Birkbeck UCU | Newsletter Spring 2015

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Newsletter Spring 2015

In this issue  

We have an update on the Counter-terrorism Bill, pension dispute, a statement on student admissions in relation to criminal  onvictions, where we’re at with the campaign on London Weighting, an insight into how your UCU reps are dealing with members’ cases at Birkbeck and what UCU is doing in the run up to the general election.

Workshop for Birkbeck Reps
We would also like to flag up to all of our members that we are holding a workshop on 11 March, 12:30 - 2pm Room 630,   Malet Street. If you are interested in getting more involved   in the union and would like to discuss ways you could become a rep for your department do come along. You can book your place by emailing us on ucu@bbk.ac.uk.

The work of a UCU rep is varied and a great way to find out more about how   the college operates, meet people from different departments and universities and raise awareness of the broader issues in higher education. You can get   involved as little or as much as you want. UCU reps provide the essential communication link between members and the branch and UCU centrally.  

UCU Campaign against Counter-terrorism and Security Bill  

In a recent Birkbeck joint unions meeting members expressed their concerns about the implications for academic freedom of the   government’s Counter-terrorism and Security Bill and also ways that the College seems to be pre-empting its passage into law by arranging for staff training via PREVENT. In addition, recent legal advice suggests the proposals are in conflict with existing law, including the Education Act 1986 which places a duty on education institutions to protect free speech.

UCU nationally is campaigning against this Bill and has   launched a petition – see https://campaign.goingtowork.org.uk/petitions/defend-academic-freedom  

USS Pensions update by Nick Pronger  

On 28th January UCU called branch pensions officers to attend a meeting for an update on the USS pensions dispute.

This meeting was set prior to the recent ballot asking the national membership to accept or reject an offer made by the employers’ representatives. This ballot ended on the 26th, with a 67.1 % vote in favour of acceptance.

During the meeting there was general dissatisfaction with issues on poor communication, secrecy over the UCU negotiating team meetings with employers/USS and that the recent ballot was hasty and without any   direction from the Higher Education Committee. It was generally felt that this had undermined the ballot in November which resolutely agreed industrial action in the form of a marking boycott with the possibility of strike action if employers enforced punitive deductions of salary.

Basically, as we all know from the ballot result, the deal is done, for now. And will result in considerable worsening to our pensions. But there is another valuation in 2017, then another in 2020 and nothing to stop USS and employers coming back for more.

So a rearguard action was proposed to challenge the way the   overall deficit for pensions funds is calculated, which some felt was pointless now that accrual rates, final salary calculation and defined benefits have all been sacrificed.

Ultimately, the question was asked as to whether we could expect to mobilise members across all 67 HEI's, or whether, in the current   political environment, we have to put up with a bad deal without much of a fight. The comments and mood of delegates were mixed and no consensus was reached.

So the resulting deal means that by 2016 the CRB and Final Salary schemes will be combined into a hybrid system, accrual rate will be 1/75, and the defined benefits portion will be capped at £55,000.

More details at http://www.ucu.org.uk/uss

Student Admissions & Criminal Convictions by Sarah Lamble  

UCU members have expressed serious concerns about changes to College practices regarding student admissions, whereby all applications and re-enrolments are now screened on the basis of criminal conviction.

Birkbeck’s part-time application form now includes a question asking prospective students to disclose any criminal convictions. Although a similar question has appeared on the UCAS application form for several years, to our knowledge Birkbeck has not routinely used that information to screen applications in the past.

Birkbeck’s online re-enrolment forms also now include a mandatory question on criminal convictions, meaning that all returning   students are required to answer this question annually.

The UCU branch committee is particularly concerned that this change in practice has been introduced without consultation or scrutiny from relevant committees and without proper communication to Admissions Tutors. UCU members have raised concerns about this change in practice on several grounds, but primarily that it is misguided, discriminatory and at odds with the College’s mission.

