CORONA VIRUS UPDATES FROM JO GRADY

Feb 12th, 2020 | By | Category: Latest

07/05/20
Dear colleagues

Thank you all for your continued efforts while the Covid-19 crisis is with us. 

I wanted to let you all know that the national executive committee moved a formal vote of thanks for all your work during this time. I know it has not been easy for many of you and want to repeat my earlier message about not needing to carry on as normal at this time. It is okay not to be as productive as usual when also juggling caring responsibilities or your own health and wellbeing – please do contact your line manager if you have concerns. I reported to the NEC of how proud I am of the huge amount of work you have done, and the huge amount of work required to make sure the union’s staff could safely work from home. Members of the NEC were appreciative and united in that feedback to all of you. 

I have held organising calls with branch reps to report directly on the urgent issues facing our members. Now that the initial reaction to the crisis has passed, we are all working to ensure that we campaign to protect jobs and get the guarantees we need for members to get back into the workplace. Much like some of our own staff, some people continue to work on site whether in labs or student services. I want to thank all those colleagues who are keeping an eye on things for when the rest of us get back.

Many of you will have read stories this week about reopening the economy and easing lockdown. In addition to the work we are all doing to get protections in place for members returning to workplaces, I wanted to reassure you that my focus also remains on all of you at this time. None of our offices will be opening fully until it is safe to do so. We took the decision to close our offices before the government announced lockdown, and similarly any decisions to open them back up will be based on prioritizing staff health and wellbeing. Crucially for many of the union’s offices this is not just about physical distancing in the workplace but also about the commute to work. The union is involved in discussions across the TUC about all these issues and my expectation remains the same- safety first and no pressure to rush back.

As more information emerges from the UK Government about their plans, we will through line managers and full consultation with the staff union, build up a detailed plan on what the implications for all of us will be. Please keep doing what you are doing and look out for each other as none of this comes easy. If you are worried about any aspect of this situation, please discuss further with your line manager and my inbox is always open.

Best wishes
Jo 

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07/05/20
Dear colleague

Throughout this crisis UCU has been pushing the government to recognise the scale of the risks facing tertiary education and put it as close as possible to the top of their agenda. This afternoon at 15.30 I am presenting evidence to the House of Commons Petitions Committee on the effects of coronavirus in colleges and universities, alongside other witnesses including the president of the NUS. You can watch the session live or after the event by clicking here.

UCU members and staff are making similar representations across the devolved nations and on a local level, to employers, local MPs and other parties. When I talk to people in branches and in regional and devolved national offices, it’s clear that the whole union is working overtime to deal with the effects of the pandemic. I am really proud of everything you are doing as members, despite the pressures on your workload and the unprecedented, often traumatic circumstances in which we are all having to live and work.

Protecting funding and jobs

In further education, adult & community education, and prison education, a lot of funding streams have been guaranteed and protected for the time being. However, we are aware that a few institutions are in trouble financially and some employers may use the crisis as a pretext for imposing redundancies and other cuts. I am holding meetings with the government ministers and shadow ministers with responsibilities in these areas and telling them that they cannot get away with under-funding tertiary education, letting institutions go under, or allowing layoffs.

In higher education (HE), the government needs to intervene to underwrite the income that universities are projected to lose from tuition fees and other sources. On Monday the government announced an extremely weak ‘bailout’ package that promised little more than to bring forward funding that would usually be delivered later in the year. This and the other measures the government announced are not nearly enough and I am continuing to stress to ministers that they need to go much further.

We are already seeing employers impose or threaten large-scale redundancies, particularly of casualised staff. UCU has decided to make your job security a top priority over the coming months. We will defend staff in every institution where jobs are under threat and we are currently preparing a national campaign to protect the whole HE workforce.

Every success our education system enjoys is down to the commitment and the skill of staff on the ground, and now is the worst possible moment to cut them loose. We expect employers to do everything humanly possible to keep staff on their books.

