STUC congress 2020

UCU Scotland delegates participated in the STUC’s very first online virtual congress on Tuesday 17 November. You can watch a recording of the congress here, including speeches from Scotland president Carlo Morelli and Kate Sang from Heriot Watt branch.  Kate was also this year’s recipient of the STUC Union Reps Equality Award (You can see a video explaining why she won the award 1 hour and 15 mins into the footage).

Following Congress, Mary Senior was elected as the STUC’s President for the coming year.  Mary is the first UCU nominee to hold this position, which will include chairing the STUC’s  general council.  Mary will continue her important UCU work as the union’s Scotland official, supported by the team in Scotland.

UCU’s views on “restricted blended” and why we don’t have clarity from government yet

It’s now nearly two weeks since the Scottish Government’s Strategic Framework – with the different levels and the updated rules – came into force on 2 November 2020.  For the university sector, we still don’t have clarity as to what is meant by the new “restricted blended” learning definition which according to the Scottish Government’s framework is applicable for all universities in “level three” areas.   When it was introduced over a week ago, this new “restricted blended” provision applied to universities in the central belt – that’s all the Glasgow and Edinburgh institutions, as well as those in Stirling and Dundee.   On Tuesday 10 November, Fife moved into level three, and so St Andrews University is now under the “restricted blended” regime too. 

Ever since we saw the proposed “restricted blended” term back on the 23 October, and the new framework of levels, UCU has been pushing the Scottish Government to clarify what this means and to end the ambiguity and the ability for universities to continue demanding our members provide more and more in-person provision.  We want to keep students and staff safe from the virus which is becoming more prevalent in our communities.

UCU is very clear that “blended learning” should mean that all activity (including teaching and student support) where it is possible to undertake that activity remotely online, should be done remotely online.  This will free up space on campus for other activity (eg lab work, practical work – especially in nursing/medicine degrees) to be done in-person on campus, with the due mitigations.

We believe that “restricted blended” should mean, as above, that all activity that is possible to be delivered remotely online, should be done online.  However, it additionally means that activity which may not easily adapt to online work (eg lab work, practical work – especially nursing/medicine degrees) has to have additional consideration as to how it can be adapted (done in a different way remotely), deferred (done later in the year when it is safer), or it is deemed essential to be done in-person on campus, and additional mitigations are put in place to enable this to happen (eg, extra PPE, smaller groups, etc).

We have made these points repeatedly to civil servants, in writing and in meetings with Ministers too, but at the time of writing there has been no update on these definitions.

UCU has also submitted to government our views that the “restricted blended” provisions should not just apply to universities in levels three and four areas, but also to institutions operating in level two areas as well.  We await to see if this will be taken on board.

The union has been making representations on the end of term too.  UCU believes that students have to be given the choice to return to family homes (where they have them) at the end of term for Christmas.  This should be made possible by minimising in-person activity on campus, to support a staggered movement of students and staff, and reduce the spreading of the virus.   Additionally more robust and systematic testing of students and staff should take place, to help reduce the spread of Covid-19.   So we were heartened to see the announcement of asymptomatic testing by the Minister on 11 November.  But we need to see far more detail, including on the role of staff and students in the administration of testing, and the support and protections for them at this crucial time.   There is currently minimal detail on how any of this will work, and very limited time for a robust testing system to be rolled out and effective before the end of the year.  The union is continuing to push the government for answers on this matter.

UCU has stressed the need to prioritise student wellbeing and support, particularly for those who test positive and will need to self-isolate, we need to ensure their health, practical needs, and their wellbeing is protected.  We’re liaising closely with NUS Scotland on these steps.

We’re also arguing very strongly for a plan for Semester Two right now, because decisions being made about returns at Christmas are inextricably linked to the new year in 2021.   UCU has said clearly that we need to see quality online provision, with staff supported, in the new year, to give students choice as to whether they wish to return to term-time accommodation or remain in a family home, and to minimise the potential for the outbreaks and spread of the virus that we witnessed in September.

The union will continue to push all of these points, and for the health, safety and wellbeing of students and staff to be the priority.

UCU Scotland

12 November 2020

UPDATE – Subsequent to the publication of this article the Scottish Government published a definition of ‘restricted blended’ and ‘blended’ learning here.

UCU webinar – ‘The Automatic University’: the new normal for higher education?

