Letter to Colin Bailey regarding the potential industrial action

The QMUCU Branch Chair has sent Colin Bailey, the Principal of Queen Mary University of London a letter regarding the potential industrial action.


Dear Professor Bailey,

We are writing on behalf of academic and academic-related staff at Queen Mary University of London regarding the possibility of industrial action this academic year.

As you know, UCU has begun the process of balloting its members for strike action and action short of a strike. This is in response to the drastic and unnecessary cuts to staff pensions recently forced through by employers and the connected crises of falling pay, persistent pay inequality, job insecurity, and rising workloads.

Staff at Queen Mary have previously voted in record numbers to take strike action over these issues. Our branch is also preparing a significant effort to get the vote out in the forthcoming ballot. However, a decision to take industrial action is never taken lightly. It has the potential to cause serious disruption to the university, including to both staff and students, which we would prefer to avoid.

We are therefore writing to call on you in your role as President and Principal of Queen Mary University of London to use your position of influence to help avoid these strikes. Queen Mary is a major employer in the higher education sector. You could therefore have a significant role in encouraging both UUK and UCEA to adopt a more reasonable position.

UCU’s national representatives stand ready to negotiate at any time over the issues behind these disputes, but so far employers have refused to engage in further talks. You can help avert the disruption of industrial action by calling on your counterparts to change their intransigent approach and meet our negotiators with acceptable proposals.

It is also regrettable that no talks have taken place at a local level between yourself and trade union representatives to discuss these issues. We would like to make it clear that we remain prepared to meet with you at any time for this purpose, and we take this opportunity to extend the offer of a meeting in the coming weeks to discuss these matters and try to find common ground.

Below, we have summarised the key issues for staff at Queen Mary in these disputes and highlighted what you could do to resolve them.

Pensions

The pensions cuts recently voted through by employers would represent the fourth consecutive cut to staff pensions since 2011. Under these proposals, a typical lecturer aged 37 would lose 35% of their guaranteed retirement income. The cuts will also disproportionately impact upon younger members of staff and on women because on average they have higher life expectancies.

These cuts are also unnecessary. They are based on a valuation taken in the middle of the 2020 stock market crash from which the scheme has now more than recovered. The valuation itself is also based on flawed and opaque assumptions which do not stand up to detailed scrutiny. The pension scheme as a whole is in need of serious reform: it is unaccountable to its members and suffers from major governance issues.

The dispute over pensions can easily be resolved if employers (a) agree to accept the detailed counter-proposals put forward by UCU, which would require the same level of employer covenant support as those put forward by UUK; and (b) call for a new, more rigorous valuation to be carried out of the scheme as of 31st March 2021.

Pay, equality, workload, and casualisation

Pay and conditions in UK higher education have been in decline for a number of years, but they have reached crisis point during the pandemic.

Since 2009, the cumulative decline in pay (compared to RPI) is 17.6%, and this has been even higher for our staff in London. In 2020, employers proposed a 0.0% pay “increase”, and this year have only offered 1.5% at a time when inflation is running at 3% and projected to rise.

Gender and race pay gaps continue to characterise the pay structure at UK universities, including at Queen Mary. As you know, the most recent figures indicate that the mean gender pay gap at Queen Mary is 17% (an increase from the previous year) and the mean race pay gap is 19.4% (only a small decrease from the previous year). Part of the answer to this problem has to be pay restraint at the top: by July 2020, the number of staff earning over £100k at Queen Mary had roughly doubled since 2017, and senior management salary costs had increased by 24% to over £2.2 million.

Another of the major causes of pay inequality is casualisation, which is a systemic problem across the sector and at Queen Mary. Women and people of colour work disproportionately in part-time positions at Queen Mary. These roles are often fixed-term, insecure, poorly paid, and with limited prospects of career progression. This job insecurity has a severe impact on their livelihoods, their families, and their mental health. Over the summer of 2020, at the height of the pandemic, many valued colleagues in these positions lost their jobs because the university implemented a recruitment freeze and refused to renew their contracts.

Staff workload is also at unsustainable levels. In an external report commissioned by Queen Mary in 2018, 40% of staff were already reporting in a survey that they were unable to manage their workloads. The problem has increased severely during the pandemic, when the loss of staff and the demands of shifting to online teaching, working at home and on a socially-distanced campus caused workloads to skyrocket. The problem shows signs of worsening still. In 2021, the university exceeded its undergraduate student targets by 21% without anything like a commensurate increase in staff numbers.

The joint unions have laid out detailed proposals to address all these issues, but so far employers have refused to make any improved offer. Thanks to the hard work of staff, Queen Mary is in a strong financial position. In July 2020, the university deposited almost £37 million into its accounts, bringing the total balance to almost £100 million. You can therefore easily afford to meet the costs of protecting pensions and improving pay and conditions for staff.

Regards,
Dr. James Eastwood

QMUCU Branch Chair
on behalf of QMUCU Branch Committee.