7 June 2016

Collective Action Works!

For over a year, Newcastle University UCU has been in dispute with the senior management over a coercive performance management scheme called “Raising the Bar”.

On Friday 3 June, the UCU branch began a marking and assessment boycott, hitting examination marking. Members were threatened with 100% pay deductions. Members held fast.

On Wednesday 8 June Newcastle University UCU held its Annual General Meeting.

At that meeting, the negotiators revealed that the “Raising the Bar” was completely dropped within 3 minutes of them entering the negotiating room. There were loud cheers and applause by UCU members.

UCU has won and concluded the dispute!

Messages of congratulation have been flowing in since the public announcement, including from Dr Rowan Williams (now Master of Magdalene College Cambridge University) and other leading academics including Professor Stefan Collini (also of Cambridge University).

Senior management at Newcastle University agreed to the withdrawal of research performance documents at both University and Faculty levels and UCU agreed an academic framework for research improvement based on a number of key principles including a common understanding and non-coercive, collegial approach to improving research.

Our victory will make it easier for UCU members at other HE institutions to fight similar policies. The campaign has enhanced the union’s credibility. It helps build collective confidence as we enter a serious industrial national campaign on pay, as well as helping to bolster opposition to the corrosive Government White Paper on Higher Education.

We also hope this will encourage all of our colleagues at London Metropolitan, Dundee and Leicester Universities in their fight to defend jobs as well as the fight to oppose the victimization of UCU officers at London Met including Mark Campbell and David Hardman.

Performance management and the White Paper

The withdrawn research performance documents were termed RIPE (Research and Innovation Performance Expectations) documents. They specified targets for several activities including research outputs, research funding, numbers of research students and impact case studies, on academic staff in all of the Faculties in the University. Thus in Medical Sciences, senior lecturers were expected to obtain £150,000 over 3 years and publish a sufficient volume of 3*+ outputs in internationally leading peer reviewed journals including at least one world-leading i.e. 4* quality output in a five year period.

Failure to meet these targets would have led to the capability procedure being initiated or potentially shifting academic staff onto teaching-only contracts.

This approach of coercive performance management has to be seen in the context of the marketization and privatization of Higher Education proposed by the Tories’ White Paper on Higher Education where performance management will be a key mechanism for implementing cuts in research activity flowing from a high-tuition fee economy. (The Alternative White Paper published by the HE Convention contains a detailed discussion of the threat of performance management in the sector.)

This is a byproduct of a Government obsessed with lifting the cap off tuition fees and letting the market rip. The White Paper proposed scheme would permit for-profit providers (e.g. Pearson) to enter the British HE sector and call themselves a university, charge maximum fees and recruit an unlimited number of students.

How we won

Prior to the action we had 2 successful ballots (one consultative and one official) for both Strike Action and Action Short Of Strike against the implementation of the so-called RIPE documents.

Rather than being an officer-led or committee-led campaign, we worked to activate and build up our rep structure across the University, with individual Schools composing and signing letters to the Vice-Chancellor about how this policy would affect their area.  Reps and branch officers held meetings in Schools across all of the Faculties in the University to discuss with staff on how they viewed having specified targets imposed on them for research outputs, winning research funding, and numbers of postgraduate research students.

This also resulted in a letter to the VC signed by about 100 Professors protesting against the imposition of such performance targets. We reached out to students via the students’ union and also within each of our Schools.

These were followed by further UCU meetings in Schools and academic units on the course of action to be followed by the union in preparation for the ballots for industrial action. Members were able to air their anxieties over questions such as the nature of the assessment boycott and possible pay docking.

These were addressed by discussing aspects such as (1) escalating action (rolling strikes) up to and including continuous strike action to be determined by the members in general meetings in response to punitive pay docking and (2) establishing a hardship funding for the possibility of punitive pay docking as well as applying for support from the national fighting fund.

Meetings were also held with students in both Schools and in the Students Union. Again patient explanation helped to win student support.

UCU activists also used a range of creative initiatives including the proposal of an inclusive, collegial, evidence-based, bottom-up process to devise a non-coercive research framework. This was based on the premise that Newcastle University exists to further human understanding of the universe for the benefit of humanity rather than for the purpose of generating a surplus. Another example was the filming of a YouTube video for students where one of our members explained why UCU was pursuing a marking boycott.

These and other initiatives can be viewed at our branch website here: http://newcastle.web.ucu.org.uk/

There is also a petition on Change.org which after only a few days collected 2700 signatures. You can now add a victory comment!

Finally – a huge thanks to all of you who signed our petitions and gave your support and solidarity!

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