Statement on UCEA’s Four Fights offer


The struggle waged by UCU members over our Four Fights has been magnificent. Standing up against inequality and to defend those in our sector in the most precarious position represents the very best of trade unionism. Members showed determination to overcome the obstacles set by the anti-union laws and turned out on picket lines in all weather

Our action did move the employers. For the first time ever, they agreed to collectively bargain at a national level on casualisation, gender and race equality, and workloads, a significant shift in favour of all HE workers. This movement was achieved through the strength of our strike action, accompanied by impressive rallies and demonstrations, and with the support of large numbers of students who recognise that they too are victims of marketisation of higher education.

However, the current offer from UCEA is not strong enough. Covid 19 disrupted the negotiations at a crucial point so UCU Left negotiators cannot recommend acceptance of this offer. Branch delegates should reject it and it should be the decision of our elected branch delegates as to whether this offer should be put to members or dismissed entirely.

Why we should not accept the UCEA offer

1) There is no offer on pay. The whole negotiating team was always clear with the UCEA representatives that we required movement on all four elements of the claim in order to settle. At one point during the negotiations, UCEA indicated that they were considering improving their pay offer. But, for a range of reasons that can be debated elsewhere, their position hardened and they backtracked. Since then, they have hardened their stance further by refusing to open negotiations in the 2020-21 pay round. The lack of an offer on pay alone makes the offer unacceptable.

2) The offer on two of the elements of the claim – gender and race equality, and workloads – may have been acceptable alongside a pay rise and before Higher Education was thrown into crisis by the Coronavirus pandemic. Now they are completely dwarfed by events. The offer on casualisation is not even close to acceptable.

The first big weakness of this document is that the agreement is not binding on institutions. It requires UCU branches to push their employers into acting on the ‘expectations’ UCEA have expressed. This may be useful for well-organised branches with established negotiating arrangements.  It is much less helpful for branches in a weaker position who are often in institutions where action on casualisation, equality and workloads are most needed.

The second problem is that in the context of the Covid-19 crisis, with institutions lining up to dismiss staff, starting with the casualised, with online teaching workloads going through the roof, and existing inequalities exacerbated by homeworking, the provisions in the offer are wholly inadequate. Recognising this the negotiators made attempts to get UCEA to revisit the offer in the context of the crisis, but UCEA refused to meet. Evidently, the employers had already decided that they were going to use the pandemic to attack jobs, pay and conditions as we are already witnessing at Roehampton, Reading, KCL and elsewhere.

No truce

Some may argue that even though the positive aspects of the offer are limited, they represent improvements that would be worth accepting. Let’s ‘bank’ this offer and move on. We disagree. Without sector wide implementation it would be a paper victory at most, rapidly undermined by facts on the ground. With a huge battle looming over the future existence of the higher education sector, the last thing we should be doing is signing a truce with our employers. To settle for this offer would be a betrayal of the casualised, women and BAME members who fought so hard for 22 days.

Others may argue that it is best to ‘draw a line’ so that we can refocus our energies on the new battles ahead. This too would be a mistake. A settlement with no pay offer, and no implementation commitment would demoralise members, and make it more difficult to mobilise the union against upcoming attacks on jobs and pay, or to resist pressure to accept unsafe working conditions. It is worth noting that 12 HE branches (including SOAS, where ‘job reductions’ have been announced), currently have live ballot mandates until the end of July.

The fight must go on

Although it is difficult, we can still fight during this crisis. Our employers are completely reliant on our goodwill, even as they threaten us with redundancies, pay cuts and attempt to push us back to unsafe campuses. Goodwill can be withdrawn. The NEU’s current fight with the Government over 1 June school opening shows just how dependent the employers are. We can also ballot and take industrial action, even from home (many members, including at the Open University have been doing this for years). Resuming the fight won’t be easy but accepting a poor deal will make it harder.  Not just for the short term, as hard a line as UCEA is taking now, if we accept this offer, they will be emboldened.

The problem is that our union has not yet risen to the challenge of the Corona crisis. Our sister union, the NEU, has taken a vocal stand on workplace safety, held dozens of mass meetings of reps, and is challenging the government on its entire strategy. Thousands of new members are joining as a result. The UCU, by contrast, took weeks before reissuing the NEU’s Five Tests on returning to workplaces. The General Secretary tells us we can’t ballot and we can’t fight. We still have no national plan for defending HE jobs or resisting pay cuts. We have yet to receive guidance on safe return to work, more than two months since campuses closed.

Congress and Sector Conferences have been cancelled, and the only mass meetings (briefings for branch officers, one for FE, one for HE) on Teams resembled stage-managed lectures compared to the open discussion taking place in branches. Branches that have embraced Zoom meetings have seen turnout double since the start of the crisis.

This has to change. We need to get organised! We need to ramp up for a major sector-wide defence of higher education. The first step is throwing out this offer and keeping our disputes alive. The second step is to organise in branches and regions, coming together nationally, where we can, so that we, the members, can develop ideas and strategies to defend working conditions, jobs and the future of HE.

Reject the offer.

Jo McNeill, Marian Mayer, Sean Wallis, Mark Abel




Resist Redundancies • Defend education

No return to unsafe campuses

Click here to register

Boris Johnson has decided it’s time to relax the lockdown and start getting people back to work.

But nothing has changed: a vaccine for Covid-19 is a long way off, case and fatality rates have barely dropped, and there is still no widespread testing and social distancing is impossible to maintain in many workplaces.

We are guaranteed to experience a spike in cases and rising deaths, with lower paid workers who can’t work from home bearing the brunt of this avoidable tragedy.

