Weekly news: 31 January 2020

31 January 2020

Ballot results mean 74 universities could now be hit with industrial action

The number of UK universities that could be hit with strike action this term now stands at 74 following a series of reballots in disputes over pensions, and over pay and conditions. UCU members at 60 universities walked out for eight days between Monday 25 November and Wednesday 4 December. Staff at another 14 universities can now join them in further action after UCU members at those institutions backed industrial action and, crucially, passed the punitive 50% legal turnout threshold.

Overall, 80% of members backed strikes over pensions, while 76% voted for strike action over pay, workloads, casualisation and equality. The union's higher education committee met on Thursday to consider the results, listen to updates and discuss next steps in the two disputes. Further details on what the committee decided are expected imminently.

The Guardian said the results would be a significant boost to the union, particularly as the 14 institutions included influential players such as King's College London and Imperial College London.

Speaking to Times Higher Education, UCU general secretary Jo Grady said the union and its members "have been clear from the outset that we are prepared to take serious and sustained action to defend pay and conditions, as well as our pensions, and these latest ballot results show that members are just as determined as ever'.


UCU members back out on strike at Coventry University

Coventry University was hit with two more days of strike action this week as part of an ongoing row over staff appraisals. UCU members walked out on Tuesday and Wednesday following five days of strikes before Christmas.

UCU says a new appraisals system forces staff to jump through unnecessary hoops to secure an annual pay award that is standard at other institutions. The Coventry Observer reported that staff at Coventry are already earning around £5,000 less on average than lecturers at other universities in the region.

Speaking to the Coventry Telegraph, UCU regional official Anne O'Sullivan said: 'Strike action is never taken lightly, but the university has completely failed to address staff concerns during recent talks so members have been left with no option but to walk out again. If the university wants to avoid further disruption, it needs to scrap the current appraisal system and work with us to agree a fairer approach that would see staff receive pay increases on a similar basis to other UK universities.'


Anger at Goldsmiths' restructure plans to cut frontline staff and recruit senior managers

Staff have reacted angrily to a restructure plan at Goldsmiths, University of London to cut the number of frontline staff and increase the size of the senior management team. The plans represent a third shake-up in 10 years after the university spent £1.3m on voluntary severance schemes in 2010 and £2.1m in 2015.

UCU and Unison members held an emergency meeting on Wednesday to discuss the plans, and called on Goldsmiths to work with them to address any financial challenges before sacrificing staff. The unions said they were unconvinced that another restructure was the best way to make savings and called on Goldsmiths to provide details of the costs and any savings from the previous two restructures.

UCU Goldsmiths vice-president Des Freedman said: 'We lost staff through expensive restructures in 2010 and 2015, and we are unconvinced by the rationale for a third shake-up in 10 years. Sacrificing frontline staff to create a bloated senior management team appears to be at odds with commitments to improve the student experience. The college says it wants to look at ways to save money, so it should open up the books and reveal the amount it is spending on things like private consultants.'


Strikes threat at London campus over "redundancy rip-off" from University of Liverpool

Staff at the University of Liverpool's central London campus are being balloted for strike action in a row over job losses and pay-offs. Staff at the campus, which will close this year, are angry that the university is refusing to match its previous voluntary redundancy offer made to staff in Liverpool in 2018.

UCU said the university's decision to slash its redundancy offer from a year's salary by around 20 weeks will cost a typical lecturer around £15,000. The union says the penny-pinching offer was staggering considering that the university's vice-chancellor Dame Janet Beer took home £410,000 last year - a 13% rise including a £57,300 bonus.

Speaking to Left Foot Forward, UCU regional official Martyn Moss said: 'Staff should not have to suffer the double injustice of losing their jobs and being ripped off over their redundancy package. This penny-pinching deal is staggering when set against the inflation-busting package it gave the vice-chancellor last year.'


Landmark deal at University of Bristol to tackle gender pay gap

Ambitious plans to eliminate the gender pay gap at the University of Bristol have been set out in a landmark agreement between the local UCU branch and the institution's senior managers. The deal is the culmination of 18 months of negotiations, following the branch submitting a claim in March 2018 to tackle the gender pay gap.

UCU and the university have agreed a series of measures to tackle gender pay inequality at Bristol which include increased opportunities for progression, greater opportunities to work flexibly or to job share, plans to allow research staff to continue working at the university between grants and training for all staff involved in recruitment and promotion processes.

