There is a national push in universities to restructure, cut jobs and weaken unions, but higher education workers are fighting back, reports Vladimir Unkovski-Korica
There is a growing fightback against job cuts in the higher education sector that deserves broad solidarity in our movement from branches across the country.
Strikes, strike ballots, action short of strike, and petitions have been used in response to employers citing financial setbacks or risks arising from the Covid-19 pandemic to justify restructuring including redundancies.
In reality, many of the restructuring plans had been attempted before the pandemic, but the situation of uncertainty is giving management the confidence to test the ground and push forward.
There were already over 3,000 redundancies from March to September 2020, many of those on fixed-term contracts, underlining the reliance on precarious work in the sector. According to some accounts, around 40 percent of all academic staff are part-time or fixed-term.
But, in recent weeks, over ten universities have announced plans to cut jobs. These include Brighton, Central Lancashire, Dundee, Goldsmiths, Hull, Leeds, Leicester, Liverpool, Senate House, Solent and University of East London.
Meanwhile, despite hearing that UCAS applications are up for 2021/2 and that interest from international students is on the rise, staff at the University of York have been told that redundancies would not be implemented ‘at this this stage’ but could not be ruled out later down the line.
Worryingly, local branches have expressed fears that managements are targeting union activists as part of their restructuring plans.
At the University of Hull, the attack started with the sacking of the UCU branch president, before the announcement of the suspension of modern language provision, less than two years after restructuring had occurred.
At UEL, the union branch has accused management of trying to stifle opposition by sacking five well-known union members, including the chair and vice-chair of the union’s executive committee.
At Goldsmiths, an email was sent to members saying that staff with caring responsibilities taking part in the union’s boycott of assessments would be ineligible for furlough. Clearly, this would hit women staff disproportionately, on top of having an anti-strike effect.
No wonder there is mounting anger among staff across the country. Despite working harder in the last year than for many years in the most difficult conditions, they are now being rewarded with job uncertainty and threats of dismissal.
Fighting back is often popular for this reason – and has so far got results. A trend has emerged that has seen local UCU branches work with student activists to organise campaigns and threaten or take strike action, resulting in at least partial victories.
This was first achieved before the Christmas break with the defeat of management threats to impose compulsory redundancies at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh after the union set six days of strike action in November 2020. There were, however, voluntary redundancies.
Similarly, in Brighton, although UCU and Unison were unable to coordinate a fightback, UCU managed to gain a negotiated settlement for a member after five days of strike action in November and more threatened in February. However, there is an ongoing dispute about further planned job cuts.
Solent University: emblematic
At Solent, restructuring had already led to the loss of up to one hundred staff by a new, heavy-handed management. Some were forced to re-apply for their re-structured positions, some were re-graded down two levels, and others were bullied for raising questions.
There was deep discontent because of the secretive way that valuations were made, and the restructuring carried out.
The response by the local UCU branch was to mount a major campaign that led to a strong 57.6% turnout with 72.8% for strike action and 94% for action short of strike, announced on 20th January.
On 9th February, however, UCU negotiators agreed to put suspension of industrial action to a vote, after obtaining a written commitment that there would be no new job cuts until February 2022. The deal has been put to members with a recommendation to accept, despite the threat of continuing compulsory redundancies targeting a number of remaining at-risk staff.
If a resolution to the dispute is not achieved at Solent, union members may well be thinking that enacting strike action sooner rather than later may have got better results. Others may draw similar lessons. Indeed, across the country, more and more branches are considering or taking action.
Strikes are ongoing at UEL, while an assessment boycott at Goldsmiths has entered its seventh week at the time of writing. Union activists there boasted an impressive 60% turnout on a ballot which registered over 90% in favour of action short of a strike including an assessment boycott and 70% for strike action.
Meanwhile Dundee, Leeds, Leicester, Liverpool and Reading are in dispute with their employers over job cuts.
Were it not for anti-union laws, which require a 50% turnout in industrial ballots, more branches would be out. University of Birmingham, for example, was unable to mount strike action related to working conditions despite 80% voting in favour because it fell short on turnout.
Nevertheless, it continues to be possible to organise a fightback even without meeting the 50% threshold. An impressive national and international campaign against St Andrew’s University failure to renew the contract of the female director of its Institute for Gender Studies is an example. StAndWithAlison has collected over two thousand signature in a matter of days in mid-February.
The way forward
Although it is undoubtedly hard to organise in this time of pandemic, branch after branch has shown that determination can pay off.
Online meetings and rallies, student support, and wider union solidarity has been key to sustaining action when it has occurred.
But it is clear that there is a national push to restructure, cut jobs and weaken unions. This is part and parcel of the project of marketisation of higher education which has seen workloads increase year on year, pay fall, a gender and BAME pay gap continue, casualisation run rife, and a mental health pandemic spread over two decades.
The Covid-19 pandemic has only intensified this trend. The derisory offer from employers on pay for 2020-21 was confirmation that they do not value the extra work put in by staff in this pandemic year.
Employers clearly have the support of a nasty right-wing government, whose recent decision to police free speech is just one recent example of its culture wars approach to higher education. The drive to adopt the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism is another.
There will be more attacks, attempts to gag employees and unions, and pass the cost of past management mistakes on to staff.
We should not accept this. Fighting back can be stressful and risky, but not fighting back will lead to defeat and demoralisation.
To fight back successfully, we urgently need to foster branch solidarity networks nationwide and we crucially need a resolute and militant nationwide response from UCU.
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