Returning from lockdown

As we prepare for further government announcements about a potential easing of lockdown restrictions, a lot of staff are anxious about what the next year will look like. UCU is gathering information, developing guidance and supporting members to make sure that any arrangements for returning to face-to-face teaching and other activities will be safe and involve no detriments in terms of workload.

I have already been working with our sister education unions to warn against an unsafe, premature reopening of schools and we will do the same for every workplace we cover, from colleges to universities. This will be an important new frontier in our struggle for better working conditions over the next few months and we need to be ready. Please look out for further updates in your inbox and keep checking the Covid-19 section of our website.

Jo Grady 
UCU general secretary

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24/04/20
Dear colleague

Yesterday UCU published a report by London Economics, highlighting the extent of the crisis facing higher education as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, and what needs to be done to protect the sector. You can find our press release here and the full report here. I have also published an article in the Guardian commenting on the implications of the report which you can read here.

In this email I want to outline what the prospects are for higher education and what you can do as a member of this union to help defend the sector and your colleagues throughout this period.

Economic effects of Covid-19

The report’s main findings are as follows:

  • the sector is expected to lose around £2.5bn in tuition fee income in the coming year, largely as a result of international students deferring or cancelling their plans to study here
  • there could be as many as 30,000 jobs cut within the sector if no action is taken to mitigate the damage and protect staff
  • those 30,000 higher education job losses would be compounded by another 30,000 jobs lost elsewhere in the economy, making 60,000 in total
  • the overall cost to the UK will be more than £6bn.

The economic consequences of the pandemic will not be distributed equally, however. Wealthy institutions that could draw on their reserves to weather the storm are instead trying to pass on the damage to other parts of the sector. We can see this in the package of measures proposed by Universities UK which our report shows would only shift the worst effects to smaller, poorer institutions.

What will the consequences be for staff?

Precariously employed staff are likely to bear the brunt of any job cuts. We are already seeing employers move to reduce the numbers of fixed-term and other casualised staff on their books. But they are not going to stop there: Universities UK and individual employers have already proposed freezes to recruitment and to pay increases linked to promotions, along with other measures that will ripple through the whole workforce. In institutions that do impose redundancies, much of the work done by staff who have been made redundant will be shifted on to those who remain, making workloads even worse than they were before.

Now more than ever it is in everyone’s interests to come together in their institutions and across the sector, and do everything possible to protect jobs and resist other detrimental changes to our working conditions.

What is UCU doing?

This is a struggle which we are going to have to undertake on a UK-wide and an institution-by-institution basis at the same time.

As I have outlined in previous emails, UCU has already been campaigning nationally by pressing the government to underwrite the sector’s lost income from tuition fees and other sources, protect against redundancies and institutional bankruptcy, and reform the welfare system in order to provide a meaningful safety net for those who are most impacted by the crisis.

What we are doing now is calling ministers’ attention to our detailed analysis of the impact and highlighting the fact that spending money now to protect the sector will save far more money over the longer term. If the government guarantees that £2.5bn in lost tuition fees, it will save £6bn overall. As we saw after the 2008 financial crisis, countries that act to stimulate the economy are better placed to recover than those that insist on austerity.

What can I do about this?

Even if the sector as a whole is facing serious financial trouble, many institutions will use the crisis as a pretext for making changes that are driven by ideology rather than genuine financial need. A number of wealthy universities have enough reserves to get through the coming year – but they are still trying to rush through detrimental changes without proper negotiation or consultation with UCU.

Because of the government’s lockdown and social distancing measures, it is currently impossible for UCU to conduct industrial ballots – which are required by law to be postal rather than online – and call industrial action. This removes one of our main sources of leverage against employers, and means we need to be as creative and organised as we can to defend our interests.

