End of the campaign

Tomorrow the result of the VP election will be known.

I will be “on the road” most of the day, because I am attending a meeting on the implementation of the Research Concordat at the Open University HQ in Milton Keynes.

This means other people will probably know the result before I do. 

Whatever the outcome, I would like to say that I feel honored by the support you have all given me.

Amongst other things, I hope the campaign has raised the profile of members on casualised contracts and the problems we face, because it is essential that we are no longer perceived as peripheral, either at branch level or nationally. 

The interests of all UCU members must be addressed in UCU’s national campaigns, national negotiations, and indeed in national elections.

Thank-you to all of you.

Lesley Kane

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Insecurity, Workload and Stress

This week I have been busy, and the main reason is not to do with standing for election.

I have been busy because I have been re-applying for my own job. Casualised staff have always had to do this at regular intervals, but in the last few years it has become part of life for many other staff in HE and FE.

Job cuts are often implemented by making everyone re-apply, with those who are not selected being made redundant. Even worse are the ‘rank and yank’ methods of performance management which have made their appearance over the last few years.

Repeated restructurings, departmental mergers, and course closures have left few staff feeling secure.

Politicians have openly called for more to be done for less in the public sector, and in FE in particular. In the front line this means redundancies, with higher student/staff rations, more contact hours and less holiday for those who remain.

The whole cycle of restructuring, dismissals, and higher workloads makes many colleges and universities very unhealthy places to work, and there is no way this can avoid impacting on the “student experience” our employers and government ministers pay lip service to.

Re-applying for one’s own job is a very particular experience.  I am an Open University tutor, and the application form asks for experience of supporting students from a wide range of backgrounds. Now most of us could write a book, not just a few sentences about this, so where do we start?  Putting experienced and committed staff through an application process designed for outsiders is fundamentally flawed and liable to give erratic results.

UCU must campaign locally and nationally to put an end to the use of insecurity of employment as a tool of performance management. Where necessary we must be prepared to take industrial action to defend members against aggressive management attempts to cut jobs and increase workload.

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HE Pay Ballot

Like many branch officers who gave time and effort to the recent industrial action on pay in Higher Education, I find the outcome of 3% over two years a disappointing end to the dispute.

The debate continues about the outcome of the ballot, and undoubtedly there is more than one reason why members voted to accept the offer. But the one thing the ballot does not reflect is satisfaction with current pay levels, which the offer does nothing to improve.

The only positive aspect, in my opinion, is that it breaks the pattern of 1% per year which our employers claimed was necessary to be in line with the public sector pay freeze. This wouldn’t have been achieved without industrial action. However, the fact remains that 1% this year is another pay cut in real terms, and 2% next year is another (albeit smaller) pay cut in real terms. At HEC no-one argued that the offer represented a good deal.

At the time of the ballot, some employers had already served letters on members saying that if they did not repudiate the marking boycott they would be taken off the payroll until the dispute was settled. The union had no Plan B to deal with this, in spite of democratically taken decisions that we would escalate industrial action to defend members in this position. We need to prevent this kind of intimidation becoming a template for the future, otherwise the we will be unable to prevent further losses.

For the sake of UCU’s future credibility and bargaining power we need to think seriously about the lessons for the future, amongst which I suggest the following:-

(i) If we are to avoid continued erosion of real pay it is vital that UCU develops a better strategy for dealing with aggressive employer tactics. The threat of 100% pay docking was undoubtedly a serious problem for members. This is the first time many of our members have faced this in the context of a marking boycott. 

(ii) On this occasion there was no alternative but to take the poll over a holiday period, but the fact that branches could not meet made it harder to counter the impact of management intimidation.

(iii) The dispute would have had more resonance amongst some UCU members on insecure contracts if security of employment had been explicitly included in the dispute. Anti-Casualisation activists explained over and over again that it was part of the HE claim, but it still didn’t get through to everyone at the chalk face (so to speak). In future secure employment and adequate provision for equality need to be explicitly included in our aims.

(iv) In future significant changes in the union’s strategy and tactics, especially when unfamiliar tactics introduced, need to be discussed before, rather than after, they are introduced, and democratically decided.

