> Dispute between University management and the Lecturer’s Union  UCU instensify

The ongoing dispute between UWE management and members of the UWE branch of the Universities and College Union (UCU) has reached crisis point.

A press release from UCU states that members at its UWE branch have announced they will be taking strike action on Thursday February 10th in a row over restructure plans.

If realised, it would mark the first incidence of industrial action in UWE’s history.

The resolve to take action is the result of a month-long ballot among more than 700 members of UWE-UCU. 66% of members voted to strike and 89% voted for industrial action short of a strike.

The contested restructuring plans include the elimination of 80 professorships and reader positions at UWE and the implementation of a reapplication process for existing members of staff [see WesternEye Issues 2 and 3].

UCU, in an earlier press release, labelled the restructuring as a “bungled demotion of senior staff, including professors.”

In a further statement on February 3rd, UCU accuses UWE of attempting to rush through proposals which it believes “could lead to inferior jobs descriptions and a dubious selection process.”

UWE claims that the issue over job descriptions are in relation to national alignment and that they have agreed to address this.

Deputy Vice-Chancellor, John Rushforth told WesternEye that “It is understandable that there are concerns about jobs throughout the sector in the current climate. We are determined to invest in teaching and research where we can.”

UWE alleges the creation of “40 new teaching posts at senior academic level” is evidence that UCU member’s fears are somewhat unfounded. However, when this is scrutinised more closely in relation to UCU fears of “inferior jobs descriptions”, the term “senior academic level” becomes ambiguous.

Keith Hicks, UWE Director of Marketing and Communications, insists that negotiations have not broken down and that UWE has “made a number of offers and gone a considerable way to try to address the concerns.”

One major sticking point is the possibility of redundancies among academic staff. UCU is asking for a guarantee that no compulsory redundancies will be made among academic staff, which UWE claims is unfeasible in the current economic climate. UWE has stated that “we have strengthened our commitment to UCU to make all reasonable steps to avoid compulsory redundancies.”

Mr Rushforth has previously stated [WesternEye issue 3] that “If at the end [staff] have to leave, then that’s unfortunate, but what’s the alternative? There is only a fixed amount of money, and it can only be deployed so far.”

A concerned member of staff at UWE has provided WesternEye with an internal email from Associate Dean, Gaynor Attwood, that informs staff members that “following the restructure of the Centre for Fine Print Research” Research Associate, Vikki Hill, departed her post on January 31st “by reason of redundancy.”

While unclear whether Vikki Hill’s redundancy was voluntary or otherwise, what is clear is that academic posts are already being streamlined. Although, it should be noted that Mr Hicks claims in relation to departures by staff already that “Some staff have retired, some sought voluntary severance and others sought to work flexibly.”

Obviously strike action would cause some disruption to students. A point made by SRC President, Colin Offler, during his motion proposal at the UWESU Annual General Meeting (AGM) not to support industrial action by UWE teaching staff [see page 5]. A point he reiterated when asked about the now real possibility of such action.

“There is only one position in my mind that the Students’ Union should take and that is to work in the best interests of students and ensure that any action taken by UCU members does not have a detrimental impact on the day to day lectures and seminars that our students pay for through tuition fees.”

UCU Regional Officer, Nova Gresham, told WesternEye that the proposed action was intended to be a “short, sharp strike” with the possibility of “more, further down the line” but that the ends did justify the means to maintain UWE’s teaching standards.

“UCU members are the ones delivering front line services to students and are totally committed to their students. UWE is joint-second in the national league tables for providing added value.  But a demoralised workforce does not help students.”

Tom Hickey, from UCU national, speak at a UCU rally in October

On the subject of plans for teaching provision should a strike take place, UWE have insisted that contingencies will be in place to minimise the impact on students.

There has obviously been some breakdown of communication or irresolvable crux for strike action to be a very real possibility, but both parties appear keen to find a solution.

Branch Chair of UWE-UCU, Dr Peter Broks, has suggested a moratorium on the proposed changes while further negotiations take place, and possibly an “away day to thresh out the problems”. Mr Hicks says that UWE is open to this suggestion, despite allegations by Dr Broks that University management “won’t even give two weeks to think it though.”

The situation appears salvageable as both parties claim to be open to continued negotiation and to have the best interests of current and future students at heart.

Whether a tenable solution will be found before Thursday is uncertain, but what is certain is that if no agreement can be made, then the first strike in the history of UWE is inevitable.

Sam Butler