Industrial action: union attacks VCs for pay deduction threats

Some universities say they may withhold pay from staff that do not share teaching materials with students while taking action short of a strike

The University and College Union has attacked “rogue” university vice-chancellors threatening to withhold pay from staff that take action ‘short of a strike’ this month.

According to the union, 10 universities have emailed staff warning them they may lose pay if they take action short of a strike (Asos) later this month, a move the UCU general secretary described as “vindictive”.

UCU members at 74 universities voted to take Asos over pay, conditions and the Universities Superannuation Scheme. Of the 74 university UCU branches that backed industrial action, members at 68 can go on strike.

Asos at the 74 universities may include strictly working to contract, not covering for absent colleagues, not rescheduling lectures or classes cancelled due to strike action and not undertaking any voluntary activities, the union said.

Laws permit employers to deduct pay from workers if they “refuse to carry out part of their contractual work” – what is called ‘partial performance’ – during their Asos. Several universities contacted by University Business say pay reductions would be in response to staff that refuse to reschedule cancelled classes and withhold teaching materials.

Ten days of action are planned across three weeks in the two separate disputes. UCU says that a million students may be affected by the strikes that could involve as many as 50,000 union members.

The union says Queen Mary University of London (QMUL), City University of London, Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU), Newcastle University, the University of Bristol and the University of Bradford have threatened to withhold 100% pay from staff taking Asos. The Universities of Birmingham, Leicester, Northumbria and Durham have threatened to withhold a percentage of pay, the union says.

University Business has approached all 10 institutions for comment.

Most universities responded to say their decision is in response to the potential of Asos to disrupt students learning.

A QMUL spokesperson said: “A failure to reschedule and deliver all cancelled planned education activities will amount to a breach of contract… and 100% of pay will be deducted until that education[al] activity is rescheduled within acceptable timescales.”

Confirming MMU may withhold pay from staff, a spokesperson for the university said UCU had advised members not to reschedule classes or lectures and to remove “uploaded learning materials relating to those cancelled lectures”; behaviour that would “amount to a breach of our contracts of employment”.

A spokesperson for Bradford said the university would withhold “up to 100% of pay for each day of partial performance”. The spokesperson said that the Asos pay policy “has been in place for over five years and is reviewed regularly”.

Both Bristol and Durham said they would deduct 25% of pay from staff who remove or withhold learning materials. A spokesperson for Newcastle said the university is “entitled to deduct 100% of salary” but any reduction “will depend on the nature of the action taken and its impact”. Northumbria said it would withhold 25% of pay from staff taking Asos – and may withhold 100% but “will inform colleagues before increasing the amount”.

A spokesperson for Birmingham said the university would pay staff working to contract “as normal” – but withhold 50% of pay if staff do not reschedule all cancelled classes and share all relevant learning materials during their industrial action.

Universities that withhold pay from staff taking Asos will escalate the dispute, the union warned.

UCU general secretary Jo Grady praised the University of Cambridge for retracting its plans to withhold pay over Asos, even if staff refuse to share teaching materials or reschedule classes.

Grady said: “Rogue university bosses are trying to intimidate staff from taking lawful industrial action by withholding their wages. This is a deeply unfair and unprofessional response from management which will only escalate and prolong these disputes.

“‘In action short of a strike, many staff will work strictly to their contract. The fact that some university bosses consider this worthy of a deduction in pay demonstrates the extent to which the sector has become addicted to staff working themselves into the ground and beyond what they are contractually required to do.”

She said the decision by Cambridge was “encouraging” and called on university bosses to resolve the dispute.

Raj Jethwa, Ucea’s chief executive said: “HE institutions have a duty to their students. As such, they reject partial performance and – as UCU knows – they are legally entitled to withhold full pay or, at their discretion, a lesser amount for partial performance of duties.

“This is a disappointing response from UCU and will be of concern to students already facing disruption from UCU’s latest action. Rather than continuing this disruption, UCU should engage constructively in this year’s (2022-23) multi-employer negotiating round which is planned to begin at the end of March.”

Read more: UCU December strikes had ‘low impact’, claim employers

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