Schoolteachers in particular are coming under pressure to resume classes so that parents can return to work. But plans are also being drawn up for staff and students to return to college and university campuses. And the Government has yet to seriously address the disproportionate deaths of BAME people. This will also be the subject of a forthcoming webinar.

This UCU Left webinar will address how we can support our schoolteacher colleagues’ demands for safe workplaces and resist a return to unsafe campuses for ourselves.

  • What conditions should we demand are met before we return to campus?
  • How can we build campaigns around safety that force management to listen?
  • Can we use health and safety legislation to refuse to put ourselves in unsafe conditions?
  • How do we fight at the same time against the growing threat to jobs in post-16 education?

Join the webinar to share experiences and help develop strategies for fighting against management and government attempts to put business-as-usual ahead of our lives.

The panel includes Emma Mort (NEU) and a speaker from Roehampton UCU

This is part of a series of webinars during the crisis hosted by UCU Left.

You can view past webinars here.

  1. Fighting for Education in the Time of Coronavirus
  2. Defending Casualised Workers in the Lockdown
  3. Homeworking & Managerialism: Beyond the Exam Factory

You might also be interested in this important online meeting for trade unionists:

No return to unsafe schools & workplaces – a live online meeting with:

  • Jeremy Corbyn MP
  • Amanda Martin, National Education Union President
  • Karen Reissmann, NHS Nurse

6pm Wednesday 20 May


New government proposals to take ownership of colleges

An article appeared in FE week reporting that the government is about to release a white paper on the future of Further Education. It says that the government is planning to take control of the sector.

It quotes Gavin Williamson saying:

“The FE sector is playing a pivotal role in making sure more people can access the high-quality education and training they need to progress and will support our economic recovery following the Covid-19 outbreak. Our reforms will build on and strengthen the excellent work already happening across the country and will ensure the FE sector is at the heart of every community.”

UCU has for a long time campaigned to end incorporation and to end the marketisation of the sector by bringing it back under democratic public ownership. Whilst we should welcome the reported move to bring the sector back into public ownership, we should be cautious about how the move is being framed by government.

The government is frustrated that their drive to merge colleges, driven by the FE commissioner and the area reviews, has not brought about the ‘revolution’ that the government believed they would. Many colleges are on the verge of financial collapse and are not in a position to play the central role in the post-coronavirus recovery. The government wish to point the finger of blame at incompetent college management.

These colleges were on the brink of collapse before the outbreak of Covid-19. Years of historic under-funding has led to 25,000 jobs to disappear, over one million adult education places have gone and wages cut by 27% in less than a decade. It is this under funding that has severely restricted colleges’ ability to place education and training at the heart of our communities.

It is successive governments’ market led reforms that have brought many colleges near to collapse. Of course, there has been disastrous management decisions that have made a bad situation a lot worse. But the real problem with the leadership is not their incompetence at making a marketised system work but their failure to oppose and publicly resist the market and competition in education.

UCU look forward to seeing the government’s proposals for the future of further and adult education. The sector will be vital to enable the recovery in a post covid-19 world. Fears of mass unemployment in particularly hitting the young with estimates of up to 600,000 without work will lead to another lost generation.

Our young people deserve and demand better.

Bringing the sector back into public ownership must be driven and shaped from the bottom up if this transformation is to be successful.

UCU should propose the following:

  1. All sector unions to be invited to discuss government’s plans to bring back the sector into public ownership.
  2. That the marketised model must be replaced by a collaborative and planned approach.
  3. For public ownership of the sector to work it must be properly funded over a five-year period to allow proper planning.
  4. That the educational and training needs must reflect the multifaceted ambitions of our students and not the narrow skills agendas of employers.
  5. Call for a guarantee of access to funded full-time education, paid training and employment for all.

 Sean Vernell UCU FEC Vice chair


Report back from organising & strategy meeting

Organising to defend post 16 education webinar landscape v3

Thanks to everyone who joined last night’s fantastic organising and strategy mass meeting and for all your excellent contributions. Over 170 people joined the call.

In this report, a call to action:

  • Raising three key demands and developing strategy and organisation: No return to work till it is safe. No redundancies. Defend education.
  • A Day of Action on Thursday called by Health workers ‘Defend the NHS, don’t end the lockdown’
  • Resources and links attached and included in one place at the bottom.

We hope you will join us next week as we rally to ensure there is no return to work until it is safe.

Raising three key demands:

  • No return to work till it is safe.
  • No redundancies: defend education.
  • Building a national strategy and organisation at every level of the union.

One of the themes of the meeting included the development of a national strategy for the whole union to respond to the scale of the crisis and how we can practically organise. As is becoming increasingly clear in recent days, higher education faces an existential threat.

UCU Left prepared a discussion document ahead of last week’s UCU NEC, Defending Post-16 Education in the Coronavirus Era. Unfortunately, the outgoing President did not allow it to be discussed. Please share with branches and regions to help develop discussion and strategy. It was endorsed and supported at the Yorkshire and Humberside Regional meeting. Your branch or region may also wish to add support. You can find it and add comments and ideas here.

Attached are a set of three demands we can organise around: No return to work until it is safe. No to redundancies: Defend Education. You may wish to base branch discussions on how to organise around these themes or adapt the document as a model motion. Please share any motions passed in your region and send to the UCU President.

You can find a report of the NEC meeting here.

A Day of Action on Thursday called by health workers:

  • Defend the NHS, don’t end the lockdown
  • No return to work until it is safe!

The other major theme of the meeting was preparing a response to government’s moves to try to end the lockdown before it is safe.

