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School of Business staff dig deep for casualised colleagues

Published: 15th June, 2020

In May, the UCU members in the School of Business (ULSB) launched a crowdfunding campaign for some of our PhD students.

“Thank you for the initiative, it means the world 🙂” – PhD student 1

ULSB educates approximately 4,000 students. