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UCU wins recognition for precarious workers in the Coventry University Group

Coventry University is one of a growing number of universities and colleges looking to expand the amount of their business that takes place through the operation of subsidiary education companies.

In October 2014, the union conducted a Freedom of Information request which revealed that 61 colleges and 64 universities already made use of subsidiary companies to deliver teaching. The attractions of doing this are that it allows staff to be employed off nationally agreed pay scales and working conditions and in many cases, it makes staff ineligible to access the Teachers' Pension Scheme. These companies also, unsurprisingly, operate with higher levels of casualised and precarious employment. Crucially, also, these staff are outside of existing recognition agreements, meaning that UCU cannot collectively bargain for or adequately represent a fast growing section of the workforce.

In October 2014, the union's executive committee approved a plan for UCU to undertake strategically targeted work to begin to extend the union's influence into this growing sector. The union had already identified Coventry University as strategically significant through its heavy investment in a strategy of developing multiple subsidiary companies. Coventry owns a series of subsidiary education companies including CU Services Ltd, Coventry University College, CU London Campus and CU Scarborough Campus. Fortuitously, we also received representations from branch activists at Coventry University and it was agreed to conduct a campaign aimed at winning recognition at one of its subsidiary companies as a launchpad to conducting a wider campaign at all of them and persuading the university to engage with us across all of its operations.

The target company identified was CU Services Ltd, into which the university had moved all its pre-sessional English (PSE) teaching provision. As Coventry branch Secretary David Ridley explains, 'pre-sessional English teaching is conventionally a precarious job, PSE courses mostly only run in the summer, and CU Services being one of few provisions to run autumn and in-sessional courses (supporting student alongside their destination courses) as well. PSE courses are designed for international students who do not get the minimum IELTS grades (the standard qualification for entry for English language universities), who then have the choice of either not qualifying or paying for a PSE course (which they are not guaranteed to pass).'

Members at CU Services, some of whom had previously been employees of Coventry University, were angry at their employment conditions and approached the union asking it to seek recognition. Between the summers of 2015 and 2016, the union gathered support from a clear majority of the teaching staff, notwithstanding the fact that the 'bargaining group' regularly changed size dramatically as rafts of precarious contracts came to an end. The union made a series of informal approaches and then, eventually in July 2016 a formal approach to CU Services under the legislation enabling unions to win statutory recognition. On each occasion the management of Coventry University's subsidiary company said they did not want to agree recognition with the union.

The union then submitted an application to the Central Arbitration Committee, the independent body that overseen trade union law, who decided to hold a secret ballot of PSE staff in the company.

On 2 September 2016, the union was notified by the Central Arbitration Committee that the ballot had resulted in a stunning 100% vote for UCU recognition on the basis of a 73% turnout.

This tremendous result was a consequence of a well-planned and organised campaign that combined all levels of the union, and most of all reflected the incredibly hard work by members at the company who were passionately committed to winning recognition and angered by their management's opposition. Perhaps most impressively, many of those who were convinced of the need to vote were employed on contracts so short that they would not immediately benefit from the result, though UCU had been clear throughout that the employment structure at CU Services would be one of the union's priority areas of concern.

The importance of this victory should not be underestimated. As David Ridley explains, 'The victory at Coventry is a line in the sand, not just for us at a local level but as a union as a whole. We have said that we can fight this new mode of casualisation, and that we can create a model which can (and must) be adapted to other similar contexts.

'It is hugely important that we show that this is not an attractive mechanism for employers, and that not only will UCU not sit back and let this happen, we will also shame employers by revealing the uncomfortable truth of exploitation behind such 'entrepreneurial' ventures. At a local level we have already built a foundation of support at CU College, and we intend to follow the success at CU Services with a similar campaign there.

'Each context is different, and recognition is very hard work, but we are hoping that the momentum afforded by our recent success will lead to a positive result there too. Ultimately we want recognition across the whole group, and to force the employer to accept that subsidiaries should not be used to exploit staff and save costs.'

Last updated: 20 September 2016