What is going on at the University of Brighton?

Why are lecturers taking industrial action?
On the 31st March, academic staff at the University of Brighton started a programme of industrial action comprising both strikes and action short of strike following  a well supported ballot which returned a vote of 77% in favour of strike and 85% in favour of action short of strike (ASOS).  You can see a report of the first day of action here and there is a detailed presentation of the background to the dispute in a UCU video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FIoB2qs4e8U&feature=youtu.be .  This was the start of a programme of escalating industrial action, the next step of which is a two day strike on the 26th and 27th April with further strikes planned if the university management fail to engage in meaningful negotiations for a resolution.

A new management culture
In December 2015 Debra Humphris became the new Vice Chancellor of the University of Brighton and it quickly became apparent that the new VC was in a hurry to make radical changes to the institution.  Her first major target, within weeks of starting the new job was the closure of the Hastings site of the University.

In spite of a spirited and well-supported campaign by staff, students and the local community (see here), the University is closing its campus in Hastings.  Its promise to secure Higher Education provision in the town is nothing more than the handing over of a small number of vocational Degree courses to Sussex Coast College. This betrayal of staff, students and the local community in Hastings is a sign of the priorities of this new management and of things to come.

The new VC marked her first full year in post with further attacks on staff with consequent implications for the quality of education, specifically:

  • The demotion of part-time lecturers in one school to the grade of ‘demonstrator’ resulting in a 70% cut in their pay and setting a precedent threatening academic staff throughout the university. Such demotions are an undermining of students’ right to have ‘contact time’ with lecturing staff appropriately paid and resourced to do their job.
  • The cancelling of the yearly promotions round for staff seeking promotion from senior to principal lecturer grade, signalling the transformation of the university from one in which senior staff are recognised for their experience, expertise and the range of contributions that they make to teaching and research to one which restrict promotion to ‘management’ roles only.
  • Claiming some staff are redundant where there is no equitable and transparent workload allocation because the negotiated workload agreement has not been implemented, allowing middle managers to claim some staff are surplus to requirements whilst overloading others.
  • All of these are an attack on the negotiating rights of the UCU the recognised lecturers’ union. Following a history of good industrial relations at the university, the current management is seeking a radical reframing of industrial relations in which there is little if any commitment to negotiation. This is clearly evident in their refusal to abide by the agreed Procedure for the Avoidance and Resolution of disputes in relation to each of the issues above.

Staff and students united
Many of the people affected by the demotions are also PhD students and students as well as staff understand what is a stake in this dispute.  The University of Brighton Students’ Union have issued a message of support for the action of academic staff in which they state, “Brighton Students’ Union are greatly concerned for the PhD students in the school of Computing, Engineering and Mathematics and are in full support of UCU’s action to defend our members. In addition to these PhD students receiving a drastic and sudden cut in their pay; 3rd year undergraduate students have been given teaching responsibilities and this raises many questions around the quality of teaching students are receiving. […] We believe quality of education is affected when those staff who support us do not receive fair treatment or feel valued. Ultimately, we believe the benefit of staff who are rewarded properly for the fantastic work they do far outweighs two day’s disruption to studies.” (see here for the full statement).

This is not just about Brighton University
The recent history of the HE sector has been characterised by increasing policy pressures to transform Higher Education into just another business subject to ‘market discipline’ like any other. This is what is at the heart of reforms like the introduction and raising of fees, metrics like the National Student Survey contributing to the ‘Teaching Excellence Framework’ which will categorise institutions as ‘gold’ ‘silver’ or ‘bronze’, freeing higher rated institutions to raise their fees even higher, and, in the Higher Education and Research Bill making its way through parliament, the introduction of new ‘for-profit’ providers to the HE ‘market’.  Campaigns like the Campaign for the Public University and the Council for the Defence of British  Universities (CDBU) have articulated the dangers of the policy of privatisation and marketization of higher education and the Convention for Higher Education has produced an ‘Alternative White Paper for Higher Education’ presenting a future for HE which protects its integrity and quality from these dangers.

What we are seeing at Brighton are the consequences of a new management culture in Higher Education which accepts and endorses a vision of HE as a business competing in a market and uses this vision to legitimate attacks on staff and the quality of education.   This is why Brighton UCU is receiving messages of solidarity from so many UCU branches.  As Saira Weiner, Branch Secretary at  Liverpool John Moores University has said

“The only response to aggressive and bullying management is a collective one, and we congratulate you in deciding to meet them head on.  If your management are successful, I have no doubt that others across the sector will be encouraged to do the same.”

And this is not just about Higher Education
The pressures we have seen in the schools’ sector have their parallel in the Higher Education which has become subject to the same logic of undermining and dismantling the public sector.  The resistance by the UCU at Brighton to attacks on their members and the quality of education is part of wider movement of resisting the broad range of attacks on the education we can offer children, young people and adults.

What you can do:

HE Bill – last chance to lobby your MP

Sign the petition to the Board of Governors of the University of Brighton

If you are in a trade union invite Brighton UCU to come and talk to your branch about the dispute

Send solidarity messages to ucubrighton@gmail.com

Keep up to date with the dispute:

 

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