Financial problems at the University of Surrey By Matt Cockfield-Hall

The University of Surrey has joined other universities across the UK in declaring troubling financial issues. On 14th March 2024, the University’s Vice Chancellor, Max Lu, announced cost-cutting measures aimed at reducing expenditure over the coming years. This is, understandably, concerning to both staff and students. The purpose of this article is to provide you, the students, with the facts about the situation and explain what this means for your quality of education.

What are these financial measures?

A voluntary severance scheme was offered to staff members before the Easter break. This involved giving staff the option to leave their jobs in exchange for a payout, which resulted in 130 staff leaving over Easter. The scheme was offered to departments based upon both their staff-to-student ratios and admission rates. As a result, small departments with low admissions were the most affected by these cuts.

The university is also considering selling assets which are deemed not to impact on long-term goals. Although not stated what these assets may be, this could range anywhere from vehicles to entire buildings.

In a letter to the staff, Max Lu also mentioned other measures, such as ‘diversifying income’ and ‘changing the way we recruit international students’. (International students pay higher tuition fees, and so bring in more income). He has not yet ruled out compulsory redundancies.

Why is this happening?

Across the UK, many universities are facing financial issues, with Vice Chancellors blaming energy cost increases, falling numbers of international students and the ‘devaluation of tuition fees’. However, the University of Surrey is an extreme case.

In 2021-22, Surrey had the third highest debt out of any UK university, with another £20 million loan being taken out in 2022-23 in order to buy Stag Hill House (currently the AQA building).

The VC says that this debt largely stems from investing in student accommodation on Manor Park and refurbishing International House. He made no mention of the new Medical school or various research institutes that have been set up recently, which surely would have contributed to this as well.

Staff feel as if they are being treated as “a cost rather than an asset”.

It appears to some, as shown in this article, that the University is trying to position itself amongst the Russell Group unis, but lacks the financial sustainability to do so. This level of borrowing cannot be explained by factors affecting every university – it is simply poor financial decision-making on behalf of university management, and it must be seen as so.

" is simply poor financial decision-making on behalf of university management, and it must be seen as so."

Has this happened before?

This is not the first time Surrey has been faced with financial hardship. In 2019, the University & Colleges Union (UCU) branch at Surrey held a vote of no confidence in Max Lu, after he failed to rule out compulsory redundancies due to similar financial conditions. 96% of staff who participated gave a vote of no confidence. The VC said that uncertainty due to Brexit, a competitive student market and rising pension costs were to blame for the financial measures then, and warned that the university would be facing a deficit of £15m for “a few years”. And now a few years later, the university management has seemed to forget these issues and continues to borrow more.

How are the staff responding?

After many letters back and forth between the staff body and the VC, the UCU branch at Surrey voted overwhelmingly to hold a vote of no confidence in both the Vice Chancellor and the leadership of the university due to the VC failing to rule out compulsory redundancies, which the UCU says 45 jobs are currently at risk of.

Despite this being an escalation by the UCU, the university and Max Lu can simply choose to ignore such a vote, as in 2019. It does, however, put a lot of pressure on management to provide various assurances to the staff - a key one being to rule out compulsory redundancy. The Vote of No Confidence opened on May 7th and remains open for both staff and students to sign until 17th May.

What are the Students' Union doing to help?

The SU have passed a motion calling for the university to commit to a number of points, including:

  • For staff-student ratio to not fall below 1:20
  • To extend the programme of voluntary redundancy
  • To provide transparent information to students and staff

On 2nd May, the SU held a Student Voice Forum in which the financial issues were discussed with university management. Surrey’s Vice Provost, Tim Dunne, failed to rule out staff-student ratios falling below 1:20 and hinted that other measures may have to be made, such as cutting funding to the Students' Union and the campus nightclub, Rubix.

There is a dedicated page on the SU’s website detailing what they are doing to represent the students and how you can have your input.

Have you been affected?

If your department or course has seen changes due to these financial measures, let The Stag team know about it! There is a serious lack of transparent and timely information surrounding these measures, so we need your help to get this information out to the student body.

Further information

Vote of No Confidence

UCU Surrey Twitter / X

BBC Article (2024) –“ Concerns over up to 140 job losses at university”

Local Article (2024) - "Job insecurity upsetting collegiate life"

BBC Article (2019) – “Surrey University makes £15m cuts and offers redundancy to all staff”

Independent Article (2019) – “Vice-chancellor who spent more than £1,000 of university money on pet dog faces opposition”

Wikipedia - Max Lu (Controversies)