We heard from Emma Mort, NEU exec, on the many national initiatives taken by their union. She reported on how several thousand people have joined their union. The NEU has held countless organising meeting and national meetings of over a 1000 reps. They are campaigning to win support in the community, from councillors and MPs. Model letter attached. It was great to join forces with our sister union and to share experiences of how to organise. Open Schools when it is safe. This has been signed by over 270k people.

Day of action Thursday: ‘Defend the NHS, don’t end the lockdown’
The response to calls for solidarity on international workers memorial day were immense. Health workers are calling for action this Thursday. At the end of the call last night we had a show of hands to support building a day of action to ‘Defend the NHS, don’t end the lockdown’ called by People Before Profit: Health Worker Covid Activists. See the call here.

Organising action on Thursday in our branches

  • Convene an online branch meeting. Invite a health worker, NEU speaker or someone from your local Covid-Action group.
  • Discuss a motion not to return to unsafe workplaces. See attached.
  • Ask members to hold up selfie signs (attached) or to use the graphic as their profile picture. Take a gallery photo and share that on Twitter tagging @UCU @UCULeft @Worker_group and with hash tag #fivetests #PPE #NHS.
  • Ask members to send in a homemade or printed selfie picture to those links. We will publish a wall of support on our website.

There is a national online meeting this Wednesday to build support across the movement:
Defend the NHS, don’t end the lockdown
No return to unsafe workplaces
People Before Profit
6pm Wednesday May 6th.

*   John McDonnell MP
*   Kevin Courtney NEU
*   Sarah Woolley BFAWU
*   Karen Reissmann NHS worker
*   Janet Newsham Hazards Campaign

No to redundancies, defend education:
We heard from Roehampton branch reps. The university is proposing pay cuts and job losses of up to 15%. You can send solidarity tweets to @RoehamptonUCU and email solidarity messages to

Defending casualised workers:
Many GTAs, postgraduate and postdoctoral researchers and PhD and casualised educators are at risk now.
See the #CoronaContract petition and website, which contains resources and model motions to take to your UCU branch.

Some good news! Durham University has backed off on attacks:
We also heard from Bob Jeffery, branch negotiator, on Sheffield Hallam’s branch victory on workload prior to the Lockdown. You can find a report here on how they organised.

There is a myth circulating that ballots cannot be held. You can ballot. People raised the issue that we will need to take collective action sooner than a ballot can take place where members jobs are threatened now. We have the ability to digitally shutdown workplaces. We can withdraw our labour where we are exposed to risk to life.

There is an important online meeting this weekend. Responding to the crisis: organising to defend Higher Education in the pandemic era.
This is organised by the Convention for Higher Education, the group who produced the Alternative White Paper for Higher Education.
Saturday 9th May
10am to 12noon
Please register here.

Future UCU Left webinars
More than 400 people have taken part in our Monday night series of UCU Left webinars and meetings.
The recordings of past webinars on UCU Left Facebook were viewed more than 3.5k times.

Save the date for Monday. We will post details in the coming days of next Monday’s webinar on No Return to Unsafe Workplaces.

Check out UCU Left Facebook, website and @UCULeft for details.

You can join UCU Left here.

Please get in contact if you would like to get in touch with UCU Left members in your branch, region or locality, to host a local meeting or get support.

Thanks for joining us and we hope to see you again next Monday!


Mark Abel • Secretary, UCU Left
Bee Hughes • Chair, UCU Left webinars

All the above links in one place:

Strategy document: Defending Post-16 Education in the Coronavirus Era

UCU Left Report from NEC

Send solidarity to UCU Roehampton: @RoehamptonUCU

Bob Jeffery report

Corona Contract website 

Online Convention for Higher Education meeting
10-noon Saturday 9 May.
Responding to the crisis: organising to defend Higher Education in the pandemic era. Register here.

Open schools when it is safe petition

Defend the NHS, don’t end the lockdown
No return to unsafe workplaces
6pm Wednesday 6 May
People Before Profit Speakers.
·       John McDonnell MP
·       Kevin Courtney NEU
·       Sarah Woolley BFAWU
·       Karen Reissmann NHS worker
·       Janet Newsham Hazards Campaign

Day of Action Thursday.
Defend the NHS, don’t end the lockdown
No return to unsafe workplaces

Additional resources:

  1. No going back until it is safe selfie
  2. Three demands: No return to work till it is safe. No to redundancies: defend education.
  3. NEU Model letter for contacting MPs

Report of May 1 UCU Emergency NEC online meeting

UCU’s national executive committee (NEC) met online on May Day, 1 May. This was an emergency meeting called only after more than half of the committee had demanded it.

Society is in a permanent emergency, but Higher Education is at the edge of a financial precipice as the tuition fee market is expected to crash leaving universities bankrupt. Our members in FE are confronting job loses and management attempting force to implement a ‘business as usual’ approach.

The question is whether UCU will lead a UK-wide to fight to defend the sectors.

The meeting held on Teams was 2.5 hours in length — half the time of a normal physical NEC meeting.

The paper submitted by Sean Vernell and Sean Wallis proposing a way of framing the a UK-wide response of the union in a coherent way was ruled out of order on the basis that it was two days late. Despite the movers of the paper pointing out that much of we are doing currently is outside of rule, including the online NEC meeting itself (and its shortened form), sought leniency. The outgoing President resisted all attempts to include it, prevented any discussion of it and refused to accept a challenge to his ruling.

NEC heard a lengthy presentation by General Secretary Jo Grady on the steps the central union was taking. She defended her actions in writing to Government ministers, and commissioning and publishing reports from London Economics, without reference to the Higher Education Committee which had not met.

