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In the news: 21 February 2020

21 February 2020

Solid support for strikes as students call on university heads to do more to solve disputes

Support for the biggest ever wave of strikes on university campuses was solid as UCU members started walking out for 14 days yesterday. Speaking on BBC Radio 4's Today Programme first thing, UCU general secretary Jo Grady set out why UCU members were being forced out on strike again.

She said there was solid support from staff and students, despite efforts from universities this week to disrupt the action, confuse the issues and, in some cases, even bribe their staff to cancel protests. The University of Leicester told staff that it would spread the deductions of 14 days' lost pay for the strikes over three months if staff promised not to protest on campus. While the Times also reported that the University of Winchester said it would not consider compensation for students because the students' union had pledged support for the UCU action.

Striking staff were given a boost as the National Union of Students (NUS) said it backed the walkouts and called on university leaders to work harder to resolve the disputes. Writing in the Guardian, their vice-president for higher education, Claire Sosienski Smith, said the marketised university system had hiked fees and cut staff pay and therefore it was no surprise students backed their staff.

Despite awful weather across the country, the Guardian said there was plenty of picket line activity with the Times Higher Education describing a grim determination from strikers, while the BBC spoke to staff and students about the action. The support from politicians - on actual and virtual picket lines - meant that the UCU's Twitter account was the account most mentioned by MPs yesterday.

One MP who got plenty of support was Nadia Whittome who visited picket lines at the University of East Anglia and said she was pulling out of tonight's Radio 4's Any Questions at the institution because she would not cross the picket line. The day ended with the strikes on every regional BBC evening news programme.


Blame for strikes lays with universities

On the eve of the strikes, UCU made it clear that the blame for any disruption lay with university vice-chancellors after Universities UK (who are in charge of the pensions dispute from the universities' side) spent a week consulting its members over a new offer to put to the union and then failed to come up with an offer. Not to be outdone, the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (looking after the pay and conditions dispute) put out a statement saying they would not talk to the union about pay.

Speaking to the Guardian, Jo Grady said: 'Vice-chancellors have had months to come up with serious offers to avoid widespread disruption on UK campuses. Their failings are clear for all to see today and the blame for the disruption caused by the strikes lays squarely at their door.' While she told the Financial Times that: 'University staff were not going to be lectured on austerity from out of touch vice-chancellors whose own record on pay and perks has shamed the higher education sector.'


Failing to resolve disputes, but plotting their own retirement pots

A handy reminder to everybody just how out of touch universities and their vice-chancellors and principals are arrived in the shape of former University of Aberdeen principal Professor Sir Ian Diamond on Wednesday. The BBC said the institution has been forced to repay £119,000 of grant money to the Scottish Funding Council (SFC), following an investigation into his pay-off.

The Times said Professor Diamond banked over £600,000 as he prepared to retire. In August 2017 he announced that he planned to retire and immediately relinquished many of his duties and responsibilities. However, he continued to draw his £282,000 salary while on light duties and did not submit his 12 months' notice until his successor was appointed a year later. He also received a "contractual notice period payment" of £289,000, plus a £30,000 pension contribution, £7,000 expenses and a £60,000 payment in kind for "outplacement support".

UCU Scotland official Mary Senior told the paper: 'It's galling for staff as they are being forced to take strike action for fair pay, to see university principals receiving unwarranted and unjustifiable pay offs. The funding council has shown that what happened at Aberdeen was entirely unacceptable. This decision to force the university to review its procedures and pay money back should act as a warning shot for other universities and principals.' 

The University of Aberdeen is not seeking to recover the money from Professor Diamond.


More than half of applicants say universities should make offers after students receive results

More than half of recent applicants (56%) feel universities and colleges should only make offers after people have received their results, according to a report from Universities UK released on Monday.

Support for students applying after they get their results was highest amongst traditionally hard to reach groups, such as black and minority ethnic students, and those who were the first in their family to go to university.

Speaking to Tes, Jo Grady said: 'There is growing support for a shift to a post-qualification admissions system, where students apply to university after they have received their results. Our research shows such a move would not only be fairer for students, it would bring the UK into line with the rest of the world and eliminate the use of controversial unconditional offers.'


Government "low skill workers" plans would hit education, warns UCU

The government's new post-Brexit immigration plans have been criticised by UCU who warned that they would adversely affect colleges.

The point-based system would require applicants to have an offer of a "skilled" job with a sponsoring employer, and also need to be able to show they speak English. This would give them 50 points, with 70 points required to be able to enter the UK. The remaining points could be accumulated from being above a salary threshold of £23,040 (10 points) or £25,600 (20 points), or having a job in a shortage area or a PhD.  

A UCU spokesperson told Tes that the union believed that the UK benefits enormously from inward immigration, not just in terms of so-called highly skilled jobs but elsewhere too, particularly in education, health care and other public services. 'Many of those who end up contributing substantially to our society and economy start with very little and the message we are currently sending is one of a door being shut on all but the most privileged,' the spokesperson said. 


Students' essays investigated by police under government anti-terror measures

The Independent reported this week that students have had their essays investigated by police and faced questioning by staff under government counter-terror measures. Freedom of Information requests revealed that academic materials have been flagged in response to the government's anti-radicalisation strategy - the Prevent programme.

At De Montfort University in Leicester, three students' essays were flagged to university security before their work was assessed by police. Meanwhile, at the University of Wolverhampton, a student's piece of work prompted staff to question the student.

Jo Grady said: 'The Prevent programme threatens freedom of speech and stifles debate and open discussion. Staff and students must be free to discuss and debate controversial issues without fear of being referred to the authorities. Prevent does more harm than good if it closes down debate on contentious topics or makes people less likely to speak up.'

Last updated: 21 February 2020