Newcastle University’s Head of HR has threatened staff with indefinite deductions of 100% of their salary, effectively a lockout, in response to a marking and assessment boycott which begins today. The University and College Union (UCU) describes this as an attempt to strongarm university staff to step away from industrial action over fair working conditions. On Friday over 200 staff attended a union branch meeting and 94% voted for the marking boycott despite this intimidation.
Students are rightly concerned that their work will not be marked and have been asking the Vice-Chancellor to resolve the dispute. He is on Universities UK Board so is a key figure in the employers’ organisations. He has failed to engage with student concerns and legitimate staff demands. The body that oversees the University’s academic affairs, Senate, passed a motion against his stance on pensions.
The reasons for industrial action at Newcastle University
The industrial action is over the massive detriment to pensions and over insecure contracts, over unfair pay inequality (for women, BAME colleagues, and disabled colleagues), over breaking-point workloads and over a dozen years of declining pay. While pensions and pay are negotiated nationally, workload, pay inequality and job insecurity could be addressed locally. At the same time, the university management have given themselves huge pay rises. For example, Chris Day, the Vice-Chancellor of Newcastle University, has a total remuneration package of £380,000.
Matt Perry, Newcastle University UCU Branch Secretary, explained:
“We are meant to have a 40-hour week. This is—by the way—the worst in our sector. The work is loaded on us until we are at breaking point. We surveyed our members and showed that 80% of members find their workload unmanageable, and over 75% reported that they regularly have to work more than their current hours to complete their tasks. It is meant to be a 40-hour week but it is for many staff a 55 hour week. Also, many members do not have a secure contract after eight or nine years of training and massive student debts to deal with.”
“We are making reasonable demands that would benefit students because our working conditions are their learning conditions. Hopefully, the Vice Chancellor will withdraw these threatened deductions that tarnish the university’s reputation and instead seek to compromise with staff and prevent anguish for thousands of students.
“We have found that students are generally sympathetic to our demands, and we have campaigned against the terrible burdens of debt that they face. Access to higher education is being closed off to those from poorer backgrounds through recent changes in the student debt repayment thresholds.”
Last year was the 150th anniversary of the north-east engineers’ lockout in which Lord Armstrong, who founded Newcastle University, tried to starve his workers back to work. They were fighting for a 9-hour day and won.