Tackling inequality is one of the key elements of the disputes and the union said universities' national negotiators could learn from Bristol's approach. Vice-president of Bristol UCU Suzy Cheeke said: 'This shows what can be achieved when universities work with us to tackle a problem head on.' Jo Grady said: 'Other institutions should be looking to follow Bristol's example. Universities now need to put pressure on their representatives to provide firm proposals that address all the issues at the heart of the current disputes.'


Stop treating migrants as commodities

The UK must stop treating migrants as "commodities to be measured" UCU said this week. The union was responding to a report from the Migration Advisory Committee, which recommended a new lower salary threshold for Tier 2 migrants, a review of the settlement process and the potential introduction of a points-based system for migrants without a job offer.

Jo Grady said: 'Migrant staff and students bring huge benefits to our education system as well as to the wider economy and society, but we need to stop treating them as commodities to be measured. Instead of trying to introduce a new 'points-based' system to weigh up their worth, the government's focus should be on removing any unnecessary barriers for those who wish to come to the UK for work or study.'


Further education appointment at the heart of government policy

Baroness Wolf - author of a report on vocational education, an architect of the apprenticeship levy and, most recently, a member of the Augar review panel - has been drafted in as skills and workforce policy adviser to the Number 10 policy unit, focusing on skills and apprenticeship policy across all government

Writing in Tes, the paper's further education editor Stephen Exley says the appointment is likely to put further education back in the political front line and that some recommendations of the Augar review may now be back on the table.

Over at FE Week, their editor Nick Linford agreed that her appointment was good news at a time when the chancellor was likely to make significant spending commitments. He also welcomed the re-election of Robert Halfon as chair the education select committee. However, he did say that it should not go unnoticed that further education still has no dedicated minister, following the departure of Anne Milton last summer.


Casualisation makes universities academic sweatshops

Writing about casualisation in the Guardian this week, a professor at the Manchester Institute of Education said academics must stand up to stop universities becoming sweatshops. He argued that during the strikes, resistance to casualisation has united colleagues across pay grades and disciplines.

He said the news last week that senior academics were resigning as external examiners in protest at pension cuts and insecure contracts throughout the sector, as well as gender and ethnicity pay gaps, heavy workloads and stress, demonstrated that unity.

He added that casualisation pushes higher education employment practices closer to those of sportswear barns and fashion outlets, where personnel are exploited as much as legally possible. But said that if universities were to reverse this trend and emerge as exemplary employers, giving early career staff an authentic route into the profession, it would go a long way towards winning back their academics' trust.


Unison members reject colleges' 1% pay offer

Members of Unison have rejected colleges' pay offer for the 2019-20 academic year. Tes said the union has said it has now set up a working group to look into how members in the further education sector can best campaign for better pay. 

In November last year, the Association of Colleges, which represents college employers in the pay negotiations, recommended a pay increase of 1 per cent, or £250 - whichever was greater.

Writing in Tes last month, UCU head of further education Andrew Harden described the 1% offer as "derisory" and said that while the Association of Colleges has acknowledged that pay is an issue, it has repeatedly failed to bring forward a pay offer that would meaningfully address the problem.


Half of Russell Group vice-chancellors enjoy pay hike

Half of vice-chancellors at Russell Group universities have been handed larger pay packets despite a crackdown on six-figure salaries, according to analysis by the Independent. Eleven of the 24 Russell Group universities increased their heads' pay packets in the past year despite a swath of embarrassing headlines about the pay and perks of those running universities.

The average pay and benefits package for a vice-chancellor in the Russell Group is now £380,000 and the Imperial College London president, Alice Gast, tops the table with a total remuneration of £554,000.

Jo Grady said: 'University staff are not going to be lectured on austerity or the necessity to hold down pay, worsen conditions and increase pension contributions from out of touch vice-chancellors whose own recent record on pay and perks has shamed the higher education sector. Staff have simply 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 decent conditions.'


Richard Garner

Tributes have poured in for longstanding education journalist Richard Garner, who died from cancer this week. Richard was a specialist in the education sector for more than three decades. He began reporting on the subject in the 1980s at the Birmingham Evening Mail before moving to the TES,  Daily Mirror and finally to the Independent where he was education correspondent for 12 years and editor from 2001 to his retirement in 2016.

After retiring, Richard wrote a memoir, The Thirty Years War: My Life Reporting on Education, in which he asked for grammar schools to be buried once and for all and for technical schooling to be put on a par with academic education. He also wrote four crime thrillers.

Joint general secretary of the National Education Union Mary Bousted said: 'I am very saddened to hear of the passing of Richard Garner, father of the house of education journalists, intrepid author of crime novels and a lovely, principled, gentle man.'


Last updated: 31 January 2020