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Special HE sector conference - September 2020: attack on jobs, pay and conditions

20 July 2020

Higher education special sector conference: to debate and direct the union's response to the attack on jobs, pay and conditions resulting from the response of employers to the Covid-19 pandemic, including a draft sector-wide claim.


Details of exceptional arrangements applying to this conference in respect of voting and advance notice of speakers are also set out in the covering information of the first report of the congress business committee (CBC) report and all branches and delegates are advised to read this.

Motions for debate

Motions for debate, as ordered in CBC's final report.

Section 1: Covid-19: health, safety, jobs, quality and funding of HE

1  Covid-19 and UCU - UCU Scotland

The Covid-19 pandemic has had an immense impact upon every aspect of life. Conference commends the work of university staff who moved education to remote delivery, at a time of deep uncertainty, and when attempting to manage a raft of competing demands in the public health emergency.

Conference notes the work of UCU, in ensuring a safe and healthy educational environment for students and staff, assessing the impact of the pandemic on the sector, making a case for funding and support for higher education, and in challenging employer attempts to cut jobs, terms and conditions.

Conference calls upon the union to continue to pursue:

  1. safe and healthy workplaces
  2. a diverse and vibrant well-funded university sector
  3. fair work, avoiding redundancies and cuts to terms and conditions
  4. secure employment contracts, manageable workloads, and an end to the gender and race pay gaps.


L1  No return to unsafe workplaces; no face-to-face teaching unless educationally necessary - Higher Education Committee 

HESC notes:  

  1. senior officials in both UCU and UNISON calling for ballots of industrial action over unsafe workplaces  
  2. iSAGE, SAGE and WHO believe social distancing, test, track and isolate and the use of PPE are central to control pandemics
  3. Scottish government advice (22/9/20), 'everyone who can work from home should work from home'.  

HESC believes the UK government's call to return to offices is motivated by business concerns rather than public safety.  

HESC resolves:  

  1. to call on universities to abandon face-to-face activities and to work remotely until UCU's tests have been met. Exceptions for face-to-face activities only where necessary, i.e. to ensure disabled students are able to participate, or to facilitate practice-based activities
  2. to encourage branches with UCU support to declare disputes and begin the process of balloting for industrial action for an end to f2f activities until UCU's five tests are met.


2  Composite: Online teaching: health and safety, jobs and quality - Imperial College, University of Leeds, King's College London, Lancaster University, University of Dundee

Conference notes:

  1. the call by our GS and iSAGE  for all teaching to be held online
  2. UCU's five tests
  3. pressures on all staff for face-to-face teaching, particularly on casualised staff, who may risk losing jobs otherwise
  4. that iSAGE/WHO believe social distancing, test, track and isolate and PPE are central in controlling pandemics
  5. a potential second wave of Covid-19 infections.

Conference believes:

  1. UCU's five tests have not been met
  2. the government's call to return to offices is motivated by business concerns rather than public safety.  

Conference requests the HESC encourage branches to campaign, negotiate and pressure management and governments for agreements on:

  1. no face-to-face teaching and student support in 2020/21 (reviewed in December) other than where there are no other options, e.g. some practical work or to ensure disable students are able to participate
  2. ensuring that staff are not pressured to teach or meet students face-to-face if they don't feel safe and willing to do so
  3. all online teaching to be accessible
  4. provision of ICT and safe quiet study spaces for all students as required
  5. provision of IT equipment and safe quiet work spaces for all staff and PGR students who need them.
  6.  support, training and workload recognition for staff in online teaching
  7. job security: no staff, casualised or permanent, to risk losing jobs if they do not teach face-to-face
  8. additional government funding to cover shortfalls and additional costs.


2A.1 Compositing amendment  - University of Dundee, Yorkshire and Humberside regional committee, University of Liverpool

Add at end:

Conference calls on the national union to organise collective action to protect the rights of its entire membership to a safe workplace. Conference resolves to:

  1. take any necessary action to protect the safety of our members
  2. organise with branches to declare disputes and organise industrial action ballots where unnecessary face to face provision continues.


