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In the news 23 November 2018

23 November 2018

First wave of strikes in English colleges to begin on 28 November

UCU members at six English colleges will be taking strike action on Wednesday and Thursday as the first wave of industrial action begins in the fight for fairer pay.

The six colleges where UCU members are walking out are Bath College, Bradford College, Croydon College, Lambeth College, New College Swindon and Petroc in Devon. Tes reported that as staff walk out at the six striking colleges, ballots of UCU members at 26 more institutions will open. Those ballots close on Wednesday 19 December.

Speaking to FE Week, UCU head of policy and campaigns Matt Waddup said: 'Staff in further education colleges have seen their pay systematically eroded in recent years and are being paid £7,000 less than schoolteachers. While the government must take the blame for their failure to invest in further education, colleges can and must do more to support their staff. Staff at six colleges in England will be leading the strikes this winter as ballots open at another 26 institutions.'


British PhD student jailed for life in United Arab Emirates

Following the shocking life imprisonment of a British PhD student in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) this week, UCU members at the University of Birmingham yesterday backed a motion calling on staff to reject working with the university's own campus in Dubai.

Matt Waddup told Times Higher Education that the government had a responsibility to ensure that British citizens abroad get treated fairly and receive a fair trial. 'British universities may be keen to launch overseas campuses in places like the UAE, but this case demonstrates that they need to seek stronger assurances on human rights and the treatment of academics,' he said.

The University of Birmingham is under fire for watering down a commitment to LGBT rights at the Dubai campus. As well as concerns over the rights of staff and students on the campus, the union said it had serious misgivings about the possible exploitation of migrant workers in the construction of the next phase of the campus.

UCU Birmingham branch president James Brackley told the Guardian: 'We call on the university to enter into meaningful negotiations with the trade unions to ensure they protect the safety and wellbeing of staff and students on the Dubai campus. We also call on them to hold back on the expansion of the campus until safeguards are in place.'


Pay dispute ends at London colleges as staff accept "landmark" 5% deal

UCU members at three London colleges voted to accept a new pay deal worth 5% this week. Members at City & Islington College, College of Haringey Enfield & North East London and Westminster Kingsway College had taken eight days of strike action between February and May.

The pay award for is worth around £140 a month extra and will be backdated to September in staff's December pay packets. Shadow chancellor John McDonnell sent his congratulations to UCU members on their "brilliant victory". He told Tes the deal was an important step in ensuring staff are valued for the "vital work they do".

Matt Waddup told FE Week: 'This landmark pay increase, agreed at one of the largest college groups in England, sets the bar for others when it comes to the pay and conditions of staff. Too often colleges hide behind low levels of government investment to avoid giving their staff a fair pay deal. This settlement will be greeted positively by UCU members around the country, including the six colleges out on strike next week and the other 26 institutions where strike ballots are opening.'


UCU accuses government of bending over backwards to help for-profit college

UCU this week accused the government of "bending over backwards" to support England's biggest for-profit college by letting it continue to access public funding despite officials knowing about its serious financial problems.

Times Higher Education reported that GSM London's recently published accounts reveal it made a net loss of £9.9 million last year, and that £26 million of its debt has been waived as part of a turnaround plan agreed with its private equity owners. Matt Waddup said: This looks like a government bending over backwards to help the profiteers while refusing to back our public universities.

GSM - which featured in a 2017 BBC Panorama investigation into external recruitment agents used by for-profit colleges - has the highest number of students claiming Student Loans Company funding of any alternative provider in England, with 4,587 students receiving a total of £17 million in loans in 2017-18.


USS announces new scheme valuation

Yesterday the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) announced that it is to carry out another review of its funding position. The Financial Times said the plan for the new valuation comes two months after the independent Joint Expert Panel set up in the wake of strikes at UK universities by UCU found wide-ranging flaws in the 2017 review.

A UCU spokesperson said: 'UCU will examine the detail of the proposals for a fresh valuation and continue to engage with USS and the employers in order to protect members' pensions. It is worth reminding ourselves that less than 12 months ago we faced the prospect of the end of the guaranteed pension at a cost to members of more than £200,000 over the course of their retirement. Without members' action there would have been no JEP and no change in the position of either the employers or USS.'


UCU takes case for better disabled rights to Parliament

On Wednesday, UCU branches across the UK took part in a day of action to raise awareness about the challenges faced by disabled people in education. Speaking to FE News, UCU head of equalities Helen Carr said: 'Too many disabled people still face major barriers to working and studying in our colleges and universities. We urgently need to see tougher rules for employers, and a real commitment from government to tackle these issues so we can make our education institutions more accessible for disabled people.'

The day culminated in a parliamentary event with shadow minister for disabled people, Marsha De Cordova MP and chair of the all-party group for disability, Dr Lisa Cameron MP, highlighting key issues such as inaccessible buildings, lack of access to disability leave and cuts to support for disabled students. The event was chaired by UCU disabled members' standing committee chair, Elane Heffernan, who told the Disability News Service: 'We have to win this change. We cannot have this silent massacre of workers in education and students who cannot even get in through the door in the first place in terms of education.'


Government rehashes plans for accelerated degrees

On Sunday the government announced plans to allow students in England to access two-year degrees that would cost around £11,000 a year and include teaching in the summer term. The announcement looked similar to previous announcements the government has made on two-year or accelerated degrees. Almost identical in fact to this announcement from almost exactly a year ago.

The plans leave the government promoting a system to cut student debt, whilst telling prospective students they should not be put off by the debts incurred under the current system.

UCU said the rehashed announcement looked more like another government attempt to increase the money for-profit companies could access through student loans, rather than any attempt to address student needs.


Students want better transparency on how their fees are spent

English universities are spending less than half of undergraduate tuition fees on the direct costs of teaching, according to a report from the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi) released yesterday. However, it points out that a large proportion of the rest still goes towards essential facilities such as libraries and says institutions should not shy away from being more open about how fee income is spent.

Times Higher Education said the report suggested that many universities still fail to be completely transparent about how they spend students' fees, despite students wanting more information on the issue and better investment in staff, according to Hepi's own student survey.


Unconditional offers back in the firing line

On Tuesday the Times called for an overhaul of the university application system. Backing UCU's call for students to apply to university after they have received their results, the paper's editorial said: 'The easier way to make unconditional offers redundant is for students to apply to university after they have received their results rather than before.'

The paper published a letter that day arguing that the huge increase in unconditional offers between 2013 and 2018, from fewer than 3,000 to more than 67,000, is not in the interest of students because they reduce the incentive to study.


Ireland threatens funding cuts if no action to tackle gender pay gap

Times Higher Education this week said the Republic of Ireland's radical plan to dock universities up to a tenth of their core funding if they fail to hit ambitious gender targets could spur further direct government interventions across Europe to get more women into academic posts, according to advocates of the proposals.

The country's Gender Action Plan 2018-2020 reveals mounting exasperation that many existing schemes by universities and governments have failed to close academia's gender gap, and argues that it is time for more quotas, female-specific positions and financial incentives to hire women.

Last updated: 23 November 2018