(v) The fear of individual victimisation and resulting loss of employment was certainly present amongst members on insecure contracts, and this probably had some impact on the recent ballot. We need to give more thought to how we are going to counter this

(vi) Disputes that go on for a long time tend to run out of steam. We need union action to be effective at an earlier stage in the dispute.

If UCU cannot reverse the continued real pay loss since 2009 this will call into question the future of national bargaining, bringing HE a step closer to the government’s vision of elite institutions with fees up to £30000 a year, while other universities charge lower fees with worse pay and conditions.

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Age Immaterial

The TUC has produced an interesting and useful report on discrimination against older women. The report can be accessed at the following link:


The report looks at the work experiences of women over 50. It finds that women in this age group earn a fifth less than their male counterparts. It goes on to show how many older women workers are combining paid work with care of relatives, including both parents and grandchildren. These women need support, such as flexible hours and caring leave, but do not always get it. This is a reminder of how careful trade unions have to be with the concept of flexibility. Jobs should be flexible to suit needs of workers to accommodate family and caring responsibilities. Too often, however, the type of flexibility people at work encounter is one which gives all the rights to employers and none to employees.

Half of women aged 50 to 64 are working in jobs where they deliver public services. This has put them in the front line of funding cuts and outsourcing.

Another disturbing feature of this report is the way older women workers are being targeted by capability procedures, pushing them to retire or resign earlier than they had intended. In these cases ageism and sexism combined are driving women out of the workforce.

We all know that that ageism and sexism are can be experienced separately, but they combine to make life very difficult for some older women at work.

UCU has been monitoring the way performance management procedures are being abused in universities and colleges, sometimes deliberately targeting older employees. Of course employers will rarely acknowledge they want to get rid of older workers because they are more expensive. Conscientious professionals can find themselves undermined with relentless criticism and too many unachievable targets. Instead of building good quality public services on the basis of supporting and valuing the workforce, some senior managers today think the way forward is to overload people with targets until they fail and then fire and replace them. This also pressurises younger employees, because they are subject to stereotypes that they are endlessly dynamic, innovative and creative, until they too crack with the work pressures.

The TUC is to be congratulated for producing this report. It’s well worth a read.

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Tory Government: take a zero hours contract or lose your benefits

I would like to thank my fellow NEC member Sean Wallis for promptly flagging up this issue, which potentially heralds a further serious loss of employment rights in this country.

The press today reports that Tory ministers intend to further normalise zero-hours contracts by making those on benefits take them on or risk losing benefit.[1]

This is a very dangerous development and exposes the Tories “Nasty Party” intentions. After the collapse of Workfare, where companies like Tesco and Poundland were a focus for protests over employing people on below the minimum wage[2], the Tories are pushing a new scheme based on zero-hours contracts. The pay may be better, but the fundamental injustice remains, and it has the potential to turn some of the poorest and most vulnerable people into slaves.

The Tory assumption is that if work is no longer “available”, then benefits, in the form of Universal Credit, would automatically be provided. But what if the staff member was in dispute with the employer?

This proposal has been press-released in terms that people who turn down zero-hours work “for no good reason” would be denied benefit. This is bad enough, but this only concerns the issue of starting work rather than what can happen subsequently.

Previous low-waged “training” schemes, like YTS in the past, were not only exploitative and allowed employers to avoid offering proper jobs and contracts, but also “locked in” participants to low-paid jobs that they cannot escape – because to do so means risking loss of benefits.

The defining characteristic of so-called zero-hours contracts is that they guarantee no work to the employee, and no lengthy notice terms apply (a week is usually the maximum offered). As a result, they also typically avoid any meaningful dispute resolution process. So what if the staff member is in dispute with their employer ?

Disciplinary or grievance procedures are either non-existent, because the employer claims the work is not employment (a ‘worker contract’), or a decision is delayed well beyond the end of contract. Victimisation of employees for making a complaint is common. But if the employer says that the work is available (and the employee does not want to do it) the employee would risk their benefits being stopped.

