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In the news 6 December 2019

6 December 2019


Solid action by defiant UCU members and supporters in university strikes

Solid strike action continued at 60 universities this week as the employers refused to engage seriously in talks on either USS or the pay and conditions dispute. A defiant UCU ended the eight-day strikes warning of more to come in the new year if the employers' intransigence continued, as 12 reballots opened across the UK and UCU general secretary Jo Grady called for "pragmatic and sensible vice-chancellors" to come forward and push their representatives to re-open negotiations.

The union also revealed that supporters had donated £100,000 to the union's fighting fund since the strike ballots began in September. Speaking to Left Foot Forward Jo Grady said 'We are overwhelmed by the support we have received from students, sister trade unions and the general public, both on the picket lines and through their generous donations to our fighting fund. It is greatly appreciated and will only help to strengthen members' resolve in the fight for fair pay, secure work and decent, affordable pensions.'


Rallies, pickets, protests and disruption in Scotland

Scotland was the focus at the start of the week as Jo Grady toured picket lines in Glasgow and spoke at a rally in the city centre. Focus shifted to Edinburgh on Tuesday as pickets were up in the small hours to be on picket lines ahead of the BBC's arrival for an outside broadcast of the Today programme.

Labour leader in Scotland Richard Leonard refused to appear on the programme as he said he would not cross the UCU picket line. University of Edinburgh principal Peter Mathieson did appear live on the programme but was drowned out by protestors who chanted "what's outrageous - stolen wages" and "Peter Peter pension eater" forcing the interview to end early.


Staff and students turn on "strong-arm tactic" universities

South of the border a handful of universities that had tried to impose strong-arm tactics were met with protests from staff and students. The Guardian reported how students at the University of Liverpool had blocked senior managers from entering their offices in protest at an email sent by the university warning students that it was unlawful for them to join pickets in support of striking lecturers.

iNews covered the Liverpool protests and also complaints at the University of Birmingham where protestors said the university was threatening to charge them with trespass if they protested on campus. Jo Grady said: 'Tactics employed by universities to threaten, confuse or intimidate staff and students are a silly sideshow by universities desperate to avoid actually engaging with the issues at the heart of the disputes.'

The Guardian also covered news that a student at the University of Reading had apparently been suspended, without due process, following complaints that security had been heavy-handed with protestors.


Strike-hit universities as divided as ever

Putting it mildly, Times Higher Education said this week that there was "not total agreement between university leaders on how to respond to the strikes". The magazine spoke to University of Bristol vice-chancellor Hugh Brady, who was one of the first of an increasing number of university leaders spotted on picket lines as it became clear there was strong support for the strikes.

He said that his institution had argued for higher employer contributions to USS pensions and, on pay, he said that Bristol was "advocating for higher increases across the sector".

THE also reported that Koen Lamberts, the University of Sheffield's vice-chancellor, has written to UUK calling on it "to work with UCU to find a meaningful negotiated solution so we can end the disputes". It said that Lamberts had also been pushing for the adoption of the recommendations of the first report of the joint expert panel set up by UCU and UUK to examine the future of USS.



Controversial Liverpool vice-chancellor banks £50,000 pay rise and bonus payment

Dame Janet Beer - the university boss behind strong-arm tactics in Liverpool - managed to stay in the news all week after the Liverpool Echo revealed that she had pocketed a £50,000 annual pay hike to take her package up to £410,000 for last year.

The inflation-busting deal included a performance-related bonus of £57,300 and £13,000 in accommodation expenses. University of Liverpool vice-chancellor Beer was president of Universities UK during the 2018 pensions strikes and staff were quick to criticise her largesse.

A local UCU spokesperson said: 'Some UCU members are on a series of temporary and insecure contracts and have had to rely on food banks while at the same time executive pay within the university continues to soar.'


Sacked Dundee principal allowed to stay in luxury apartment despite unpaid rent claims

Dundee University's former principal has been told he can continue to stay in the luxury apartment at the centre of claims over unpaid rent. The Courier said that Professor Andrew Atherton, who only took up the post in January this year, resigned after he was originally suspended from his £254,000 a year position while bosses investigated claims he did not pay rent as well as allegations that he bullied staff.

The paper said it has now emerged he has an agreement with the university meaning he can stay at University House on Perth Road until the end of February. Dundee University say the tenancy agreement struck between both parties meant Prof Atherton was entitled to live in the property, despite no longer being an employee.

