On 25 June, over 500 people attended an online rally jointly organised by branches of the University and College Union (UCU) at Imperial College, SOAS, Roehampton and Liverpool Universities in parallel with socially-distanced protests in Liverpool and London.
Those institutions are facing some of the harshest cuts in the university sector. Management at Reading have threatened to sack the entire workforce and rehire only those prepared to accept inferior terms and conditions. Roehampton staff have been asked to take a voluntary pay cut, and a redundancy scheme is up and running. Their branch has passed a motion to initiate a formal local dispute.
Across the sector non-renewal of fixed-term contracts and withdrawal of hourly-paid work for Graduate Teaching Assistants is the norm, leaving permanent staff faced with an enormous rise in workload — especially as most courses will have to be delivered in both online and face-to-face forms next year to allow for self-isolating and clinically vulnerable students. Multiple institutions have suspended research leave.
The rally heard calls for the national leadership to step up. UCU held a national rally with over 2,000 people in attendance to launch its “Fund the Future” campaign in mid-June. This is primarily a political lobbying campaign aimed at winning government financial support for both Further and Higher Education.
That’s a good first step but it feels a long way from the immediate dire impact of the cuts on many workers’ lives. Already prior to Covid-19 some institutions had been through multiple rounds of redundancies. Marketisation was leading to course closures — for example at Sunderland and Portsmouth — even before the pandemic hit.
The branches involved in the rally — the second of two grass-roots protests — are on Twitter as UCU Solidarity Movement @ucu_solidarity. There is potential for this initiative to develop into the rank-and-file organisation UCU needs to unite branches in struggle.
UCU branches and activists will also need to build links and campaigns with the other unions on campuses, notably Unison and Unite. These represent admin, technical and manual workers who are also going to be hit by any cuts. This will not be easy or obvious, as these unions are generally less well-organised than UCU, but unity across job families could be crucial to building a campaign that can win.
Recent controversy over plans to impose a flat-rate levy to cover strike pay for the 2019/20 HE dispute has shown there’s still a long way to go to build a serious industrial strategy in UCU. Members were informed by email that an additional £15 would be deducted via direct debits alongside this summer’s subs. At a time of job cuts this was remarkably insensitive, and it has rightly been withdrawn in favour of a push to fundraise and a levy as yet unspecified but likely to be targeted at higher subs bands.
The specific proposal (backed by the Independent Broad Left and General Secretary) was rushed through at an NEC back in February, at which members were told progressive contributions weren’t an option — a position that’s now changed. But the hole in the strike fund is partly a product of a UCU Left proposal to offer more generous strike pay without being sure that could be met by fundraising.
Many branches, meanwhile, have taken up calls raised by the Black Lives Matters campaign. Four years after Oriel College first promised to remove its notorious Rhodes statue — only then to u-turn when donors objected — the college says it will be taken down.
Under public pressure after outrageous racist comments, David Starkey has resigned from Fitzwilliam College Cambridge. It’s nine years on from his similarly racist observations on the London riots, but better late than never.
Broader calls to “decolonise the curriculum” need to be properly resourced. Asking already overstretched staff to train to teach new topics without the necessary preparation time is unacceptable. Many of the best-prepared staff for this work are among the most junior and most precariously employed.
At Goldsmiths College the wildcat marking boycott has now largely ended, with a formal motion from the union branch to move into dispute if management don’t present Equalities Impact Assessments of their job cuts, which strikers say disproportionately affect Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic staff.