UCU’s intervention had stopped the UUK’s proposal from being adopted by Government. This is positive step. However, without a rapid bailout, employers are likely to now announce redundancies.

We cannot case-work our way out of a crisis. Nor can we fight branch by branch.

It was not until 3:50 that the meeting was permitted to debate the only motion tabled on Education and post-Covid recovery. That motion (attached below) was passed, amended to add reference to specific defence of casualised members. This motion called for a UK-wide response to the crisis. We will now need to make sure that this motion is enacted upon so that UCU is in a position to mobilise our members in defence of post-16 education.

The ‘Democratic Continuity’ paper — which was not debated by NEC — delegated powers to the General Secretary on the same basis as if the Covid-19 lockdown was the annual summer vacation.

Equality areas need urgent attention, especially given the national meeting of equality reps that was postponed from 3 April. When will this be reconvened?

In the meantime, NEC passed five other motions: on UCU’s equality organising, supporting the call from Diane Abbott and Stand Up to Racism for a genuinely independent public inquiry into BAME deaths from Covid-19, defending trans members and students, opposing the Hostile Environment and providing immigration advice.

Resolution 6. Education and post-Covid Recovery (as amended)

NEC notes:

  1. The crucial role of post-16 education in prosperity, individual development and post-Covid recovery
  2. The likely negative impact of Covid on college and university finances
  3. The risks of job losses and increases in casualisation
  4. The importance of education for (young people) who do not have employment

NEC agrees to launch a UK-wide campaign, call for support from trade unions and community organisations and ask GS to write to PM for:

  1. Removing college and university fees.
  2. Additional fully funded places at less prosperous and struggling institutions so all young people can have a college or university place.
  3. Significant increase in government funding to make up any shortfalls, that all casualised workers jobs will be guaranteed equally in the next two years, alongside those of permanent colleagues, and no permanent worker should be disadvantaged for refusing to cover the work of a casualised colleague in the event of job losses.
  4. Full support for health service, disability support needs and economic recovery that, given the scandalous injustices of precarious work highlighted by the covid crisis, that full occupational sick pay now be extended to ALL casualised workers in all universities and colleges and prison departments
  5. Cancellation of Trident.
  6. Progressive ring-fenced increase in taxation to cover the costs e.g. 2% over £30,000, 4% over £50,000, 6% over £100,000.

Passed overwhelmingly.

From Passivity to Action: Taking on Workloads and Defending the Post-92 National Contract at Sheffield Hallam University

Sheffield Hallam University Picket Line

One of the Collegiate Campus picket lines in late November 2019

Excessive workloads are the scourge of the Higher Education sector, having been massively intensified over the last couple of decades, driven by marketisation – cutting costs, improving our ‘offer’, gaming metrics. In the post-92 sector this has taken the form of repeated attacks on the ‘national contract’, the framework for terms and conditions in the former polytechnics.

Some of these attacks have been incremental (a cut to dissertation supervision here, a larger class size there) while others have sought large scale increases in workload at a stroke.  In 2016 members at Sheffield Hallam faced the latter. Like similar efforts at Liverpool John Moores University that the local UCU branch saw off, these moves were couched in terms of ‘equity and transparency’. Yet it was clear to our members that a shift from primarily accounting for work in terms of ‘teaching hours’ to ‘teaching related hours’ would by sleight-of-hand create phantom ‘spare capacity’ on our members’ work-plans and lead to significant intensification.

Negotiations with management were stretched out over three long years, during which time they pressed ahead with the detrimental changes to work-planning. We already had a wealth of local evidence on endemic over-work, from external consultants’ reports to a survey of zero-hour Associate Lecturers and stress surveys of conducted by our H&S officer in 2015. We added to this with workload surveys conducted in 2017 and 2019 that revealed staff to be regularly working in excess of 60 hours per week and that 82% believed workload increases were due to the new framework.

And yet negotiations took us nowhere and our evidence was brushed aside. As a result, in spring of 2018 a branch meeting endorsed the pursuit of strike action. National disputes came along later that year and we decided to pause our local action to throw our energy into the national campaign. On reflection, this was a mistake. Though we launched our first ever serious drive to ‘get the vote out’ (largely by email), we ‘only’ achieved a 43.8% turnout on the disaggregated ballot. I say ‘only’ because this was perhaps the best turnout in any strike ballot in the history of our branch, but as we know, fell below the threshold mandated by the Tories’ anti-trade union laws.

Picture 1

Jane Fearon, branch secretary, speaking at a student climate strike rally during the first 8 days of UCU action.

As we also know, when the ballot was re-run in early 2019 on a nationally aggregated basis, we also missed the legal threshold (national turnout was 41%). Nonetheless, this was the get the vote out campaign where our branch really started to find our feet. We produced our own leaflet, which localised arguments around executive pay, expenditure on buildings, the size of the gender pay gap and the casualised workforce. We got serious in terms of checking confirmed voters off of membership lists and even had our first foray into phone-banking.

As 2019 progressed we decided we had to return to the strategy of a local dispute in order to galvanise our membership. This must be seen in the context a decade where much national action was tokenistic at best (even though many were heartened by the success of the 2018 USS strike and the strength of picket lines at the neighbouring University of Sheffield). We geared up for a local indicative ballot in June/July of 2019, running as many phone banking sessions as was necessary until we were confident a majority of members had voted. In the end the result was 82% in favour of strike action on a 66% turnout. For the first time a win on statutory ballot under the new anti-TU law was in sight.