3 Composite: Section 44 of Employment Rights Act 1996 - University of Dundee, University of Exeter

SHES conference notes

  1. Section 44 Clause 1 (d) and (e) Employment Rights Act 1996, that details the right of any worker to refuse to work in conditions which involve serious and imminent danger
  2. the rising daily number of reported Covid-19 infection in the UK, and the evolving scientific advice to universities on the novel coronavirus, including 04-09-2020 SAGE and 21-08-2020 Independent SAGE reports, clearly stating that outbreaks are 'highly likely' as well as dangerous
  3. pressure being put on staff in HE and FE institutions to return to campus despite there being no operational requirement to do so, meaning that  that many UCU members are currently expected to work under conditions that may endanger the health and lives of staff, students and communities
  4. the excellent work currently being carried out by UCU officers and branches in relation to Covid-19.

Conference resolves:

  1. to supply all branches with clear guidelines on the rights of workers to refuse to work in dangerous conditions
  2. to immediately launch a campaign advising all members of their rights under ERA 1996, not to be subjected to any detriment by any act, or any deliberate failure to act, by their employer. In particular members should be reminded that under the Act that where 'in circumstances of danger'... 'reasonably believed to be serious and imminent' employees are entitled to take appropriate steps to protect themselves or others. This may include a refusal to return to campus or to leave campus
  3. to provide full material and political support to members and branches who refuse to work in conditions which they judge to involve serious and imminent danger for themselves or others
  4. to support all members who need to work online for any reason.


4  Covid-age calculators and inequality - Birmingham City University

Conference notes:

  1. UCU's national position on suspending face-to-face teaching in Semester 1
  2. the use of the ALAMA Covid-Age calculator for carrying out individual risk assessments
  3. the Covid-age calculator classes young workers-particularly young female workers - as at less risk of complications if they are infected with Covid-19
  4. young female members are more likely to be in junior roles and casualised jobs, and therefore more vulnerable to exploitation
  5. the impact of the pandemic on female academics' research time.

Conference believes:

  1. the Covid-age calculator individualises risks and is therefore inadequate
  2. institutions should not pit health and safety against equality
  3. junior and casualised staff should not be pressurised into face-to-face teaching
  4. face-to-face teaching should be suspended until safe.

Conference resolves for bargaining guidance to be issued on:

  1. challenging the Covid-age calculator
  2. protecting early career academics against exploitation and health and safety risks
  3. Equality Impact Assessments on staff demographics prioritised for face-to-face teaching.


5  Disabled members: Covid and accessibility - Higher education committee

Conference deplores:

  1. the discrimination and disadvantage experienced by most disabled members due to stereotypical attitudes, no reasonable adjustments, abuse of capability, increased casualisation risk
  2. the worsening of the situation of many disabled members under Covid.

Conference affirms the right of disabled members to:

  1. be treated with respect
  2. receive reasonable adjustments promptly
  3. be consulted about policy and practice changes and these to be equality impact assessed
  4. not have health risked by unsafe return to workplace or be forced to declare disability or health conditions (see Disabled members' statement).

Conference calls on HEC and branches to campaign for UK-wide and local agreements on:

  1. consultation with disabled members and equality impact assessment of all changes to policy and practice including online teaching
  2. proactive, supportive and speedy provision of reasonable adjustments, including reductions in hours but not pay
  3. mandatory disability equality training for managers.


6  Covid-19, virtual learning and workloads - UCU Scotland

Conference notes the swift and effective way that staff across the sector worked in mid-March to move learning, research and student support to virtual and online platforms to ensure that education could continue in the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown. The transition to remote working, along with the extensive preparations for the new academic year - which has often included a range of different contingency plans, such as in person and virtual teaching - has increased the already astronomical workloads of staff in the sector. The shift to online learning and virtual education also raises a range of ethical, pedagogical and technical questions.  

Conference calls on the union to renew and update its bargaining guidance on virtual and online learning, drawing on the recent UCU Scotland commissioned report 'The Automatic University'; and to support branches with local workload claims in light of Covid-19.


7  Higher education funding and international student fees - Higher education committee

Conference notes:

  1. the potential financial crisis in many universities, with managements threatening pay cuts and compulsory redundancies
  2. the role played by over- reliance on international student fee income in this crisis
  3. universities use international students as 'cash cows' to plug government funding shortfalls, and fund building programmes and high senior staff pay
  4. current high international student fees prevent students from less wealthy backgrounds and countries from attending UK universities
  5. current large, mostly international courses do not provide a quality learning experience for students
  6. international students' experience of the hostile environment.

Conference affirms that international student recruitment should be shaped by the educational benefits of internationalisation, rather than financial priorities.

The conference calls for sustainable government funding of UK HE, an end to reliance on unsustainable international student fee income and a reduction in the international student fee to enable less well-off students to attend.