We need as many staff in the sector as possible to join our call for the government to support the whole sector by underwriting lost income. A lot of MPs in constituencies with nearby universities will be sensitive to the economic consequences of failing to protect higher education. UCU has designed a template letter for you to write to your MP and ask them to support our demands.

But there is more we can do, within our institutions as well as beyond them. Now is the time in particular for those of you who are more securely employed and senior to think about what you can do in your workplace to defend your less securely employed colleagues and protect yourselves from worsening workloads. 

Each of you will have different kinds of institutional influence and leverage at your disposal – whether it’s managing research grants, sitting on recruitment committees, planning timetables, serving as a departmental Athena SWAN lead, or something else. Over the coming months staff will need all the leverage they can get to manage this crisis.

If you’re not normally accustomed to taking part in meetings of your UCU branch, now is the time to start doing it – you will hear from colleagues in similar positions throughout the university, realise that they are facing similar issues, and decide what your collective response should be.

Working towards a better future for HE

This is a pivotal moment. Changes to the way universities are funded in the last ten years have left many institutions extremely vulnerable to the effects of this pandemic, and made the fault lines in our education system clearer than ever. UCU is committed to achieving a free, publicly funded education system that benefits society as a whole, and our immediate demands are an important step on the way to achieving that.

This year we have grown considerably as a union. Our membership is at record levels and we are better organised and stronger. We are capable of navigating this crisis and working towards a better, more sustainable tertiary education system – but there will be a lot of challenges over the coming months and we will need to keep using all of our resourcefulness and commitment to overcome them.

Jo Grady
UCU general secretary

 

Earlier letters

Dear colleague

As we move into the third week of lockdown and institutions start preparing for big changes to student intake and teaching provision next year, we need a plan for tertiary education that is adequate to the scale of the crisis we are living through. As the largest democratic organisation representing staff throughout post-16 education, UCU could not be better placed to campaign for what is needed.

I know that members in branches are working overtime to protect the interests of the staff they represent, and the same is true of staff in our regional and national offices. The coronavirus section of our website is regularly being updated in response to new developments, so please keep checking it. 

Victories for staff in prison education and higher education 

UCU has acted quickly to find out what is happening in branches and make sure that employers and the government respond properly to the pandemic. Last week we received confirmation that our lobbying to protect prison education staff has succeeded, with all face to face activities now suspended throughout the sector.

Today, we have received some positive news in higher education, with the minister for universities publicly confirming that where employers cannot retain staff on insecure contracts, they can apply to the government’s job retention scheme link. This is a welcome response to the campaigning which we’ve done on this issue at all levels of our union. However, if employers are going to access the scheme, we would want to see all institutions top up the 80% of staff pay funded by the scheme to 100% – as some institutions, such as the University of Sheffield, have already pledged.

There are sections covering redundancies and protections for fixed-term and other casual staff in our guidance to branches, which is intended to cover all the sectors we represent, including further and adult and community education. 

Time to rethink our education system 

While we act to protect against redundancies and other cuts in the shorter term, we also need to take a longer view of the role which education will play in any recovery and the steps that need to be taken to guard against similar shocks in the future.

Last week I wrote to the secretary of state for education, Gavin Williamson, outlining a seven-point plan for ensuring that tertiary education can survive and prosper, during this crisis and also beyond it.

In line with our existing policy, UCU is calling on the government to:

  1. Underwrite current levels of funding across all sectors
  2. Direct institutions to collaborate, rather than compete with one another
  3. Convene a group of representatives from trade unions, student organisations, examination bodies and employers to rethink examinations and admissions
  4. Ensure job security for visa holders and other precarious staff
  5. Intervene to protect further and higher education providers if they are at risk of insolvency
  6. Cancel the REF, TEF, Ofsted inspections and other unhelpful, bureaucratic, metrics-driven exercises
  7. Reverse cuts to adult learning provision

As ever, staff and student interests are aligned, and we were pleased to receive strong support from the NUS for our proposals. For the full text of my letter, please click here. Similar representations are being made to the relevant ministers in our devolved nations. 