In response, the Branch Committee issued the following statement:

Birkbeck UCU Branch Committee opposes the screening of student applications and enrolments on the basis of criminal conviction. There are no compelling reasons for such screening, except in cases where programmes require students come into contact with children or vulnerable adults as part   of fulfilling the degree requirements of their programme, and in such cases, disclosure should be sought via the Disclosure and Barring Service (formerly   the Criminal Records Bureau & Independent Safeguarding Authority). In all other situations, screening applications on the basis of criminal conviction is unnecessary, inappropriate and discriminatory. The UCU Branch committee calls for the immediate suspension of blanket screening, as it is not in keeping with Birkbeck’s founding mission of widening access to higher education.

The UCU Branch will continue to raise its concerns at College level and several members are in discussions with colleagues at other universities about organising an event to discuss the wider implications of criminal conviction screening in higher education. If members would like to be involved, please get in touch: ucu@bbk.ac.uk  

Birkbeck’s unimpressive London Weighting by John Kelly  

In summer 2014 as Birkbeck senior management was celebrating its record £6 million surplus, college unions asked if staff could share in this good fortune. We submitted a claim for London Weighting to be increased to £4,000 per annum from its current £3,066. We pointed out that the value of London Weighting had not kept pace with the national rate of inflation, let alone the higher rate of inflation in London.

The college rejected our claim, refusing point blank to offer any increase at all. Their complacent defence was that London Weighting in Birkbeck is better than at UCL (£2,919), Kings (£2,323) and SOAS (£2,134).

However, they were unmoved by the fact that Goldsmiths pays a London Allowance of £4,365 and the Open University pays £3,800. Moreover employees in two of the capital’s largest public sector organizations receive far more compensation for London living costs. NHS staff receive £4,076 and inner London school teachers are paid between £4,718 and £4,902.

Viewed in the context of its large surplus and the public sector as a whole, Birkbeck’s London Weighting is unimpressive and unambitious. The college was keen to be top of the table in the 2014 THE University of the Year awards, yet in in regard to the London weighting paid to its own staff, the college is content with mid-table mediocrity.  

Casework: what does UCU do? by Linda Milbourne  

Over the last year, UCU branch caseworkers successfully   supported around 35 cases. We’re a team of some 6 branch committee members   with cases as varied as giving a few words of advice on entitlements and relevant policies, to difficult cases lasting several months, involving   equalities, bullying, discipline and redundancy.

Too many recent cases have affected teaching and scholarship staff - facing course closures, reduced hours, reduced pay, threat of redundancy or unfair   treatment of some kind. Our caseworker task is often about ensuring agreements and procedures are adhered to (and not ignored!). And that varies considerably across the College. Sometimes we will pursue issues collectively   through UCU if it’s plain that agreements are being systematically discounted.

Casework is never simple, and caseworkers need to be knowledgeable, as well as offering support to the individual(s) concerned. UCU nationally provides training and advice but, like everything else branch workers do, it’s voluntary, and cases can be time-consuming and demanding. We can’t promise an ideal world but in many cases, UCU’s intervention meant that staff gained a much better outcome than they would otherwise have done.

Happy New Year everyone? Not really! While we saw the successful conclusion of several ongoing cases last term, some rumble on, and new cases have   emerged already, suggesting that some managers weren’t reading up on their policies over the break!  

UCU and the General Election by John Kelly  

UCU is not affiliated to any political party, a position it shares with every other teaching union and with many other public sector unions. But the union does have clear policies on higher and further education. Its officers and activists will therefore be promoting UCU   policies in the election, trying to push them up the agenda and to secure the support of party candidates.

Undergraduate tuition fees in England are now amongst the highest in the world, and this disastrous policy will saddle an entire generation with a mountain of debt. Meantime public support for postgraduate taught courses is almost nil, despite a lot of vapid party rhetoric about the ‘knowledge economy’. UCU is keen to see a radical rethink of the way we fund higher education.

UCU is equally keen to see a more diversified post-school education system   with more encouragement and support for a range of experiences, including vocational education and apprenticeships.

Finally UCU is keen to rein in the dramatic growth in casual work contracts within the university sector, the unequal treatment of part-time staff and the attacks on public sector pay and pensions. The ratio of temporary and part-time to permanent and full time staff in the HE and FE is one of the   highest in the economy.

So, check out the positions of your candidates on higher education in the run up to 7 May.