‘Hotdesking’ in the lift: Edinburgh grad students organise against attacks on working conditions

'Hotdesking' in the lift highlights grad students' poor working conditions - picture Emilia Belknap via Twitter

‘Hotdesking’ in the lift highlights grad students’ poor working conditions – picture Emilia Belknap via Twitter

Graduate students at Edinburgh have been organising a creative and highly democratic campaign to highlight the university’s attacks on their working conditions, after managers told research students in the School of Social and Political Science that they would be moved to an under-equipped and under-resourced building across campus from existing post-graduate work space in the Chrystal MacMillan Building (CMB).

Dozens of grad students took part in a work-in on 10 December, using the lifts, toilets, stairwells and management office corridors in the CMB in protest a decision which will increase competition among students over desk space.

In a statement issued by the campaign on 11 December, the campaign said:

We are outraged at the lack of involvement of the PGR community in any decision-making concerning our space. No conversations about students’ needs and the new plans had taken place prior to the decision being communicated to us in September. As the PhD community, we fundamentally disagree with the undemocratic process of decision-making by School management as well as the proposed reduction of PGR hot-desking space based on a top-down interpretation of our needs. The monitoring of our card and network access data is totally unacceptable, and does not provide a sufficient justification for a reduction of space. In response, we have organised ourselves and to date held four extremely well attended, democratically-run meetings, involving over 150 PhD students and creating a space where we can discuss how we understand our needs as PGRs and come up with a set of key demands. They are the following:

  • To let us keep our PGR space in the Chrystal Macmillan Building (the West Wing) or offer us an equal or better space.
  • To make a long-term commitment to improve work and community space provision as student numbers and needs increase.
  • To democratise decision-making across the school, making it transparent and inclusive of students at all levels.
  • To extend democratic control of our work- and community spaces to us.”

Sophia Hoffinger, PhD student in Social Anthropology added:

The lack of transparency and participation that the School is displaying in matters that affect us as students directly is inexcusable. We should be involved in the decision making processes that affect us, rather than being presented with faits accomplis. Instead, we are being treated as expendable, our contracts made precarious and our office space scarce.”

The campaign has won broad support from grad students picture Emilia Belknap via Twitter

The campaign has won broad support from grad students
picture Emilia Belknap via Twitter

Following the work-in management made some concessions, admitting that “nothing is set in stone”. Campaign members told UCULeft.org they will be continuing to mobilise in the New Year. Lukas Slothuus, a PhD student in Political Theory said:

This action was incredibly encouraging because it showed the strength of unity and the power of organising. PhD students are usually very poorly organised, both in trade unions and among themselves. We’re breaking out of that situation by organising in a way that brings collective joy and concrete wins at the same time. There is a genuine feeling among our campaign that we will win, and that it will spur us on to many more victories in the future — around things like tutor pay and unpaid labour.”

Grad student organising has brought incredible energy to many UCU branches in recent years, with campaigns tackling the issue of casualisation and poverty pay as well as poor working conditions springing up in many places. Although ‘Where’s Our Space’ is a broad campaign involving grad students both inside and outside UCU, Lukas told us that experiences on the picket lines helped push forward student organising around the issue:

Several of us were part of the UCU strike, and the conversations we had on the picket lines with more senior staff were really encouraging for building the campaign. All the issues we are facing are of course connected — from lack of work and community space to poor pay for hourly-paid teaching staff. It is a sign of the never-ending forward march of precarity and neoliberalisation of the university.

In our UCU postgrad network we have discussed the importance of lowering the barriers of entry into the union for young researchers. There is a danger that the union might be perceived as only for senior academics, while in reality it is us young researchers who are the most precarious and the most vulnerable to pension cuts. There are three crucial lessons to learn from this, in my view: One, to create exciting, effective, and mass-based campaigns for early career researchers. Second, to link our struggles beyond the union into student struggles — the undergraduate students have a lot of concerns that align well with ours. And third, to link up local, regional, and national campaigns. In our Where’s Our Space campaign, we have received countless messages of solidarity from across Britain and proposals from campaigns across many universities to join forces, collaborate, and coordinate. This will be a crucial feature of winning our struggles in the future.”

UCU Scotland President Carlo Morelli agreed that grassroots campaigns by PhD students should win the backing of UCU members and branches. He told UCULeft.org

As UCU Scotland President I send solidarity from UCU members throughout Scotland. Our eight days of strike over casualisation is part of the protest of PhD students and tutors to have decent working conditions. Irrespective of where we are within Higher Education we have a common goal of protecting education from those who treat it solely as a market for exploitation and personal enrichment. We stand with undergraduates, postgraduates and all those working in the sector to defend a collective, unified education sector.”

