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In the news: 20 October 2017

20 October 2017

UCU members overwhelmingly back strike action to defend pensions

UCU members this week overwhelmingly backed strike action to defend their pensions. Eighty-seven per cent of members who voted in the consultative ballot, which closed on Wednesday, said they would be prepared to take industrial action in order to defend the existing benefits of the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS).

The Financial Times was first to report the ballot result and Sally Hunt told the paper that: 'USS members work at some of the most celebrated universities in the UK and yet their pension benefits are the worst in the sector.

'The employers need to act now to avoid a major, damaging dispute at a time when universities are already in the news for all the wrong reasons. Vice-chancellors must now act to defend staff pensions as vigorously as they have defended their own salaries, rather than look away while USS benefits are cut.'


Shadow education secretary tells University of Manchester to "get its house in order"

Ashton-under-Lyne MP and shadow education secretary Angela Rayner today told the University of Manchester to "get its house in order" and "give workers the respect they deserve. UCU members will walk out on Monday and Tuesday in a row over up to 140 job losses at the university. They will then begin working to rule on Wednesday.

In her message of support, Angela also said she was not convinced by the university's argument that it needed to cut costs by axing jobs, and that the dispute was a "concerning case, given the fact that UCU members feel as if management have not been clear, or provided any convincing rationale for job losses."

UCU regional official, Martyn Moss, said: 'We are delighted to have the support of shadow education secretary and local MP Angela Rayner. We hope her strong words will focus the minds of the University of Manchester management team.'


Drop-out rates higher at for-profit colleges

Drop-out rates remain higher at private colleges than in the rest of the English higher education sector, while the UK government has failed to recover £36 million of public money paid to "ineligible" students at such institutions, reported Times Higher Education on Wednesday.

UCU said the report from the National Audit Office found that although the percentage of students dropping out had fallen, graduates from alternative providers - often privately run for profit - have lower rates of progression into employment or further study, and lower salaries than graduates of publicly-funded providers of higher education.

UCU general secretary Sally Hunt told Union News: 'We have serious concerns about the government's desire to open up the higher education sector to more for-profit alternative providers. In the US for-profit universities and colleges, such as Trump University, have been investigated for the mis-selling of qualifications to vulnerable students and their families. Our colleges and universities are a success story, but further privatisation could cause serious damage to their reputations and put our proud international standing for excellence at risk.'


Unions and students will feed in to Scottish heads' pay deals

Staff and students are to be given the opportunity to advise on the pay packets of university principals for the first time under reforms in Scotland. A code of conduct will compel remuneration committees to seek the views of union officials and student representatives before making decisions about salaries and benefits for executives.

UCU Scottish official Mary Senior told the Times the revised guidance was an upgrade to the previous version published in 2013. She praised the move to offer more recognition to unions and said more accountability and transparency had been achieved, but said it was also a missed opportunity to specify that students and staff should be on remuneration committees.


Cabinet split on future of university funding

It has been a busy week for higher education stories in the Times this week. On Wednesday the paper said the cabinet was massively split on the issue of tuition fees and Theresa May faced a toxic battle after her £2bn promise to freeze fees ran into opposition. The Times says Philip Hammond, Jo Johnson, Justine Greening, Damian Green and even Michael Gove have strong views on higher education policy across a range of issues including fees, loans, student numbers, maintenance support and value for money.

In a separate article on Wednesday, it was reported that the big conference announcement to freeze fees was taken without consulting the education department.


Office for Students consultation launch overshadowed by sham political correctness row

Yesterday the government launched its consultation on the regulatory powers of the Office for Students (OfS). Yet instead of steering people to the government website, Jo Johnson tweeted a copy of an interview he had done with the Times to coincide with its launch. His comments about fining universities that failed to guaranteed free speech ensured that all the coverage was about that.

One commentator did question whether there is in fact sufficient evidence of infringement of free speech on campuses to justify regulatory intervention, and how this new promise to uphold free speech sat next to the government's prevent duty.

However, the focus on fines meant other issues and the sweeping new powers for the OfS were largely ignored. Times Higher Education reported that the consultation spells out once again that the new market regulator will be hugely powerful, with a multifaceted role ranging far beyond that of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, the current regulator.

It said the OfS will regulate institutions and the sector, grant degree-awarding powers and university title, award teaching grant to institutions and, potentially, award its own degrees if it sees gaps in provision.


Oxbridge becoming less diverse as richest gain 80% of offers

Oxford and Cambridge universities have gone backwards on the socio-economic diversity of their student bodies, with more than four in five students coming from the most privileged groups, a Guardian analysis has found.

Data released to the MP for Tottenham, David Lammy, under the Freedom of Information Act shows that 82% of offers from Oxford and 81% from Cambridge went to students from the top two socio-economic groups in 2015, up from 79% at both universities five years earlier.

The data shows huge regional disparities in offers, with some parts of England and Wales failing to secure a single place for years while students in London and the south-east received almost half of all offers.

Last updated: 20 October 2017