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UCU: cutting staff due to coronavirus would be viewed as ‘unfair dismissal’

The Manchester branch of the University and College Union (UMUCU) has warned UoM that if it fails to renew the contracts of fixed-term staff due to coronavirus, it will view this as unfair dismissal. 

The union expressed concern over the future of some staff members after UoM announced voluntary staff cost-saving measures in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak. 

UMUCU has told The Mancunion that the University’s cost-saving drive – which includes voluntary severance packages, unpaid career breaks and reduced working hours – has left some staff worried that their fixed-term contracts are unlikely to be renewed. 

A union spokesperson said: “Staff [on fixed-term contracts] in SALC (School of Arts Languages and Cultures) have been told their contracts are definitely not being renewed. Others have been told [it’s] highly likely they won’t be. And [some] haven’t been told anything.” 

The spokesperson said that should staff on fixed-term contracts be let go, the union would view this as unfair dismissal. 

“[Staff] are being told that this is due to the crisis and would ordinarily have expected their contracts to be renewed. 

“Therefore, they are being dismissed by reason of redundancy and should be entitled to a fair redundancy process which hasn’t happened. 

“We will fight this with everything we can. If they get away with it, it won’t just be SALC it happens in – all jobs should be protected in this crisis. Fixed-term staff are not disposable.” 

The University said it “must prepare and plan for all possible eventualities” in the wake of the outbreak. 

Branches of the UCU across the country have voiced concerns over the future of casualised university staff following major financial losses at UK universities during the lockdown.

The fears over staff on fixed-term contracts have been echoed by students. Helen Stott, a first-year English Literature student, said: “One of the main reasons behind the strikes was the high proportion of fixed-term contracts and the University’s over-reliance on precarious labour at the expense of the security and mental health of academic workers. 

“We can now see why those disputes over job security took place – because in a time of humanitarian crisis those workers are treated as entirely disposable.”

Student societies have also begun speaking out, with the Humanitarian Conflict Response Institute (HCRI) society publishing an open letter criticising the University. 

The letter reads: “We wish to express our solidarity with Professional support staff, teaching staff and GTAs facing the prospect of unemployment. 

“If the plan to not renew fixed-term contracts and to cut the [graduate teaching assistant] budget goes ahead, we do not see how HCRI can continue to deliver the great quality teaching and support it prides itself on.” 

According to UCU data, approximately 45% of the teaching staff at the University of Manchester are on fixed-term contracts. This could mean that cuts have a significant impact on the student learning experience. 

Last week The Mancunion reported that that the University is planning to scale up class sizes for the 2020/21 academic year, with staff members saying that the measures could result in tutorial classes being increased by up to a quarter. 

When asked if cuts to fixed-term staff could lead to suspended modules and larger workloads for remaining staff, a University of Manchester spokesperson said: “The University understands these are challenging times for everyone, especially our staff and students.

“Staff on fixed-term contracts (FTCs) are of great importance to our University and make a very valuable contribution to our teaching, research, social responsibility and professional services.

“We recognise their inevitable concerns about their future careers, especially under the challenging current circumstances. That is why we are working closely with our university colleagues, and in consultation with the trade unions on this issue.

“Given the potential impact of COVID-19 on University finances for us and across the sector, we must prepare and plan for all possible eventualities. However, in all our decisions we will be seeking to protect and indeed enhance the student experience here at Manchester. 

“With regard to class sizes, no changes have been agreed or announced.”

Tags: causalisation, coronavirus, covid-19, fixed term staff, Manchester UCU, ucu, University of Manchester, uom

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