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

Neil Davidson, 1957-2020

UCU Scotland sends its sincere condolences to the family, friends and colleagues of Neil Davidson who died at the weekend.  Neil was a formidable union rep, had been a branch officer with Strathclyde UCU branch during his time at the University, leading the branch response during a challenging period of cuts and redundancies.  More recently at the University of Glasgow he was a committee member at UCU Glasgow where he made a huge contribution to the workings of the branch and committee.   With a strong sense of justice and always striving for fairness and equality, Neil’s contributions to the union along with his academic work as a Marxist historian and author, will continue to shape and inform our political landscape for years to come.


Campus unions’ meeting with higher education minister Richard Lochhead MSP on 29 April

UCU Scotland president Carlo Morelli and Scotland Official Mary Senior were part of an STUC campus unions’ delegation conference call meeting with the Minister for Further and Higher Education and Science, Richard Lochhead MSP, on Wednesday 29 April.

The meeting was an opportunity for the Minister to update trade unions on the work the Scottish Government is undertaking to support the post-16 education sectors, and importantly where unions raised the issues impacting upon our members directly with the Minister

In opening the meeting Richard Lochhead paid tribute to all staff in the sectors, thanking them for the way they are working amid the coronavirus lockdown.   He set out his recognition of the forthcoming financial challenges of the sector, and how he is meeting his UK government counterparts to impress upon them the need for Treasury support for the university sector in particular.     The Minister asked for our support in lobbying the UK government too, so it is very clear that the work that UCU is undertaking at UK and Scottish levels, and our encouragement to members to contact local MPs and MSPs, is crucial to get this message across.

UCU raised with the Minister our own concerns on the financial health of the sector and the need for government to underwrite the sector at this time.   We also reported on our issues with the furlough scheme, and that while the SFC guidance is helpful, that employers are still not being flexible and progressive on this matter, especially when it comes to fixed term contracts.  Richard Lochhead committed to pushing employers more on this point.  The Minister was also very positive on Fair Work, and UCU Scotland is playing a key part in finalising a campus unions’ proposal for Fair Work in the HE sector.

The union will continue with our regular engagement with the Scottish Government representing the interests and concerns of our members at this crucial time.

Investing in higher education essential to recovery

Mary Senior, Scotland Official, UCU writes about the role higher education will play as the country emerges from the current Covid-19 crisis and why its so important to invest to protect our universities.

This is a worrying and uncertain time for staff and students in universities.  Colleagues have done a tremendous job in shifting lectures, tutorials and student support to remote learning portals in a short space of time.  But this is not without its consequences for staff workloads, and should not be seen as the best way of delivering education as we move forward.

We are seeing some very worrying reports and predictions on the financial impact of Covid-19 for our sector, indeed our own union published its report on 23 April setting out our deep concerns on a major loss of income for the sector, and our current demands of government.   What is clear is that universities are essential to the country’s recovery and key to the fight against the virus.  Universities are increasing the number of doctors and nurses on the frontline, as well as spearheading the research and medical quests to tackle the virus.  Universities provide the vital economic, cultural and social lifeblood of our country, so it is crucial that they are supported.

The union is already making the case to the UK and Scottish governments on the issues facing the sector in this pandemic.  In Scotland we’re making representations direct to the Further and Higher Education Minister Richard Lochhead, and via the Ministerial Leadership Group that he convenes.   That includes the immediate issues facing hourly paid and fixed term contract staff, concerns on workloads, fair work, and on employers engaging with campus unions, as well as the longer term funding issues that are so vital for our futures.  The letters UCU members are sending to MSPs to support our message are all helping make this case.   Government need to ensure that all our universities – and the vital teaching and research they provide – are financially protected.  We can’t afford to lose university teaching staff, researchers and professional support staff at precisely the time universities need to be a key driver of recovery – as well as supporting the fight against Covid-19.


Draft letter for UCU members to send to their MSPs: Protecting Scotland’s higher education sector

UCU General Secretary Jo Grady recently wrote to UK education minister Gavin Williamson MP setting out a series of actions the union was asking the UK government to carry out.  UCU Scotland is maintaining regular dialogue with Richard Lochhead MSP, the minister responsible for higher education in the Scottish Government through regular briefings and meetings.  We’re asking members to write to their MSPs asking them to call on the Scottish Government to take a number of actions to support Scottish higher education in these uncertain times.  The draft letter is below and information on how to contact your MSPs can be found on the Scottish Parliament’s website here.

Draft letter to send to MSPs. Please personalise it as much as you wish:


I am writing as your constituent to ask for your help in providing much-needed stability for staff and students in Scottish higher education in the face of the current Covid-19 crisis.

Our universities have always been a critical part of the social and economic fabric of Scotland and will be crucial to our recovery from the current crisis. Staff in universities have already responded swiftly, shifting within a matter of days to online teaching and supporting students and stepping up vital research.

Unsurprisingly, though, the crisis is creating huge uncertainty and without urgent action from government we risk losing vital educational capacity just when it will be needed most.  The sector needs a clear and coherent plan aimed at retaining capacity and maximising the positive impact that higher education can make.

My union, the University and College Union, is calling for the Scottish government to take action in the following areas:

  1. Underwriting higher education by committing to maintaining the income of all higher education institutions at current levels.
  2. Requiring institutions to work cooperatively and cross-sectorally to protect the interests of students and local communities.
  3. Making a public commitment to protect Scotland’s universities against closure.
  4. Ensure access to properly resourced lifelong learning which ensures people of all ages can access the learning they need.
  5. Ensuring that staff working for outsourced companies providing services to higher education institutions receive the same protections as directly employed staff.
  6. Protecting educational capacity by confirming that furlough arrangements will apply to all staff currently employed by universities, including those on insecure contracts, and lobbying the UK government to extend the one-year visa extension scheme being offered to NHS staff to all current visa holders.

