Saving Our Vaughan Centre

A few months ago the Leicester Mercury (June 8) reported that the senior leadership team at the University of Leicester were “proposing to close the Vaughan Centre for Lifelong Learning.” The article pointed out that redundancy notices had been issued to staff and that “a 90 day consultation period is now underway.” This decision was firmly opposed by the local branch of the University and College Union (UCU) who observed:

“While a deficit is cited as reason for the proposed closure, it had been made clear that the decision to close the Vaughan Centre is driven by the university strategic plan and that the projected deficit for 2016/17 has merely brought the decision forward. The trade unions have not been given the opportunity to challenge the rationale for choosing this particular group of staff for redundancy.”

On June 15, Rob Greenhill, Mature and Part-Time Students’ Officer for the University of Leicester Students’ Union stated:

“The Vaughan Centre for Lifelong Learning is the University of Leicester’s ‘Department of Second Chances’ for those for whom the conventional route was, for whatever reason, not an option. It is the standard-bearer of a proud tradition of adult education in this city that stretches back over 150 years. Thousands of students have benefitted from the outstanding professionalism and commitment of VCLL staff over the years…

“A campaign to save Vaughan and oppose this closure has grown rapidly since the official announcement was made… Numerous contacts have been made with print and broadcast media, as well as councillors, the Mayor of Leicester and local MPs. Jon Ashworth and Liz Kendall were both quick to offer support. There is more to come, and I intend to be in the thick of it. It is easy to offer words of solidarity, but actions are likely to prove more useful. For the remaining weeks of my tenure this campaign is my top priority, and I am proud to give my unqualified support…”

Soon after, the committees of the Leicester UCU, Unison and Unite published a joint letter in the Mercury (June 21) which concluded:

“We believe that the proposed closure of the Vaughan Centre will cause irreversible damage to the University of Leicester’s reputation and we call on the University to suspend this action, and enter into meaningful discussions with staff, students, unions and the wider community in addition to the existing consultation with staff and unions being undertaken in the context of the re-organisation process.”

Then, two days on, the Mercury (June 23) reported how Vaughan Centre student, Sally Birch, had set-up an online petition opposing the closure (which now has over 2,800 signatories). The Mercury reported how Sally…

“…disputed the university’s claim that the centre is running at a loss. She said: ‘Figures show that the profits were up 24 per cent last year. Officially the students haven’t been given a direct reason for this closure. We haven’t been consulted, we haven’t been invited in for a meeting.’ She called it a ‘catastrophic mistake’ and added: ‘The university is quite simply denying a whole sector of people the right to become educated.’”

The following month the growing campaign to oppose the closure of the Centre organised a well-attended lobby of the Leicester City Council’s regular meeting (attended by over 100 people), and subsequently the full council unanimously voted to support a motion that explained:

“The University of Leicester is consulting on a proposal to close the Vaughan Centre for Lifelong Learning. Having moved this provision from the Vaughan College building back in 2013, the University gave public assurances that the future of Adult Education in the ‘Vaughan’ tradition would be protected… The Council calls on the University of Leicester to withdraw its proposals to close the Vaughan Centre and to engage in an open and transparent discussion about how we can all work together to protect adult education in the city and local region”.

Education lobby July 14 2016

On August 8, the Leicester UCU Finance Action Group published their own critical analysis of the illegitimacy of the financial figures being used by management to justify the closure of Vaughan Centre. Their brief report, titled “Crisis – What Financial Crisis?,” described how:

“The senior management of the University has manufactured a ‘financial crisis’ in order to force through its process of ‘institutional transformation’, involving at least 150 compulsory redundancies, including the wholesale closure of the Vaughan Centre for Lifelong Learning and other units.”

The report added that the University’s senior management were “using the pretext of a relatively small predicted financial deficit in 2016/17” to make the cuts. On the same day, Sally Birch  published an update on her blog (https://savevaughan.wordpress.com/), which, following a number of Freedom of Information Requests that were sent to the University, revealed that

“…the student fees cover the cost of the academic, teaching and support staff in the Vaughan Centre, not only this but they have returned over £200K to the university in each of the last three years, going in an upward trend to £280K for the last complete financial year.  Right, so where is this ‘unsustainable deficit’?”

This blog post was then picked up by the Leicester Mercury (August 12), and as one Labour city councillor explained in the Mercury:

“Vaughan was meant to be moved on to the main campus and it never was. They’ve put them in a property on Regent Road and charge as if the students were full time and using all the facilities of the campus. They could easily house Vaughan on the main site and let them use the lecture theatres. They have run down the service and taken away profitable courses and included them in mainstream departments. It’s been a systematic strategy to make Vaughan appear unsustainable.”