An employer could claim that the employee resigned because s/he disputed a contract, e.g. refused to work additional hours conflicting with childcare responsibilities, or refused to accept a unilateral reduction in salary, etc.  This may be the easy option for the employer, rather than having to justify other reasons why the employee is no longer working. But this leaves the (ex-)employee to starve because if you resign you are no longer eligible for benefits.

The new rules will come into force in 2017, so there is time to campaign against them.

Like all questions of casualisation, this is an issue for those currently employed on proper contracts and those on the inferior ones, as well as those seeking work.

A two-tier workforce will inevitably lead to increasing number of casual staff and create incentives to the employer to undermine the rights of those with regular contracts.

Governments should be cracking down on employers who offer “permanently casual” contracts that place people in a permanent position of having no rights at work. The government should not be sponsoring or actively encouraging encouraging these contracts hm in any way. The fact that his government is doing so speaks volumes about its class allegiance to a rich elite.

[1] http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2014/may/05/jobseekers-zero-hours-contracts

[2] See http://www.boycottworkfare.org and http://www.publicinterestlawyers.co.uk/news_details.php?id=231


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Casualisation – an issue for all members

The use of casualised contracts in Further and Higher education is increasing, because it is an all-too-common management response to funding cuts and marketization. If we do not manage to turn the tide of increasing casualisation, it will be used, as it is being used, to increase the rate of exploitation, and to unload all risks and uncertainties directly onto the workforce, while management avoids responsibility for workforce management and forward planning of workload.

In some institutions a majority of staff are vulnerably employed. This in itself means it is essential for the future of the union that we reach out and recruit more members from amongst them, both in HE and FE.

UCU has done some excellent work in the last year few years, but is only beginning to get to grips with the scale of the problem.

Whose flexibility?

Sometime one hears arguments from management that these contracts are flexible and suit some employees. I have to say this is an extremely rare point of view from an employee. On the contrary the phrase “no obligation to offer work, no obligation to accept work” does the opposite for the employee. The zero hours employee is usually afraid to refuse work in case they never get any more. This makes them an exploitable group, who can be offered difficult and underpaid work which they cannot afford to refuse.  While flexible working should be on offer, for instance to enable staff to combine paid work with other activities, this flexibility can be accommodated via fractional contracts which give employees pro-rata employment rights.

PhD students and early careers staff

When PhD students are on the receiving end of casualisation, there is the additional pressure that they need references and teaching experience, and this need can be exploited even though real training and professional development is very thin on the ground.

Many of our early careers staff face years, possibly a lifetime, of vulnerable employment. The impact on the individuals concerned was spelt our clearly by UCU members to the Scottish Affairs Parliamentary Select Committee, which is well worth listening to at http://www.parliamentlive.tv/Main/Player.aspx?meetingId=15248  . They detail the difficulties in claiming state benefits when one’s income is continually changing, and problems with getting a lease or a mortgage. In practice, all this makes starting out on an academic carrier impossible unless one’s family or partner is willing and able to provide financial support.


In HE, researchers’ career trajectories are constantly interrupted by having to apply for work around the country, while others are on so-called open-ended contracts which still refer to continued external funding as a condition. The work done by researchers in writing and submitting bids is often unpaid and seen as something they do for free in order to keep themselves in employment.

We must recruit more research staff to the UCU and campaign to turn the promises in the 2008 Research Concordat into reality, making research a viable career, not just a series of short-term contracts.

Equality issues

Zero hours and other insecure contracts are sometimes justified on the grounds some staff want flexible working to enable them to fulfil family obligations.  In fact such contracts make it hard to reconcile work and family life, because the employee has no real control over their hours.  They also situate some groups of workers in a marginal position in the workplace.

Scale of casualisation

The scale of casualisation in education has reached the point where trade unions must put it at the centre of their campaigning and bargaining strategy, because if we do not, we will find that our bargaining power is increasingly undermined by the vulnerability of staff on these contracts.  While recognising the courage of many casually employed UCU members, the fact remains that having no job security makes victimisation and loss of livelihood a significant risk that people have to think carefully about before becoming active in the union.

In response to recent Freedom of Information requests to institutions, UCU has ascertained that at least 24725 staff in HE and at least 10868 teaching staff in FE are employed on zero hours contracts.

