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In the news 12 July 2019

Racism in universities is "widespread and widely tolerated"

On Saturday, the Guardian ran a huge expose of racism of university campuses. The paper said its findings, from Freedom of Information requests and speaking to dozens of black and minority ethnic (BAME) staff and students, painted a damning picture of British universities. Complaints ranged from overt racism, including assaults, monkey chants, the N-word and other verbal abuse, to institutional and structural racism, indirect racial discrimination and microaggressions.

Featuring testimonies from those interviewed, a further piece described how scores of BAME students and staff told the paper that they were dissuaded from making official complaints and either dropped their allegations or settled for an informal resolution. They said white university staff were often reluctant to address racism, with racial slurs treated as banter or an inevitable byproduct of freedom of speech, and poorly recognised institutional racism.

Welcoming the Guardian's efforts to expose the problem on the paper's letters page, a number of UCU officers highlighted UCU's campaigning with Stand Up to Racism to try to break the wall of silence about racism on campus. They said that the fact that universities were refusing to even consider that racism might exist in their own practices was an outrage.


Number of BAME college heads drops to less than 7 per cent

Meanwhile, analysis by FE Week released today shows that the number of colleges led by a non-white principal has fallen to a low of less than 7 per cent.

The magazine said that a number of initiatives to encourage and support BAME leadership have stalled in recent years and now four of the nine regions in England have no ethnic minority principals at all.

Data released by the Education & Training Foundation last year revealed that 9.8 per cent of college principals or chief executives were from a BAME background. While some of the fall this year is likely to have occurred partly because of college mergers, FE Week said the proportion of non-white college bosses was not reflective of wider society as the 2011 census said the BAME population was 13 per cent.

Protests at University of Portsmouth in jobs row

Staff and students protesting against job cuts in the science department at the University of Portsmouth took their message to the university's governors on Wednesday. UCU wants the board to use its influence to halt planned science department job cuts. There are 123 academic posts at risk in the faculty of science and up to 50 jobs could go.

Following similar protests last month, UCU declared an official dispute with the university over the plans to cut jobs. The union wants the university to rule out compulsory job cuts and implement a voluntary redundancy scheme.

Speaking to the BBC, UCU regional official Moray McAulay said: 'If the University of Portsmouth does not rule out compulsory redundancies then it is difficult to see how we can avoid a ballot for strike action amongst UCU members'. While Dr James Smith told the BBC evening news (starts at 8:49) that people who had dedicated their lives to working at the university were suffering.


Ruskin College under fire for trade union victimisation

Ruskin College in Oxford has been accused of trade union victimisation following a string of disciplinary and redundancy threats directed at UCU members. Three union reps are facing disciplinary investigations. One of them, Lee Humber, suspended for "spurious reasons" just days after the local branch passed a motion of no confidence in the principal.

The three staff under investigation and another two members of staff - both union members - have now been placed at risk of redundancy. The college wants to axe four of the posts and move the other one on to a fixed-term contract. That would reduce the core higher education teaching team at Ruskin from 12 to eight.

Speaking to the Oxford Mail, UCU acting general secretary Paul Cottrell said: 'Ruskin College's response to challenging financial problems and a lack of confidence from the staff should be to address the issues head on, not shoot the messengers. Staff and students have made it clear they have no faith in the direction the management is heading.'


Universities surprise no one with jobs threat as autumn strikes loom large

In a wholly predictable article this week, the employers said thousands of jobs would be at risk if universities were to meet UCU's demands that USS pensions do not increase in cost for members and that their benefits are not cut.

That argument is one that comes out every time a dispute is on the cards and UCU said the employers needed to do better and properly engage with the union.

Speaking to the Financial Times, Paul Cottrell said: 'The time has come for universities to fully engage with us on the issue of staff pensions rather than threaten job cuts. In recent years university income spent on staff has fallen not risen and the time has come for universities to stand up for and with staff.'


UCU backs plans to put workers at heart of transition to greener economy

UCU has backed plans from the TUC to ensure that the needs of working people are met in the transition to a low-carbon greener economy. The TUC has called for a cross-party commission, which includes unions, consumers and business, to plan a clear and funded path to a low-carbon economy.

UCU is taking a motion to the TUC Congress in September urging people to back a 30-minute solidarity climate stoppage with school students on 20 September. The strike will initiate a week of climate action. The union is also asking people to show their support for the stoppage by signing this petition.

UCU acting general secretary Paul Cottrell said: 'A properly-funded education system is vital if we are to deliver focused and appropriate skills training as part of the move towards a greener economy. We share the TUC's vision and wholeheartedly back plans to put workers at the heart of just transition planning.'

Writing in Times Higher Education this week, the vice-chancellor of the University of Winchester said universities were "sleepwalking into a major environmental disaster." Joy Carter said she wanted universities to put climate change at the top of their agendas as they were currently doing "nowhere near enough" to tackle the problem.


Higher education sector is at breaking point

Writing anonymously for Times Higher Education this week, one academic says that following the 2008 global financial crisis, employers in all industries made redundancies or opted not to replace departing staff. This was not necessarily because there was less work to be done: it was a simple, bearish response to uncertainty that capitalised on a climate in which messages such as "we all have to work a little harder to manage" and "you're lucky to still have a job" were an easy sell.

The author says that the trend of doing more with less (fewer) has been sustained in UK higher education. But, 11 years on from the credit crunch, the evidence is mounting that the sector is reaching breaking point.

The author refers last week's UCU report on casualisation that revealed that 71 per cent of respondents to a survey believed that their mental health had been damaged by working on the insecure contracts that have proliferated in recent years. And to a paper on mental health by the Higher Education Policy Institute in May that revealed increases in the numbers of staff reaching out for help.


Highbury College principal's £5,000 phone bill and silence on first class flights

The principal of a college facing calls to come clean on its expenses racked up a £5,000 phone and data bill in four years, figures obtained by the Portsmouth News this week revealed. UCU said the expenditure by Stella Mbubaegbu at Highbury College in Portsmouth sent a "damaging message" to staff.

FE Week has been trying to uncover the extent of spending by the college on first class flights, but has had its Freedom of Information request for those details, as well as all spending on the college's corporate card, refused.

Speaking to FE Week, UCU regional official, Moray McAulay, said: 'Holding down staff pay while racking up thousands of pounds worth of expenses on international ventures sends a damaging message that it's one rule for staff and another for the principal. The college should ensure that staff are its top priority when it comes to spending in the future.'


How a nurse pays more for a degree than a banker

A report from the Progressive Economy Forum this week set out why the Augar review fails and how even more of the evidence points strongly to abolishing tuition fees. Writing in the Guardian, Danny Dorling set out the injustices of the system where a nurse pays off more than a banker.

He said if both graduate with a debt of £44,000, the nurse will never fully pay off the debt, but the banker will do so in 17 years, accruing £11,000 in interest. The banker's total repayments will be £55,000; the nurse's £59,000, £18,000 of it interest. He argues that the system locks in gross inequality and if we want a more equal society, we will have to scrap it.

Last updated: 12 July 2019