National disputes were then announced in the summer of that year, but this time we decided not to side-line our local dispute, but to push ahead with it, coordinating with regional officers so that the ballots for both disputes were posted out on the same day. This was the right decision, and the successful roll-out of our refined GTVO campaign saw an 84% vote in favour of strike action on a 53% turnout in the local dispute, followed a couple of weeks later by 76% vote in favour of action on a 56% turnout in the national dispute.

With this leverage we saw improved offers from management to settle the local dispute, but they did not go far enough and so we coupled 8 days of local action to run concurrently with those announced in the national dispute, leading to the first local strike at Sheffield Hallam in decades! During the strike, our membership was rock-solid, our pickets were bigger than ever, our website ran daily updates, we worked closely with the fantastic Sheffield Hallam Students Support the Strikes, held local rallies and a fantastic joint rally with University of Sheffield members (addressed by Jo Grady). We also made the most of management’s PR missteps – such as the now infamous ‘grass form’ – and hammered home our arguments to the local media. We even held a disco-picket!

While we saw some further movement from management in the new year of 2020, they had not met us halfway and so the branch also conjoined the local dispute to the 14 days action beginning in late February. During these strikes the breakthrough came and management offered us a deal that we could put to members, leading to the suspension of local strike action at the end of week 3 of that run (but remaining out on the national dispute). Ultimately that deal was endorsed at  a well-attended branch meeting (120 present) and an indicative ballot (93% in favour).

As I write this account, we now six weeks into the lockdown as the Coronavirus rages around us. There is a great deal of uncertainty as to what happens next. Nevertheless, it is important to take stock of what we have won at Sheffield Hallam. Significant increases in the hours on our workplan for ‘General Academic Duties’ (a catch all column for meetings, training and administration) and marking, the restoration of tariffs for Module and Course Leadership, and new agreements on identifying and tackling excessive workloads.

More than anything else, the first local strike action at Sheffield Hallam University in decades has rejuvenated the branch, adding close to a hundred members (taking us to around 900), leading to  new reps in departments that haven’t been covered for many years, and a membership that is increasingly vocal on a range of issues, from casualisation to bullying and harassment.

Our members can be extremely proud of themselves, as a branch we’ve moved from passivity to action. We end this dispute stronger, more confident and more effective than ever, ready to face whatever challenges come down the line!

Bob Jeffery, Anti-Casualisation Officer, Sheffield Hallam University UCU Branch

Organising to defend post-16 education in the Coronavirus era • A UCU Left hosted mobilising and strategy meeting

Greenwich picket

7.30pm Monday 4 May

Click here to register

We will devote this weeks webinar to discussing strategy and how we mobilise to defend post 16 education.

In this organising meeting we will share experiences of what is happening on the ground where you are. This week’s meeting will not be recorded as we map out a response from the left. We invite all those who have reported on campaigns and initiatives to join us.

All are welcome.

The magnificent response to the health workers call for solidarity shows the potential for a more humane and decent society. How can we as educators rise to the challenge of our times.

There are number of immediate and emerging questions:

  • How do we defend our frontiers of control?
  • How do we start to position the union to take up the challenges post Coronavirus?
  • How do we raise the level of organisation and coordinate our response across the union?

We will also be discussing:

  • How do we prepare for the battle to save HE?
  • How do we respond employers in FE and HE pushing through redundancies and restructures?
  • Under what conditions do we return to work?

We want to use this meeting as a mobilising forum to build for our next webinar on the campaign for no return to work until it is safe.

It will also be an opportunity to hear from our NEC members reporting back from Friday’s NEC.

You may be interested in this discussion paper submitted in advance to the NEC.

Defending post-16 education in the Coronavirus era

The impact of the Coronavirus on society is immense. Every aspect of our lives has been touched by the virus. Our working lives, home lives and how we relate to one another, physically and socially has been shaped by COVID-19.

A popular movement involving health workers, educationalists and scientists forced the government to lockdown the UK. In reality the government is still carrying out its preferred method of dealing with the virus the so called ‘herd immunity’ to deal with the crisis.  Boris Johnson’s government has utterly failed to protect the population. The World Health Organisation’s recommendation to combine lockdown with testing and PPE for frontline workers has not been implemented by the government.

As the death rate reaches the highest level within Europe (even before deaths in care are accounted for), there is a growing concern about the government’s handling on the virus. Millions participated in the International Workers Day memorial event in commemoration of frontline workers who have died.

The death toll is disproportionally hitting workers from BAME backgrounds and those with ‘underlying health conditions’ meaning people with disabilities.

Those colleges and university UCU branches who threatened to refuse to go to work if management did not close down their institutions were right to do so. Their actions in all likelihood saved lives.

There is a battle taking place in society between priorities of lives or profit. The attempt to question the validity of lockdown by some scientists is given significant airtime and press coverage: this represents a deliberate campaign to push back against the WHO-recommended strategy, in the same way as ‘climate denial’ was used to justify inaction for decades. We can most clearly see this being played out with the Trump-led ‘break the lockdown’ protests in the US.

Inside the colleges and universities, UCU members have risen magnificently to the challenge of supporting our students and communities. Some employers are working with UCU branches, especially where management have accepted we are working on a goodwill basis. Unfortunately, many employers are not. There is a drive in many institutions to get staff to work on a ‘business as usual’ approach, leading to great stress and anxiety for many of our members as they grapple to work from home and look after families. In Higher Education it is research staff who are likely to be among the first group coerced unnecessarily back to work.

In all sectors employers are positioning themselves for a post-coronavirus world. The government have forecasted a 35% drop in economic growth with the possibility of unemployment rising to 2 million.