Upholding union democracy 

Last week the union’s strategy and finance committee (SFC) endorsed a set of proposals by UCU’s elected officers for ensuring that UCU can continue to function as a democratic organisation during this outbreak – despite the fact that we have had to delay Congress, and postpone or make alternative arrangements for elections that were due to take place via postal ballots. You can find the full proposals on our website here link to SFC paper. 

At the same time, the UCU president and chair of our national executive committee (NEC), Douglas Chalmers, has resolved that key committees of elected members should proceed as normal according to our previously agreed calendar of events, by meeting remotely. This means that the meetings of the further education committee (FEC) and higher education committee (HEC) scheduled for 24 April will take place as planned, as will the meeting of the NEC scheduled for 1 May. 

The 1 May NEC meeting, which would normally have focused on business relating to the upcoming Congress, will instead dedicate part of its agenda to further discussions of the union’s response to the coronavirus outbreak. 

As ever, please get in touch if you have questions about issues raised in this email or about anything else.

Jo Grady
UCU general secretary

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Dear colleagues
 
Thank you to everyone for all your efforts as we continue to operate in a different way than normal. I know it is placing a real pressure on so many of you who are supporting other family members at home while doing what you can with work.  I thought it was important before the Easter closure days to share some of the success that we have achieved even with these circumstances. 
 
We have continued to provide excellent support for branches and members across the regions and devolved nations throughout this period. There has been a range of advice produced which is now online to support members as they deal with a wide range of employer behaviour. The feedback I have received about this from members has been to say that it is excellent and invaluable. We are also building up a casefile of good and bad behaviour to keep the pressure on employers that are pretending this is business as usual, and will be able to continue to use this is in our bargaining and campaigning.
 
One big success for some of our most vulnerable members – members who work in prison education – was won thanks to the efforts of many of you in forcing the UK Government to reverse course and say that prison educators should not be in harm’s way during the crisis.  We have over a thousand members in this area and this takes them away from the front line while not facing a financial detriment.  
 
Another early reversal was news earlier today, with the minister for universities publicly confirming that where employers cannot retain staff on insecure contracts, they can apply to the government’s job retention scheme link. This is a welcome response to the campaigning which we’ve done on this issue at all levels of our union.  
 
In other areas there have been planned redundancies put on hold or reversed. A minority of employers have also pledged to freeze or suspend deductions for strike pay. Members are also still receiving payment on claims to our union’s fighting fund thanks to the efforts of all you involved in making that happen. The union’s income from subscriptions is all working remotely from home, our payroll is set up to run remotely and all of us are relying on the technology, advice and equipment that facilities and IT continue to provide.
 
Not everyone has a job that can be done without the office and as this continues, they remain in our thoughts as when things get back to normal we will need each again and thank you all for what you can do during this time.
 
The messages I have had from members is one that gives me so much pride that we continue to make a difference and there is much appreciation for how you are all able to continue our work as best we can.  
 
I know that the crisis is affecting us all in different ways. Although we are not all together in our different offices, we still look out and support each other and that makes me very proud to have you all working for the union.
Whatever your role, thank you for all your hard work during this period and please have a restful break.
 
Best wishes
 

Jo

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Dear colleagues

Since our national executive committee instructed me to write to vice-chancellors about the coronavirus outbreak two weeks ago, we have seen universities finally act to end face to face activities and close down other operations. However, many employers are still struggling to acknowledge the scale of the crisis and the change that will be required for the sector to get through it. 

What we have seen from a lot of universities is an undignified scramble to make staff transfer face to face teaching online; desperate attempts to secure income streams and plug holes in student admissions; and a widespread assumption that exercises like the REF and the NSS can continue as normal with only a few minor changes. 

We know we could be dealing with this pandemic for a year. The economic fallout will last even longer than that and will be felt in many different ways by the sector, its staff and students. Now is the time to demand an ambitious and concerted response from the government and from our institutions. 

