Today the University of Birmingham’s academic trade union BUCU, representing over 1,000 members, has released its indicative ballot asking members whether they would be prepared to strike. The dispute covers two key issues – aggressive performance management and disciplinary processes, targeted at staff the University wishes to “manage out”; and workload allocations. The electronic ballot is open for three weeks from Tuesday 28th March.

The managing out issue has grown as more and more cases have come to light since the University was defeated in its program of targeted redundancies of staff in Modern Languages, Neuroscience, Engineering, and Hydrogeology. BUCU reports that many staff now feel bullied and harassed by unreasonable performance management practices and that the resulting treatment has a devastating effect on health and well-being, morale, and performance. In addressing disciplinary cases that have been brought against staff BUCU states that:

“these proceedings are driven by the new HR department ‘Performance transformation and Change’, demonstrating very clearly that the managerial approach to manage out has become a priority of the VC […] BUCU’s review of disciplinary cases revealed that the University has failed to resolve disciplinary issues informally in several cases and is pursuing unjustified disciplinary proceedings against staff despite repeated objection of BUCU. We have identified serious issues in how the University conducts disciplinary proceedings which have been dismissed by the University in order to pursue their actions against staff.”

On the concurrent issue of workload allocation BUCU reports that some parts of the University, including the Birmingham Business School, unilaterally added 280 hours to staff workloads. This led to the protest outside of the Guild of students earlier this term against the two additional months of ‘Drainuary’ and ‘Stresstember’ [1]. Birmingham Socialist Students has also seen evidence that these additional hours affect the hourly rate of casual staff across the College of Social Sciences and represents a pay cut of just over £2 per hour for the lowest paid post-doc and GTA teaching assistants.

What will the strike look like and how will it affect me?

The government’s recent anti-trade union bill means that any union has to first conduct an ‘indicative’ ballot, asking their members if they would be prepared to strike, and then a formal ballot. The formal ballot is now legally required to win over 50% of the votes from over 50% of the membership, which for BUCU is half of the 1,000+ academics.

The current proposal being presented to members is for “discontinuous strike action targeting exam period, open days, and/or applicant visit days” and, alternatively, “action short of strike”, which could include things like working to contract (for example, refusing overtime and weekend work) or a temporary Canvas boycott (for example, temporarily removing material for 24 hours). If the strike goes ahead this could lead to some delays in marking, and protests around open days. BUCU emphasise that strike action would be an absolute last resort if the University continues to refuse to negotiate on the specific disputes raised.

Why should students support the strike?

Aside from the convincing case being made on the specifics of BUCU’s current dispute, students should also be aware that these issues are taking place at a time of record tuition fees, record levels of casualisation of teaching [2], at a University that makes record surpluses, and at a University that pays out huge remunerations to its senior management team [3]. The Guardian recently found that across the sector 53% of teaching is delivered by staff on some sort of casual or non-permanent contract, while at the University the figure is over 70%. At the same time the University of Birmingham’s 2016 annual accounts show a surplus of £83m and rising pay for the 132 senior managers earning over £100,000 pa. The University’s Vice Chancellor, David Eastwood, has long been one of the highest paid Vice Chancellors in the country and 2016 was no different, with his salary rising to a neat £426,000 thanks to an annual ‘performance’ bonus of £45,000.

The government’s higher education reforms and this University’s senior management team seek an education that is ever more short term, target chasing, and rankings focused. This is to the detriment of many subject areas that have traditionally struggled to get graduates into highly paid employment (including philosophy, languages and the humanities, the arts, media and cultural studies); it is to the detriment of critical thinking; it is to the detriment of political engagement; and it is to the detriment of those who are all to easily left behind by an ever more ruthless focus on market logics (parents, carers, the disabled, black and ethnic minorities, and those with extra mental health needs).

If staff are prepared to stand up to protect our education then students should stand by their side. While strike action may cause some minor inconvenience in the short term it is vital that we work together to support better terms and conditions that will only benefit the education of students for years to come.

What can students do to help?

This ballot is happening after the government’s new anti-trade union bill, which has already emboldened management who are completely refusing to negotiate or engage with the issues raised by BUCU. The government’s bill means that over 50% of all 1,000+ members have to vote during the ballot for it to be recognised. This is an extremely hard measure to reach, by comparison the current Conservative government only won around 24% of registered voters at the recent general election, while the University’s Guild of Student’s own ‘Ideas’ system, which conducts similar electronic voting, only reaches around 1% of the student population. It is really important that we all do what we can to raise the profile of the indicative ballot over the next three weeks:

  • Like our posts on Facebook and share this article;
  • Share information about the strike on social media;
  • If you would like to get more involved, get in touch with the Socialist Students society at the Guild to help with leafleting or holding stalls on campus;
  • Join UCU and vote in the ballot! Post graduate students can join UCU for free and teaching assistants can join for as little as £1 per month;
  • Send us your details and we’ll keep you updated with information on when and where the strikes will take place so that you can come along and join your lecturers on the picket lines!

You can message our Facebook page here: https://www.facebook.com/birminghamsocialiststudents/

Or message the student society here: socialist@guild.bham.ac.uk

[1] http://www.redbrick.me/news/students-protest-staff-working-hours/

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2016/nov/16/universities-accused-of-importing-sports-direct-model-for-lecturers-pay

[3] https://intranet.birmingham.ac.uk/finance/documents/public/Annual-Accounts-2015-2016.pdf

– James Moran, outgoing Chair of Birmingham Socialist Students.

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