Uni job loss fears spark calls for savings rethink

Politicians and union leaders have called for a rethink over how savings can be made at the School of Textiles in Galashiels, despite its principal admitting it has run at a loss for at least the last eight years.

Professor Steve Chapman, principal of Heriot-Watt University, which the school is part of, revealed the establishment’s long-standing cash problems during a visit to the Netherdale campus to meet staff and students last Thursday. It followed an external review which looked into how a deficit – which stood at £500,000 in the last financial year – should be cut, sparking fears that 10 jobs will be lost.

He has since met Borders MSPs and university and college union representatives at a summit at Holyrood on Tuesday, where he agreed to extend the consultation period. Professor Chapman is scheduled to discuss the future of the Galashiels base further with Michael Moore MP today.

Speaking to TheSouthern, Professor Chapman revealed the School of Textiles, the second oldest such institution in the world, has taken up a third of Heriot-Watt University’s capital expenditure in recent years, despite only having 44 staff, compared with 1,800 at its Riccarton campus. But he re-affirmed the university’s commitment to the school, highlighting the £12million halls of residence complex which is on time to open by September.

Professor Chapman added: “Over the last few years, the university has invested more in the School of Textiles than in any other school (at Heriot-Watt) by miles. We won’t make our money back for 30 years, so we’re here for 30 years, so any idea that there is any possibility of closing is ridiculous.

“However, there are some problems and one is financial.

“I’ve gone back as far back as 2004 and the school has never made a surplus. It has been running a deficit every single year since 2004 and probably beyond that.

“Now of course the university has covered that deficit. However, it has now reached around £500,000 (in last financial year) and it’s getting to a scale that it could seriously jeopardise the health of the university rather than just the school and we’ve got to get it under control.”

While looking to increase income, through options such as opening more places to English and non-EU students, who pay fees, Professor Chapman admits if that is not possible, staff numbers could be reduced.

“We will do whatever we can do avoid job losses, but we have to solve the problems and if the increased earnings and voluntary severances and the other things don’t work, there is the possibility of redundancies,” he added, having re-assured students that their contact time with staff will not be cut.

“It’s very unlikely to be 10 (jobs lost), it’s likely to be considerably less than that.

“What the number might be, I don’t know because this is a proposal – we are consulting with staff now and consulting with unions, and the actual decisions will be made once we have their input.”

University and College Union Scottish leader Mary Senior welcomed Professor Chapman’s commitment to the Borders, but questioned whether cutting jobs made sense.

She told us: “We are concerned that the university is applying a business model that is inappropriate for the school and does not take into account its size, geographical location and its history. We maintain that decisions on the school should be made for sound educational reasons rather than on notational financial targets.

“UCU will oppose compulsory redundancies and calls instead for the university to properly consult with the unions over its plans rather than rushing headlong into cuts that will increase staff workloads and harm efforts to increase income streams.”

Following Tuesday’s summit, South of Scotland MSP Jim Hume added: “I want to see every option exhausted in coming up with an alternative plan. I want to see Heriot-Watt management proactively working with staff to explore options for expanding courses and activities that will maximise funding streams.

“I do not believe that the current short-sighted proposal represents the best option for Heriot-Watt in Galashiels.”

And Mr Moore commented: “I have already had a discussion with Professor Chapman about the implications of this decision and the need to ensure that the world-class textiles teaching in Gala and cutting-edge research and development can continue.”