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“We’re in this together”: King’s UCU President calls for reforms, unity with students in interview with Roar

Features Editor Ishaan Rahman interviews President of the King’s UCU branch, Dr. Ewan McGaughey, on the need for reform, “systemic dishonesty” amongst management and how the union’s plan of action will impact students

The UK’s largest union for university lecturers and academic staff, the University and College Union (UCU), voted earlier this week in favour of possible industrial action over cuts made to academics’ pension fund.

The KCL branch of the union, which saw one of the highest turnouts for the vote, echoed this call and also voiced serious concern about the university’s gender and ethnicity pay gaps and supported democratising the mostly unelected College Council. The council has come under increased scrutiny recently as its chair, Lord Christopher Geidt, has been accused of having a conflict of interest because the university endowment fund is invested in BAE systems, a defence company that he is an advisor for. The UCU is demanding that Lord Geidt step down.

The UCU maintains that the strikes are not inevitable but King’s principal, Professor Shitij Kapur, sent a university-wide email stating “we will be experiencing industrial action at King’s”. This prompted a rebuke from Dr. McGaughey, a Law lecturer and President of the King’s UCU branch, who said “[students] have not been getting the real story”.

Roar sat down to talk with Dr. McGaughey about the UCU’s demands, negotiating with the college and the potential impact this could have on students.

What are the key issues behind the strike?

“There’s [issues] that have to be solved nationally, and then there’s things that can be solved by the university. So, we’ve had 16% pay cuts in real terms since 2008; that’s negotiated nationally, and also the total of 25% pension cuts, that’s also a national issue. So what King’s can do is it can use its voice within the national organisations, Universities UK, the UCEA and its influence in the Universities Superannuation Scheme to stop the cuts.

“But then there’s things on the ballot, which King’s can change right now. So the London weighting has gone down by around 32% since 1992. So, you know, that’s the extra money that people in London get to reflect that fact that London [has a higher cost of living]. That’s something that Kings could change right now. King’s can also address the gender and ethnicity pay gaps. So the national average gender pay gap is 16% or 17%, same for the ethnicity pay gap but Kings faculties are far worse. And, and that’s something that we could have concrete action upon right now”

“We could also have concrete action from Kings on job insecurity. So, we’ve seen people being fired for asking for maternity leave…they’ve told people that they’re redundant when they come back from maternity leave, it’s absolutely shocking”

McGaughey went on to explain that there have two cases of female employees on fixed term contracts who applied for maternity leave and subsequently been terminated. He said “the practice of human resources at Kings has been, it seems, to tell people that, if they apply for maternity leave, that they will be redundant when they [return]…it’s absolutely appalling and completely unlawful”. In particular, McGaughey said “King’s is in systemic violation of the Equality Act on a whole range of things and what it tries to do is bury the truth by forcing people into non-disclosure agreements”. There had also been issues with lecturers receiving their pay months after it was due.

Has there been any willingness from the university to come to the table and negotiate your demands since the vote for industrial action? 

No. So, I wrote to Professor Kapur I think on Monday saying we need to talk and I also asked him to retract the statement saying ‘we will be experiencing industrial action’. I mean, it’s absolutely remarkable that effectively management is calling a strike, right. Maybe they’re saying it’s going to happen. But the point of [the vote] was to ensure that the union is in a strong position to negotiate”

McGaughey also emphasised that he had long been trying to meet with Professor Kapur to discuss pay, pensions and other issues. Aside from a brief meeting at the beginning of the year, he said that there has been a “total lack of engagement on fundamental issues, including, and particularly the pension pay cuts but also over systemic race and sex discrimination”. It is this sort of inaction that has pushed the UCU to call for strikes nationally.

What is the plan of action if the college continues to not come to the table and negotiate your demands? 

“So, on Friday, there is a national conference which determines what the union’s policy will be on strike action. There are several motions on the table but to summarise very reductively: one option is to have one day of strike action this year as a prelude to more next year. The other option being proposed is five days of strike action consecutively before the end of term. So it’s either one day or five days of strike action before the new year…as a prelude to a more sustained action then.”

The union’s exact action plan will be determined after several universities, who did not meet the minimum turnout threshold at last week’s ballot, hold a second vote. In response to criticism over their striking strategy from university management, McGaughey begged a simple question: “would you turn up to work if you weren’t being paid?”.

The UCU ballot did also include a question on holding a marking boycott, where academics would abstain from grading papers and exams. This type of action could possibly send a message to the faculty without majorly disrupting student teaching. The provision got even broader support than strike action. However, McGaughey said that it is up to the conference to decide what course of action to take.

Universities UK, who represent vice-chancellors, have argued that the pension cuts are necessary to compensate for a £15 billion funding shortage. What is your response to this? 

“When they say that there’s a pension black hole, what they’re doing is predicting that there will be a funding deficit in the future. So there’s no cash flow problems with the pension fund at the moment; they have more income coming in than outgoing. So this is all based on a prediction of future deficits. The way that they did this is through a valuation in March 2020, when there was a stock market crash because of Covid-19…They make assumptions about how the pension fund would grow in the future. They assumed that it would grow 0% above inflation in the future for 30 years…their assumptions are completely evidence free…Universities UK is simply not telling the truth when they say there’s a pension funding black hole”

Therefore, McGaughey clarified that the UCU’s demands can be met by universities alone, without reaching out to the government for more funding. Official monitoring reports show that the lecturer’s pension fund has grown by over £26 billion in three years rather than a net-loss as predicted by Universities UK.

“What the employers and the directors of [Universities UK] are trying to do is manufacturer a crisis in order to drive through cuts. It’s difficult to say whether individuals are being actively dishonest but let’s say it’s systemic dishonesty is what’s driving this crisis. It’s simply not true that there is a deficit in the pension fund, and it’s certainly not true that there needs to be cuts. On the contrary, there’s a surplus

The KCLSU recently voted against supporting the UCU’s strikes. How do you hope to win over students? How can you justify more disrupted teaching after the Coronavirus pandemic?

“The way that we get students on our side is by telling the truth about what’s happening. Students and staff have the same interests. We all want to do our job: devote our time to the thing that we love, which is the pursuit of knowledge and teaching. While students have had escalating tuition fees going up and up and up, especially for international students, that money has not gone into your education. It’s been going into gold-plated pay packages for an inflating body of senior management. So the Principal last year was paid £463,000. And that’s while everybody else’s pay has been cut and while class sizes are inflating. So the student experience is not being served well by the current system of university management

“I think that the more students understand what’s really been happening, the more they will support our position. The National Union of Students [NUS], which is independently funded and run by students, gave their full backing to the UCU’s action and we’ve had loads of societies and students come out in support. Of course, strike action is not what anybody wants. So, you know, the very simple message that we’ve got to give is that strike action can be stopped when management starts paying people. So it’s management that’s forcing strike action because they’re not paying people fairly.”

Students can support the UCU’s actions by voicing their concerns to KCL President Shitij Kapur, signing a petition to save lecturer’s pensions here, and learning more about democratising KCL here.

Dr. McGaughey’s explanation of the UCU’s demands can be seen here. 

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