Higher Education is facing the biggest crisis in its history, as the tuition fee market bubble is expected to burst, leaving a £2.5bn ‘black hole’. The employers are lining up for a full-frontal assault on the sector, using bankruptcy and closure to make thousands of redundancies. We can expect them to break up pay national bargaining and try to extract cuts in pay.

This crisis is wholly due to the fees-and-loans funding model. The Financial Times notes that universities elsewhere in the world that are not subject to tuition fee markets are not at risk.

Proposals from Universities UK for a government bailout are intended to entrench privilege within the sector and preserve the very market competition that led to this crisis. It is a recipe for a continuing crisis, especially if Coronavirus impacts on student recruitment, especially overseas student recruitment, for years to come. The move to teach online risks becoming permanent – the new Normal.

Maintaining and building branch organisation

Despite living and working in lockdown, the potential to build and grow union organisation is real – and essential. Many branches have met using different online platforms. But many have not.

We suggest that UCU should:

  • Launch a series of regional briefings on how to organise a branch in the lockdown.
  • Launch an online recruitment campaign.
  • Organise a series of sector-specific virtual meetings for members and officers to discuss how to prevent employers carrying out a ‘business as usual’ approach, support safe working at home, etc.
  • Organise a series of national online protests around key issues. For example, health and safety, equality and casualisation.
  • Demand campuses remain closed until national agreements are made on safe distancing, testing and tracing are all guaranteed.

Fighting for a post-16 education sector in a post-coronavirus world

UCU must position itself to be able to deal with the fallout during and following the lockdown. We should do so by rejecting any pessimism that our employers share about the lack of funding for the sectors. Never again should we accept that there is no money for education. The COVID-19 crisis has shown there is indeed a ‘magic money tree’.

Both sectors are going to be vital to the reconstruction of the post-coronavirus world. UCU must demand government underwrite the costs of maintaining and expanding post-16 education in the aftermath of the COVID-19 crisis.

UK post-16 sectors’ vulnerabilities are a direct consequence of following market dogma and speculating on global education.

We must start now to argue for a different model of further and higher education. A model that places knowledge, research, planning and collaboration at its centre instead of the market and competition. UCU has excellent policy in all these areas and has produced convincing manifestos and charters that outline a progressive model of how post-16 education could be run.

We suggest that UCU:

  • Organise a series of national virtual meetings on different aspects of our alternative vision for post-16 education.
  • Launch a campaign over funding for mental health support.
  • Publicly campaign against the UUK bailout plan, making the case for publicly funded and accountable Higher Education accessible to all who can attend
  • Campaigns for the expansion of provision for those young and older workers unable to gain employment following any post COVID recession.
  • Campaigns for an end to tuition fees and to reintroduce student maintenance grants.
  • Campaigns for the government to financially underpin all post-16 institutions that are suffering financial hardship due to the Covid-19 crisis, defend on-going educational provision, and preserve jobs and terms and conditions.

Covid-19: Fighting for solidarity, equality and education

Covid-19 webinar landscape v2

Click here to register

Speakers to follow.

This is part of a series of webinars during the crisis hosted by UCU Left.

You can view past webinars here.

  1. Fighting for Education in the Time of Coronavirus
  2. Defending Casualised Workers in the Lockdown
  3. Homeworking & Managerialism: Beyond the Exam Factory

UCU members put themselves at the forefront of fighting austerity and inequality. The strikes in further and higher education on pay inequality, pensions, casualised workers and workload. In doing so we have been the guardians of education and challenged the market vision of education.

The government has warned that the economy could shrink by 35% with unemployment reaching 2 million. The starting gun has gone off on the question of who pays and who is to blame for the crisis. How any recovery takes place. Therefore we urgently need to debate how we can use our collective strength to resist and to fight for solidarity and equality, and an inclusive education for all.

The Corona pandemic has exposed the depth of inequality in Britain. Frontline BAME and migrant health workers and those providing essential services in care homes, buses, shop workers, and many more, have died disproportionately as they work without vital PPE under a herd immunity strategy in practice.

The Tories are already starting to plan how to make us pay for their crisis and roll back equality gains. With it will come the divisive rhetoric and blaming of minorities and those accessing welfare. We can already see with the rejection of demands for a bailout how higher education could be viewed as a luxury for those who can afford it or merit the opportunity.

How can we protect a vision of full and inclusive education that break down barriers? The proposals to rank students to award grades will reinforce the inequalities that see black, asian and working class communities denied access to education and labelled as failures. How do we ensure they have no detriment and there remains an education service that can widen participation and access for all?

Some employers are rushing to cut their cloth rather than advocating post-16 education as vital to the recovery. It will be BAME workers on insecure contracts and students from poor backgrounds who will face the brunt of those cuts. Black communities will be doubly hit, by being forced into taking insecure and dangerous work , and education to these communities will decline to a basic level of training for dead end jobs.

The move to remote working has put a renewed triple burden on women. The inadequacy of social care means women are expected to perform their work, whilst also the role of carer for elderly family, and looking after children. This is in the context of cut services for vulnerable women and a rise in domestic violence. There will be a further barrier to women’s progression and the gender pay gap in academia.

We have seen a rise on eugenicist arguments about whose life is worth saving when hospitals are under resourced, or whose life should be sacrificed to the altar of profit. The elderly, sick and disabled have not been shielded, they have been abandoned by callous policies and cuts.

The introduction of the CoronaVirus Act 2020 should sound alarm bells. Every duty on our employers to meet the needs of disabled people under Care Act 2014 have been suspended. Those working at home are expected to do so with little regard to reasonable adjustments.

