Lecturers at two thirds of higher education institutions face the real threat of losing their jobs. The Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA) has said that 100 institutions are planning collective redundancies.
While most of these 100 institutions have yet to go public, Liverpool University has announced eight of its forty five departments risk closure, Thames Valley has proposed shutting completely one of its four campuses, and one in four staff at London Metropolitan University face the sack. Reduced student funding in the area of health means nursing and health profession departments across the UK also face cuts. So too do university departments who scored 1* or 2* in the recent RAE exercise, i.e. those places deemed at the 'low end' of a crude audit of academic productivity and “quality”.
Work intensification is another major issue, especially if one combines the higher number of students expected to go to university from September 2009 (due to the recession) and planned job cuts and recruitment freezes. The student-staff ratio for UK universities was 9/1 thirty years ago. Today it is 18/1, higher than France, Germany and the United States.
Ballot papers have recently been sent out to higher education lecturers, members of the University and College Union (UCU), posing the issue of pay and job security as grounds for industrial action. UCEA are offering a derisory 0.3% pay rise.
Some will say one ought to be grateful for any pay offer at a time like this. But remember that in a period when workers are (and will be) losing their jobs, many will be our partners, children and other dependents; remember that more students than ever are expected to enter into universities; remember that management will use (and indeed, milk) the “excuse of economics” to push through serious attacks on workers. Now is precisely a time to reveal industrial muscle not weakness.
UCEA insist sthe ballot does not make sense, since it cannot agree nationally the job safety of any one local institution. That is the autonomous decision of individual Vice Chancellors.
What kind of trade union do we have and what kind do we want? Clearly, the stance being taken by the union bureaucratic vanguard to flex industrial muscle at a time of major attacks is broadly the right one. This vanguard consists, in the main, of the UCU Left (dominated by the SWP and their alliance of generally decent leftist union bureaucrats).
Member of AWL UCU have long argued (in the UCU and formerly NATFHE) that any kind of meaningful, effective and democratic Left in the union has be driven, organically created, linked to the rank-and-file of the union. UCU Left is not a rank-and-file body. For that reason, in any potential strike the UCU Left must seriously address the gulf that exists between itself and ordinary members.
This union is nothing without quorate branch meetings in every member institution, without active shop stewards, without democratic debate and participation — especially at a critical moment like this when our leadership steer us into what could be a long and significant confrontation with the bosses.
All UCU members should vote yes in the ballot, but also push for a genuine rank-and-file organisation in the union to take up the fight!