Brighton University’s management sink to new lows with union busting of the UCU

Brighton University UCU members at a protest
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This article was updated at 10am on Thursday 12 October to reflect an error. It originally stated that Chelsea Reinschmidt needed a British Sign Language interpreter. They actually needed an American Sign Language interpreter. 

Nationwide, workers across higher education are now divided as to whether to take strike action over pay and working conditions. In September, 42 universities saw staff walk out – but many more decided not to take action. Unfortunately, at the University of Brighton management has decided to escalate their action against University and College Union (UCU) members as the indefinite strike enters its 15th week.

Union busting at Brighton University

On 22 September, an open letter from the Brighton University’s director of people Julie Fryatt stated that the senior management team (SMT) has become increasingly concerned about the behaviour of UCU members during pickets. Fryatt alleged these behaviours included:

blocking of the highway, forcing colleagues and students in their cars to stop until they open their windows to speak to pickets, and banging on cars.

In a follow-up email to staff, professor Andrew Lloyd confirmed that the university sent aletter of claim” to the UCU. It said this was the “first step in seeking an injunction to enforce legal picketing” by no longer allowing staff members to picket on university grounds.

In addition, due to these accusations against UCU members, the SMT is now investigating four of Brighton’s UCU reps (with no specific charges). They could face potential disciplinary action. The group includes the Brighton branch UCU chair Mark Abel. He told Canary:

There is no evidence for these allegations. They are doing this because they do not like the strike. Picking on four UCU picket supervisors and union representatives amounts to trade union victimisation. SMT argue that we have breached ‘reasonable management instruction’ yet fails to recognise that ‘reasonable management instruction’ does not apply to us in a trade union capacity. If they did apply, we would never be able to act against management as we would always be under their control. 

 Regarding the ongoing dispute against the 22 compulsory redundancies, Abel stated:

Read on...

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It is the duty of the employer to reduce the number of compulsory redundancies. What UCU expected to happen is a discussion between the union and management about the redundancies and trying to reduce the number. People have left the university independently (e.g. resignations), and management could have used those savings to mitigate the compulsory redundancies before the deadline at the end of this month.

UCU knows that resignations happened after the selection process, and the SMT are refusing to consider how this shifts the numbers and is thus not complying with a legal requirement on their part. 

These emails attacking the UCU have not gone down well with staff. Some UCU members have been striking for the first time in opposition to this attack. Brighton University’s SMT seems to wish to spend its time and energy teaching UCU a lesson. Yet in the everyday running of the university, students face the brunt of these actions.

Student impact ‘will be minimal’

Chelsea Reinschmidt is a deaf international student. Brighton University recently told them they would have to drop out of their course because it could not provide them with an American Sign Language (ASL) Interpreter.

The university assured Chelsea in the leadup to coming to Brighton that it would not have accepted them onto the course if it could not support them. However, it then backtracked. The university said it would not be able to support Chelsea anymore. It claimed this was due to high costs and changing timetables (meaning interpreters were cancelled). 

Initially, Chelsea agreed to fund ASL interpreters through their student funding. However, the university stated that because there were no alternative avenues to provide funding for an interpreter, unless Chelsea could pay the estimated £100,000 themselves, it would be impossible for them to properly engage with the course and achieve the grades needed for their progression.

Now out of pocket financially due to visas and travel expenses to get to Brighton, and as Chelsea is on a student visa with no course to take, they must return to the US. Heartbroken over their situation, Chelsea told Canary

I came here from New York excited to start my journey in Occupational Therapy (OT). I had lived a lifetime of experience relevant to the course, I was well-positioned to succeed. I was full of hope for my new life and what I could do, particularly in the NHS which is in dire need of specialist OT’s right now. I really believed in the power of OT.

When that opportunity was stolen from me due to albelism and audism, I was crushed.

It’s the university’s responsibility to make the course accessible to its students. It is not my responsibility to figure out how they will accommodate [me]. But at every twist and turn, Brighton University kept putting the burden on me, acting like I was supposed to supply my own interpreters for their course, and they actually thought it was reasonable and equal for me to give them £100,000 for this purpose. I asked every student in my cohort if they had £100,000 to give the university if it meant them being on the course. Every single person said no. 

I am one person; they are an institution. It is very clear that no deaf person is accessing this course now or in the near future for OT, and this is the field that directly serves Deaf and Disabled people. Any way you want to dress it up, it is discrimination, plain and simple. 

While this situation is appalling, it comes as no surprise. In an attempt to run the university on the cheap, cuts to support staff mean there are not enough people to do the job properly. While there has not been a mass cut to support teams like we’ve seen with the academic redundancies, the gradual erosion of these services has still had disastrous effects.

Continued cuts to student support

I work as an Academic Support Worker (ASW) at Brighton University and have experienced first-hand the continued cuts to student support.

I want to make it crystal clear from the outset that I am not criticising the service at Brighton University. My colleagues in the Disabilities and Dyslexia Department are kind and compassionate individuals who work tirelessly to support students. The SMT’s systematic underfunding of our department means that it has become increasingly difficult for us to provide specialist support to our students.

Moreover, like academics who have not had a pay rise in line with inflation in over a decade, ASWs have suffered a substantial pay cut in the last year.

Former ASW Alex Lee told the Canary:

When I started as an ASW in 2022, I was given a handbook that said an ASW doing notetaking was eligible for writing up time. I agreed to take on casual notetaking sessions from September to January, but a week after taking on these sessions, the terms of my work changed.

I was only eligible for writing up time in ambiguous and undefined ‘exceptional circumstances. This amounted to a 33% pay cut, done without consultation of ASWs or students, and no consideration of how this might impact us or the quality of our work.

I was not surprised when they cut my pay as an ASW, but I did feel angry and disgusted about the pattern of callousness towards staff and students. Senior management did not care at all about what support disabled students wanted, didn’t care that ASWs were low paid casual staff often struggling to do PhDs on poverty-level stipends in a cost-of-living crisis.

The whole SMT have shown that they are bureaucratic bean counters that could not care less about education and well-being.  

Moving forward?

It is hard to understand what the long-term plan of Brighton University’s SMT is. In my opinion, I do not think it has one.

Since May, these continued cuts are short-term solutions to an endemic problem within UK higher education. It is understandable to blame management teams like Brighton for not prioritising staff. However, the marketisation of education is the root cause of the problem. The UK government is not putting enough money into the sector, and this marketisation has made university funding too volatile to function properly.

We need proper government funding and not increased student debt. If this does not change soon, more cuts will inevitably come. 

If you have a moment to sign the petition against management’s target of UCU representatives, please follow the link here. There is also a fundraiser to support staff on strike, which can be found here

Featured image via Alexei Fisk

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