The state has more powers to detain people under the Mental Health Act. This comes at a time when there is a rise of poor mental health in young people and adults made worse by the crisis. How can we fight for an inclusive education for workers and students, the funding we need and for a social model of disability that breaks down barriers.

There can be no roll back on women’s rights women and LGBT+ rights. We have seen the impact on our campuses of the rise of the politics of hate to trans and minorities.  The impact of Corona is already affecting access to medical care for those who need to access gender identity clinics. The social, psychological and material experience of lockdown is vastly different for the oppressed and depending on your class position.

We are also witnessing divisive politics that pits the old against the young. Where older members of society should stay home whilst younger workers go back to work. We are already seeing debates in the media and from those in power, that juxtapose economy versus lives. These will seek to reframe what it means to grow old in society, to have a pension, the right to care and support, and lifelong learning.

We invite you to join this webinar to fight for an inclusive vision of education and society based on solidarity, equality and learning. To reject the divisive policies of cuts and scapegoating. That would lead to a roll back of inclusive and widening participation of education. We need to unite to defend it in the fight of our lives.


Home working, now and beyond:  Are we moving to emancipating electronic cottages or alienation in the home?

In this article I explore various aspects of the changes in education and working practices which we are seeing in our colleges and universities as a result of the Coronavirus crisis.  I address health and safety, contractual and pedagogic issues.

Corona Virus Crisis: one of the greatest threats to health and safety in our lifetimes.

There is by now a good deal of information regarding Health and Safety (H&S) aspects of home working. How ‘good’ that information is depends on your perspective. Below I outline some of the information that UCU,ACAS and the Health and Safety Executive have compiled. As you will see it’s generic, largely focused on keeping us at work. This is a fillip to the ‘business as usual’ approach adopted by most post-16 Education institutions. Worryingly, in prison education services most of the health and safety regulations and  legalframeworks do not apply.

Educators who work in frontline health and care services are especially vulnerable, as are the students who are being rushed into service – some of it unpaid.  Note that the Health and Care Professions Council has just published its temporary register for Allied Health Professions (paramedics, etc.) and Social Workers in order that final year students can join the workforce early:

“…to ensure there are no regulatory barriers to the following two groups practising on a temporary basis: …Final year students, on UK approved programmes, who have completed all their clinical practice placements.”

This will require considerable extra work, at no notice, for students and educators: this is no longer a H&S issue it’s a life-and-death matter. Staff and students are being sent onto the front line with insufficient, inadequate personal protective equipment (PPE). Irrespective of Government guidance, NHS staff have been left at risk of contracting Covid 19, and are working in fear that lives will be lost  This is a serious responsibility that we cannot allow employers to ignore.  We need less saluting NHS workers as ‘heroes’ and more demands for safe and adequate working conditions.

Many staff have recently shifted to online working, most of whom have been compelled to do so with little, or no training. These changes in our working conditions bring considerable H&S risks, for the most part, none of which will have been risk assessed (RA) by our employers. The Health and Safety Executive have issued updated RA guidance here.


  • Work stations, these are the most basic standards. Note that we, rather than the employer are tasked with ensuring that:
    • there is adequate space in the area we are working in to work safely (what does that mean?)
    • the space is well ventilated but at a comfortable temperature (we will bear the cost of additional heating)
    • our working area is free from tripping hazards (which requires space and equipment, e.g. cable ties, adequate and multiple sockets)
    • there is adequate lighting
    • electrical equipment is in a good condition (use occasional visual checks to confirm this) – who amongst us is trained to be able to evaluate the safety of the equipment we are using?
    • We know how to contact our manager in an emergency
    • We have regular online and/or telephone meetings scheduled with colleagues and managers to keep in touch and discuss any problems.

All well and good assuming that you can achieve all of the above. In most guidance there is little or no mention of disabled workers, many of whom will lose essential support workers as a result of both social distancing, self-isolation.  The government has acknowledged that

“… those that rely on the support provided by their carers are particularly at risk during this difficult period… there will be more need for care services, but sickness and the need to isolate is likely to reduce the number of dedicated social workers and care staff available to support those in need.”

This includes support workers who enable disabled staff to stay in work.

Trade unions should be demanding that IT and other support for home working, including

training needs, are met by the employer, and that financial costs are remunerated.  There are a raft of Equality issues around home working, that in the rush to shift to online teaching and other day-to-day tasks, have not been considered and/or addressed.  Warm words are spoken by employers about how to avoid social isolation, however, often, suggestions to ‘stay in touch ’are means through which to exercise surveillance over staff working at home.

The lack of risk assessments for online teaching and increased administrative work must be addressed.

We cannot ignore the disproportionate impact on casualised staff who are less likely to have access to IT equipment and support, let alone facilities to meet their contractual obligations.

Contractual issues

The aggressive position employers in HE and FE have already taken toward casualised staff began with the wholesale dismissal of staff at SOAS  and more recently Sussex, Newcastle and Bristol universities cannot go unchallenged. The implications for those discarded by their employers, as well as for staff who will be exploited with increased workloads to cover the work of the sacked will inevitably lead to increased physical and mental ill-health.

Trade unions should be demanding that employers provide or facilitate ‘water cooler’/ staff common room platforms through which staff can keep in contact and avoid isolation.

Trade unions should be demanding that all staff, including those on fractional contracts, are protected from working beyond their contracted hours. More than ever it is important that staff work to contract, in order to protect theirs and their family’s health and work life balance: we can and should do no more than what is achievable and sustainable.

