Open Letter from the Campus Trade Unions to the Chair of Council 10.06.24

Dear Mr Geffen,

We, the undersigned, are members of the University of Surrey community, and are writing to you in respect of your role as Chair of Council, in which you hold a key role as a governor of our academic institution.

We are well aware of the challenges facing the Higher Education sector, and that there are a number of institutions having to make cuts to save money. Our concerns regarding the financial situation at the University of Surrey, however, extend beyond this general situation.

Our concerns are focussed on a series of expensive (and it turns out, unaffordable) projects in the lead-up to the ‘Financial Resilience Programme’ – projects such as £10M+ on the Surrey Future Fellows Scheme; a loan of £20M to purchase a building which remains largely unused; a rebranding exercise, and exorbitant Executive Board expenses claims, well above sector averages. There are examples of many projects costing tens of millions of pounds. Surrey’s rate of borrowing against income has been one of the highest in the sector, with debt amounting to approx £300M. We note that the Financial Resilience Programme was preceded by the sudden departure of the University’s Chief Finance Officer and Chief Operating Officer in 2023, with very little explanation to the University community for the reasons behind this.

A deep analysis of the University’s financial situation by a sector analyst on behalf of the UCU, indicates that the dwindling levels of cash reserves places the institution in a vulnerable position in terms of ‘liquidity days’: we are amongst the lowest in the sector. Clearly, the executive board (EB), with Council’s agreement, has ‘maxed out’ the University’s lines of credit resulting in the coercion of scores of colleagues to leave Surrey in order to balance the books. In addition to the 140 or so that are leaving over the summer, there are dozens of unfilled posts that were previously frozen, which will put a huge strain on the colleagues that remain. We note that this situation has arisen despite many of the financial challenges affecting the sector being entirely foreseeable.

The Minutes of Council meetings are devoid of any explanation about the background to why these financial decisions were approved – in some cases, redacted to the point of being meaningless. There remains a lack of transparency on what further spending is planned for the future, and a “Phase 3” of restructuring has not been ruled out. If Council and EB are confident of the quality and probity of their governance decisions then why not publish them for all to see?

The University Council’s Terms of Reference make clear its responsibilities in terms of finances, administration, property and management and general control over the affairs of the University. Indeed a consistent line from senior managers and EB members has been that their unpopular decisions are based on being instructed by Council. We are therefore keen to hear more from you about the background to Council’s rationale for approving the financial decisions that have led up to the current desperate measures being undertaken. We are also keen to hear your strategy for leading Council through the difficult times that will result from these decisions.

You will have seen that a large number of staff and students have taken part in a ‘vote of no confidence’ against the Vice Chancellor, Provost and Executive Board, where the outcome was 97% no confidence. This is only five years after the last Vote of No Confidence – the University is pursuing a pattern of debt and large-scale staff loss, causing huge internal damage.

Given the responsibilities of Council and the current state of the University, we close by extending an invitation for you to an open staff meeting, hosted by the three recognised Trade Unions to discuss the matters outlined above, to report back on how money has been spent, and what has been achieved by these projects.

Yours sincerely,

UCU, Unite, and Unison Committees