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The Weekly paper of the New Communist Party of Britain


Academia also

by New Worker correspondent

ON MONDAY the University and College Union (UCU) will once again be balloting for strike action in 149 universities across the country, in its long-term campaign on pensions, pay and working conditions.

Ballots originally took place last October, but under Tory laws the mandates to take industrial action will end on in early May, with disputes unresolved.

Staff at 65 universities in the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) will be balloted over pension cuts, and staff at 143 universities will be balloted over pay and working conditions. Some universities will face ballots in both disputes, others just one. If successful, action short of strike such as a marking and assessment boycott will begin in the Easter Term. That could stop hundreds of thousands of students from graduating.

The pensions question is particularly important. In February bosses forced through 35 per cent cuts to the nationwide pension scheme. UCU demands that employers revoke these cuts and re-opens negotiations. At the same time, UCU complains that real-terms pay is now down by a quarter since 2009. More than 70,000 academics are on insecure contracts.

UCU also wants to see an end of race, gender and disability pay injustice; an end to zero-hours and other insecure contracts; reductions in unmanageable workloads; and a £2,500 pay rise for all university employees. This is affordable says UCU, as the universities’ own figures show total income across the sector is around £41.9 billion with reserves of £46.8 billion.

UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: “Vice-chancellors are refusing to withdraw devastating cuts to pensions and continue to ignore reasonable staff demands for better pay and working conditions. This intransigence has left those who work in our universities with no choice but to re-open ballots across the UK.”

There are also a number of local issues affecting universities and colleges. At that great seat of learning that is Staffordshire University, members of UCU have voted by 70 per cent in favour of strike action in opposition to management plans to employ any new staff via a wholly owned subsidiary company, which would create a two-tier workforce. Even more voted in favour of action short of a strike such as working strictly to contract, refusing to cover for colleagues and refusing to undertake voluntary activities.

If implemented, the university’s plan would see new academic staff on different contractual terms to those of existing employees and would also find themselves under different management and direction, which would destroy cohesion and create a poor working environment.

inferior

In addition, new staff will not be able to access the defined benefit Teachers’ Pension Scheme and instead will be forced to accept the inferior defined contribution Staffordshire University Pension Scheme. UCU points out that no other university has denied academic staff access to the nationally agreed scheme for the sector.

Anne O’Sullivan, their regional official, said: “This huge vote for strike action should make management end plans to put staff onto inferior contracts with inferior pensions. Staffordshire’s plans are an attack on our hard-won terms and conditions. Unless they are withdrawn staff will stage a one-day walkout later this month with further industrial action likely.”

She warned that: “As well as facing strike action, unless the university abandons plans to create a two-tier work force, it will also struggle to attract and retain staff who will look to work elsewhere. This will lead to a devastating impact on student learning, threatening the university’s future.”

Meanwhile, at the University of Sheffield International College (USIC), run by the Study Group, a private company, UCU members have voted by 79 per cent in favour of strike action to demand improved holidays and pay. In particular, they deplore that they are not getting a cost-of-living pay offer for 2021 want an equalised holiday allowance to 30 days for all staff. To this end they want a four per cent pay rise and an increase of five additional days holiday.

In the further education sector, Abingdon & Witney College’s staff were told that they would not be getting a pay rise above the one per cent imposed in December – but to compensate the head of human resources helpfully told employed staff that they could use the campus foodbanks that had originally been set up for students. Even more compassionately, donated items would be moved to a “more confidential space” to avoid any shame in collecting free groceries.

This is just one case out of 183 English colleges where balloting for industrial action is taking place over a claim for a 10 per cent pay rise for next academic year. UCU claims that since 2009, pay in further education has slumped by more than a third after inflation has been accounted for.

reduced

UCU is also demanding a charter for “professional respect” in further education, this includes demands for a reduced workload.

Whilst the Tories have announced an 8.4 per cent increase in funding for the 16–17-years-old sector in England, the union wants to see this going on lecturers’ salaries rather than fancy new buildings.

North of the Border, the further education section of the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS-FELA) is also balloting for action over a pay claim.

miserable

This came after the employers have failed to increase the current miserable offer. Larry Flanagan, the union’s General Secretary, said: “College lecturers, across Scotland, have stood up and delivered during the course of the COVID‑19 pandemic, despite a recent EIS survey clearly showing that they have experienced higher levels of stress, uncertainty and significantly increased workloads,” but: “The final pay offer for college lecturers in no way reflects the hard work of college lecturers, their commitment to their students and does not even begin to address the cost-of-living crisis beginning to bite in their households.”

Further down the educational food-chain, in schools, the union notes that: “Currently, around 10 per cent of Scotland’s teachers are employed on short-term and temporary contracts. This is a scandal that local authorities must commit to tackling as a matter of urgency” said Flanagan, in launching the union’s Manifesto for the council elections.

The Manifesto also calls for increased investment in the teacher workforce, including the recruitment of additional teachers to support education recovery, and urgent improvements in support for teacher well-being, including mental health, in the wake of the COVID‑19 pandemic.