The Courier worked out that his combined wages and pay-off meant his pay equalled £10,000 a week for the time between his official start date of January 1 and his suspension on September 13. In an understatement, the Courier said the saga had attracted criticism from many quarters.


Bolton VC gives Tory MP £2,000 donation, and a £25,000 salary to head think tank that doesn't exist yet
However, taking the title of baffling bad boss behaviour this week is perennial headline maker George Holmes at the University of Bolton. Research Fortnight revealed that he had employed Tory MP Andrea Jenkyns on a £25,000 a year salary from the university for eight hours a week to run a think tank that didn't exist yet. Holmes has previously made the news for attending the notorious men-only Presidents' Club dinner, boasting about his yacht and Bentley and securing a £1 million loan from the university to buy himself a house

The Guardian then revealed he had donated £2,000 of his own money to the former MP for the West Yorkshire constituency of Morley and Outwood and who is standing for re-election. According to an entry in the parliamentary register of MPs' financial interests Jenkyns is being paid £25,000 per year for her role as director of the National Centre for Higher Education Policy, University of Bolton, but there appears to be no mention of the centre or Jenkyns' role in it on the university website and there has been no public announcement of the role. The payments to Jenkyns, for eight hours' work a week, began at the start of July.

University of Birmingham under fire for appalling advice for LGBT+ staff and students

It was a bad week in the press for the University of Birmingham as it faced heavy criticism for, once again, failing to stand up for LGBT+ rights at its campus in Dubai. The union issued guidance suggesting that staff should hide their sexuality when travelling to DubaiThe Independent said the safeguarding advice for university employees attending the Dubai branch was slammed as "appalling" and "shameful". The document suggests staff should not wear clothes or accessories advocating LGBT+ equality, they should not disclose their sexuality publicly on social media and university employees should change their next of kin if it is a same-sex partner. 

Jo Grady said: 'Before entering into these kinds of partnerships, universities need to set out clearly how they will protect their staff and ensure all their campuses are safe for all staff and students. Not to clumsily ask staff to keep their head down and stay out of trouble.' UCU also criticised the university for not doing enough to stand up for LGBT+ rights last year.


Two-day strike at Tower Hamlets college in row over pay

Staff at the Tower Hamlets branch of New City College walked out for two days this week as part of an ongoing dispute over pay and conditions. The dispute centres on the college's failure to make a decent pay offer to staff who have seen the value of their pay decline by 25% in the past decade. 

UCU members have already taken six days of strike action this year as part of the dispute, with a three-day walkout in May followed by two days of strike action in June and a day of action during the student enrolment period in September. Members were balloted for further strike action in September and nine in ten of those who voted (90%) backed more walkouts.

UCU regional support official Caroline Lake said: 'Strike action is never taken lightly but staff at the college are sick and tired of hearing the same old excuses. The college cannot continue to use government cuts as a reason to hold down staff pay when other institutions are finding ways to fairly reward their staff.'


Transparency key to improving union democracy

Ahead of tomorrow's special UCU congress to consider the recommendations made by the union's democracy commission, vice-president Vicky Blake said more transparency will improve the UCU's democratic processes.

Writing for Times Higher Education, Vicky explains how the commission was established as a mechanism to increase accountability and transparency in UCU's democratic structures. She says that the work of the commission needs to be ongoing and that the union as a whole, at all levels, needs to engage in a culture shift towards prioritising democracy and democratic norms in its practice.

She says that the commission was never intended to be the last word, but rather the opening words of a bigger conversation. One that will start in Manchester this weekend.


Collaboration key to turning around further education after years of competition and mergers

Looking ahead to next week's election, UCU's further education committee vice-chair Sean Vernell says that extra funding is the starting point without which we can't begin the transformation necessary to harness the true potential of the sector. But, writing for the Tes, he says additional funding on its own cannot address the crucial issue of leadership.

Sean argues that we need a new model and that "merger mania", which he says has gripped the sector over the past five years, has failed. He sets out this ills of competition and says that the most inspiring ideas and initiatives come about when there is collaboration. Where lecturers and managers meet together as equals and discuss new teaching methods - what has worked and what has not - in an atmosphere of mutual respect and without fear of failing.

He says if this is underpinned by a long-term funding commitment from the government and a recognition that further education should be centred around the needs of the communities and society, everyone wins. 



Last updated: 10 December 2019