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Lancaster’s Interim Vice-Chancellor, Professor Steve Bradley, has responded to questions submitted by SCAN regarding the recent strike action. The University and College Union (UCU) strikes began again on the 20th February 2020 for the third time in three academic years.
Here’s what he had to say:
How are talks with academic staff and UCU progressing? Is there a resolution in sight?
I respect the rights of union members to take industrial action, and understand that when people feel that their concerns are not being met, individuals may well feel that their only course is to participate in industrial action.
However, I don’t think the progress that universities have made has been acknowledged. Employer pension contributions have also been increased and there are proposals for a way forward for positive work to improve equality, casual employment and workloads.
SCAN readers might want to read this letter from Universities UK and the Universities and Colleges Employers Association. It gives an overview of progress on the national talks around pay, working conditions and pensions.
What are the University doing to resolve the issues surrounding pay, working conditions and rising pension costs? How are you supporting staff during this conflict, if at all?
I can honestly say that getting a resolution is our top priority. I’ve heard some accusations that we don’t value our staff, and that’s simply not true. I recognise the incredible job our staff do here and students quite rightly hold them in great esteem. This dispute has arisen as a result of national pay and pension issues and the vast majority of the issues UCU are striking about are outside Lancaster University’s control. Staff pay for universities is set nationally and the valuation of the USS pension scheme is also nationally controlled and is subject to legal constraints set by the pension regulator. Lancaster has been trying to push for the best outcome for our staff by engaging in the national debate ( our Director of HR sits on the national negotiating team for pay and the employer’s pension forum for USS and we have proactively engaged in all consultation exercises and made our views known). We have engaged the University Council in the debate as well.
The dispute is also about equality, employment contracts and workloads. We are actively working to improve in these areas and I think we have made some real progress at Lancaster.
We have introduced a new fixed-term and casual working policy, which was developed with the staff unions including UCU and has been very favourably received and was recently mentioned in parliament as good employment practice. 80 % of Lancaster staff are employed on indefinite contracts, and the majority of the remainder are on research contracts with fixed funding streams. Our new policy will also positively impact this group.
Our Gender Pay Gap Task Group’s report was published recently and a number of positive changes are being made which include improved practices for recruitment and promotion, as well as better working practices which will make it easier for staff to combine work and family commitments.
Many students have voiced their concerns about the industrial action, especially as this is the second strike period of the academic year and the third since 2018. Considering this, in your opinion, do you believe that strikes are effective? Could or should there be an alternative method to striking to allow the concerns of academic staff to be voiced?
The impact on students is very concerning. We are working hard to minimise disruption, keep you informed and ensure you are supported in your studies and assessment.
Of course we want to be a good and fair employer and reward staff for the work they do. There are always improvements to make and things to address, but I think Lancaster is, in many ways, a good place to work. I believe the best way forward is to work collectively and to continue to negotiate and collaborate on making improvements and finding solutions.
Some students believe they would be labelled as ‘scabs’ or looked down upon for crossing the picket line during strike action to use campus facilities such as the library and the gym. Do you believe that the University have done enough to inform students about the strikes and how they affect their day-to-day lives?
No-one should be made to feel that way. And in my experience at Lancaster, picketers have been respectful of people’s decisions and we’ve been able to maintain a sense of community in spite of our differences on these issues. To make sure students know what to expect, we’ve used our communication channels, including the Student Information page, to explain the dispute, the presence and nature of picket lines, and provide advice on how students may be affected. The dedicated industrial action pages also contain links to the different parties involved, so people can see what they’re saying and make up their own minds. I know academic departments are also working to support their students and provide advice specific to their students’ courses.
Students at universities including York have launched petitions for compensation from their universities. Where do you stand on this, and would the University ever consider reimbursing missed teaching hours?
Students who have been negatively affected by the strikes can submit a formal complaint and request a refund of their tuition fees. What we ask is that you give your department time to mitigate the impact of the strikes first. That may involve alternative provision and will certainly include making adjustments to assessments where appropriate. Where academic work is affected, that will be taken into account when that work is marked.