In the news 15 March 2019

15 March 2019

Ten colleges face strike action in third wave of walkouts

Tes has reported that UCU members at 10 English colleges will be taking three days' strike action next week in the fight for fair pay and conditions. Members at West Thames College will kick things off with a three-day walkout that begins on Monday.

Colleagues at Bath College, Bradford College, Bridgwater & Taunton College, City of Wolverhampton College, Croydon College, Harlow College, New College Swindon, Petroc in Devon and South Bank College (previously Lambeth College) will then walk out from Wednesday to Friday.

The strikes are part of a third wave of action after UCU members at six colleges took action in November and staff at 12 colleges walked out at the end of January. The dispute centres on the failure of college bosses to make a decent pay offer to staff or address key issues such as excessive workloads.

UCU said that strike action was always a last resort for staff and that colleges who wished to avoid disruption should follow the likes of Capital City College Group and Hugh Baird College who recently agreed deals for their staff to address low pay and improve conditions.

UCU head of further education Andrew Harden said: 'Colleges who don't try and hide behind government failings, but instead engage with us on the pay and conditions of their staff will receive a positive hearing. Colleges who give nothing when they could work with us to solve these problems should expect to reap what they sow.'


UCU calls for chancellor's period poverty plan to be extended to universities

On Wednesday UCU said the government should extend its promise to provide free sanitary products in schools and colleges to universities, as is the case in Scotland.

UCU acting general secretary Paul Cottrell told FE Week: 'Having a period should not be a barrier to education and we welcome the chancellor's promise to provide free sanitary products in schools and colleges. Ensuring that sanitary products are available to all students will enable women and girls facing real hardship to be able to attend their classes in comfort and dignity.'

Tes highlighted that UCU's Newcastle College recently won a campaign to have free sanitary products provided by the college at all its campuses from the start of the summer term. The UCU branch had originally started its own drive to end period poverty at the college in October. Union members brought in sanitary products to be handed out by student mentors and encouraged staff to donate products to support the campaign.


Questions over universities' efforts to "game the system" ahead of Ref

The Research Framework Exercise (Ref) was under attack again this week after Times Higher Education reported that a number of UK universities appear to have made significant shifts towards classing many more academics as "teaching only".

It analysed data released by the Higher Education Statistics Agency and found that about a fifth of institutions have increased the share of full-time teaching-only academics by five percentage points or more since 2015. Twelve universities now class at least a quarter of full-time academics in such terms. Overall, 12.3% of full-time academics were classed as teaching only in 2017-18, up from 9.6% in 2014-15.

A UCU spokesperson said the figures raised serious questions about the potential for universities to "game the system". Taken alongside the recent decision by research funders to allow universities to submit the work of staff who had been made redundant, it was no surprise that staff have "little confidence in the REF", the spokesperson said.


UCU members at University of Liverpool being balloted over Ref strike

As well as further complaints about universities attempt to game the system when it comes to the Ref, UCU members at the University of Liverpool are being balloted for strike action over "unrealistic" research targets that the union warns could lead to job losses. The ballot closes on Friday 5 April.

UCU says the university has raised the bar for expected research performance to "unreasonable" levels that will force some early career staff out of the university. A spokesperson told Times Higher Education that several junior academics have been informed that they will not pass their probation unless they publish, every 18 months on average, a paper that is judged in internal assessments to be likely to be scored as "internationally excellent", equivalent to a 3* rating in the Ref.

Negotiations with the university have broken down and the spokesperson warned: 'These are unreasonable expectations, and our members are fully prepared to take action to protect jobs.'


Real cost of scrapping maintenance grants for university students

The true impact of axing maintenance grants is laid bare in the Guardian today. An anonymous academic says that scrapping the grant, which gave the poorest students up to £3,387 per year until 2016, means they now take on the biggest loans - and incur the biggest debts when they eventually graduate.

The academic says many of their students work full-time hours alongside their studies and accept that they cannot do as well as they would like at university because of their paid work. They say some students fall asleep or are late to class after coming in from a night shift.

She says the problem of cost and debt means too many students choose their university based on whether they can live at home, or the cheaper cost of living, rather than course suitability. They make the point that Oxbridge is a pipe dream for bright students from disadvantaged backgrounds as they are not allowed to undertake paid work alongside their studies.


Protests at University of Winchester over bungled job cuts

The University of Winchester was forced to apologise this week after it sent an email with information about job losses that mistakenly revealed the identity of all those at risk of redundancy.

One member of staff who received the email told Times Higher Education that the revelation about who was at risk revealed a "scattergun approach" from the university which they described as "terribly unsettling, as this might only be the first of several waves" and that morale was "really low."

The Daily Echo said the university has confirmed it is looking to reduce between 30 and 40 full-time equivalent posts, a move that prompted a student protest at the institution yesterday. Speaking to the paper, UCU regional official Moray McAulay said: 'We welcome the support of students who will undoubtedly be affected by job losses as staff working conditions are students' learning conditions. The university needs to work with us to properly explore alternative options and not make any knee-jerk cuts."


University of Leeds pulls "exploitative" job ad

UCU says that a controversial job advert that was pulled after an online backlash has shone a spotlight on employment practices that many scholars view as exploitative of early career researchers.

The University of Leeds sought candidates for a part-time research assistant to a professor on a five-month, fixed-term contract, asking for applicants who were "interested in developing [their] professional-academic skills".

Times Higher Education said the advert also listed duties including providing practical support, updating the professor's personal website, handling photocopying, printing and other document-related tasks as needed and undertaking occasional bits of supplementary research under the professor's guidance.

Leeds UCU president Vicky Blake said she was "dismayed a job ad like that could ever see the light of day". She said: 'This underlines the ongoing and wider issues of rampant casualisation in the university sector, which we are pushing hard to address at Leeds. Universities should be beacons of ethical employment practice rather than exploitative casualisation.'


Warnings over Welsh universities' finances

There were stark warnings about the long term sustainability of Wales' universities in a report out yesterday from the Higher Education Funding Council Wales. The report lists financial uncertainty, Brexit, global competition for students and pension payments among the issues facing the eight universities.

Wales Online says a multi-million pound gap in deficit and surplus over two financial years is laid bare in the report and that the figures are likely to have got worse since then. It says Cardiff University has already forecast an operating deficit of £21m in 2017-18 compared to a deficit of £8.7m listed in HEFCW's report for 2016-17

Cardiff UCU's Andy Williams said: 'These figures just confirm our current campaigning priorities. Cardiff University and others are spending and borrowing too much, in large part to fund flashy capital expenditure projects and bloated executive pay. To balance the books, they then cut jobs and downgrade our pensions.'

Last updated: 15 March 2019