STAFF at the University of Brighton have called a series of strikes over an all round attack on teaching staff, downgrading some and sacking others.
Staff will strike from 1.00pm on Friday 31 March and for two full days on 26 and 27 April.
Members of the University and College Union (UCU) at the university will also begin working to contract from next Friday, and senior lecturers will not do any work which is wholly that of a principal lecturer.
The dispute has arisen after the university breached longstanding agreements negotiated with the UCU about the working conditions of all academic staff. The union said that the multiple and persistent nature of these breaches threatens the status of the UCU as the union recognised to negotiate on behalf of academic staff at the University of Brighton.
Members strongly backed industrial action in a ballot last month, with three-quarters (77%) voting for strike action and 85% backing action short of a strike. UCU regional official, Michael Moran, said: ‘The university’s plan to downgrade teaching staff, make others redundant, and refuse promotion opportunities is an insult to hardworking staff and a serious threat to the quality of education on offer.
‘By repeatedly ignoring agreed procedures for changing working conditions, the university has also shown a blatant disregard for its employees and the union which represents them. ‘Strike action is always a last resort, but in the face of such sweeping changes staff feel they have little choice. We urge the university to sit down with UCU and explore alternatives to these damaging plans.’
Meanwhile, staff at the University of Leeds are threatening to ballot for industrial action over changes to terms and conditions as part of proposed new university statutes. The university’s statutes set out dismissal procedures which already contain many grounds such as redundancy, capability, ill health and conduct, but management want to introduce an additional catch-all dismissal clause, ‘Some Other Substantial Reason’ (SOSR), which management say could include conflict of interest, breakdown in trust and confidence, third party pressure, mistake or ignorance of law.
The union argues that these grounds contain serious threats to academic freedom and to freedom of speech. ‘Dismissing staff on grounds of making mistakes could increase a culture of blame and lack of reporting,’ the UCU said. They added: ‘Allowing third party pressure or workplace disagreement as a grounds for dismissal threatens the principled disagreement which is the essence of academic freedom. This would risk the heart of what a university should be – a community of ideas debated openly without outside interference.’
UCU branch president, Tim Goodall, said: ‘Senior management has argued that “Some Other Substantial Reason” is grounds for dismissal in employment law, but they have also exempted the vice-chancellor, deans and the HR director from statute, which seems hypocritical. The grounds for dismissal contained in the statutes are a threat to academic freedom at the university as we are calling for them to be dropped.’
• Staff at the University of Warwick forced an emergency meeting of academics on Monday over concerns that the university is seeking to ‘rip up the rule book surrounding academic freedom and employment rights.’
The UCU triggered the extraordinary meeting of the university assembly by presenting vice-chancellor Stuart Croft with a formal motion for the assembly to vote on and the requisite number of supporting signatures. It is rare for staff at the University of Warwick to take this exceptional step. They have requisitioned an assembly in this way just a handful of times in more than a decade.
The university wants to remove protections academic staff have against redundancy in what it says is merely a ‘tidying-up exercise’. It argues that the current procedures, as laid down in the university’s employment statute, are unnecessarily drawn out, ‘unclear and do not cover all staff.’
UCU says the changes are little more than a ‘race to the bottom’ in terms of rights at work and that if the university really wanted to equalise staff contracts it should offer everyone better protections, not devise ways to make sacking academics easier. Under the new rules, academic redundancy decisions will be made by heads of department and senior management, rather than by council. Appeals will be heard by two members of management, rather than an experienced, independent lawyer.
The only member of staff exempt from the new rules would be vice-chancellor Croft. The union said it fears the university is trying to rush the changes through at a university council meeting today. Council is the main decision-making body at the University of Warwick although the assembly is able to pass motions and make recommendations directly to it.
Warwick UCU president, Justine Mercer said: ‘This is a clear attempt by the university to engage in a race to the bottom when it comes to employees’ rights and academic freedom. They have consistently downplayed the significance of what they are proposing and the strength of our opposition. We have been left with no alternative but to force the vice-chancellor to schedule a meeting of all academic staff.
‘The university says the reform is a simple tidying-up exercise; we want to know why it fears proper accountability and staff security. And why the vice-chancellor would be the only staff member immune from the changes.’
• In statement entitled ‘Stamp out casual contracts’ the UCU said: ‘We believe that high quality education and fair working conditions depend on contracts that give staff stability and continuity of employment. Casualisation is bad for staff and bad for education, yet it’s endemic in our colleges and universities.
‘46% of universities and 60% of colleges use zero hours contracts to deliver teaching. 68% of research staff in higher education are on fixed term contracts, with many more dependent on short-term funding for continued employment.’
Victoria Blake, chair of the UCU’s anti-casualisation campaign, a former academic herself, left the profession two years ago after suffering a self-described breakdown. ‘In retrospect,’ she said, ‘my breakdown had been coming for a while. I woke up one day and I couldn’t go to work. I was working seven different zero hours contracts at two universities, I had teaching jobs, research assistant jobs and other academic related contracts all at the same time. I was working 70 hours a week but being paid for fewer than 40 of those. I was on less than minimum wage when I worked it out once.’
Poor pay is something felt particularly acutely by women in the sector. The average shortfall faced by female academics was £6,103 a year. Blake said: ‘You’re trying to scrape together a living overall. You’re delighted at first that you get another contract when another one’s just finishing; there’s a constant juggling of hours and how to fit things in and timetables as well. It wears you down.
‘It was difficult then because on some of my contracts I got sick pay, and on some others I didn’t. So ironically then, because of those contracts, I couldn’t afford to be sick even though my working conditions were making me sick. These stories are absolutely common to the teaching profession – I hear a lot worse even. I’m not unusual.’
Blake added: ‘So many people I know have left the profession completely because of these conditions. I’m having conversations with people all over the place who are asking if they can retrain – many as teachers; people are so desperate.’