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In the news 13 September 2019

13 September 2019

University strike ballots open

Strike ballots opened at UK universities on Monday in rows over USS pensions and pay, workloads, casualisation and equality. The pay, workloads, casualisation and equality ballot is running at 147 institutions and UCU members at 69 of those universities will also receive a ballot for strike action over proposed changes to USS pensions.

At a meeting of the USS Joint Negotiating Committee (JNC) in August, the universities' proposals - that will see members pay 9.6% of their salary into their USS pension, compared to 8.8% at present and 8% before the strikes - were backed by the chair Sir Andrew Cubie.

The union said universities had also done nothing to address the declining value of members' pay, which has fallen in real-terms by 21% in the last decade, or address concerns over casualisation, equality and workloads.

The ballots close on Wednesday 30 October and the union's higher education committee will meet to consider the results on Friday 1 November. The ballots will be disaggregated so each institution will be polled separately.


TUC backs 20 September walkouts and fight against climate crisis

It was a busy and historic few days in Brighton for UCU delegates at the annual TUC congress. The union's motion on climate change was part of the Tuesday afternoon debate on the issue which resulted in unequivocal support for the school climate strikers and the action on Friday 20 September.

UCU general secretary Jo Grady spoke twice during the debate and said the climate strikes represented one of the most impressive mass mobilisations the world has seen. Speaking to the Guardian, she said the motion signified real support for the efforts of the school strikers and is a chance for workers to show we are behind them.

The union has written to Universities UK and the Association of Colleges seeking their support to allow university and college staff to participate in the action on 20 September. Local UCU branches are also asking their employers to back the action and some, such as the University of Bristol, have already signed up.

You can read more about UCU at the TUC Congress here.


Mammoth 15-day strike starts at Nottingham College

UCU members at Nottingham College began a mammoth 15 days of strike on Wednesday when they walked out as part of a row over contracts. The Nottingham Post said the college faces weeks of walkouts throughout September and October after members voted to stage a one-day walkout this week, escalating to strikes of two, three, four and five days in subsequent weeks.

The dispute centres on the college's move to impose new contracts which leave over 80 staff more than £1,000 a year worse off, as well as removing key protections designed to protect staff against work overload. Staff at the college have not received a pay rise since 2010.

Writing for Tes as the strikes kicked off, Jo Grady said the decision to strike was never taken lightly, but the uncompromising approach of the college has only hardened members' resolve in fighting these damaging changes. She said: 'If the college wants to avoid significant disruption to students in the coming weeks, it needs to work with us to agree a fair contract which rewards the hard work and dedication of staff, rather than treating them as an asset to be sweated.'


Students studying in England have highest debt and UK universities spend least on staff

Students studying at English universities are graduating with much higher debts than students in other countries and are far more likely to finish their studies indebted, reported the Times on Tuesday.

The Education at a Glance report, from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), showed that 94% of students studying at English universities leave with debt and the average debt is £40,452. Just seven of the 32 countries the OECD found data for spent a lower percentage of their income on staff than UK. It also found that UK universities spent less on their staff than the vast majority of other countries.

Jo Grady said: 'Students are leaving university with world record levels of debts, yet their universities are not investing in staff. Students have made it clear that they want to see more money prioritised for teaching and, as a minimum, we should be matching the level of investment made by other countries.'


UCUcalls for improvements to working conditions of university research staff

Responding to the publication of a revised Researcher Development Concordat, UCU said yesterday that research staff should be employed on open-ended, rather than fixed-term contracts. Two-thirds (68%) of researchers are on fixed-term contracts, while many others on 'open-ended' contracts have a fixed-funding end date which leaves them at risk of dismissal.

A recent UCU report revealed the toll that a lack of job security has on staff with seven in 10 saying insecure contracts had damaged their mental health and eight in 10 researchers said their work had been negatively affected by being on a short-term contract.

UCU head of higher education Paul Bridge said: 'An opportunity has been missed to tackle job insecurity and the use of fixed-term contracts. The endemic use of precarious contracts in universities is damaging for staff and students.'


UCU responds to international student visa announcement 

International students will be able to take a two-year work visa after graduating from a British university, the government announced this week. The move overturns a key plank of Theresa May's unpopular immigration policies.

The Guardian said the measure goes further than the Home Office's latest immigration white paper, which proposed extending the four-month limit to six months and the limit for those with doctorates to a year.

Jo Grady said: 'The reintroduction of post-study work visas for international students is long overdue. Scrapping these visas in 2012 did untold damage to our international reputation and potentially deterred students from coming to study and work in the UK.'


Ministerial merry-go-round sees second universities reappointed in a matter of weeks

It was all about the ministers at the Universities UK conference this week. Jo Johnson was supposed to have spoken and with no replacement in place at the start of the week, it was announced that the secretary of state Gavin Williamson would be speaking. Then on Tuesday, Chris Skidmore was reappointed universities minister and said he would be cracking on with a speech for the UUK conference.

Williamson told the conference that the two-year visa policy for international students was part of a deal with universities where they would have to do more to widen participation. He had the compulsory ministerial pop at grade inflation and then, according to Research Fortnight, got a little confused with a message about minimum predicted grade thresholds to deal with unconditional offers.

Although the Times said his speech came as  the University of Birmingham announced it was scrapping the controversial conditional unconditional offers that it had pioneered.

UUK had earlier released polling showing that only one in three students and recent graduates said that they decided to go to university to get a higher salary. New UUK president Julia Buckingham told the Times: 'These results tell us loudly and clearly that policy makers and politicians have got it wrong . . . Students do not judge the value of universities on their future salaries and neither should policymakers.'


Liberal Democrats launch £9,000 learning giveaway

The Liberal Democrats have set out plans to revolutionise lifelong learning, by giving adults in England entitlement to £9,000 over their lifetime to pay for further education or training. The New Statesman said that under the new proposals, every adult in England would receive a Personal Education and Skills Account (PESA), into which the government would make at least three payments of £3,000 over the course of their lifetime.

However, the Mirror was quick to point out that the £9,000 figure was an unfortunate choice as it would no doubt remind some voters of the party's u-turn on a policy to scrap university tuition fees. When in coalition the Liberal Democrats went from wanting to scrap fees to raising them to £9,000, which haemorrhaged them support at the next election.


Number of adults in training or learning at record low

The number of adults taking part in learning and training has fallen to a record low, according to a survey by the Learning and Work Institute. One in three (35%) of adults has taken part in learning in the past three years, down from 37% in 2017.

Tes said this was the lowest number on record - with participation as low as 29% in the South West and 30% in Yorkshire and the Humber. 

The survey questioned 5,000 adults across the UK and identified stark inequalities in access to learning around the country - particularly with adults who could benefit the most from returning to education. 


Last updated: 26 March 2020