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In the news 1 February 2019

1 February 2019

Second wave of strikes hits 13 English colleges

UCU members at 13 English colleges took strike action over pay this week. The two-day strikes are part of a second wave of action after UCU members at six colleges took action in November. The dispute centres on the failure of college bosses to make a decent pay offer to staff who have seen the value of their pay decline by 25% over the last decade.

Originally UCU members at 16 colleges were due to walk out, but strikes were suspended at Hugh Baird College and New College Swindon following eleventh hour deals that included significant pay rises and, in the case of Hugh Baird, an extra five days' annual leave. The strikes were also suspended at Coventry College to allow for further talks.

The union said if colleges wanted to avoid disruption, they needed to follow the lead of the likes of Hugh Baird College, New College Swindon and Capital City College Group, which recently agreed a 5% pay deal for its 1,700 staff.

In a blog, UCU head of policy Matt Waddup said: 'Colleges who don't try and hide behind government failings but instead engage with the union on the pay and conditions of their staff will receive a positive hearing from UCU. However, colleges who give nothing when they could work with us to solve these problems should expect to reap what they sow.'


Allowing REF submission of redundant staff's research a "breach of faith"

UCU yesterday accused UK funding councils of a "breach of faith" after it was revealed that institutions will be allowed to submit to the Research Excellence Framework (REF) the work of staff who have been made redundant.

The union was responding to the submission guidance for the next REF, which has removed reference to a proposed ban on the submission of work by academics who have been made redundant by an institution. Times Higher Education said that funding councils acknowledged that the policy U-turn may have "unintended consequences for individuals".

UCU said the move would be a green light for universities to treat staff like a disposable commodity and entrench the casualisation of early career researchers. It said it would be calling on institutions to reject the move and make clear statements about their own position on the issue.

Writing for the Guardian, Matt Waddup said: 'While there are many practical problems with the policy, the biggest issue is the message it sends about how little staff are valued in the sector. In an environment where insecure and casualised employment is already endemic, this move will act as a major disincentive for institutions to retain and invest in their academic staff.'


Latest data highlights steep rise in unconditional university offers

Data released yesterday by UCAS shone another spotlight on the increase in the use of unconditional offers at universities. The number of institutions in England, Wales and Northern Ireland where unconditional offers accounted for more than 1% of all offers shot up from 16 in 2013 to 85 in 2018.

In 2013 there were just three institutions where unconditional offers made up at least 10% of all offers. In 2018 that number had jumped to 62, with eight institutions making at least half of all offers on an unconditional basis.

Matt Waddup said: 'The best way to tackle the increase in the use of unconditional offers is to move to a system where students apply to university after they receive their results. Allowing students to apply after they receive their results would make these type of unconditional offers redundant, bring us in line with the rest of the world and end the chaotic clearing scramble.'


Report says most vulnerable missing out on opportunities to improve skills

People who most need access to education and training are the ones least likely to be able to get it, warned a report from the Social Mobility Commission on Tuesday. It said that people from the lowest socio-economic backgrounds are the least likely to receive adult skills investment, and that employers are more likely to invest in those with higher skills while better-off individuals are also more likely to fund their own training.

It also highlights how the UK, compared to its main competitors, spends relatively little on vocational skills and investment in labour market support to increase adult skill levels. It says that between 2010-11 and 2015-16, the government adult skills budget in England fell by 34 per cent in real terms.

Matt Waddup said: 'This report captures the importance of education and training, but exposes how the people who might most benefit are being failed by the current system. Improved skills deliver benefits at work and in people's personal lives, yet opportunities are restricted for the most vulnerable in our society.'


Prime Minister's claim to respect further education does not stand up to scrutiny says UCU

UCU said on Wednesday that the Prime Minister's claim to respect further education did not stand up to scrutiny. 

Theresa May was responding to question from Toby Perkins MP at Prime Minister's Questions on the funding crisis in further education. Political commentator Kevin Maguire was amongst those to highlight the government's shocking record on funding further education.

Matt Waddup told Tes: 'The pay crisis in our colleges has got so bad that staff are on strike to fight for fair pay. The Prime Minister's claim to respect further education does not stand up to scrutiny and will ring hollow with the hundreds of staff braving the cold on picket lines today.'


Diversity failings could cost universities position in league tables

The Guardian warned today that universities' prized league table positions may be under threat if they fail to tackle ethnic disparities among students, and in staff recruitment and research, as part of an initiative announced by the government.

Writing in the Times to announce the plans Cabinet Office minister David Lidington, called for league table compilers to be encouraged to include each university's outcomes for underrepresented groups, including degree classes and graduation rates, raising the prospect that institutions could be marked down if they fail to match the efforts of their peers.

Matt Waddup said the government had questions to answer over the plans, saying: 'What is the government going to do to help young people understand and negotiate more data on another website? Will the government commit to providing decent independent information, advice and guidance to young people to help them make the best choice about their future? How will the government monitor its efforts?'


Meet the minister

New universities minister Chris Skidmore gave his first ministerial speech yesterday and brought a more conciliatory tone along with a promise to defend the arts and humanities. Times Higher Education reported that he said that he will not "beat up or needlessly berate the sector" and that he sees value for money as being about "much more" than graduate salary data.

The former academic historian said he thought a decent education was about more than just financial reward. He said: 'If we define value purely in economic terms, based on salary levels or tax contributions, then we risk overlooking the vital contribution of degrees of social value, such as nursing or social care, not to mention overlooking the arts, humanities and social sciences - the very disciplines that make our lives worth living.'

Chris Skidmore also appeared to understand concerns about the Teaching Excellence Framework (Tef). Earlier this week Times Higher Education revealed that half of students hadn't heard of the Tef and two-thirds of those who had didn't know what it was for. The minister said a forthcoming review provided "an important opportunity to take stock of the TEF from a constructively critical perspective", and encouraged universities to make their views known to review chair Dame Shirley Pearce.

A UCU report on staff views of the Tef is due out later this month.

Last updated: 1 February 2019