Last year UCU Scotland commissioned work to review and understand the expansion of data systems and automation in higher education. We wanted to be able to pre-empt and respond to the challenges that artificial intelligence and automation bring to our sector. A year on Covid-19 has made these challenges all too real for staff and students in education. This UCU webinar (below) hears from the report’s author, Dr Ben Williamson, an academic from the University of Edinburgh;  from Ann Gow, UCU Scotland immediate past-president, who was involved in the working group for the report; and from Jenny Lennox of the union’s bargaining and negotiations team. UCU’s Scotland official, Mary Senior chaired the session.

The report, and its recommendations for the union are available on the UCU website.

And you can view the webinar here.

Heriot-Watt branch rally to defend jobs

UCU members at Heriot-Watt University were joined by politicians, figures from across the trade union movement, and UCU members from across the country in an online rally on Wednesday 7 October.

The rally was held as members were being balloted for strike action in a row over the prospect of compulsory job losses. Despite having cut 70 jobs in 2017, the university are now threatening an additional 130 jobs and have refused to rule out compulsory redundancies.

Members heard from local MP Joanna Cherry, Lothians MSP Neil Findlay, Labour education spokesperson Iain Gray MSP, and the Scottish Green’s Andy Wightman MSP. Message were also read from Beatrice Wishart MSP, the Lib Dems education spokesperson and the MP John Lamont whose constituency includes the university’s Scottish borders campus. Rozanne Foyer, General Secretary of the STUC and the CWU’s Gary Clark brought solidarity messages, and James Richards (vice-president of the branch) set out the branch’s opposition to university management’s plans explpaining why they are premature and ill-thought out. Members also heard messages of support from the union’s UK president Vicky Blake and the UCU Scotland president, Carlo Morelli.

You can watch the rally below.

Update on UCU’s work with the Scottish Government – 20 August 2020

The union has been taking the views of our members to ministers and civil servants consistently throughout the pandemic period, and has made a number of interventions on funding, protecting jobs, and safe returns to campus, over the past few weeks.

Lobbying against job losses

In the last month UCU met, along with other campus unions, with the Minister for Further and Higher Education Richard Lochhead MSP, to raise our concerns on the rush to cut jobs in universities and colleges.  Unions urged the minister to ensure employers to follow Fair Work principles, consult meaningfully with campus unions, and do all that they can to avoid making redundancies.   The Minister agreed to raise these issues with employers – and his correspondence to employers is here (and was circulated to all our branches on 21 August).  The union has been clear that the sector needs to be at the forefront of the education-led recovery, and not contributing to the unemployment claimant count.

SQA exams fallout

Last week UCU welcomed the Scottish Government’s U-turn on SQA exam results, so as teacher predicted grades now stand.  We also welcomed the commitment of the Deputy First Minister John Swinney MSP to fund the additional college and university places that would now be required given the exams grade uplift.  Since that announcement the union has been pushing government to provide clarity on additional university places, and importantly, to fully fund those places too.   These points were made clearly to Richard Lochhead when he met unions on 18 August, where he did say government is committed to funding the extra places.   In closing the discussion the minister asked that we thank all of our members – the staff in the sectors – for everything they are doing in these challenging times.

Ministerial Leadership Group Meeting:  SQA exams, funding, and safe returns to campus

The Deputy First Minister, Education Cabinet Secretary, John Swinney MSP came along to the ninth meeting of the group on 20 August, chaired by Richard Lochhead.   Mr Swinney reported on the SQA exams situation, the extraordinary circumstances with the cancellation of exams, and how he took responsibility for the change in approach.  He indicated that the Scottish government’s support for an expansion of places in universities and colleges as a result of this decision should have a beneficial impact to give positive opportunities for individuals at a time when we are seeing a rise in unemployment generally.

Universities Scotland and UCU both pushed the Deputy First Minister on the funding of the additional places, and the need for teaching places for Scottish domiciled students to be fully funded by government, given the shortfall institutions are experiencing in international student fee and commercial income streams.  UCU echoed comments from Colleges Scotland on the need to avoid displacement in the system too, so as colleges, post-92s and other institutions don’t lose out as upgraded students look for new places.  UCU reiterated that the funding of places was important given universities and colleges are already making moves to cut jobs across the sector.

