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Des Freedman and Gholam Khiabany

Des Freedman and Gholam Khiabany. Photos: Goldsmiths UCU

The attack on Des Freedman and Gholam Khiabany, two respected academics at Goldsmiths, is an attack not just on these individuals but on the whole union

Two respected academics at Goldsmiths have been effectively suspended by an intransigent and aggressive management for communicating with students about the impact of industrial action on their results. Des Freedman and Gholam Khiabany, the Head and Deputy Head of the Department of Media, Communications and Cultural Studies (MCCS), were removed from their duties at the university almost four weeks ago and still have not returned to work. Management have never publicly contradicted the email Des and Gholam sent, but instead sent a similar one to students – though less comforting and more confusing – a few days later.

The suspensions have shocked the sector, and many suspect that this is an attempt by management to decapitate a radical leadership in a radical department, one whose staff know what the marketisation of education represents and who teach their students about the impact of neoliberalism more generally. Hundreds of people have written letters of support and thousands have signed a petition calling for their immediate reinstatement.

Goldsmiths University and College Union (GUCU) has conducted a crucial campaign against redundancies and restructuring for the past year, one that has had reverberations across the university sector. Members have taken 37 days of strike action and have been engaged up until this week in one of the few remaining marking boycotts after several universities declared action earlier this year. Dozens of UCU branches at universities around the country have passed motions in solidarity with Goldsmiths and donated to the #GoldStrike fund.

Many in the university sector have been watching Goldsmiths this past year – both UCU branches and university managements – because the outcome of this crucial fight will be a portent to the wider fightback against marketisation and the rolling back of pay and decent working conditions. For a long time, Goldsmiths UCU has been one of the strongest UCU branches in the country. Trade unionists have been central to challenging the neoliberalisation of the College for years, but in particular since Frances Corner became Warden in 2019. The branch launched an important campaign of no confidence in the Warden, exposed her scandalous record of claiming expenses and constantly questions her lack of vision and commitment to HE. It has also worked to understand Goldsmiths’ finances and dubious links to banking partners. Recently Des Freedman himself wrote a scathing critique of management’s use of KPMG to help draw up plans to restructure the university, including centralising administration and quantifying the value of every academic programme towards efficiency savings.

A deal was agreed on Friday between GUCU and management which, while unable to stop 17 job losses in the first ‘tranche’ of management’s so-called Recovery Programme, nevertheless provided assurances of no compulsory redundancies in subsequent tranches, and no pay docking in relation to the marking boycott. This at least stands in stark contrast to Queen Mary, where a number of lecturers have suffered 100% pay deductions for engaging in a marking boycott to defend pay and conditions.

Lecturers will have three weeks to return marks, which brings the boycott to an orderly end, as opposed to it fizzling out. This is important for staff morale. The College also agreed to review the current process of reviewing and managing academic fixed-term contracts, maintain budgets for fixed-term staff and conduct Equalities Impact Assessments (EIAs) for any future restructuring and a retrospective EIA for the first tranche of the restructure. Management has also agreed that where staff moved into new roles as part of the first tranche, those roles would not be in scope for redundancy for three years. All those who are being made redundant would be offered enhanced severance pay.

Although down from the planned 52 redundancies, the loss of 17 colleagues is a travesty and part of an emerging pattern of trade union victimisation. Of the 17 redundancies made, four were women trade unionists and active in the branch, and one of whom was co-president of the branch. It’s quite clear that management sees the union as an obstacle to pushing through its restructuring and wanted this battle in order to weaken the branch. GUCU, however, put up a real and sustained fight against senior management’s plans and the deal represents a significant achievement in at least protecting jobs in forthcoming tranches of the Recovery Programme.

The suspension of Des and Gholam, who are active trade unionists, reveals where management is at: they seek to target those people who challenge their cuts programme, through industrial action and otherwise, and who dare to communicate to students the truth about the consequences of management’s actions. For an email that was intended to relieve student anxieties, the response was not only punitive and disproportionate but absurd.

The focus of activity now needs to shift to put pressure on Goldsmiths’ management to reinstate Des and Gholam. If management can get away with sacking and disciplining leading activist voices in the College, they will have the confidence to keep coming back for more. It is imperative that the branch remains united over the issue of reinstatement, and then throws itself into the national action in the autumn.

Goldsmiths’ management has proven itself to be one of the most ruthless in the sector, perhaps only rivalling Queen Mary’s management, and therefore it is vital that trade unionists from across the country come together to defend Des and Gholam. UCU branches can pass the motion that Goldsmiths UCU overwhelmingly passed a few weeks ago and sign the international petition, which now has over 4000 signatures. On Monday 1 August from 12-2pm there will be a Twitter storm – follow @GoldsmithsUCU to participate.

There are certain universities who serve as lynchpins for the wider fight in the sector. Goldsmiths is one of them. Reinstating Des and Gholam is a crucial demand but the union as a whole needs to organise and prepare itself in order to break through the 50% threshold for the aggregated ballot called for the autumn. UCU must see itself as part of the wider trade union movement that is now on the rise, and which could take co-ordinated action in the autumn. Now is the time to defend the future of HE in this country, for both staff and students, and defend the trade unionists fighting for that future.

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