This year Felix has been reporting on a wide range of news stories, from the UCU strikes hitting campuses across the UK, to the College removing cooked breakfasts from the SCR. Here’s our round-up of a year in news:
At the end of July last year, the Senior Common Room served their last cooked breakfast to students and staff, as they made wide-ranging changes to campus services. As well as removing the cooked breakfast option, they increased prices across all outlets, reviewed portion sizes, and reduced opening hours of food outlets. The changes, which were made by Campus Services, a branch of the College, were made “where reinvestment can demonstrably be made to the wider benefit of the community, against a minimal impact on staff and students.”
The changes, which students and staff were not consulted on, left a number very upset. One academic told Felix the changes were “outrageous”, while another said “it sounds like [when the College talk about] ‘reducing their cost’, it’s really coming out of our pocket.”
Around three months after the changes came into effect, Imperial College Union launched a survey, asking staff and students about campus services and opening hours. The Union has not reported on the results of the survey. – FF
More than 60 universities were disrupted by strikes as staff protested against proposed changes to their pensions which could have seen lecturers lose up to 60% of their final pension pot. Fourteen days of escalating strike action took place over four weeks earlier this year. A further fourteen days of strikes planned to disrupt end-of-year exams were narrowly averted as the University and College Union, representing teaching and support staff, agreed to a deal which will maintain the current pension scheme until at least April 2019.
Students have been told exams will not include content missed as a result of the strikes. A class action lawsuit has been launched by legal firm Assersons on behalf of students seeking a refund of their tuition fees. The case involves more than 5,000 students, who could receive several hundred pounds each.
Last week, Felix revealed Imperial has so far withheld just under £280,000 from staff involved in the strike. Unlike other universities, Imperial has not ring-fenced this money for student support and services.
Universities, including Imperial, supported the switch to a defined contribution scheme (where pension value is linked to the stock market), claiming the current University Superannuation Scheme had a £7.5 billion deficit and was “not likely to be sustainable”. – JW
In first term, Felix reported on the case of an alumna, Helen, who had been sexually assaulted by a current student when returning to Imperial for an event. The assault took place on Union property. After reporting the case to the Union, the Union and College took seven months to reach a conclusion, during which time the accused had become president of a Union society.
During the investigation, Helen was passed between a number of staff members, and was repeatedly asked to provide statements about what happened during the evening of the assault. She also went for periods of up to six weeks without any contact from the Union or College.
Helen, who has a severe, long-term mental health condition, requiring her to go to hospital each week for treatment, was left feeling suicidal at times: “I was consumed with the case,” she told Felix, “while nobody responsible for it seemed to care, or even acknowledge it. This made me feel my grip on reality was slipping.”
When the Union reached their final decision, they concluded “on balance of probabilities” Helen’s account was true, and recommended having the perpetrator attend a consent workshop, as well as banning him from licensed Union premises. They did not recommend removing him as society president. – FF
Wages are decreasing in real-terms for most Imperial staff while large sums are being spent on the salaries of senior staff and the College’s property portfolio.
Below-inflation pay rises have left staff facing average salary decreases of 1.1% each year since 2005, according to a pay claim published by the Joint Higher Education Trade Union. Despite this, College expenditure on wages increased by just over 3% in 2016⁄17 due to “an exceptional increase in very highly paid staff”.
At the same time, the unions criticised Imperial’s increasing capital expenditure. Referring to the £1.42 billion spent on property investments since 2011, the joint unions said: “Clearly, the College has chosen to devote its surplus to buildings rather than to staff.”
On top of this, a demanding work culture means Imperial staff work beyond government-set time limits and provide the equivalent of two days per week without pay.
The joint trade unions have set out a series of demands, including a 7.5% pay rise for staff. – JW
An investigation by Felix into the endowment fund of Imperial revealed the College had significant direct and indirect investments in the tobacco, fossil fuel, and weapons industries.
