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In the news 5 July 2019

5 July 2019

71% of university staff say insecure contracts have damaged their mental health

Staff in UK universities working on insecure contracts say the lack of security is damaging their mental and physical health. A UCU report released yesterday said staff are holding down multiple jobs and struggling to pay the bills.

Times Higher Education reported how the hourly rate of pay for part-time academics was radically lower than their on-paper salary and was, in many cases, almost minimum wage. It also warned that the widespread use of casual contracts is damaging the quality of research and the education students receive.

Writing anonymously for Times Higher Education, one respondent says the report paints "a grim, but accurate, picture of life on casual contracts. Respondents talk about the difficulties of trying to make ends meet, hours of unpaid work, a lack of facilities and the impact that this is having on their health and students' education". However, they add that it is difficult to portray the absolute chaos of struggling on casual contracts and sets out some of the bureaucratic nightmares they have encountered. 


Protests at the University of Cambridge open days over teacher exploitation and gender pay gap

The Guardian said the report found that many casual staff are being forced to do multiple jobs just to survive. It said some survey respondents said they had off long-term plans and warns casual contracts are also having a detrimental impact on research and the education students receive.

The paper highlighted protests at open days yesterday where students and parents were met by protestors keen to lift the lid on the exploitative use of students and hourly-paid staff to deliver teaching at the University of Cambridge.

Local UCU rep Jenny Marchant said: 'We haven't taken the decision to protest at the open days lightly, but the university needs to understand that a true world-class institution respects its staff. Cambridge prides itself on its unique model of teaching based on one-to-one or small group supervisions and the way this model has been developed has led to the exploitation of staff.'

Writing for the Guardian, Sandra Cortijo, a postdoctoral researcher at Cambridge and the local UCU branch anti-casualisation officer, said graduate students are the freelancers of the university system. She warned how they are often forced into exploitative teaching arrangements because they need experience to continue as academics. 


Universities on strike warnings as UCU announces pay and pension ballots

Universities will be hit with industrial action later this year if they do not make a decent pay offer to staff and secure pensions for members of the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), UCU has warned.

Times Higher Education reported that UCU members will be balloted over pay in about 140 universities and over USS pensions in 69 institutions. The ballots will run from Monday 9 September to Wednesday 30 October and the union's HEC will meet to consider the results on Friday 1 November. The ballots will be disaggregated so each institution will be polled separately.

Speaking to the Financial Times, UCU head of higher education Paul Bridge said: 'Pay has been held down for too long and USS members are running out of patience. Every day seems to bring some new damning revelation about USS. Their response has been wholly inadequate, as has that of Universities UK.'


Choirs, DJs and Bake Off at Nottingham College strike

On Monday UCU members at Nottingham College walked out as part of a row over plans to impose new contracts. As well as staffing picket lines, UCU members hosted a bake off as part of their "Festival of Yearning" which featured DJs and a picket line performance from the Nottingham Clarion Choir.

The dispute centres on the college's proposal to dismiss anyone refusing to sign up to new contracts. The plans would leave over 80 staff more than £1,000 worse off. The contracts would see all staff lose up to eight days' holiday and cuts to sick pay. Staff at the college have not received a pay rise since 2010.

Speaking to Union News, UCU head of further education Andrew Harden said: 'Staff at Nottingham College are rightly outraged by this attack on their pay and working conditions. Strike action is always a last resort, but the college has repeatedly refused to address members' concerns so UCU members feel that they have been left with no choice.'


Three-day walkout at Bradford College over pay and jobs

UCU members are on strike today at Bradford College in a row over pay and jobs. This latest action is part of a three-day walk out that began on Wednesday and is their tenth strike day this academic year. The college wants to axe 131 jobs in a bid to save money, but UCU said that the loss of valuable expertise would result in fewer opportunities for local people.

Speaking to Tes, UCU regional official Julie Kelley said: 'UCU members have made it clear that they are not prepared to pay the price for previous failings by the college. Strike action is a last resort, but staff at Bradford face attacks on their jobs and real-terms pay cuts and they say enough is enough.

She told the Bradford Telegraph and Argus that other colleges had shown what could be achieved when they engage seriously with UCU on pay and jobs. She said that if Bradford wanted to avoid serious disruption then it needed to urgently work with the union to address the concerns of its staff.


Protests in Stourbridge as students say they can't afford to travel elsewhere if college shuts

Hundreds of people took to the streets of Stourbridge to protest against plans to close the college closure this summer, with almost 1,000 students due to transfer to Dudley and Halesowen colleges from September.

UCU said the decision would be a huge blow to the community and mean an end to vocational education in Stourbridge.  Last month, over 300 people attended a public meeting to discuss the announcement.

This week, Tes reported that the majority of students at Stourbridge College say they won't attend Dudley College of Technology or Halesowen College in September. According to a survey of 100 by UCU, more than three-fifths are deterred from studying at Dudley or Halesowen by extra travel time and cost.


"Disgraced" former vice-chancellor handed £270,000 pay off

It was revealed this week that the former vice-chancellor of De Montfort University, Dominic Shellard, received a £270,000 pay off. Shellard left in bizarre circumstances in February when the university refused to confirm or deny if he was in charge for days. It finally said he had gone as the Office for Students launched an investigation at the institution.

The Guardian said that investigation found "significant and systemic" failings in governance. De Montfort had used exemptions to avoid answering questions from UCU on the vice-chancellor's expenses when Shellard's salary shot up by £64,000 (22%) from £286,000 in 2016/17 to £350,000 in 2017/18.

UCU acting general secretary Paul Cottrell told the BBC the payment was "astounding". The Times said UCU wanted greater openness over pay and perks in higher education and for staff and students to be given seats on the governing body. Paul told the Telegraph, who labelled Shellard a "disgraced former vice-chancellor", that universities "could not continue to plead poverty on staff pay while rewarding their leaders so handsomely and with so little scrutiny".


UCU tells MPs' committee that prison education needs more funding

On Tuesday, Paul Cottrell appeared in front of the Justice Select Committee to discuss the impact of changes to prison governance on education. During the session Paul raised major concerns about new one-year contracts for some prison education provision, saying they increased complexity, made provision less stable and posed a risk to the quality of prison education. He also said the short-term nature of the contracts suggested that some types of education were less important, but reinforced the point that all types of prison education have an important role in rehabilitating offenders.

Paul also highlighted threats to the safety of prison education staff, citing recent research by UCU and other unions which showed shocking levels of violence against staff in prisons. He said the new commissioning arrangements for prison education made it harder to challenge prison governors over health and safety issues. He called for longer, more stable contracts and more investment in both prison education and the wider prison regime to address these concerns.


Universities' success is built on the goodwill of staff

Times Higher Education reported this week that the overall satisfaction of students with higher education in the UK has risen slightly but a number of universities have seen large falls in their ratings, according to latest findings of the National Student Survey.

Responding to the survey, Paul Cottrell said: 'While the National Student Survey has many flaws, the findings do clearly show that staff are continuing to deliver for students in higher education across the UK. However, the reality is that much of this success is built on the goodwill of staff who are increasingly fed up with repeated attacks on their pay and pensions, as well as a failure to address the endemic job insecurity which plagues the sector.

Last updated: 16 March 2021