Multiple branches of the further and higher education union UCU are heading for industrial action after successful ballots. Prison educators working for private firm Novus across forty-nine prisons and young offenders’ institutions were due to take their first day of strike action on 26 April, with two more to follow on 11 and 12 May. That dispute is over health and safety.
Staff at London’s United Colleges Group have voted to strike over increased workloads. UCU branches at Leicester and Liverpool have held successful ballots over redundancies, which at Leicester appear to be targeting union activists.
Leicester is one of many universities where cuts are focused on critical research in social science and humanities subjects, along with Chester, Aston, Kingston and London South Bank (LSB) Universities. Chester is in financial trouble after a disastrous decision to expand into a new campus without proper planning permission: management’s response is to cut back subjects including archaeology and religious studies.
At Aston, history and languages are under threat. At LSBU management took a unilateral decision without consultation to withdraw history and geography courses from UCAS, and then declared the staff who teach those courses at risk of redundancy. Kingston have suspended recruitment to Politics, Human Rights and IR courses.
These cuts follow similar processes at universities including Portsmouth, Sunderland and Roehampton. They follow a government line encouraging shifts towards subjects supposed to improve students’ “employability”, rather than those that might encourage critical thinking and alternative perspectives to the mainstream (and which in fact have good graduate employment figures). While old universities are not immune, the hardest-hit universities are newer institutions that have traditionally attracted local working-class and mature students.
In the old “pre-92” universities, meanwhile, there is likely to be a revival of the dispute that first blew up in 2018 over the USS pension scheme. After a valuation of the scheme in March 2020, at the height of market panic over the pandemic, trustees have demanded major increases in both employee and employer contributions to maintain current benefits — or else cuts to those benefits. The employers’ proposed compromise looks remarkably like the proposal striking staff rejected during the 2018 dispute. Expert negotiators from the union side have questioned the whole basis of their calculations. Once again, this attack on pensions fits a government agenda of closing defined benefit pension schemes in favour of leaving pensioners dependent on the stock market.
Across the board there is an urgent need for a fight against these attacks in further and higher education. The multiple successful strike ballots, beating the threshold even through lockdown, show it is possible to mount one. With the exam season approaching it is important that we don’t let momentum flag.