Thousands of staff made redundant as UK universities struggle to cope with pandemic fallout

By Nicole Wootton-Cane• Last updated: Nov 8, 2023
Thousands of staff made redundant as UK universities struggle to cope with pandemic fallout
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Over 3,000 employees at UK universities were made redundant during the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic, according to an Edvoy investigation.

Information obtained through a series of Freedom of Information (FOI) requests shows that UK higher education institutions laid off thousands of staff, many of whom were on Fixed Term Contracts (FTCs) between 1 March and 20 September 2020.

The cuts come after forecasts of huge losses for UK universities due to coronavirus. Many UK institutions are heavily reliant on international student fees, which were expected to fall dramatically due to travel restrictions and high rate of COVID-19 in the UK. 

However, in September, the University and College Admissions Service (UCAS) actually reported a nine percent increase in undergraduate students from outside the UK and EU starting courses in the UK this autumn - a figure that suggests universities may have overestimated the severity of their COVID-related losses.

Earlier this year, The Guardian reported that hundreds of university staff on FTCs had been dismissed by their employers in an effort to cut costs due to the pandemic - it now appears that the real number is in the thousands. 

“More than 100,000 teaching staff still lack the security of permanent employment, and these losses expose the severe injustice of short term contracts.”

According to the University and College Union (UCU) more than 50% of university staff are employed on short term contracts, which provide little job security. 

UCU general secretary Jo Grady called the figures “incredibly worrying,” and said that “universities should not use the public health crisis to cut jobs.”

“We have been warning for months that universities have been treating staff on casualised contracts as disposable when they should be keeping them on the books throughout the pandemic. 

“UCU’s campaigning against the use of casualised contracts was central to our four fights dispute this year. More than 100,000 teaching staff still lack the security of permanent employment, and these losses expose the severe injustice of short term contracts.”

Universities with the highest number of redundancies

University of Manchester528
University of Sheffield424
University of Oxford416
University of Cambridge 267
University of Leicester162
University of York125
University of Glasgow115
Imperial College London 97
Cardiff University85
University of East Anglia76


The University of Manchester made 528 redundancies - the highest number of any university in the country, although it is also one of the largest single-site universities in the UK, employing around 12,000 people. 

A spokesperson for the University said that all redundancies were either end of FTCs or taken through a voluntary severance scheme. UCU data shows that approximately 523 cases were through voluntary severance. 

However David Swanson, President of the University of Manchester branch of the UCU (UMUCU), pointed out that the voluntary severance scheme was implemented at a time when UoM were anxious about large losses of student numbers - a fear that has not necessarily played out the way universities expected. 

“UoM were working to a model of huge losses of student numbers throughout the summer, even as it was becoming more and more clear that wasn't happening,” Swanson said.

“We're now in a situation where we need more teaching and support staff not less, not least to cope with the difficulties covid has brought. Our workload situation was already dire and this has made it even worse.”

The University of Manchester has also recently come under fire for spending £11,000 on fencing around student accommodation that was torn down by students during protests over their treatment during the pandemic - an incident that the University is investigating. When asked if the University felt that the fencing was an appropriate use of money given the high number of staff members made redundant since March, they refused to issue any further comment. 

Swanson said: “It is one of a catalogue of errors our management have made throughout this pandemic, with the recent fencing and alleged racial profiling of students being the most most egregious and shameful. 

“Too many decisions are made without listening to staff, unions or students. Balance sheets and the competition between universities seems to drive everything, and the human and educational cost of those wrong decisions just isn't considered.

“Manchester has shown that the current HE model is broken and needs to change.”

The FOI data also shows that over 36,000 staff members were furloughed from UK universities during the first wave of the pandemic, highlighting the effect that coronavirus has had on the everyday functioning of institutions. 

Universities with the highest number of furloughed employees

University of Manchester2,398
King’s College London1,922
University of Glasgow1,881
University of Nottingham1,601
University of Warwick1,392
University of Oxford 1,360
University of Cambridge1,193
University of Leeds <1,159
Durham University1,014
Cranfield University 988

Furloughed staff ranged from those in academic departments and schools to cleaners, building maintenance, catering staff, administrative services, library staff, and staff employed in sport and leisure facilities. 

The vast number of staff furloughed demonstrates the ways in which UK universities have had to adapt to the coronavirus pandemic, including closing sports grounds and facilities, limiting student access to libraries and on-campus spaces, and moving a large amount of teaching online. 

Universities that provide extensive accommodation and catering services for students, such as Durham University, therefore made significant use of the furlough scheme. 

Durham University furloughed over 1,000 staff members, many of whom worked as operational staff in the University’s Colleges and could not undertake their roles from home, especially when a large proportion of students left Durham during the first wave of the pandemic. 

Joanne Race, Director of Human Resources & Organisation Development at Durham University said that the decision to furlough so many staff members was taken in consultation with Trade Unions and “was not taken lightly”. 

“Earlier this year, we considered how best to protect our staff and the University and decided to engage with the Government’s Temporary Job Retention Scheme, in accordance with Government Guidance. 

“Staff put on furlough were brought back to work as quickly as possible and allocated to roles across the University where there was most need for support.”

The University of Manchester - which is one of the largest employers in the city - furloughed 2,398 staff members, or approximately one fifth of its workforce. These staff members came from a huge variety of departments, including academic schools, catering services, and the Directorate for the Student Experience. 

The extent of furloughs at the University is evident of how universities play key roles in the economic and social fabric of their cities and communities - and how the changes that COVID has forced threatens this. 

There has been a real effort by universities to support their furloughed staff - the University of Manchester said that they topped up the 80% payment covered by the government under the furlough scheme to 100%, and intended to continue to do so.

However, those who work in the sector still have doubts about the future that staff face in the sector. Speaking to Edvoy about the future of higher education in the UK, Dr Grady said: “The government needs to work with universities to make sure those who have lost their jobs can be reinstated and furloughed. 

“Universities must stop mistreating casual staff, and ministers and vice-chancellors need to work together to end the rampant use of casualisation."

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