Disappointingly the Deputy First Minister said he couldn’t give any definitive answers on funding at the moment, but wanted to support the financial sustainability of institutions.   The Scottish Funding Council updated the meeting on its work in this area too, and that it is looking at funding, capacity – what the increase in places means, retention and support (to ensure students progress successfully), displacement (and the system-wide impact), and the multiyear impact on the SQA exams situation – in that it will impact on 3-4 academic years to come.

The meeting also covered safe re-opening of colleges and universities, with the Deputy First Minister stressing the fragile position that we’re in, and the need to tread very cautiously, taking balanced measures.

National Clinical Director Professor Jason Leitch updated the group on the current state of play, noting the concerns on the rise in new infections in Scotland, and that the global situation is much worse with the virus accelerating around the world. He emphasised that the virus is not under control or close to being under control in a global context.  For Scotland he explained that Test and Protect is working well with over 90% of contacts traced in the 12 outbreaks we’re currently seeing across Scotland, and that people in the main are obeying the rules.  The government wants our sectors to open safely, and that has to be subject to mitigations.  He said testing should form part of that regime, particularly testing in high risk areas, and that there are plans for walk-in testing centres in areas accessible for university and college staff and students.

UCU had posed a couple of questions in advance of the meeting to Professor Leitch:

  1. What lessons should Scottish universities take from the experiences of US institutions that have already had to shift their plans for in-person teaching to online learning, and how can we ensure Scotland’s public health guidance on quarantining, social distancing, and test and protect is adhered to within our sector – particularly thinking about international staff and students newly arrived in Scotland?
  2. How does the Scottish Government reassure students and staff from vulnerable groups (BME, older people, disabled, pregnant etc) who are anxious because their institution is requiring them to be physically on campus participating in face to face classes in the next few weeks?

Professor Leitch responded on the first saying that the US does not have control of the virus, implying that the so the context for Scottish universities is different.  However he did say that enforcement is an issue, and at the moment we are “requiring” people to follow the rules, and do our best to get the messaging right. He asked for help from universities, student leaders and all stakeholders in getting the compliance message across – and there was a fair bit of discussion on strong clear messaging, particularly for students and young people.

On the second question, he had already said that the biggest factors in terms of vulnerability are age and obesity, and he spoke about ensuring individual risk assessments are undertaken, and that where people score highly in terms of risk then they should not have a front facing role at the moment, or if students they shouldn’t attend class but access to learning in other formats.  He encouraged use of the individual risk assessment form which has been devised for people returning to work after shielding, are vulnerable or who have other concerns.

UCU is continuing to engage with civil servants on safe returns and the range of mitigations that are possible.

The final agenda item was a brief update from the Scottish Funding Council, to thank partners for their responses to the current review of provision, and that a further update would be provided in September.  UCU’s response to the review is on the UCU website.

Further information on the Ministerial Leadership Group is here .





UCU Scotland organising award

With UCU Scotland congress not taking place in the spring, the annual UCU Scotland organising aware had to be awarded virtually.  This year’s winners were the UCU branch at Edinburgh university who won for significant progress in recruitment, membership engagement and organisation.

With the pandemic meaning the award couldn’t be given in person, UCU general secretary Jo Grady made the award online and congratulated the branch who were, as you can see from the photo below, happy recipients.  Well done to Edinburgh university UCU.



UCU  Union Reps Induction course – online/blended learning

Start date Tuesday 25 August – Enrolment and introduction session via Zoom

Course begins Tuesday 1 September – Activities 1-3 set up with feedback via discussion forums and zoom session

15 September – Feedback session via zoom for Activities 1-3, Activity 4 set up.

22 September – Feedback Activity 4 via discussion forum, Activities 5 & 6 set up

6 October feedback activities 5&6 via discussion forums and zoom. Set up Activity 7

20 October feedback Activity 7 via zoom, course review/next steps

Each zoom session would run for 2 hours maximum. Participants need to be able to join all the online sessions and complete the activities as set out.  Exact times of zoom sessions to be arranged between tutor and course members.