Based on experience, I believe this is likely to be a considerable underestimate. Hourly paid staff in pre-92 universities are usually employed by their departments or faculties, and HR may not know they are there. Staff on bogus self-employment contracts will not appear in the statistics, and there are likely to be groups that are forgotten, such as correspondence tutors employed by the department of external studies in some universities.

When speaking at a branch in my NEC constituency, I was told that HR in that particular institution had responded as accurately as it could that about 70 such contracts were in use. However, they were aware of other universities in the area that hadn’t included the teaching staff on exactly the same kind of contract.

The definition of zero hours contracts is not clear cut, so UCU’s FoI request was for data on the use of contracts under which the employer has no obligation to offer work and guarantees no minimum hours of work. If a slightly broader definition were used, to include all contracts which do not give any guaranteed hours of work, then the number of such contracts would be higher.


One of the saddest aspects for me, as a lifelong trade unionist, is when casually employed staff say that the managers issuing these contracts are UCU members, and therefore think that UCU supports or acquiesces in the situation. The use of insecure contracts drives a wedge into the workforce, which employers can exploit, and make it harder to organise in the common interest.

Academic freedom

Not only our bargaining power, but also academic freedom, and freedom of speech are undermined. Staff cannot speak freely when at any moment their careers can be ended on a whim.  This makes it harder to challenge pedagogical decisions which are damaging to students or to speak up about one’s own employment rights.

Bargaining to end casualisation

Since 2006 there have been great differences in the way institutions have responded to the Fixed Term Employees’ Regulations. Some have given contracts which are permanent, but continued employment may still be linked to external funding particularly in the case of researchers. In other cases institutions have ignored the FTERs and carried on much as before. In some places there has been a significant improvement as a result of the FTERs, but in many institutions the employer has found a way of evading them, not least through increasing use of zero hours contracts.

UCU must campaign for better legislation, but that is unlikely to be a solution by itself. We need to tell the national employer bodies, UCEA and AoC, that UCU can no longer accept a refusal to negotiate on casualisation. At the very least we need a national framework agreement to provide a basis for further negotiations at local level. Zero hours contracts are not acceptable, and the staff currently employed on them must be transferred to fractional contracts, or, if hours cannot be completely fixed, to contracts that guarantee reasonable minimum hours.

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Election Address to Retired Members

Dear retired members,

Before I ask you to vote for me in the current UCU by-election for Vice-President, I would like to thank you to you all for being long standing UCU members, and having stuck with us into retirement!

I am aware that some of you paid for life membership under NATFHE and I find it totally unacceptable that this is now being withdrawn unless you start paying again. I will be supporting the Congress motion to reverse this.

Returning to the bigger picture, it is to be regretted that we live under a government that is seeking to dismantle the social and economic progress that was largely owing to the efforts of past generations of trade unionists. Public sector pensions were first on Con-Dem government’s hit list, with the NHS, and post-16 education not far behind.

I support the fight to resist any further detrimental changes to our pension schemes. There is no good case for further reductions in the benefits or increases in contributions. If the benefits of public sector pension schemes continue to be eroded, and if contributions increase still further, there will be fewer staff joining, and that means not enough younger members contributing to keep the schemes going.

An occupational pension should not be the basis for a living wage in old age, because the state pension should be sufficient for a reasonable standard of living. An occupational pension should be additional, not the basis for survival.

While the government tries to drive a wedge between the public and private sector, and between new entrants and existing members, we must not forget that the real issues are:- (i) that the state pension is insufficient to live comfortably in old age and (ii) the closure of many private sector pension schemes leaving many without an occupational pension.

After the next general election there may be attempts to means test hitherto universal benefits, which include free bus passes for pensioners, free prescriptions and TV licences. Inevitably, means testing would result in many citizens not taking up these benefits even if they are still entitled to them. Economic levelling should be done by progressive taxation, including corporation tax, not by means testing.

I would like to see UCU develop the role of our retired members’ branches and involve them in campaigning to defend pensions and universal benefits, and in combatting ageism in society. I would welcome proposals for the representation of retired members at national and regional level, and for an annual meeting of representatives of retired members.

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