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In the news 1 November 2019

UCU members back strikes over both pensions and pay and conditions

UCU members working in UK universities have backed strike action in ballots over both pensions and pay and working conditions. UCU said the overwhelming mandate for strikes was a serious indictment on the state of higher education and that if universities failed to respond to the sector's problems then strike action, affecting around a million students, would be inevitable.

Overall, 79% of UCU members who voted backed strike action in the ballot over changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) on a turnout of 53%. In the ballot on pay, casualisation, equality and workloads, 74% of members polled backed strike action on a turnout of 49%. The union's higher education committee is meeting today to consider the results and next steps.

Ahead of the results, the Guardian ran a feature looking at the many reasons staff were being balloted. Today, the paper described staff as  disillusioned and angry, while the Telegraph reminded readers that the strike ballots are live for six months. Speaking to the Independent, UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: 'It is incredibly frustrating that we had to ballot members again, but universities only have themselves to blame after failing to address falling real-terms pay and for refusing to deal with casualisation, workloads and the rising cost of USS pensions.'

 

Report finds University Technical Colleges are closing, failing and under capacity

Controversial state-funded University Technical Colleges (UTCs) have been forced to close, are running at less than half capacity and are underperforming when compared to schools, according to a damning report from the National Audit Office released on Wednesday.

UCU told FE Week that the millions of pounds pumped into UTCs would have been better spent on improving further education, which has suffered huge funding cuts in recent years.

Jo Grady said: 'If the government really wants to improve the standing of technical education, it must ensure that the further education sector as a whole is well-supported to deliver it. That means building capacity across the board because, without proper investment, this perennial conversation about the problems facing technical education is doomed to repeat itself.'

 

UCU calls for admissions reform as students with unconditional offers more likely to drop out 

New figures showing that students who received unconditional offers are more likely to drop out of university highlight the need for an overhaul of university admissions, UCU said on Wednesday. The union was responding to data published by the Office for Students (OfS) which showed the dropout rate was 10% higher amongst students who received unconditional offers than would have been expected if they had received conditional offers.

The Guardian highlighted how UCU used the findings to reinforce the need for urgent reform of the admissions system. Jo Grady told the paper that universities scrabbling to attract students with unconditional offers are too often focused on the bottom line rather than student interests.' Speaking to the Independent, Jo said: 'These latest figures show that many students are ill-served by the current admissions system and that there is a real need for urgent reform.'

 

UCU welcomes Justice Select Committee's call for more stable prison education contracts

Yesterday UCU welcomed calls from the Justice Select Committee for more stable prison education contracts and increased training for prison governors, but said bolder reform is needed to ensure prison educators are able to do their jobs effectively.

The union was commenting on the committee's report on prison governance, which highlighted concerns about new one-year contracts for prison education. UCU said the uncertainty created by constant retendering was bad for staff and bad for prisoners and welcomed the committee's recommendations for longer, more stable contracts and improved accountability.

Jo Grady said: 'We need bolder reform if we're going to ensure prison educators can do their jobs effectively. Prison educators are constantly being asked to do more with less, and competitive tendering diverts vital resource away from the front line. It also makes it harder for providers to invest in staff development.'

 

Strikes on the cards at Coventry University in row over pay and appraisals

Strikes are on the cards at Coventry University in a row over pay progression and the imposition of a controversial new appraisal process. Three-quarters (75%) of UCU members who voted backed strike action in the ballot which closed this week. Almost nine in ten staff (88%) voted for action short of a strike which could see them boycott the university's appraisal system. Members will meet on Wednesday (6 November) to discuss next steps in the dispute.

The row centres on the university's refusal to adopt a national system for pay increases used by the majority of universities. Instead, they have imposed an appraisal process which forces staff to jump through unnecessary hoops to achieve the annual incremental pay award that is standard at other institutions.

Coventry University UCU branch chair, Sharon McGuire, said: 'The strong support for strikes shows the level of anger amongst staff and, if the university wants to avoid disruption to students, it needs to adopt a fair system that ensures staff receive pay increases along similar lines to other universities.'

 

Strikes not ruled out at University of Nottingham in row over outsourcing

UCU members at the University of Nottingham have vowed to fight plans to outsource up to 125 people working in its IT department. Almost 1,000 people have already signed a petition calling for a halt to the plans and unions are refusing to rule out strike action.

UCU says the university needs to scrap the plans, which would affect around half of the staff in the IT department, and sort out the current problems with its outsourced student record systems. Last week the university issued an apology for the "significant anxiety, concern and confusion" caused by problems with its Campus Solutions student record management system. Students have been deprived of funds needed for food and rent, have been unable to open bank accounts, and have not had accurate information about when and where their classes are taking place.

Speaking to the Nottingham Post, UCU regional official Sue Davis said: 'These plans are terrible news for the IT department, but also really bad news for the university as a whole. We cannot believe the university is considering further outsourcing of staff while it is still apologising for ongoing problems with its previous project. We are currently in urgent discussions with our members at the university and they will be meeting shortly to consider their full response. We cannot rule out the possibility of industrial action.'

 

Universities under fire for massive rise in outsourcing

Outsourcing at universities was in the news at the start of the week as a Guardian investigation found that universities'  spending on outsourced workers - often employed on zero-hour contracts by separate companies to work on campuses - has more than doubled in seven years, increasing by almost 70% from 2010 to 2017.

The paper said that employing staff via third parties means that workers are not entitled to the same rights as people hired directly by the university, generally resulting in outsourced workers having vastly inferior pension schemes, as well as hourly, sick, maternity and holiday pay.

It also spoke to a number of outsourced workers who described their battles to secure sick pay, long hours and how they feel like outcasts.   

Last updated: 1 November 2019

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