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Sussex plans job cuts in pandemic fallout

University also calls for recruitment freeze as sector faces Covid-19 challenge

The extent to which the coronavirus pandemic threatens university finances has been made clear after a university outlined plans to review posts held by temporary staff.

The University of Sussex came under fire today for urging managers to terminate “non-business critical” posts held by temporary staff as soon as possible in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak.

A document entitled University of Sussex Financial Review, seen by Research Professional News, contains a section on temporary staff, which states: “Non-business critical posts currently held by temporary or agency staff will need to be reviewed and terminated as soon as possible”. 

It adds: “Where possible, the tasks should be reassigned to other members of your team or non-critical tasks may need to be temporarily suspended in order to focus on core business activity.”

The guidance also states that “posts currently held by tutors [and] work carried out by other casual staff, will need to be reviewed in light of forthcoming scheduled teaching and where possible, terminated as soon as possible”.

It adds that where tutors are employed on an “open-ended rather than a fixed-term basis”, managers should “discuss with [HR] the process which should be followed”. Where possible, the tasks should be “reassigned to other members of your team or non-critical tasks may need to be temporarily suspended in order to focus on core business activity”, it adds.

A spokesman for the university confirmed that the document sent to Research Professional News was genuine.

“A communication was sent to the university’s senior budget holders yesterday with guidance on expenditure, as the university makes important financial decisions to manage the existing and potential challenges ahead,” he said. “The university is currently in a sound financial position but given the uncertainty that many sectors are facing, we need to ensure the long-term sustainability of the organisation.”

On the review of arrangements for what he said were “temporary agency staff”, he added that all fixed-term contract payments would be “honoured until the end of the contract, and then reviewed before the end of the term, which may result in a new contract being offered”.  

“In many cases, the agreements are for medium to long-term periods of time, so the review will not be taking place immediately,” he said. “If these roles are considered critical to the running of the organisation, the agreement will be renewed.” 

The guidelines asked budget holders to pause on recruiting new permanent staff until further notice in order to reduce non-essential expenditure. Contracted research staff that are externally funded will continue to run as normal.

On 25 March, Kathryn Telling, a lecturer in sociology at the University’s School of Law, Politics and Sociology, tweeted that she was “genuinely sickened” by the document. 

It comes after University of Exeter vice-chancellor Steve Smith warned that universities were on the edge of the “financial abyss” as the Covid-19 pandemic hits international student recruitment. 

Elsewhere, the University and College Union has urged UK Research and Innovation, the country’s largest public funder of research, to support precariously employed researchers during the coronavirus pandemic.