Section 2: Fight for jobs

8  Composite: For a sector-wide fight over jobs - University College London, Higher education committee

Conference notes the successful mobilisation of members in the 'Four Fights' campaign and the fact that the existing 2020-21 claim builds on it.

Conference calls for a new claim building on the existing joint union JNCHES claim. There should be no retreat on pay, while at the same time we should build a serious, detailed fight on jobs.

Conference resolves that the new claim should include the following concrete demands:

  1. UK-wide agreed minimum standards for local policies including:
    1. redundancy collective and individual consultation
    2. redeployment and other forms of redundancy avoidance
    3. extending minimum notice periods from three to six months
    4. enshrining equal treatment for fixed term and hourly paid staff, and building in thorough equality monitoring
  2. a sector-wide agreement for redeployment between universities and colleges, facilitated by the current online working conditions, with a JNCHES consultative subcommittee to oversee it.


9  Fighting the marketisation of higher education - University of Liverpool

Conference notes the impact of Covid has precipitated attacks on precarious colleagues and terms and conditions of employment across universities which breach the 2004 Higher Education pay framework agreement.

Conference further notes the continued excessive levels of pay of senior management across the higher education sector and over £5 billion of capital expenditure in 2018/19.

Conference resolves to fight back against the ruinous impact of a marketised higher education sector through:

  1. seeking to end gross pay inequality by introducing a 1:6 pay ratio for all university staff at the centre of all future claims
  2. immediately creating a comprehensive range of resources to enable branches to access financial information to inform collective bargaining
  3. establishing a commission to develop a new pay framework agreement that is fit for purpose.


9A.1 University of Sheffield

Amend resolves 1 as follows:
  1. seeking to end gross pay inequality by campaigning for a 1:6 pay ratio between the lowest paid university staff and the highest paid, including VCs and senior management teams, and to incorporate this demand into future bargaining rounds.



10  Composite: To include a UK-wide GTA contract in UCEA framework - University of Manchester, University of Glasgow, Queen Mary University of London

HESC notes that during Covid-19 GTAs were most at risk of job loss and uncertainty. These did not appear in statistics due to the nature of casual contracts. Further, UCU's and Pandemic PGRs' surveys revealed inter- and intra institutional disparities of contractual agreements across the UK. This lack of transparency and accountability is a key contributor of casualisation within the sector over which UCU is in dispute with the employers in its Four Fights campaign.

HESC resolves:

  1. to include a UK-wide GTA contract in its sector-wide framework negotiations
  2. that this contract outlines an appropriate workload allocation mechanism, guarantees all GTA's are paid at the same pay grade (TBC); paid training, and access to the same rights and entitlements as all permanent members of staff
  3. to ensure all labour is paid for what it is worth and ensure scholarships do not have an unpaid work requirement in line with UKRI policy
  4. this demand should be included in all future negotiations with UCEA.

CBC advice: if amendment 10A.1 is passed, amendment 10A.2 will fall.


10A.1  University of Sheffield

Replace existing points 1 and 2 with:

  1. to include demands that GTA work occur on a contracted basis in our national bargaining
  2. that GTA contracts include an appropriate workload allocation mechanism, guarantee that all GTAs are paid at the appropriate grade for the work they are conducting; receive paid training, and have access to the same rights and entitlements as all permanent members of staff


10A.2  University of Glasgow

In point 2 replace

'guarantees all GTA's are paid at the same pay grade' with

'guarantees all GTAs are paid on the same pay scale as other staff in their institution, all start at the same pay grade and receive an increment each year'.


11  Acknowledge postgraduate researchers as members of staff - University of Glasgow

Covid-19 exposed the contradiction of PGRs being viewed as students rather than staff. Open letters revealed that like staff's, PGRs' work was affected by the pandemic, however, because of their student status PGRs were unable to access neither employer nor government support such as benefits and furlough. Instead of being paid for their work, PGRs pay to do the work on which Universities and companies' profit. This is contrary to practice in other sectors (graduate training schemes) and countries, where PGRs would not be seen as students, but workers. The unpaid research labour of PGRs cements the expectation of unpaid labour throughout academic careers, which contributes to the workload and casualisation crisis in the sector.

HESC resolves to establish a principle that acknowledges original postgraduate research as labour like any other work at universities and resolves to campaign for PGRs to be recognised as members of staff.