There must also be recognition that some staff who are working at home will also be looking after children who are off school and studying at home, fulfilling caring responsibilities and in some cases shielding. In no instances should staff who cannot complete all of their work be subjected to absence or performance reviews.

Now was not the time to be extending goodwill without guarantees that this homeworking does not become the new way of working. Academic-Related and Professional Support staff who are now working from home will bear the brunt of the administrative work required to make the changes in teaching, assessment, timetabling, recruitment, registration etc.… Not an exhaustive list by any means. Many of these colleagues aren’t unionised, and those who are can be members of our sister unions. We should be working closely with UNISON, GMB, Unite and EIS to protect and defend and protect the interests of all post-16 Education workers.

There are contractual issues surrounding on-line delivery, which include: acknowledging and planning working time, for example in answering emails, preparation time for transferring materials to a suitable mode for on-line delivery, workload in maintaining and updating on-line materials.

Trade unions must also be vigilant in advising and supporting members who encounter copyright issues. This is very clear in terms of the post 92 national contract which distinguishes between notes made for the lecturer’s personal use and learning materials produced in the course of employment.

It is essential that we do not allow our homes to become solely a place of work. Easier said than done when so many staff working in post-16 Education do not have the luxury of dedicated working spaces and offices in the home. Many casualised staff live in multiple occupancy accommodation, and sometimes in ‘multiple locations’, which presents particular challenges in the context on restrictions on movement. Trade unions must be especially proactive in protecting their working conditions.

Pedagogic issues

Typically, whether in FE or HE we have a degree of influence over the content of our teaching and how it assessed.  With the wholesale move to online teaching institutions are setting up ‘Major Incident Groups’ predominantly the aim of continuing ‘businesses usual’. In many instances this groups comprise senior managers and administrators who are making decisions that negatively impact pedagogy. Changes in the way we teach, and the ways in which we assess cannot be made purely for reasons of expediency; the challenges we are facing must be met from the bottom up, by those doing the teaching and assessing, informed by pedagogical rather than technological approaches. Again many decisions being made are impacting on the amount of work we are being tasked to do.

We know that face-to-face teaching cannot shift online without significant redesigning of taught content, revising and reviewing information and resources about independent learning, and ensuring access to all of the technology that teachers and students will required. This is already resulted in an explosion of work and increase in workload for all of us. The Open University – with over 50  years’ experience of remote teaching – has issued new guidance for students, suggesting that much of the way which they do teaching and assessment has already  changed, and could be under constant review. A stark demonstration that face-to-face teaching assessment cannot simply be switched, at the click of virtual learning environment platform, online. Since its inception lecture capture has been vaunted as a means through which students access lecture recordings in order to clarify areas that they did not understand from the lecture. With little or no training, educators had been told that their primary function is to record their intellectual property, gift it to their employer, and at the same time, deal with the stressors related to achieving this.

The questions which will need answering and that we must be involved in decisions made include:

  • Curriculum areas where students need to spend time on work placement (e.g. health professions) or in labs (science and engineering) or workshops (arts and crafts, fashion, silversmithing etc)
  • Management of student expectations (e.g. time scale for response to emails)
  • How much formative feedback (and final feedback) to give on student assignments
  • Pastoral and academic support of students – how to maintain sense of academic community
  • On-line assessment and marking
  • Equality issues for students
  • Are there some employability skills which cannot be learned easily on-line?
  • Maintenance of the netiquette and professional behaviour between students and staff

We also need to consider the ways in which we are being called, in some cases summonsed to online meetings, which become de facto micromanagement and surveillance.

If, as chief medical officer Dr Jenny Harries announced on 30 March, the crisis will continue for several months, and stated that it could be 6 more months before things our back to normal, we should be very concerned about what the new normal might look like.  Any discussions on work planning for the next academic year should not be based on the premise that all learning will be online.

How as union activists should we respond to these health and safety risks?  I propose a call to action:

  • Trade unions must organise collectively in the workplace around health issues using existing legal frameworks.
  • Employers must be compelled to undertake risk assessments.
  • Employers must be compelled to identify and remove hazards, in particular including unsafe working practices in the home.
  • Managements must agree to respect the obstacles to homeworking faced by staff due to their personal circumstances. We should adopt the EIS’s maxim, “What I can, when I can, if I can”.
  • We must insist that managements cease to issue blanket instructions to staff which take no account of the inequalities caused by homeworking, and we must demand that as part of Equality Impact Assessments measures are put in place to prevent staff suffering detriments, e.g. promotion, advancement or job security, as a result of any obstacles they face to working from home.
  • The recognised trade unions in post-16 Education must work together to protect the terms conditions and rights of their members.

In conclusion the role of UCU is vital in protecting both academic quality and standards, and its members working conditions and health and safety.

We need active union branches, meeting online until we can meet face to face again.

We need active union reps challenging overloading and pressures on staff to cope with rapid change without proper support.

Temporary homeworking must not be used by employers to drive a coach and horses through existing conditions, to isolate staff, or to leave staff to cope unsupported with the changes forced on the sector by the Coronavirus and requirements for social distancing or self-isolation.

If we organise effectively as a union in this context we can build stronger union organisation, which protects members at work, whether working at home in electronic cottages or back in the universities and colleges.

Above all, stay safe and stay well. If you experience symptoms or do succumb to this awful virus please seek medical advice from your own GP, 111 or the NHS website.

Education Support also offers mental health support and advice for education workers.

Marian Mayer
WMSC, DMSC, National Negotiator, Chair Southern Region, Co-chair Bournemouth University UCU