about to disappear. Interesting that the argument put forward is all about ‘efficiency gains’ due to funding constraints, but shouldn’t we stop and think about what is left of the HEA after taking away the subject centre network – is there anything of the HEA left worth keeping? The rhetoric for the new model put forward by Craig Mahoney makes some sense – “about 75 per cent, against 50 per cent currently - will go to staff working directly with academics” – but how will this work in practice and couldn't the current subject centre model provide this approach? The argument for getting rid of subject centres shouldn’t only be about saving admin and other costs, but about having a valuable point of contact for university staff in a location with direct day-to-day involvement with students/staff through a highly evolved network which has taken many years to develop (since 2000 from the foundations of the LTSN). And subject centre staff have excellent relationhips with institutional staff/educational developers (developed over many years) on the very courses Craig Mahoney is suggesting should become part of a 'licence to teach' adding the vital discipline context and focus. Will the plush premises and centralised staffing base in York replace this? And interesting that “there will be a total of about 120 FTE staff” – that’s just about the maximum the leased building in York can accommodate. The HEA has been in operation since the mid-2000s and was formed mainly from the ILT and LTSN – the former setting itself up as a professional membership organisation for university teachers and the latter a distributed network integrated within the HE community (ownership and engagement) – have we really moved forward in the last five years and is the new HEA model really fit for purpose (albeit at a reduced annual cost of approx £17m by 2012/13)? Of course subject centres need to adapt to the current economic climate, but simply removing them and replacing with something which seems very vague doesn't make sense - once they go, there is no going back . . . . As one comment from a 25 Feb THE article puts it “the subject centres are the best thing about the HEA, and indeed some would argue that they are almost its ONLY worthwhile activity” – many other supportive comments – see . . . .

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  • I think Clare T above sums up the situation very well - to quote the opening web page of the English subject centre (see "The English Subject Centre is sorry to announce that the HE Academy Board has decided to undertake a radical restructuring, which means that it will discontinue the funding of all Subject Centres. Instead, it intends to put in place a number of staff directly employed by York to provide support to universities at subject level. The English Subject Centre will continue to be funded until July 2011, and may receive some reduced funding over the following six to eight months in order to complete transition to the new structure. The Subject Centre is committed to completing any projects or activities already announced for the 2010/2011 year. The Subject Centre is exploring ways that it can continue its work in a new environment. The staff would like to thank you for the support and encouragement you have given to us in the past and welcome any suggestions or help you can offer us as we look to a different future."

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  • Worth a visit...

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