Report by Anne Alexander

Send messages of support for the ‘Where’s Our Space?’ campaign on the Twitter hashtags #phdprecarity and #wheresourspace or email wheresourspace@gmail.com

We won the vote – Now let’s start the action

Picketing UCL, March 2018

The ballot results are in. UCU members throughout Higher Education are ready to fight to defend their pay and pensions, and to stand up against inequality, unmanageable workloads and casualisation.

On pay, 73% of members voted yes to strike action, on a 49% total turnout. 55 university branches declared with a turnout greater than 50%. On USS, 44 out of 64 USS institutions hit the threshold. Herriot-Watt topped the poll at 71.59% turnout.

Branches in Northern Ireland do not have to beat the 50% threshold, so Queens University Belfast, Ulster University, Stranmillis University College and St Mary’s University College Belfast are also able to strike.

Pay (Four Fights) Ballot USS Ballot

62.33% of balloted UCU members are in branches eligible to take strike action over pay. In the USS pre-92 universities, the equivalent figure is 80.62%.

These are the highest votes ever in a UCU national pay campaign, outstripping those in last year’s pay ballot.

The votes were overwhelmingly for action. But thanks to the Tory Anti-Union Laws, turnout is the key. 55 branches exceeded the 50% threshold required. Given the obstacle that this represents for trade unions, our results are very positive. The union decided to conduct disaggregated ballots precisely so that some branches would be able to fight even if we didn’t reach the threshold overall.

What must happen now

It is time to name the date for action.

The 55+ branches with legal mandates must begin escalating action in mid-November (see list below). The other branches need to continue the campaign to reballot – see below.

The pension action will begin to put pressure on the employers in UCEA and UUK and on the pension bosses at USS. We know they won’t shift their positions without it.

The pay action (including equality, workload and casualisation) unifies members young and old, and unites us with our colleagues in other unions in each university or college. Pay also unifies the sector, pre- and post-92.

Successful pay ballots allow other workers who are not in UCU to participate in strikes. (It is unlawful for employers to discriminate by union membership and branches can extract statements from HR to that effect.) It also means that post-92 institutions will be able to take strike action alongside pre-92, offering mutual solidarity and presenting a united front in defence of HE and the staff who work in HE.

It is time to lift the lid on local issues of casualisation and gender and race pay inequality – and show they are endemic to our sector.

We can take action alongside postal workers defending their jobs and school students fighting climate change.

General Election

The general election gives us the perfect opportunity to put a spotlight on the future of Higher Education.

If we want to insist that government has a responsibility to ensure that universities pay their staff properly, address the scandals of rising casualisation and unequal pay, and protect the USS pension scheme for future generations with a government guarantee, we could not ask for a better moment to take action!

Reballots and organising solidarity

Meanwhile, branches who reached 40% or more should be reballoted with the aim of joining a second wave of action in January. Many branches are only a few dozen votes short of the threshold and have a very good chance of breaking through on a reballot. Bringing out more branches would be an excellent way for our action to escalate in the new year. See the graphs above. Branches which fell below 40% should have the right to opt in to the reballot.

All those not in a position to strike yet can support striking members by contributing to a strike fund levy.

UCU in Transformation – One Year On
London, Sat 2 Nov 11-5
Called by London Region UCU

In the meantime we face a major organising task. Regions have a crucial role to link up branches striking with those balloting, organising regional demonstrations and encouraging demonstrative action.

The first step to linking up activists and reps will be the #UCUTransformed2019 one-day conference called by London Region UCU on Saturday 2 November.

This will be the first chance to debate the next steps in the struggle with other reps and activists. Reps in branches that missed the threshold will want to discuss the Herriot Watt GTVO strategy. Other regions should call activist meetings as soon as possible to do the same.

Branches with live ballot mandates

The institutions in which members can now take action are:

  • Aston University
  • Bangor University
  • Bishop Grosseteste University
  • Bournemouth University
  • Cardiff University
  • Courtauld Institute of Art
  • Durham University
  • Edge Hill University
  • Glasgow Caledonian University
  • Glasgow School of Art
  • Heriot-Watt University
  • Liverpool Hope University
  • Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts (LIPA)
  • Loughborough University
  • Newcastle University
  • Open University
  • Queen Margaret University
  • Queen’s University, Belfast
  • Roehampton University
  • Sheffield Hallam University
  • St Mary’s University College Belfast
  • Stranmillis University College
  • The Institute of Development Studies
  • The University of Aberdeen
  • The University of Bath
  • The University of Dundee
  • The University of Kent
  • The University of Leeds
  • The University of Manchester
  • The University of Nottingham
  • The University of Sheffield
  • The University of Stirling
  • Ulster University
  • University College London
  • University of Birmingham
  • University of Bradford
  • University of Brighton
  • University of Bristol
  • University of Cambridge
  • University of Edinburgh
  • University of Essex
  • University of Exeter
  • University of Glasgow
  • University of Lancaster
  • University of Leicester
  • University of Liverpool
  • University of London, City
  • University of London, Goldsmiths
  • University of London, Queen Mary
  • University of London, Royal Holloway
  • University of Oxford
  • University of Reading
  • University of Southampton
  • University of St Andrews
  • University of Strathclyde
  • University of Sussex
  • University of Wales
  • University of Warwick
  • University of York