To register to join the course please email

Angi Lamb – a tribute from her UCU friends and colleagues

UCU Scotland was very sorry to hear of the death of Angi Lamb.  Angi was a former UCU branch president at Edinburgh University and honorary secretary of UCU Scotland.  UCU Scotland past president Ann Gow has written the tribute to Angi below:

Like all her family and friends, UCU & the trade union movement has lost a wonderful colleague in Angi. So many of us were privileged to work with Angi in AUT and then UCU, locally and nationally. It is testament to Angi’s razor sharp wit and quiet compassion as well as her commitment and dedication to the trade union movement that so many of her colleagues became her friend. We feel her loss deeply.

This year UCU Scotland nominated Angi for a Distinguished Service Award and were delighted that she was awarded it. Sadly, we never got the chance to congratulate and applaud her at Congress but it gives us some comfort to know that Angi knew how much her UCU colleagues valued her.

Angi was a dedicated and committed activist with over 40 years active trade union service spanning four universities. She had an extraordinary commitment to education and her community as well as to the wider trade union movement. Locally, she undertook extensive case work and mentored numbers of new caseworkers. She was the first woman president of Edinburgh UCU from 2007-2009, leading on all negotiations representing 6000+ staff. But it was equality that Angi worked particularly hard to push higher up the agenda. She used her talent for data as a basis for negotiations around Gender Pay specifically, moving management to develop an Equal Pay action plan and drive policies around maternity leave, promotion and recruitment.

Angi blazed a trail for union membership of University governance through her role on Court (first as staff representative and then as the Rector’s Assessor), and established a direct connection between the Joint Union Liaison Committee and the Rector, ensuring that the Rector really did represent both staff and students (as is their role at the University of Edinburgh). Her work on implementing the Governance Act locally has ensured Trade Union voices are heard at all levels and the impact has been seen on work on casualisation, gender pay and disability access.

Angi never stopped campaigning, even into her retirement and after her diagnosis. Even in the Western General in December, she was in full campaigning mode.  WiFi was hopeless in the hospital for most people and she had approached the Principal of University of Edinburgh to improve it. There were more campaigns on her agenda – one for better GP action for cancer diagnosis and on access to medical cannabis.  She approached these campaigns as always, from the data. Angi had looked at the stats and discovered that lung cancer kills more women in Scotland than breast cancer. She was determined that her work would help others. Angi has helped so many people, by supporting staff in personal case work to negotiations that improved the lot for many. Her legacy will live on through her work.

In a recent conversation Angi said she was not afraid of dying but she wanted to do so much more still.  We have never known anyone so serene in the face of adversity. We will honour her work and campaigns, always striving to reflect her measured, quiet but rather forceful style of trade unionism.

UCU Scotland update – 9 June 2020

It’s a been a busy start to the month for the union, making the case for education and the need to support  students and staff in our universities,  with government, officials and other key influencers.

 Scottish Government’s Economic Recovery Group

On Tuesday 2 June the union participated in the STUC’s meeting with the Economic Recovery Group which has been set up by the Scottish Government to make recommendations for the economy post-Covid19.   Benny Higgins, the chair of the group, and group member Grahame Smith, the outgoing general secretary of the STUC, met with trade unionists to hear our views.   UCU ensured our position on the importance of universities in powering the economy out of recession was key, as well as ensuring the funding challenges the sector faced doesn’t result in it dismissing staff and contributing to the expected record levels of unemployment.  Benny Higgins was clear on the importance of education, skills and training for the recovery, and the need to address the clear risk that we have significant numbers of teenagers and people in their early 20s who lose out in this crisis.  UCU emphasised the importance of universities to ensuring young people do not become a “lost generation”, and called for more measures to address digital poverty, and consideration of how reduced working time and the “four day week” can fit into the post-Covid world.

The Economic Recovery Group is due to report to the First Minister in late June.

Ministerial Leadership Group Meeting, 4 June 2020

The union participated in the fifth meeting of the Scottish Government’s Ministerial Leadership Group on further and higher education and community learning on Thursday 4 June.  In opening the meeting the Minister Richard Lochhead shared correspondence with the Scottish Funding Council on a review which will look at sustainability, coherence in sectors, achieving outcomes, funding methodologies, and connections to economic recovery.  UCU Scotland’s officers will be considering this review and how we engage with this process at their meeting later this week.