12  Supporting fixed-term contract staff in higher education - University of Sheffield

Conference notes employers' exploitation of Covid-19 in the form of attacks on jobs, pay and conditions include non-renewal of fixed-term contracts and non-engagement of casual workers

Conference believes:

  1. FTC staff are routinely made redundant on the basis of their contract and treated less favourably than permanent staff, in breach of the law
  2. casualisation is an endemic, structural issue in HE
  3. all employers should fully comply with the law on parity among open-ended and FTC staff.

Conference resolves:

  1. UCU should explore a UK-wide legal action against employers who refuse to abide by the Fixed Term Employees (Prevention of Less Favourable Treatment) Regulations 2002
  2. UCU should consider a nation-wide campaign empowering and supporting FTC staff in securing a fair treatment, and wherever legally entitled, a permanent contract, in light of existing regulations.


Section 3: Industrial action strategy

13  Fighting for national employment standards - Anti casualisation committee

SHESC notes:

  1. that the 'expectations' on employment arrangements in HE discussed in UCEA's most recent offer on the Four Fights dispute represents a significant step forward in the fight against casualisation in HE
  2. that if these 'expectations' were turned into binding national employment standards in HE, this would represent a huge win for our union
  3. that UK HE is highly dependent on hyper-exploited casualised labour, and that it will require serious industrial leverage to push employers to agree to binding national standards of employment.

SHESC resolves:

  1. to make securing national employment standards a key part of any new claim put forward to UCEA
  2. to build a campaign of escalating industrial action over this academic year, supplemented by a wide range of effective ASOS and assessment boycotts, designed to maximise leverage through targeted disruption of assessment periods.


14  Covid-19 and casualisation - University of Liverpool

HESC notes the reaction of the HE sector to the Covid-19 Pandemic and the mass attacks on casualised workers.

HESC recognises the efforts made by members during the 2019/20 Four Fights dispute and the enormity of the struggle expected to overturn the HE sector in response to the previous and future four fights claim/s.

HESC acknowledges the 8 and 14 day periods of action and that this was not enough to win such an extensive dispute.

HESC recommends

  1. the next ballot should be dis-aggregated
  2. run from late autumn for two months ending on Jan 29th 2021
  3. all ballots should be posted to members home addresses
  4. members commit to escalating UCU's approach to sustained, effective industrial action
  5. free members should have the opportunity to vote for industrial action.


14A.1  University of Birmingham

[Add] HESC resolves: to instruct UCU to give twice weekly 'live' updates to branch officers on turnout through the ballot period during any future industrial HE ballots.


14A.2  University of Sussex

Add - HEC should call a branch delegate meeting within two weeks of the results of the ballot being announced.


15  Survey of members and escalating industrial action strategy - University of Sheffield

HESC notes

  1. HE employers are using Covid 19 to justify threatening job security, pay, and conditions
  2. UCEA's proposed 0% pay adjustment for the 2020 bargaining round
  3. the fundamental importance of member involvement in and ownership of dispute planning.

HESC resolves to

  1. conduct a qualitative survey of members in October-November 2020 to determine levels of support across a range of industrial actions (IA), the potential impact of these actions on employers, and what concrete demands members prioritise in a dispute claim
  2. engage qualitative researcher(s) to analyse the data
  3. develop a plan for gradually escalating IA based on the results, beginning with ASOS and boycotting a range of activities reflecting members' different job roles, and eventually culminating in strike action
  4. run an IA ballot beginning December 2020, including actions which reflect survey findings
  5. develop online materials on the IA strategy and make them available during the ballot and any subsequent IA.


15A.1  University of Birmingham

[Add] HESC resolves: to instruct UCU to give twice weekly 'live' updates to branch officers on turnout through the ballot period during any future industrial HE ballots.


16  Disaggregated ballots  - Lancaster University

Conference notes:

  1. the anti-union laws require a 50% turnout in postal ballots for industrial action to be legitimate
  2. UCU has developed a successful strategy to get the vote out, that has delivered UK-wide industrial action on pensions, pay, casualisation, workloads and equality.

Conference believes:

  1. we have to respond to the anti-union laws by maximising the opportunity for successful industrial action ballots
  2. the question of aggregating or disaggregating ballots is a tactical question, not one of principle.

Conference resolves:

  1. to continue to use disaggregated ballots, and
  2. to campaign for electronic voting for trade union ballots.


Last updated: 17 August 2021