Letter in response to the Warden’s Message on the UCU Ballot

Dear colleagues

I would like to thank the Warden for raising some of the issues at the heart of this dispute. The UCU branch at Goldsmiths has not yet met to discuss the ballot, though it will be doing so on Wednesday May 13th (12.30pm in RHB 137). In the meantime, I thought it would be useful to reply to the Warden’s comments on the ballot.

It is worth pointing out at the outset that the dispute with the employers’ collective representative, the University and Colleges Employers’ Association (UCEA), is not simply between the universities represented by UCEA and the UCU. All of the trade unions recognized in the HE sector have rejected the pay offer of 0.3%, and all have expressed concerns about threats to job security across the sector at a time of deepening recession. Indeed the National Union of Students has, in the last few days, signed up to our demand for a national agreement on job security.

 

Job Security

The prospect of significant redundancies in the HE sector is what directly underlines the UCU’s decision to ballot members at this point. The preservation of the sector’s capacity to contribute to the education of an increasing proportion of our population at a time of recession, and the preservation of employment stability for those who work in the sector is a key concern for all of us.

The unions have not invented the threat to jobs in HE. When the trade unions’ negotiators met the representatives of UCEA, it was the latter who declared that at a time of recession the unions would have to choose between jobs and pay. That was their bargaining position, and in just so many words. They came to the table clearly intending to use the recession, and what they hoped would be fear of job losses, to hold down wage settlements so as to reverse the small advances made by staff as a result of the 2006 dispute. Indeed, that was their privately acknowledged intention in the strategy seminars organized for the universities’ personnel departments by UCEA over the last year: how to roll back the unions’ relative success in the 2006 dispute. That was why they entered the national negotiations with an announcement that some 99 of their affiliated institutions were planning significant job losses. It was not a figure discovered by the UCU or by Unison, or by one of the other unions. It was a figure wielded by the employers’ representatives in the negotiations.

That is why the unions in the national negotiations are now seeking, as a matter of urgency, a national agreement on the avoidance of job losses. A time of recession is when the education sector should expand as a preparation for the future. It should not be facing job losses, and intensified pressure on resources. Indeed, the news that there has been an 8.8% increase in application for FT undergraduate places in September 2009 demands that more, not less, money should be available for HE at this time. Additionally, the use of poor RAE results to make cuts and redundancies, as was announced by the University of Liverpool, is nothing short of scandalous. There is no justification and no objective need for government to cut back on HE spending – witness President Obama’s decision, in the middle of a recession, to spend extra billions of dollars on higher education and research. But here the employers’ representatives nationally have refused even to discuss an agreement on redundancies, claiming that this is for the individual universities to determine. We know, however, that it is entirely within UCEA’s remit to draw up such an agreement to which every university ought to commit.

The Warden is right to talk of the ‘good relations’ between staff and management representatives at Goldsmiths and we appreciate management’s declaration that ‘we have no current plans for compulsory redundancies’. Yet Goldsmiths is not an island. There may be no immediate pressure for job losses here this year but, if staff/student ratios worsen dramatically in 100 other HE institutions, and if the fee cap is relaxed next year, the pressure on all universities and colleges will be to seek what are euphemistically called ‘efficiency gains’.

In reality, redundancies do not increase efficiency. Rather they undermine the quality of the educational service and they demoralize and demotivate staff. They result in the centralization and alienation of administrative and technical support, the ‘rationalisation’ of library and information provision, an increase in class sizes and the multiple delivery of lectures, an increase in the workload for those who remain, and a consequent decline in the students’ access to tutors and support workers, and in the quality of students’ overall experience of education. What happens in other institutions this year will be, in all likelihood, what will be forced on Goldsmiths in the future.

That is why our responsibility is not just with our own institution but also with the sector as a whole, and why our horizon cannot be defined by the very short term. That is the sense in which the campaign by the UCU and the other unions is not simply about the sectional interests of our own members but about the defence of university education as a public good. And that is the sense in which this dispute, and any consequent action, is not against the interests of our students but precisely for their benefit as safeguarding the quality of the provision designed for them. That is why the Goldsmiths should press UCEA to adopt the same kind of approach in respect of redundancies that the Warden has adopted here and thereby to encourage its universal adoption. Something of this kind, with appropriate procedures and protocols in place, is precisely what the UCU is seeking nationally.

