UCU strike ballot at Leicester University

Local UCU branch representatives said the threat to 145 jobs sparked the ballot

The University and College Union (UCU) is balloting members at the University of Leicester on strike action after accusing senior leaders “of possible mismanagement of the university’s finances”.

The chair of the Leicester UCU branch has called for new university leadership.

The strike ballot follows an announcement in January that 145 staff at Leicester University are at risk of redundancy; that figure has reduced in the intervening months after some took voluntary redundancy.

Of those staff at risk, 63 are academic posts, and 82 are professional services staff. The university said it expects a net reduction of around 60 positions as a result of its consultation. 

Announcing the redundancies in January, Leicester vice-chancellor Nishan Canagarajah said: “To continue to deliver excellence and to compete on a global level, we must build on our key strengths, and we must invest in people and infrastructure. 

“To facilitate this, we may need to cease activity in a limited number of areas, options we will be exploring in the consultation process over the next few months.” 

Leicester UCU claims the redundancies are due to “possible mismanagement of the university’s finances”. It claims university officials have refused to share financial data with union representatives and accused Prof Canagarajah of having “no plan”.

The latest accounts published by the university show it had to borrow money in the last financial year. Leicester UCU said the university “must have cash reserves of £30m, but by the end of the last accounting period (31 July 2020), these had fallen to £32m”, adding that the university had borrowed money to maintain the universities “precarious” financial position. The branch estimates the university will save £3m through its redundancy plan and fears further redundancies will be required. 

[I]f we are to flourish in our second one hundred years as we did in our first, we need new leadership
– Dr Sarah Seaton, chair of Leicester UCU

Leicester UCU members voted in favour of industrial action (67%), including strike action, in a consultative ballot held earlier this year. Branch officers are confident of similar levels of support in the official ballot that is now underway. The union passed a motion of no confidence in the vice-chancellor and executive board in January.

In a statement, a representative for Leicester University said: “We are disappointed that the Leicester UCU branch is balloting its members to take strike action. Our ambition is to be a world-leading research-intensive university providing an exceptional educational experience for our students.

“We will ensure contingency measures are put in place to mitigate any disruption staff and students may encounter.”

The redundancies could affect academics in the schools of mathematics and actuarial science, business and informatics, and those in the departments of neuroscience, psychology and behaviour and English. The risk of redundancy also applies to staff in the David Wilson Library, the Business Change team, and the Leicester Learning Institute, which provides central support with curriculum and assessment design.

Dr Sarah Seaton, chair of Leicester UCU, said: “Our leaders’ behaviour over the past months and years betrays the poverty of their vision and their abdication of moral responsibility. Our university celebrates its centenary this year. But if we are to flourish in our second one hundred years as we did in our first, we need new leadership.”

Dr Deborah Toner, Leicester UCU campaigns officer, said she had “never seen staff morale so low”.

Dr Jo Grady, UCU general secretary, said: “Current events at University of Leicester are only the most egregious example of what we’re seeing across the sector. Vice-chancellors and other leaders wholly lacking in imagination and basic competence, rabbits caught in the glare of metrics and the rhetoric of competition, beholden to financial markets. We need a new vision for higher education – and Leicester is perhaps one place that will emerge.”

Leicester was one of three universities to access support from the Covid Corporate Financing Facility (CCFF), one of several loan schemes provided to employers by the Treasury last year. Figures from the Bank of England show the university accessed £60m of support from the CCFF.

The decision to “participate [in CCFF] is a precautionary measure”, the university said. The funds accessed will support “capital investment in projects which will significantly improve the student experience, and contribute to the university’s pioneering work in space research,” it added.

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