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In the news 24 January 2020

24 January 2020

External examiners resigning in protest at universities' failings over disputes

The Guardian reported yesterday that senior academics are refusing to act as external examiners in protest at pay and working conditions in UK universities, and are urging colleagues to join them, potentially disrupting this year's results for students.

A letter to the paper signed by 29 professors said they were resigning as external examiners and refusing to take on new contracts because of pension cuts and insecure contracts throughout the sector, as well as gender and ethnicity pay gaps, heavy workloads and stress.

Jo Grady said: 'External examiners resigning their positions, and refusing to take up new ones, are very serious steps and demonstrate the huge levels of frustration that exist. Universities must make substantial changes in the way they treat staff or they will undoubtedly face not just further industrial action, but also more withdrawals of cooperation.'


Casualised staff are "dehumanised second-class academics"

Staff on casualised contracts in UK universities are dehumanised, vulnerable and invisible "second-class academics", said a report released on Monday by Nick Megoran and Olivia Mason of Newcastle University for UCU. The report says universities' bold statements about how much they value their staff ring hollow when put against how thousands of staff without secure contracts staff are treated.

Times Higher Education said the report calls on the government and research funders to pressure universities into being honest about the extent of casualisation and to work with UCU to take steps to end the practice.

Speaking to the Guardian, UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: 'We need to have an honest conversation about casualisation that draws out the real extent of the problem and how we can secure improvements for staff. The Office for Students should demand that universities disclose the extent of teaching - measured in classroom hours - that is being done by casualised staff. Students would be shocked by the levels of casualisation in universities and the toll that being in insecure employment takes on people.'

The report was launched at a Parliamentary reception and also featured in Monday's education questions where universities minister Chris Skidmore said he had seen the report and that universities needed to carefully reconsider the sustainability and opportunities of the early career research system.


"Systematic change" required after figures show dearth of black academics in leading roles

Only a handful of academics in the most senior positions in British universities are black, according to figures released by the Higher Education Statistics Agency yesterday. Between zero and two people from black backgrounds were recorded as working as academic managers, directors and senior officials in 2018-19, compared to between three and seven in 2017-18. Last year, there were 535 academics working in the top managerial jobs and of these 475 were white. 

The Independent said the data followed warnings from UCU that a pervasive culture of bullying and stereotyping at UK universities has blocked the professorial paths for black female academics, and that much more must be done to challenge inequality in universities.

Jo Grady said: 'These figures confirm the lack of representation of black and minority ethnic staff at the top table in our universities. It is going to take systematic change and some difficult conversations if we are going to make any headway. Universities need to work with us to address the issue and recognise that they will need to transform their practices to implement real change for BAME staff.'


Highest paid vice-chancellor took home over £550,000 last year

The UK's best-paid university vice-chancellor is now earning £554,000. Alice Gast, president of Imperial College London, now tops the pay table. Her package includes £115,000 that Imperial estimates it could receive from letting a property in South Kensington. She also receives $375,000 a year for serving on the board of Chevron, the oil and gas company, although she will not receive this until she retires.

Second among big university earners was Dame Minouche Shafik, head of the London School of Economics, who is on £491,000, with Stephen Toope at Cambridge third on £475,000. The figures come from an analysis by the Tab student newspaper, which found that 60 per cent of university chiefs saw their pay increase in the 2018-19 academic year with the average package now £350,000.

Speaking to the Times, Jo Grady said that the largesse of vice-chancellors' pay and perks were a continued source of embarrassment for the university sector. She said: 'staff have had enough and that is why they walked out on strike before Christmas, and are prepared to do so again if vice-chancellors continue to deny them fair pay and conditions.'


SOAS accused of "institutional self-sabotage" as it suspends research leave

UCU said this week that the decision by SOAS, University of London to suspend research leave had been taken without consultation with the union and was symptomatic of ongoing mismanagement at the institution where front-line staff were made to pay for the poor leadership of management.

SOAS told staff last week it would not approve any school-funded research leave for 2020-21, citing the "challenging financial environment" it faced. UCU SOAS president Tom Armstrong said the change would negatively impact staff morale and generate unmanageable workloads. He described the approach as a short-termist and short-sighted act of institutional self-sabotage.

Times Higher Education said that with research leave suspended, more permanent staff are likely to be available for teaching duties, which means fewer temporary staff will be required, allowing for cost savings. Staff and students held a protest yesterday lunchtime against the cuts.


A fifth of colleges go more than 12 months without publishing minutes
One in five colleges have not published board minutes in over a year, according to an investigation by FE Week. Although there is no fixed rule on whether colleges must publish their board minutes online - or how frequently - "accountability" is considered a requirement by the Department for Education.
A spokesperson for the Department for Education said they "expect colleges - like all education institutions - to be open and transparent about their operations", including "publishing minutes in a timely manner". Guidance from the Association of Colleges says approved minutes should be published on college websites.
FE Commissioner Richard Atkins recently criticised Hull College for being less than transparent by not making its minutes available to staff and stakeholders for the same period of time.Value for money review of university funding

Universities in England are to face a "value for money" review of how £1.3bn per year of funding might give more support to "priority" subjects. The BBC said the Office for Students (OfS) is expected to launch the review in the spring.

The review apparently won't consider tuition fees - with the government set to publish a separate response to calls to cut fees. Education secretary Gavin Williamson has told the OfS he wants to prioritise support for the government's industrial strategy, which aims to invest in "skills, industries and infrastructure".

Jo Grady criticised how value for money was based on an "obsession with flimsy metrics" around graduate earnings and questioned what future employment or earnings potential can really tell us about teaching quality.


Oxford University under fire for unpaid fellowships to celebrate women

St Anne's College Oxford has come under fire for celebrating 100 years of female graduates at the university with the launch of unpaid fellowships.

The Independent said that the fellowships, which are targeted at early career researchers at Oxford University, do not offer salaries and successful applicants have to pay a fee to be a common room member. 

Speaking to the paper, Jo Grady said: 'Offering unpaid fellowships in tribute to a woman who played an important role in expanding women's access to education seems like a tone-deaf move, and another example of why we need to see much greater scrutiny of the ways in which early career researchers are being supported to develop their careers in academia.'


New USS chair appointed as UCU secures salary review postponement

Dame Kate Barker has been appointed the next chair of the Universities Superannuation Scheme, succeeding Sir David Eastwood, who has chaired USS since 2015 and will retire from the board this August.

Times Higher Education said Dame Kate, a former chief economic adviser at the Confederation of British Industry and member of the Bank of England's Monetary Policy Committee, joins as the dispute over the scheme's future rages on.

Elsewhere in USS news, this week UCU won a small but significant victory after the employers agreed to UCU's request to postpone a review of the salary threshold for accrual of members' defined benefits. The upshot is that members' accrual of defined benefits will be protected against inflation for longer than originally scheduled. 


Last updated: 24 January 2020