A similar argument was made by Vaughan Centre’s Director of Studies, Professor Sue Wheeler, who wrote:

“The Centre does make a profit but this is not enough to cover the amount the University demands from departments as the contribution towards buildings maintenance and university services (the full economic costing). If the Centre is closed down these costs will still need to be covered by other departments so no money is saved. However, the cost to lifelong learners in the region will be unmeasureable and the students are devastated by the proposal. Lifelong learning reaches those who have had no access to higher education before, offering them chances they often thought they’d never have. While it provides opportunities for career development, which is important, for many the most significant benefits are that lifelong learning gives a sense of personal satisfaction and self-worth. Confidence-building becomes empowerment and permeates into all areas of our students’ lives.”

Later, Sally posted another impassioned post titled “Elite but very Elitist – The University of Leicester fails to Listen to the city, as adult learners face the chop.” Sally explained:

“I thought coming to university would be such an enriching experience and the learning side of my study so far has been, but the way the University of Leicester is treating me at the moment is the worst I have been treated in my whole life. Never before have had I felt sexually discriminated, never before have I felt age discriminated, never before have I been made to feel so worthless, and that I have questioned my own abilities. The sad fact is, I’m not alone, and all of the people on my course feel the same. I have spoken personally with senior university staff members, after pursuing a meeting for over a month, but still I have no answers. Still no real reason for the closure of Vaughan.

“With the full backing of the Leicester city council with the full backing from the three Leicester MP’s, with the show of public support, with the visual campaign and nonstop battle on my part and my fellow campaigners can the university of Leicester not see how important this is? Can they stop stonewalling this campaign and can they speak openly to the public to the council and to the students?”

Sally then went on to observe that although she lived in Knighton, only a stone’s throw from the “historic hunting lodge” of the Vice Chancellor of the University, Professor Paul Boyle, “I think the connection in proximity is where our similarities end.”

“I am the working class, he is the upper class, I am trying to fight for my right to education, whilst he has the power to allow my education to continue and the ability to make higher university education available to working class adults who need to study part time in the evening. Is it me or are there parallels to a time gone by? I know that Vaughan centre has existed for 150 years, but for me to be made to feel like a lower class citizen begging for the lord of the manner to grant me an education, surely this isn’t on the University of Leicester’s manifesto?”

But the University bosses arrogant stonewalling of the public, politicians, staff, unions, and students continues. This has led to the Leicester UCU launching a petition calling for a vote of no confidence in the Vice Chancellor and the University senior leadership team, which notes:

“[W]e the undersigned no longer have confidence in the president and vice-chancellor of University of Leicester, Paul Boyle, and demand that he withdraw the threat of compulsory redundancies.”

To date the online statement has been signed by over 500 people, and some of the comments left alongside the petition demonstrate that a lot will need to be done for the University bosses to regain the trust of their employees and the local community. For example, Dr Adrian Chadwick writes:

“Universities should have a commitment to pedagogy and research, and working with and within their local communities, not discouraging learning through closing the Vaughan Centre and the bookshop, and sacking hard-working staff whilst at the same spending money on unnecessary ‘vanity’ projects such as the new concourse/plaza.”

Another staff member, Dr Sarah Tarlow, points out how: “Levels of trust are lower than I’ve known them in the 16 years I have been a member of the university.”  Or as Dr Jodie Hannis puts it:

“These proposed cuts and closures are undemocratic and fundamentally unfair. I cannot fathom how senior managers taking 6 figure salaries can have the audacity to push through such changes. Yet again, the privileged remain untouched by hardship while the disenfranchised and ‘uneducated’ are asked to pay. Immoral in every possible way.”

To get a better gauge on the icy-cold-stonewalling approach adopted by the bosses at the University, you could do well to listen to the recent radio debate between the University’s Director of Finance, Martyn Riddleston, and UCU rep Dr Jo Grady (BBC Radio Leicester, August 17). Martyn simply stuck to the University managements’ same old message and repeated three times, like a broken record, that “we are part-way through the consultation” and that nothing had been finalised — despite all the evidence pointing to the contrary. Of course, repeating another tired old management-line, Martyn also accused the unions and campaigners of acting in an underhand manner and misrepresenting the facts. But at the end of the day, Dr Grady made her points succinctly by stating that there hadn’t been any consultation only “legal compliance,” which was all driven by the fact that “the university is chasing a surplus.”

 

For further details about the Campaign to save the Vaughan Centre follow this facebook group: https://www.facebook.com/savevaughan/

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