The head of the organisation representing modern universities has warned that escalating salary bills are beginning to force staff cuts, as he confirmed 30 job losses at his own institution.
Les Ebdon, chair of the Million+ think-tank, which represents 39 post-1992 universities, said that 30 staff at the University of Bedfordshire, where he is vice-chancellor, had accepted voluntary redundancy in 2008. The university said that less than half of the affected staff were academics.
Professor Ebdon said the losses were related to pay rises as well as to cuts in funding for students taking second degrees at an equivalent or lower level than ones they already hold.
Professor Ebdon said: "We have seen an uplift in salaries here of more than 30 per cent over three years and our Higher Education Funding Council for England grant is up by 1.75 per cent."
He added: "I don't know of any university in the East of England which isn't making some adjustment to staff numbers. Most of us have squeezed other expenditures as much as we can. Staffing is the area left where expenditure can be taken out, and it is the biggest cost."
Relative to many other universities, Bedfordshire spends a low proportion of its income on staff. Of its total income of £81.4 million in the financial year to July 2007, it spent 49 per cent on staff. However, Bedfordshire is servicing bank borrowings of £17 million.
Figures published this week by the Higher Education Statistics Agency showed that universities' staff costs increased by 8.7 per cent from £11.2 billion in 2005-06 to £12.2 billion in 2006-07. But as a proportion of total expenditure, those costs remained steady at 57.8 per cent.
Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, said universities' total income, at £21.2 billion, had risen by 9 per cent in a year, while expenditure had grown by 8.8 per cent, showing the sector to be "financially buoyant".
She said the impact of pay reforms and rises "has not been anywhere near as marked as many institutions feared or led us to believe it would be".
ACADEMIC BOYCOTT MOOTED AT KEELE
Academics are considering boycotting student assessment as an escalation of an industrial dispute over restructuring plans at Keele University, writes John Gill.
The dispute focuses on potential compulsory redundancies at the School of Economic and Management Studies, which the university plans to replace with a new management school.
At a recent meeting of council, the university considered responses to a consultation on the plans, concluding that eight proposals put forward as alternatives to the cuts "lacked a sufficiently robust basis for the provision of financially viable management programmes capable of meeting the need for change".
One of those proposals was a survival plan from SEMS itself, and Mike Ironside, senior lecturer in industrial relations at the school, said staff had been angered by the university's response.
A key sticking point in the negotiations, he said, was the threat of compulsory redundancies, which Mr Ironside said had not been ruled out.
University and College Union members will now be asked to vote on whether to escalate the dispute with Keele to a boycott of the assessment of students' work.
In a statement, Keele said the decisions made by council represented "a commitment to develop and retain a vibrant and competitive business school".
The university added that it was disappointed that the union was considering action that was "directly aimed at students".