Fair Work was a substantive agenda item and the Minister made clear that Fair Work principles underpin the Scottish Government’s approach to the new academic year and to the eventual re-opening of campuses. STUC Assistant General Secretary Helen Martin gave a short presentation on Fair Work and the STUC’s role working with the Scottish Government in producing agreed approaches on Fair Work for the whole economy.  Unions voiced the need to have a national and a partnership approach to developing sectoral guidance, and asked that the Scottish Government facilitate the development of a Fair Work statement to underpin how the sectors approach the move out of lockdown and the challenges we are facing due to Covid-19. The Minister stated he is keen for proper co-ordination, though needs to recognise particular needs of sectors.  Follow up work is now taking place with the Scottish Government, unions and Universities Scotland.

The meeting also heard from the Commissioner for Fair Access, Peter Scott, on the challenges the pandemic present to the widening access agenda.  The Scottish Government’s Clinical Director Jason Leitch, joined the meeting to address issues facing the post-16 education sector, and to respond to questions.   During discussion, professor Leitch made it clear that in this phase 1 of the Scottish Government’s route map, universities and colleges remain closed to all activities except those of essential workers.   Employers should not be asking any staff to come onto campus to undertake any kind of preparatory or non-essential work at this time, indeed his strong message was that all staff and students should work from home to avoid unnecessary risks.  Professor Leitch will continue to input into the work of the group, particularly as the sectoral guidance is developed.

Transport Secretary – Michael Matheson MSP

The union was part of an STUC delegation meeting with the Transport Secretary Michael Matheson on Friday 5 June.  The purpose of the meeting was for trade unions to provide views to government on the transport guidance being devised in light of the Covid-19 pandemic.  A range of issues were raised by transport unions on the need for providers to be adhering to guidance, for effective policing, and there were calls for face coverings on public transport to be made mandatory.  UCU stressed the importance of the transport guidance to sectoral guidance for universities, given the large numbers of students and staff who rely on public transport to reach campuses, and travel from all corners of the UK.   The union called for clear messaging from government in line with the government’s own phased route map out of lockdown, given it appears that employers are eager to start moving staff back onto campus.   The union urged the government to be clear in upholding the current position that only essential workers should be travelling to work on campus.

Scottish Qualifications Authority

Following on from the Ministerial Leadership Group meeting on 4 June, the union met with the SQA’s chief executive Fiona Robertson, to discuss the our concerns about the impact the cancellation of school exams and assessments may have on fair access to university.   The union welcomed the Commissioner for Fair Access. Peter Scott’s annual report published on 5 June which highlighted the challenges the Covid-19 pandemic presents to the widening access agenda.

The discussion with SQA on Monday 8 June, was an opportunity for the union to raise our concerns at the potential for bias or discrimination to creep into the process for estimating and awarding grades.  Fiona Robertson explained that this was an issue that the SQA takes incredibly seriously and has been undertaking a range of steps, including the provision of support and guidance, consultation with a wide range of stakeholders – including the Equality and Human Rights Commission – as well as a comprehensive equality impact assessment on the process.  UCU has subsequently shared our own work and research on the issues of predicted grades, and the SQA has agreed to keep in touch with UCU on these important issues.

UCU report on the Ministerial Leadership Group – 14 May 2020

The union participated in the fourth Ministerial Leadership Group on Covid-19 on Thursday 14 May.  The meeting is chaired by the Minister for further and higher education and science Richard Lochhead MSP, and includes representatives from across the post-16 and community learning sectors.

This meeting focused on two agenda items, first on international students, and second on student poverty.   On international students, it was reported that Scotland’s messaging and implementation on “safe campuses” was vital if we were to attract international students back, along with the other opportunities for students to live and work post-study in Scotland.  UCU noted that health and safety on campuses is paramount for existing staff and students, and that union involvement in strategies for re-opening campuses and moving out of lockdown is necessary for staff confidence.     The worrying developing situation for student poverty, and the impact the current recession and lockdown is having on student employment was reported by NUS.  The shut down in hospitality and related sectors is affecting students who are more likely to have part time and zero hours contract work in these areas.    The meeting also recognised the issues of digital poverty and access to broadband which determine how students are able to continue with studies or not during lockdown.

UCU reported how the funding crisis is already having a detrimental impact upon staff pay, terms and conditions; and that members are being made redundant right now when fixed term and hourly paid contracts are not renewed, meaning that the sector is losing vital new talent.   The unions noted the importance of Fair Work, and indicated our desire for a Fair Work approach to underpin how employers and unions work together to manage the Covid-19 crisis.

15 May 2020