In total, as of September 2017, the College was investing £3.5 million in the tobacco industry – indirectly, through investment portfolios – nearly £9 million in the fossil fuel industry, and £3.1 million in the arms industry. A number of these investments were direct investments, including £1.5 million in Royal Dutch Shell, the 7th largest producer of oil and gas worldwide, who had previously been accused of collaborating with the Nigerian government in the torture and execution of activists, as well as crimes against humanity.
Imperial also had £650,000 in Philip Morris, £400,000 in Imperial Brands, and over £370,000 indirectly invested in Reynolds American, some of the largest tobacco companies in the world. These investments were made through investment funds, some of which the College had been investing in since at least 2013. Imperial currently has 29 research groups working on cancer prevention, detection, and treatment.
Rhidian Thomas, Imperial College Union’s Ethics and Environment Officer, told Felix: “I’d like to congratulate Imperial on succeeding in bringing together a comprehensive selection of some of the most ethically dubious companies around, all in one portfolio. It’s staggering that anyone in College thinks it appropriate for a university – a charity even – to give so much money to the arms and extraction industries. Even College’s commitment to avoid investing in tobacco seems paper-thin, now that it’s clear that it has millions invested in it through third-party funds; so much for ‘smoke-free Imperial’.” – FF
While the majority of Imperial employees are experiencing real-term pay cuts, senior staff are collectively pocketing more than their counterparts at any other Russell Group university.
In 2017, the College spent £5.6 million on the salaries of 20 ‘key management personnel’. This translates to an average pay packet of £280,000 each – an 8% rise on the previous year’s figures. 410 members of staff are paid more than £100,000.
Imperial president Alice Gast has the second highest salary of Russell Group vice-chancellors and is paid £433,000 (beaten only by the University of Birmingham’s David Eastwood, who takes home £439,000). On top of her salary, Professor Gast claimed nearly £44,000 in expenses – more than the median Imperial salary.
The figure is also substantially greater than the average Russell Group vice-chancellor expenses claim, which is under £10,000. The majority of Professor Gast’s claims were for international travel, with the remainder split between taxis, gifts, and hospitality. – JW
As exam season kicked in, Felix revealed the huge pressures the College Counselling Service is being put under. The number of students registering for counselling has increased by over 80% since 2012⁄13, while the sessions on offer have been unable to keep up. The result is a waiting time which now stands at seven weeks on average, with some students reporting waiting up to 15 weeks.
The Counselling Service currently employs about seven full time equivalents to serve a student body of 18,000. Rosie Summerhayes, head of the Counselling Service, told Felix their budget had been frozen for the past two years, despite the College making nearly £120 million in surplus last year.
The increased wait times have had a knock-on impact on student-facing staff members, who are now having to spend more time than they usually would speaking to students who are finding things difficult.
Professor Simone Buitendijk, Vice-Provost (Education), told Felix: “Our investment in student counselling will be increased significantly in the next financial year.” – FF
The Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (TEF) has undergone significant changes in its third year (not least its rebranding). Imperial still holds a Gold award but this is not directly comparable to the ratings issued in this year’s iteration of the TEF.
Three new metrics have been introduced alongside the original student satisfaction (from National Student Survey data), number of students completing their course (rather than the number of students dropping out), and graduate outcomes six months after leaving university. These now form an “initial hypothesis” which assessors modify by considering supplementary metrics as part of a “holistic judgment”. To further complicate matters, a flag system has been introduced. The TEF is now simultaneously so complicated that assessors without a background in advanced data handling require extra training, yet “simple and easy for students to understand”.
Trials are also underway for subject-level ratings, which are designed to account for varying quality within universities. Documents released by the Department for Education state subject-level TEF awards will provide students with “more granular and informative information”.
While these changes help to allay some concerns raised by critics over the years, there are still worries that the TEF will be used to increase tuition fees.
Last year prime minister Theresa May announced fees would be frozen at current levels until 2019, putting the kibosh on plans for gold and silver-rated universities to be able to increase tuition fees in line with inflation. Since then, education secretary Damian Hinds has suggested universities charge different fees to reflect each subject’s value to society. Subject-level TEF awards may well facilitate this. – JW