The Bookseller reports on a merger between Cambridge University Press and Cambridge Assessment (what we used to call the Local Examinations Syndicate). I was surprised to learn that together they have about 6,000 employees worldwide more or less evenly divided between the two organizations. The  University Press publishes books and journals; Cambridge Assessment provides examination papers and education assessment training. The Press site already includes the announcement of this merger.

The Press Release announcing the get-together advances this manifestly spurious reason for the change: “The move is in response to a growing desire from learners, teachers and researchers to engage with Cambridge in a joined up digital way, and the demand for innovative products that combine expertise in learning and assessment.” If you know any learners, teachers and researchers yearning for Cambridge books and Cambridge exam papers to come from the same source, I’d be interested to see the evidence. Maybe I’m just too uninformed: after all, Chief Executive of the Press, Peter Phillips, assures us our customers already see us simply as Cambridge, so joining the two organisations is a natural next step that is given added impetus by the rapid changes we are seeing in education and research.”  

Does this mean that the combined organization will be getting into punt hire, pub ownership, and the other essentials of university education? I certainly see having a pint at The Mill after a punting outing as part of the Cambridge experience!

I wonder if there is any potential problem with a single company supplying both national examination papers and the textbooks you need to buy for success in these exams? Dismiss such silly concerns: nobody from Cambridge would ever be anything other that utterly honest and upstanding!

“The need for an integrated approach has been accelerated by the rapid uptake of digital education during the COVID-19 pandemic.” For myself I think that if there’s any real value in that claim it is just because it makes a handy excuse disguising the desire and perhaps need of the University to achieve efficiencies (money savings). Tragically we are living in a world where the winning argument in any discussion of the value of education and culture is always and only money. You know the number 6,000 will be somewhat smaller in a couple of years.

Now a few days later comes an announcement of an internal restructuring of Cambridge University Press. “The Press is looking to restructure its Academic division in response to changing markets, with the number of roles at risk unconfirmed but in excess of 20. The publisher said it hopes to achieve the restructure through voluntary redundancies and by not replacing colleagues who leave. Meanwhile, subject to consultation, a ‘small number’ of roles are also at risk of redundancy in one of its Technology teams.” It is claimed that this development is unrelated to the merger with Cambridge Assessment — As it may well be: one might see schoolbook publishing rather than Academic being affected by arrival of the exam papers. Schoolbook publishing might logically be separated off from the whole as a separate free-standing operation in combination with Assessment. The Academic division — what you and I think of when we think of university presses — one would have thought might be doing OK during the pandemic: after all people have been able to figure out ways to get hold of books. They are however obviously being heavily affected by the move towards digital and open access, and this might reasonably be expected to lead to staff realignment.

The Union (delighted to see we still have a union) is quoted:Keith Sands, Unite branch chair at Cambridge University Press, said in a media statement: ‘We are already in collective redundancy consultations relating to two areas of the business. The news of the Press and Assessment merger comes on top of this, and has created more anxiety for staff. It looks very likely we will see redundancies on top of those we are already seeing. It is disappointing that the management of the press is choosing to push ahead with redundancies while also imposing a disputed pay freeze, and at the same time continuing to pay out high bonuses to selected staff, as we saw this summer. We believe that secure pay and job security should always be a higher priority than bonuses.'” A spokesperson for the Press says: “Some colleagues received a higher bonus for delivering truly exceptional sales that were crucial in helping us to weather the pandemic and so protect jobs.” Nice to get a bonus of course, but bonuses to some must always be of ambiguous justification at a time of redundancies elsewhere in the company.

One is perhaps a bit too readily inclined to greet news like this with wringing of hands. There can, after all, be no organization which can survive without continual change. At the Press’ London office we used to sell the Local Examination Syndicate exam papers: actually publishing them doesn’t seem like too radical a step beyond that. If indeed there really are “synergies” available from the increasing migration of education online, then this could be “a good thing”. The main concern would be any potential damage to the Press’ central traditional mission, of making available scholarship to the widest possible audience. One hopes that the timing of the announcement of changes in the Academic division may be no more that a coincidence.

Good luck to all worried workers.