As your constituent, I would be grateful if you could, on my behalf, urge the Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science to adopt these recommendations and take action to protect our universities.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Yours sincerely,

Protecting outsourced workers in Scottish higher education

The Queen Margaret University UCU branch executive write below about coronavirus and  the work they carried out protecting workers in the university employed by outsourced companies.

Unions have had a long history of opposing outsourcing, and the coronavirus pandemic has exposed how important it is for essential services to be provided in- house. Like most universities, Queen Margaret University (QMU) contracts a number of outsourced companies to carry out tasks including catering work, cleaning as well as some of the security and janitorial work essential to the running of the university. As a public, unionised workplace, in-house workers in the university have been treated relatively well in the current crisis and at least will be guaranteed pay for the time being. However the staff delivering essential work in the university, but employed by outsourced companies, are at greater risk.

In the early days of the pandemic, union reps from both UCU and UNISON spoke to staff employed by outsourced companies. Some said they had no idea what’s happening pay wise or for how long they would continue to have work. We have heard from staff on their last paid day before shut-down, on zero-hours contracts despite having worked there for a number of months. We have spoken to staff who believed they were on a zero hour contract whilst another colleague believed themselves to be on a regular contract having been working there for over six months but reported that they still had not seen or signed a contract. Some workers were told they wouldn’t be paid normally if they self-isolated but indicated that their company then changed its mind and told them that they’d just receive statutory sick pay. Not only is this a trade union issue but also a health concern if workers take health risks by coming to work due to fears that they will not be paid. There appeared to be lack of clarity around what would be happening, with workers very unsure about what action to take.

Having heard this UCU and UNISON, who represent staff on the university’s Business Continuity Group, contacted management at QMU and made the point that staff on unstable contracts with limited or no sick pay are very likely to come in if they are ill because they simply cannot afford to and that this risks all staff and service users. This point is something that union reps had been raising for years.

The unions asked for the following written assurances:

  1. That the outsourced companies are willing to continue to pay all staff employed with contracts regardless of whether they are working, off sick, self-isolating or just unable to work because the workplace is shut.
  2. That staff who have been working for these companies from the 13th of March would be paid normal pay throughout this pandemic regardless of what contract they are on. We asserted that anything other than this could only be an attempt to save money from this pandemic at the expense of the staff and university as a whole and that we shouldn’t allow it.
  3. That, If points two and three were not possible, the university give assurances that QMU would foot the bill for sick leave or contingency leave and bring the staff in house.
  4. If the outsourced companies go bust, is there a mechanism to bring all the current staff (including those working zero hours this week) in house?

QMU management, the next day came back with a statement that said that contracted employees should suffer no detriment to their positions and that any costs associated with this would be met by the university under existing contracted arrangements. Also, that contracted staff would continue to be paid their normal salary when self-isolating, are in quarantine or where they could not be on site due to service changes or disruption and that this includes those in vulnerable groups required to follow government advice to stay at home.

This was definitely a step forward, which the unions welcomed, but the UCU branch are currently pushing for it also to apply to zero-hours staff and any other staff who had been laid off just before the pandemic.

However, it shows that in the current conditions, a little bit of campaigning can go a long way. It has demonstrated that, no matter how tight the contract or ‘reputable’ the company, when essential work in educational institutions is outsourced to private companies, it is the least paid and most insecure workers who suffer. Public sympathy has never been higher for casualised workers and respect has never been higher for manual front line workers. People are seeing the failings of capitalism and thinking very seriously about public control.

While some staff in universities may, in the short term at least, still be in relatively secure employment the same is not the case for everyone and certainly not for those employed in outsourced work.

UCU can play a crucial role in gathering information on the offending outsourcing companies. We need to make sure this is a central campaigning point for UCU during the crisis and that universities take full responsibility for all their workers, whether directly or indirectly employed by them. We should also be collecting and sharing information on which companies are abusing their workers, and use our online resources to publically name and shame them, as well as monitoring the actions of individual universities so that we can share campaigning tips on this important issue. We have an opportunity to campaign for any company who withholds wages to be brought back in house immediately without compensation.

Update on Further and Higher Education Covid-19 Ministerial Leadership Group – 2 April

UCU was represented at the inaugural meeting of the Scottish Government’s Further and Higher Education Covid-19 Ministerial Leadership Group, on Thursday 2 April. The group has been established by Richard Lochhead MSP -Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science – to bring together the key stakeholders in the sectors with government and its agencies, to provide leadership, collaboration and a response to the immediate coronavirus crisis and to plan the recovery phase.

This first meeting heard about the urgent issues facing the sectors, from employers, the NUS, trade unions and the community learning sector. Common themes emerged on security and continuity of funding, support for students and staff, reducing bureaucracy, and dealing with student progression and hardship issues. UCU was able to highlight the need to protect existing academic capacity and emphasised the need to extend contracts and protect the thousands of hourly paid and casual contract staff in higher education, as well as the huge numbers of researchers on fixed term contracts – particularly where contracts are coming to an end in this period.

The Minister repeatedly said that he expected employers and institutions to work together and the Scottish Government wanted to see “no detriment to our workforces as a result of the coronavirus”.

UCU raised some of the key issues from the general secretary’s seven proposals, on government underwriting the current levels of funding in the sector, and on the need for collaboration and an end to competition.

Richard Lochhead did want all stakeholders to convey the Scottish Government’s sincere thanks to all those in the sector – particularly staff in post-16 education – who have been working so hard in response to the crisis to support students and contribute to the fight against this pandemic.

The group will meet again next week and then after two weeks.