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TEACHING TO SUFFER AS COVID-19 CAUSES CUTS AT UON

The UK’s higher education system is one of our most illustrious exports; consistently dominating global league tables for research and, most importantly, teaching. The University of Nottingham with its Russell Group status and campuses across two continents is no exception; at least for now.

Due to financial strain caused by the Coronavirus epidemic UoN has had to take money saving measures to weather the storm. Therefore, Shearer West and the rest of the university administration have decided, rather than dipping into reserves, liquidating assets or taking out loans, UoN is going to cut its teaching provision to the bone. Teaching, the distinct purpose of a university and its most essential element to the university’s majority financial backers, the students, is, to the administration, expendable. This, we must not forget, is the same university that consistently boasted a £20 million surplus in recent years.

In a recent letter to all University of Nottingham Teaching Affiliate and Post Graduate Research students in the Faculty of Arts, the Faculty administrators announced it was cutting its entire Teaching Affiliate budget leaving hundreds of students in a uncertain position financial situation and drastically worsening students learning experience next year but also indicating the way things are going for other faculties.

Following the knock to University of Nottingham’s income UoN has informed all faculties that they have to cut their budgets by 15%. The Faculty of Arts announcement was the first but with other faculties soon to release their proposed budget cuts there is great concern that TA budgets are going to be scrapped across the University. As detailed in an open letter from Nottingham PHD students to the University administration, including chancellor Shearer West, “there is serious concern among PGR students about these measures across the entire institution.” Other sources say upwards of £50 million worth of cuts will need to be found next year.

Periscope Nottingham talked to a member of Notts Uni Workers about the upcoming cuts and how damaging they will be for the university and its students.

What was the position of PGRs before the latest round of cuts?

For many Postgraduate researchers, engaging in teaching work at UoN provides both a vital source of income as well as the experience required in order to progress within the sector. These casualised teaching jobs are commonly known as Teaching Affiliates or Demonstrators (depending on the role). They are short term hourly-paid posts which relate to work required for a specific module, this can be teaching and / or marking. These posts could be in-house but instead they are outsourced to UniTemps. Outsourcing is a common strategy used by employers to drive down the pay and conditions of a segment of the workforce while shirking responsibility. As Teaching Affiliates are not technically employed directly by the University, they can also be used to undermine the industrial action taken by their colleagues in the UCU.

We had made some progress as a result of recent Anti-casualisation campaigns, and in July 2019 university management and UCU jointly issued a new set of university-wide principles for all Teaching Affiliate work. Most significantly these principles stated that Teaching Affiliates should not be asked to engage in activities for which they will not be paid. However, what we are now in danger of seeing is in fact an attempt by some Faculties to extend the practice of unpaid teaching. Some Postgraduate Researchers have already been approached regarding “volunteering” to do unpaid teaching work in the next academic year, as a result of cuts to paid jobs. We must encourage PGRs to refuse this unpaid work, and demand that senior members of staff do not pressurise others into accepting it.

How has UUK and Nottingham University specifically treated its workers during the Corona Virus crisis?

Initially the University of Nottingham acted fairly quickly after closing campuses, and issued a statement in mid March to inform casualised staff that they would continue to be paid as normal. Since then, things have got worse as the planned cuts to casualised staff have become apparent. Additionally, in May UCU members were informed about the latest Universities & Colleges Employers Association (UCEA) offer following the last round of strike action. This paltry offer contained ‘expectations’ and ‘recommendations’ but no concrete commitments regarding the three non-pay areas of the dispute (casualisation, workload and gender and BME pay gap), and demonstrated the continuing refusal to take industry wide, enforceable action to tackle these widespread issues.

How prevalent are outsourced and casualised workers at the University?

This is difficult to say, there are a whole host of jobs (not just teaching) that are outsourced via Unitemps. The last set of figures we saw for the 2018/2019 academic year suggested there were nearly 700 Teaching Affiliate engagements made via Unitemps and over 900 for Demonstrators. They also suggested there were thousands of other job roles filled by Unitemps throughout the academic year.

This is a worrying trend, as outsourcing allows the university to employ workers on worse off terms and conditions, and therefore undermine the commitments they’ve previously made. For example, in 2017 the UoN Living Wage campaign convinced the university to commit to the voluntary living wage, although they refused to get Living Wage Foundation accreditation. Yet last year Unitemps were still posting roles (e.g Uni open day support), which paid below the Living Wage.

Are these the only cuts to services the university is making this academic year?

The cuts across the University are widespread. Many temporary admin staff are facing job cuts, alongside fixed term redundancies, recruitment freezes, cuts in research time and budgets and so on. While each Faculty has been told to cut their budget by 15%, at present it seems like a large chunk of that will come from teaching.

How will cutting PGRs affect teaching and the student experience next academic year?

The reality is, cutting teaching staff while increasing the workload of those remaining will always compromise teaching and student experience. Driving down staff working conditions while driving up student fees has been part and parcel of the process of marketisation of university education. The effects of this are exacerbated under the current conditions, where students will need more help and support. The majority of students will expect  their teachers and support staff to be paid, valued and respected by the university. The fact that some may be taught by unpaid volunteers, or by overworked and unvalued teaching staff, is unacceptable. It is for this reason that we maintain “working conditions are learning conditions”! 

What should the University do instead of cutting these staff members to better balance financial hardship and maintaining adequate staff and teaching quality next year?

Instead of cutting frontline staff, we want to see an approach that puts workers and students first, one which safeguards jobs as a priority. The University has boasted of its financial success in previous years, we need it to seriously consider alternative measures in the face of the current crisis. Serious reductions in Senior Management salaries, drawing on reserves, assets and non-essential budgets, as well borrowing, are just a few options. To this end, we demand full financial transparency from the university over their decisions, as well as consultation with all workers and their trade unions.

We need all students and staff to urgently get behind the “Save Our Casualised Staff“, to put pressure on the university to change its approach. Sign and share the petition today! http://chng.it/mY9qJFHNyM

By George Sullivan

History and History of Art student Uni of Nottingham // Nottingham Labour Students Co Chair // https://periscopenottingham.wordpress.com

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