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In the news 24 May 2019

Jo Grady elected UCU general secretary

Jo Grady has been elected UCU general secretary on a record turnout. The senior lecturer in employment relations at the University of Sheffield secured 64% of the vote after the second round of counting.

The other candidates were UCU's national head of policy and campaigns Matt Waddup, and the president of the University of Liverpool UCU branch Jo McNeil.The turnout was 20.5%, compared with a previous high of 14.4% in 2007 and 13.7% in 2017.

Jo Grady said: 'This victory was won by, and for, the members of UCU. We have chosen to start a new chapter of open and democratic leadership in our union at a time of extraordinary challenges for all staff who work in tertiary education, from the pressures of volatile funding regimes to the indignities of Brexit and the Hostile Environment.

'We can meet and overcome those challenges because we are skilful, dedicated, passionate people, and we know we deserve better. Expectations are high. I have been given an overwhelming mandate on the back of a hugely improved turnout. I look forward to carrying out that mandate by working with UCU's outstanding staff and harnessing the talent and commitment of our members.'

The full result can be found here and the votes per round of voting here.


Excessive workloads and lack of job security behind rise in stress at universities 

There was a 77% increase in the number of university staff accessing counselling services between 2009 and 2015, according to a report released yesterday. The report, by Liz Morrish for the Higher Education Policy Institute, said excessive workloads, a lack of job security and management demands were behind a surge in stress levels for staff.

UCU said universities had to think seriously about how they respond to the needs of staff seeking support and how to deal with the root causes of rising stress levels. Speaking to the BBC, UCU acting general secretary Paul Cottrell said: 'Excessive workloads, a lack of job security and managers obsessed with league tables and rankings have blighted the sector for years, and this report lays bare the negative impact those working conditions have on the mental health of staff.'

Paul told the Guardian that staff were at breaking point and unless there was a sea change in how the government and universities treated staff, the number of people seeking help was likely to rise.

The Hepi report came just days after reports from the Education Support Partnership charity reported in the Guardian found that academics are often isolated and anxious and that 55% of higher education professionals describe themselves as stressed, while nearly four in 10 had considered leaving the sector as a result of health pressures.

Yesterday Times Higher Education ran a piece from an academic who said that 18 months after finally earning her doctorate, she is no longer sure she wants to remain in the sector. UCU has launched a campaign called 'It's your time' to address this critical issue, developing a suite of resources to help branches challenge the current culture and secure agreements that protect staff.


USS whistleblower claims ignored, a scheme member looking to leave and a leaked letter

The Universities Superannuation Scheme was back in the news this week after one member institution said it wanted to leave the scheme, a whistleblower said she had been obstructed in her efforts to establish whether the USS' reported deficit was exaggerated and a leaked letter from the Pensions Regulator said it had "grave concerns" about one of the proposals put forward by USS on future contributions.

With regards to Trinity College, Cambridge looking to leave USS, UCU said the cost to Trinity's reputation from leaving the scheme would be far greater than the tiny risk of being left to carry the can for pensions if the higher education sector collapses. Locally, staff have condemned the move and said they will refuse to engage with Trinity if it opts to exit the scheme.

Responding to the whistleblower's concerns, the union said her claims had to be properly investigated and that the Joint Expert Panel won by UCU members at the end of last year's strikes was set up to examine the valuation and made a number of criticisms of the methodology.

Disputing the Pension Regulator's view that contributions of 30.7% were too low, UCU said that reforms were required to the valuation which would more accurately measure the scheme's liabilities.


Strikes suspended as Winchester University rules out compulsory job cuts

Five days of strikes due to start on Tuesday at Winchester University were suspended yesterday after the university agreed to rule out compulsory job losses. Staff were also going to start "action short of a strike" from Thursday 30 May. This would have involved strictly working to contract, not covering for absences and boycotting open days. Both the strikes and action short of a strike have been suspended.

