Socialist Worker

Big support for walkout that takes on bosses at Soas university

Soas management have launched a vicious attack on some of the lowest-paid academic staff—but it has been met by resistance, reports Sadie Robinson

Issue No. 2689

Workers and students held an unofficial walkout and rally last Thursday

Workers and students held an unofficial walkout and rally last Thursday (Pic: Guy Smallman)

An inspiring struggle at a central London university is taking on bosses’ attacks on jobs and conditions—and challenging their neoliberal vision of education.

Management at Soas University of London launched an attack on workers earlier this month.

By cancelling research leave for permanent staff, they are pushing them to take on more of the teaching in the university.

This leaves less teaching work for fractionals—staff employed on a fraction of a full time contract and on worse conditions.

The attack sparked an unofficial walkout by some UCU and Unison union members at Soas on Thursday of last week.

A noisy and upbeat student and staff rally showed the mood to take the bosses on.

Student Yasmeen said, “There’s a lot of misinformation going around. People are saying, they’re not going to fire the fractionals.

“Well you’re going to end their contracts—is that not firing? Does that not mean they’ll be out of a job?

“The people affected by this are women, people of colour, the most marginalised and the most vulnerable.”

Mia from the Fractionals for Fair Pay group told the crowd that workers on casual contracts “are often working at several universities at once with no security”.

“They work many more hours than they are paid for,” she explained.

“Many have been kept on these contracts for several years, doing the work of permanent staff but on much worse terms and conditions. They are eking out a precarious existence at the heart of our universities.”

Workers who walked out said the attack was just the latest bad decision by management.

“The people affected by this are women, people of colour, the most marginalised and the most vulnerable.”

The anger has been brewing for years.

One UCU striker told Socialist Worker, “I’m a permanent member of staff but I’m walking out in solidarity with fractional staff.

“This is also about the general current situation and conditions at Soas.

“I’ve worked here for about 20 years and I’ve seen how management decisions have accumulated to create financial problems. I think we can absolutely stop this attack.”

Johnny Darlington, UCU branch secretary, told Socialist Worker, “Management has led to financial difficulties at Soas. They’re prepared to spend thousands and thousands of pounds on buildings.

“But when it comes to supporting staff, management has completely failed.”

And Soas Unison branch secretary Sandy said he was “glad to be part of such a magnificent walkout”.“Staff and students have united against this catastrophic management decision,” he told Socialist Worker.

“It targets vulnerable workers on casual contracts, and these are more likely to be female and from black and minority ethnic backgrounds.

“The scale of the response shows that we can beat them. We have to beat them, because this is about what kind of education we want to have,” he said.


University director has plenty of cash for herself

Soas bosses blamed a “challenging financial environment” for the attack on workers’ conditions.

Soas had a £1.2 million deficit in 2017/18, £4.1 million below the surplus of £2.9 million it reported in 2016/17.

It hasn’t yet published accounts for 2019/20.

But last summer, it said its “finances are healthy” and now has a projected surplus of 3 percent in 2022/23.

In general universities’ income is going up. Figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency published in 2018 showed a 2.7 percent rise in income, or £915 million, between 2015/16 and 2016/17. Universities’ income stood at £35.7 billion. They made a surplus of £2.3 billion over the same period, and had total reserves of £44.27 billion, up from £12.33 billion in 2009/10.

The figures also showed that universities were spending more on buildings but less on staff.

In seven years, the percentage of expenditure on staff had dropped by 3.35 percent, but the percentage spent on capital expenditure had soared by 34.9 percent.

Soas director, Baroness Valerie Amos, grabbed a basic salary of £234,099 in 2017/18.

She was also provided with accommodation at a rental value of £54,080. When pension costs were taken into account too, her total renumeration was £321,620.

UCU rep at City and Islington College Sean Vernell told a Soas rally last week that the money’s there for education staff.

“Inside these institutions, don’t fall for the lie there’s no money, because there is,” he said.


‘Second class academics’

A report released earlier this month said university workers on casual contracts are “second-class academics”.

The UCU-commissioned report said casualised labour is “dehumanising” and makes workers invisible.

Higher Education Statistics Agency figures show that 67 percent of university researchers and 49 percent of teaching-only staff are on fixed term contracts


Student and staff solidarity

Students and workers at Soas held a “general assembly” following last week’s walkout and rally.

They drew up more demands and planned the next steps.

For more information go to Fractionals For Fair Play on Facebook.


Wave of strikes could return

Strikes could soon hit universities across Britain over pensions, pay, contracts and conditions.

Union members across 60 universities held an eight-day strike in November and December last year.

Workers at 37 universities are reballoting and the union could name new dates.

 

 


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