Pay

Although job security is the key concern of the ballot, pay is not altogether irrelevant to UCU members. However, the Warden’s focus in his letter on the UCU’s claim for an 8% rise is a little disingenuous. He knows well that this figure was formulated as an aspiration over six months ago, well before the depths of the recession that have now been reached, and in response to the provocative declaration by some universities that they would only be offering 0%. Indeed, the Warden has made it clear to us that he thought that such bullish comments were extremely unhelpful. He also knows that there is now a joint union demand for a reasonable pay settlement for next year.

In fact, you might have been a little surprised to find not a single mention of the employers’ 0.3% pay offer to us in the Warden’s letter. Perhaps this is simply because a 0.3% offer is so hard to justify. Some employers are claiming that the 0.3% offer is reasonable because, on one measure of changes in the cost of living (RPI), inflation is now negative at -0.4%. This does not refer to the fact that RPI is now negative only because of the reduction in tracker mortgage rates, the fall in property prices, and the small reductions in buildings insurance. In respect of other prices, inflation is far from negative. According to the CPI measure (which excludes property-related costs), inflation is now running at 2.9% (March 2009). A 0.3% pay offer would lead to a return to the sedately declining real incomes of staff in HE that we had been experiencing for the two decades before the 2006 dispute. One does not need to be an economic wizard to realize that in the 2009-10 academic year inflation will be somewhere between 2% and 2.5% so a 0.3% settlement would be significant cut in real income.

The Dispute

The Warden does not wish for or seek confrontation, and neither do the unions. Our dispute is with the universities and colleges collectively, as represented by UCEA. The Warden states that he knows that ‘you would not wish to damage Goldsmiths or its future’ when choosing how to vote in the ballot. I am sure that we all agree on this. However, in facing our ballot papers, we must ask ourselves what the response of UCEA would be were we not to seek an agreement on redundancies and to accept the right (and the prospect) of employers to make devastating cuts? What would be the response of those managements (fortunately not our own) whose ambitions for radical restructuring and a cull of staff has only been restrained by anxiety over what such aggression would provoke from the UCU and from the other unions? What would then be next on the agenda? That is not difficult to answer: our final salary pension scheme looks to be the prime candidate.

UCU has been obliged to undertake a ballot for action at this time since, given the lack of any assurances on redundancies, the negotiating timetable mean we need to move to a precautionary ballot while negotiations are taking place. If we leave it until the end of the process we will not be able to take effective industrial action this academic year. It is essential though to be clear that a ballot for industrial action does not commit UCU to taking such action. We will only resort to industrial action when all other options have been exhausted. It is worth noting, however, that the threat to make disproportionate pay deductions in the event of ‘Partial Performance’, as contained in a recent letter from the director of human resources, is not helpful. Whilst this is now official UCEA policy, such excessive deductions have in the past been shown to be provocative, and may also open to legal challenge.

At Goldsmiths, the trade unions have a productive and collegial relationship with the University’s senior management based on a recognition of a shared commitment to the educational principles of openness and inclusivity. That we may now have differences over the fact and character of any dispute is unsurprising. For this reason we invite the Warden to present the University’s case over pay and redundancies to a meeting of all staff where the Union can also present its case. We suggest a discussion and not a formal debate since we would prefer to seek commonality of purpose rather than to emphasise division. We suggest that this meeting be held at a convenient time during the next three weeks.

The notice given by the Union is not a reckless attempt to derail negotiations but a consequence of the employers forcing us into an unsatisfactory negotiating procedure and for their failure to win the resources necessary to guarantee jobs and to provide a decently-resourced HE system. I hope you support the UCU in this vital struggle and look forward to seeing you at the general meeting next week.

Yours

Des Freedman

President, Goldsmiths UCU

6th May 2009