Protecting precarious staff 

In my last email I mentioned that we were urgently seeking assurances that the government’s job retention scheme, which aims to replace most of the wages of employees who cannot work, would be extended to employees and workers on short-term and/or variable or zero-hours contracts, and/or those who are classed as self-employed.

Since then I have had conversations about this with government representatives but we still have not received firm details or assurances. We have already made a joint submission to the treasury select committee with other trade unions on the measures which the government should take to support workers in these categories, and we will continue to push other trade unions and employers to campaign and lobby the government on this over the coming days. 

Securing financial sustainability 

We still have no assurances that the government will help universities cope with the financial consequences of what is happening. A shortfall in international student intake, and any uncertainty about domestic undergraduate admissions, could severely impact universities’ income.

This crisis is highlighting the weakness of a funding system that relies on volatile income streams based on student recruitment. Although many universities have reserves that can help them weather the storm, employers are still likely to try to make staff weather it instead, by imposing further cuts and redundancies on top of those which we already experience on a regular basis. UCU continues to have success in fighting such measures – for example, we recently pressured the University of Portsmouth to suspend a number of planned redundancies and we will need to keep doing so as the outbreak worsens. 

The Office for Students has said that it will take steps to ensure the ‘financial sustainability’ of institutions. We have asked government officials for clarity about what this means and I will let you know as soon as we have an answer. UCU believes that the current funding system is not appropriate for higher education and we will be taking every opportunity over the coming weeks and months to push policymakers to consider more stable, fair, and economically sound alternatives. In the meantime we need the government to be ready to make significant financial interventions to protect staff and students during this crisis. 

Why our disputes still matter 

It is vital to remember that we are still in dispute with employers over a range of issues and those issues have not gone away. If anything, this crisis is further exposing and exacerbating them. The erosion of job security in universities and the intensification of workloads are all being compounded, as employers prepare to make further cuts in response to a potential recession while asking us to move to remote teaching, research and admin work at short notice.

74 branches are still taking action short of a strike (ASOS) up to the 28 April. It is important to send a message to our managers during this period: while we will help to mitigate the effects of this outbreak on our colleagues and students, we will not do so at the expense of our own well-being, and we are as determined as ever to change the way staff are treated in this sector. 

Suspension of strike deductions – a step in the right direction 

Some employers seem to be waking up to the fact that they cannot keep exploiting our goodwill, in this or any other situation. In the past few days, King’s College London, Birkbeck, St. Andrew’s, Southampton and Ulster have all agreed to waive or suspend their planned deductions of pay from staff who took strike action in February and March. Now is the time to ask your branch to make the same request to your employer – it is the least employers should be doing to recognise the efforts which staff are making to respond to the pandemic. 

Negotiations still taking place 

At the same time, negotiations with employer representatives are continuing despite the disruption. In particular, the larger packages of longer-term agreements and reforms we have been campaigning for are still very much up for negotiation. 

In our Four Fights dispute, we continue to correspond with the employer representative, UCEA, with a view to getting firmer commitments on how institutions will improve job security, equality, and workloads – progress has been slow and incremental but we are getting closer to an agreement that would improve on the offer which employers tabled at the end of January. In our USS dispute, employers have agreed to work with us on a joint submission to the USS trustee board, illustrating a potential approach to the 2020 valuation that could make the scheme viable over the longer term with no loss of benefits for members. They have also agreed to hold a phone conference with us on Friday to discuss other aspects of our dispute. None of this would be happening without our industrial action, and we have to keep remembering that even as we are understandably focused on the current emergency. 

Finally, don’t forget to keep checking the new, dedicated Covid-19 section of our website. We have recently added guidance on your rights when working from home and teaching remotely and will be adding more guidance and resources in the coming days and weeks. 

Jo Grady
UCU general secretary

 
 

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