MORE than 800 religious leaders and academics have urged the University of Chester to halt an “unnecessary act of vandalism”: its planned compulsory redundancies in its department of theology and religious studies (TRS).
A letter sent to the president of the university council, the Chancellor, the Vice-Chancellor, the president of the Students’ Union, and the Bishop and Dean of Chester, argues that the redundancy notices issued to the ten remaining academic staff in the faculty will harm the university’s reputation both nationally and internationally.
The letter, organised by the TRS-UK — TRS departments’ professional association — has been signed by members of every TRS department in the UK, as well as institutions across the Continent and the United States.
The University of Chester has an Anglican foundation, having been founded as the Chester diocesan training college in 1839, and is a member of the Cathedrals Group of universities. The Bishop of Chester, the Rt Revd Mark Tanner, and the Dean of Chester, the Very Revd Dr Tim Stratford, are both foundation members of the university council.
The former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Williams, who is a visiting professor at the university, is one of those to have signed the letter.
The letter says that the threatened redundancies “severely damage the capacity of a flourishing department to continue its significant contribution to TRS disciplines nationally and internationally, to maintain its trajectory of increasing success in attracting external funding, and to play its crucial role in meeting the urgent need for religious literacy in the UK, which should be of particular concern to the Cathedrals Group. We recognize that student recruitment is currently challenging, but responding through compulsory redundancies is an unnecessary act of vandalism to TRS at Chester and nationally.”
The department has an “outstanding record” in securing funding for research, having secured £2.5 million in the past cycle, which is “an exceptional sum for a Humanities department”, the letter points out.
“Staff redundancies will negatively impact on the proven capabilities of staff in TRS to attract external funding, and will diminish the University not only financially but also in terms of international research visibility and prestige.”
At-risk notices of compulsory redundancy were issued to ten members of staff in Chester’s TRS department at 5.20 p.m. on Maundy Thursday, as the university closed for the Easter holiday.
The university’s Grosvenor Research Professor, Elaine Graham, had accepted voluntary severance from the university in an attempt to minimise the extent of compulsory redundancies. All remaining academic staff in the department, however, have been put at risk of redundancy.
One staff member, who asked not to be named, said that pressure on student numbers and finances as a result of Covid had led the university to set a deficit budget for the next three years. But the forecast for future student recruitment to study theology and religion was looking positive, given encouraging signs at A level, they said. Chester’s TRS department has also invested heavily in engaging future students, and releasing a series of webinars to support A-level students during lockdown, which have attracted thousands of views.
Another staff member said: “We are deeply grateful that so many members of the international academic community recognise the value of the teaching and research of academic staff at TRS Chester and have offered their support in challenging these unnecessary cuts.
“We have worked hard to create a supportive and vibrant department for students which shows in our consistently excellent scores in the national Student Satisfaction Survey. This year, we were really pleased that TRS Chester was top of The Guardian’s 2021 Good University Guide for satisfaction with teaching.
“Coping with the pandemic has left colleagues exhausted, and to issue redundancy notices at the end of a year like this demonstrates a profound lack of appreciation and care not only for academic staff, but also for our students, who could see their module choices vanish.”
A spokesperson for the University said: “The University of Chester has notified its recognised trade unions, the University and College Union and Unison, of possible redundancies in a small number of departments, to address the imbalance between costs and income. Since sending the original notice to the unions, the number of posts currently at risk of compulsory redundancy has reduced to 24.5. In addition, approximately 30 staff from across the University applied for, and were awarded, voluntary severance, which will enable them to leave the University’s employment on agreed terms.
“The proposed compulsory redundancies relate to areas in which the current resources are unsustainable and where, despite diligent marketing, reductions in student numbers now require fewer staff. The University remains fully committed to teaching and research in Theology and Religious Studies, and indeed the Humanities as a whole. However, it is mindful that a diminishing demand for programmes in these areas is very much a national trend.
“The University and the trade unions are currently engaged in statutory collective consultation on ways of avoiding or reducing any compulsory redundancies and mitigating the consequences, for example, through redeployment within the University.”