Government defeated over the HE Bill at the first Committee stage

» Download this briefing as a PDF

screen-shot-2016-10-18-at-09-51-58The Government has been forced on the back foot after the Lords pushed through an amendment to the HE Bill which reaffirms what universities are for.

This is an important amendment, because it represents the clash of two very different ideological perspectives on the purpose of a university.

The premise of the HE Bill is that a university is a kind of “higher education provider” – like a toothpaste provider.

The Government has defined universities in this crass way because it opens the door to private companies swooping in, setting up campuses and charging high tuition fees to students. In the USA this has meant a colossal expansion of what is known as the ‘for-profit’ sector. This is now in decline as a result of a series of frauds and scandals.

Although it might sound quite bland and obvious, stating that “a university must uphold the principles of academic freedom and freedom of speech” makes a very big distinction between a university and a private company. If you are a scientist working for a private company and you publish research that is critical of a commercial partner of your employer, you will almost certainly be fired.

Publicly-funded, publicly-accountable science is crucial to a free society. So the engineering researchers in the US who blew the whistle on Volkswagen were probably funded by the automobile industry and needed their cooperation to test vehicles. But they found a big discrepancy between the industry’s published figures on emissions and what they saw in the lab. They were able to publish the results because they were protected by the principle of academic freedom – whistle-blowing clauses in their contracts.

After the gold rush

In 2011 the Coalition Government introduced 9K fees, and cut the per-department ‘block grant’ (scrapped it altogether in some subjects). In 2014 they removed the cap on student numbers. This unleashed a wave of speculative expansion by existing universities (a ‘gold rush for students’). Universities saw they could expand student numbers, and once they had covered their costs, each extra student recruited was pure profit. They hired staff on short-term contracts and started pouring money into new campuses. The starting gun was fired on a race to the bottom.

This is now placing extreme strain within universities. Government-funded research earns the university an additional 80% on top of salaries. But if you do the maths, a teaching staff member costing £50,000 a year teaching 30 students paying £9,000 will earn the university 440% on top. The incentive is clear – push out research-active academics, who “only” bring in 80% of their salaries, and hire teaching staff, expand marketing and building space.

What does this amendment mean?

It is vindication of all of those who have got organised to oppose the Bill. It should be the start of many amendments to remove other clauses from the HE Bill. These clauses let private companies brand them-selves as a University from Day 1, write degree programmes without oversight, etc.

» The amendments the HE Convention is arguing for

Across our campuses, colleagues should approach the question of organising against the HE Bill and defending Education with renewed vigour.

The NUS has launched their boycott of NSS. Student Unions are open to organising with UCU branches and other trade unions to explain the Bill and the Boycott.

What you can do

  • Organise meetings on campuses and communities. Our first task is to bring people together who want to do something. We can all circulate the link to the ‘College, Inc.’ video to colleagues, include a link to the HE Convention website, and ask them if they’d like to help organise a meeting about the HE Bill.
  • Invite outside speakers. If you need a speaker from the Convention, email us or add a comment to their website. Think about whether you want to open the meeting up to a Public Meeting and invite MPs to debate. This can draw a crowd, but you may want to start small and build up to a Public Meeting after the Third Reading.
  • Lobby your local MP in their constituency. MPs have constituency surgeries. You can arrange to turn up in a large group and ask to speak to the MP about the Bill. It can be powerful to send in a student and a staff member as delegates. But this does not mean you should not try to turn up en masse. Numbers turning up in the constituency help remind MPs that they rely on you for votes. Invite the local press. Target Tory MPs – the votes are on party lines.
  • Support the NUS boycott of NSS. Make sure your UCU branch is putting out statements in support of the NSS boycott. Talk to the SU. Get staff meetings together to put out statements. For example, some departments at UCL have put out statements saying “normally we would call on all students to participate in the National Student Survey, but the NSS is boycotting it and this is why”. Strengthen the arguments the NUS are using – mostly about tuition fees – with an explanation about the TEF and the HE Bill. See the Convention website for more details.

See also