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In the news: 14 February

Climate change centre stage at Cradle to Grave

Climate change was under the spotlight at UCU's annual Education from Cradle to Grave conference on Saturday. UCU general secretary Jo Grady opened the day by paying tribute to UCU members for putting the climate crisis on last year's TUC conference agenda and the work of over 300 UCU green reps working locally to push institutions for action on the key issues.

Professor Jim Skea, Chair of Scotland's Just Transition Commission, headlined the morning session with an overview of the practical steps Scotland is taking to tackle climate change. A range of workshop sessions featured discussion on campaigning for a just transition, greening the curriculum and creating climate-friendly workplaces, with speakers including Josh Emden from the Environmental Justice Commission and Suzanne Jeffrey from the Trade Union Campaign Against Climate Change.

Alongside the Mayor for Brighton and Hove, Alexandra Phillips, newly-elected Sheffield Hallam MP Olivia Blake rounded off the day with the message that there is "no social justice on a dying planet". Both Olivia and Alex spoke passionately about the need for political change and a green new deal to underpin the climate transition, and identified the upcoming COP26 as an important moment for campaigning on the climate crisis.  


University strikes aren't just for the future of HE but for our culture and economy

In a wide-ranging piece in today's Guardian, Owen Jones, says that the upcoming strikes are about more than just jobs and pensions but part of a wider battle that "will help determine not just the future of our imperiled universities but our society and culture with it".

Bemoaning the flawed marketisation of higher education, where students are moulded into consumers, Jones points to various pieces work undertaken by UCU outlining problems of declining pay, precarious contracts and overwork.

He concludes the current system is a mess with "skint students convulsed with worry about tens of thousands of pounds' worth of debt and whether there's a well-paid job waiting for them, taught by overstressed, underpaid, precarious staff."


Students demand compensation for teaching time and raise fears over graduation

The Independent reported this week that students whose studies are set to be hit by the latest wave of walkouts on UK campuses later this month have begun demanding compensation from their universities. The paper said that days after the fresh action was announced, students at universities including York, Leicester and Sheffield Hallam, launched petitions calling for refunds for lost teaching time. The Telegraph was among the nationals to pick up on a story in The Tab where some student leaders expressed fears that the 14 days of action starting on Thursday may mean students cannot graduate.

Claire Sosienski Smith, vice-president for higher education at the National Union of Students, said: 'Students have a right to be angry about the lack of progress on the discussions between UK institutions and the staff who teach and support them, day in and day out. We support students seeking to complain about missed teaching. We stand in full solidarity with staff who are taking strike action.'

UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: 'The support from students on the picket lines, through social media and on campus between strikes has been phenomenal, and a little overwhelming.  We are so pleased to have received this support and appreciate that students understand how our working conditions are their learning conditions. We are on the same side in this dispute and we hope students will put pressure on their vice-chancellors to return to the negotiating table with a clear mandate to work seriously to try and resolve the disputes without the need for further action.'


Staff share impacts of casualisation and precarious contracts

Casualisation of the university workforce is a key theme of UCU's current dispute, with union members keen to stress not only that precarity is a pressing problem for the sector but also that the causes of precarity are inseparable from the other problems facing higher education.

Somewhat perplexed that finally securing a longed-for permanent post - a decade after completing her PhD - had not brought untold happiness, a lecturer from Northampton reached out to colleagues to see if her feelings were shared by others.

Writing in Times Higher Education, she said she discovered that living under the burden of precarious contracts means that it takes considerable time for people to adjust to their new level of security. For some it was the first time they had a chance to take stock of the crazy way they had been operating trying, for example, to manage three posts in different cities. It was the first time they had realised how much they had sacrificed in that quest to find a permanent job. 

Others said that they still expected the rug to be pulled from under them. A professor from Manchester said she was frustrated that colleagues hadn't got permanent jobs. While others spoke of having survivor's guilt, which the author said was highlighted by how many people asked to speak to her anonymously because of their concerns about being seen as ungrateful.


Johnson reshuffles his cabinet pack

What was expected to be a fairly minor reshuffle turned out to be anything but when Savid Javid resigned as chancellor of the exchequer, just a month before he was due to finally deliver his first full budget. The Prime Minister had apparently offered to reappoint Javid with the proviso that he sack all his aides. Javid refused and said no self-respecting minster could accept those demands. Chief secretary to the treasury Rishi Sunak was quickly appointed chancellor.

The reshuffle saw Chris Skidmore leave his post as universities minister (again) having originally retaken the role when Jo Johnson left the job (for a second time). Although full responsibilities have yet to be confirmed, the new minister will be Michelle Donelan, who was appointed children and families minister last year to cover for Kemi Bedonoch's maternity leave.  The University of York alumnus will be the first universities minister in a decade not to have been to Oxbridge and the first woman to take the role since Margaret Hodge in 2003.

There is still no specific minister for further education and skills, with the brief currently falling to education secretary Gavin Williamson since Anne Milton's resignation last year. FE Week reported that things may be decided later today. Responsibility for the science brief is also yet to be confirmed, with rumours that it may go to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. Away from education, Alok Sharma (who was previously international development secretary) has been made business secretary with ministerial responsibility for running, and chairing, this year's UN climate change conference, due to be held in Glasgow later this year.

Last updated: 14 February 2020