Queen Mary University of London, a member of the prestigious Russell Group, has been named the “worst university employer in the UK” after it withheld 100% of wages from staff participating in boycott of national labeling in protest against pay and working conditions.
The Universities and Colleges Union (UCU) says more than 100 staff at Queen Mary have been left panicking about how to pay their rent and bills this month after the university deducted the full 21 days’ pay from their pay checks for July because they refused to mark the students’ work in June. The union says many staff have turned up payslips that showed nothing, even though they were still carrying out the “vast majority” of their duties, including teaching and research. In August, the university again threatens 100% deductions for part-time work.
Following national walkouts at the start of the year, 19 universities were affected by the grades boycott at the end of May. Many of them, including Sheffield, Leeds, Nottingham, Brighton, Dundee and Westminster, have joined Queen Mary in threatening to scrap full pay for part-time work. But UCU says no other university has responded to the threats.
Joe Grady, UCU general secretary, said Queen Mary’s senior management had “launched a vindictive attack” on its members, “punishing them for taking part in legitimate industrial action” and “establishing a reputation as the worst university employer in the UK”.
She said: “It’s wrong to do this at any time and it’s all the more sad that staff are struggling to make ends meet in a cost of living crisis.”
The move caused panic among professors at other universities. As Liz Truss and fellow Tory leadership candidate Rishi Sunak vow to crack down on unions, they fear it could set a dangerous precedent for cracking down on mass protests in higher education. GoFundMe page raised almost £60,000 in donations in support of the strikers who lost their pay.
A young researcher at Queen Mary’s film department, who asked not to be named in case of repercussions from the management, said: “When people started getting these deductions from their wages, they were furious. There was a lot of anger and confusion. We love our jobs, but this is a mockery. It’s really frustrating because you’ve worked so hard without even making a grade, and when you open your payslip, you find you’ve inadvertently worked for free.’
Dr Kate Hall, a lecturer in politics and international affairs at Queen Mary, who was paid, said it was “extremely difficult to do without 21 days’ pay”.
She said the prospect of losing 42 days of pay over the summer was “so scary” but insisted the academics would not back down. “This has strengthened our resolve as it is an extraordinary response to the staff’s request for more sustainable working conditions.”
Miri Rubin, professor of history at Queen Mary, tweeted: “This feels like a slap in the face: for three — now unpaid — weeks I managed research, supervised PhD theses, advised students, sat on 2 assignment panels, led a school. viva, assessed and marked all the scripts our finalists needed for graduation.’
Laura Gray Blair, a graduate student who also teaches at the college, said she understands the stress the boycott has caused students in her department. “I tried to make them understand that the situation the employees are in is unbearable. They are mostly taught by people on temporary contracts who don’t know if they will have a job next year.”
Blair said the staff involved in the boycott continued to teach and support students in June despite warnings from the university that they would not be paid. “We did this because we care about our students and many of us could not believe that senior management would take such a harmful action,” she added.
One final year film student, who asked not to be named, said students don’t trust feedback from anonymous replacement markers. “The quality of some of the feedback was terrible. It happens that students pronounce one word,” he said.
Students who knew about staff salaries were “shocked,” he said. “It seems so cruel. How will teachers who cannot afford food and rent give us a world-class education?”
A spokesman for Queen Mary said the impact of the action was “limited”. “The vast majority of our 32,000 students remain unaffected. Out of a workforce of about 5,400, only 108 people were deducted from their wages as a result of part-time work in June.”
He said: “From the outset of the national industrial action, our top priority has been to protect the education of our students. Therefore, we asked employees to prioritize educational activities and de-prioritize other work if necessary.”
The spokesperson added that the university was continuing to negotiate, but that UCU members had “yet to agree to a reasonable agreement”.
Goldsmiths, University named after London on Friday became one of the latest institutions to sign an agreement to end the labeling boycott. But a spokesman said the university “deeply regrets that 119 students did not receive their grades in time for our summer graduation ceremonies”.
He said all affected students would now receive their grades, with final year students and international students given priority and the university arranging later ceremonies as well as welfare support.
Almost 4,000 international scientists signed the petition to reinstate Professor Des Friedman and Dr Golam Hiabani, head and deputy head of Goldsmiths’ renowned media, communication and cultural studies department, who were suspended after writing emails to students telling them they would not be able to graduate.
The university declined to comment on this matter.