Winchester University had said it wanted to get rid of 55 posts - around 10% of the workforce. It cited increased costs in pensions as a reason for the drastic move. Students had expressed their support for staff and held a demonstration last month. The university had also come under fire for its handling of the process, having revealed all the staff at risk of redundancy in an email.

Speaking to the Hampshire Chronicle, UCU regional official Moray McAulay said: 'We are pleased the university has belatedly ruled out compulsory redundancies and we are now in a position to cancel next week's industrial action. This dispute should act as a warning to universities not to rush into making dangerous knee-jerk decisions when faced with difficulties, but instead to work with us.'


Damning vote of no confidence in University of Surrey vice-chancellor

Staff and students at the University of Surrey have delivered a damning vote of no confidence in their vice-chancellor Max Lu and the university's executive board. Ninety-six per cent of staff who voted said they had no confidence in the vice-chancellor and the board. Eighty-four per cent of the students who took part in a separate poll said they did not believe the performance and leadership of the university governing bodies were satisfactory.

The votes were called following the publication of controversial plans to axe staff in an effort to make savings. Professor Lu has cited Brexit, a competitive student market, pensions and a review of student finance that has not yet been completed as reasons behind his plans. The union said in its view the case for cuts had not been made and staff needed to have the "spectre of uncertainty" removed.

Speaking to the Independent, UCU regional official Michael Moran said: 'Staff are unconvinced by the case put forward by the university to justify these swingeing cuts as this damning vote of no-confidence makes clear. We want a full transparent examination of the university's case and we want assurances in place now to remove the spectre of uncertainty hanging over staff.'

Last year Max Lu was making headlines for using £1,600 of university money to relocate his pet dog from Australia to the UK.


Protests at Nottingham College over threats to impose new contracts

UCU members at Nottingham College were protesting this week in a row over plans to introduce new contracts which see some staff's pay cut, despite the fact there have been no pay rises at the college for nine years. The plans would also see staff lose up to eight days' holiday, as well as cuts to sick pay and the removal of workload protections.

The Nottingham Post said staff staged lunchtime protests at sites in Stapleford, Clarendon, Basford and the city centre. A ballot of members is set to open next week.

A spokesperson for UCU said: 'Although the college claim that their proposed changes are necessary to guarantee the college's future, few of the changes they are proposing will bring financial or any other benefit to the college.'


Packed public meeting opposing Stourbridge College closure

It was standing room only on Wednesday night at a packed public meeting to bring together people fighting to stave off the closure of Stourbridge College. UCU has slammed the decision by Birmingham Metropolitan College (BMet) to sell off the college, saying learners were paying the price for poor management.

UCU has said the decision would be deeply damaging for the town and leave local learners in the lurch. Under the plans, students will be expected to travel to Dudley or Halesowen colleges to access courses from September.

The Birmingham Mail said that the shock closure of the campus comes only a few years after it underwent a £5 million pound development. Staff and students were furious as they claim they were left in lurch after finding out about the closure in the press and on social media. While the Stourbridge News reported that local MP Margot James has written to the Further Education Commissioner calling for greater transparency about the scale of debt racked up by BMet.


Home Office should have done more for international students

The Home Office should have done more to protect the rights of innocent students caught up in an English language testing scandal said a report  from the National Audit Office (NAO) today. The watchdog said that the Home Office had cancelled international students' visas without properly checking whether they had actually cheated, meaning that some people may have been wrongly accused and, in some cases, unfairly removed from the UK.

The Home Office action was launched in 2014, after a BBC Panorama investigation exposed widespread fraud at English language test centres conducting exams for the Education Testing Service (ETS).

Since the scandal, 2,468 people have been forced to leave and 391 were refused re-entry to the UK, the NAO says. In total, at least 11,356 people who took the language tests have left the country. The Guardian said the reported highlighted how the Home Office did not have the expertise to check data used to accuse students of cheating.

Last updated: 4 May 2020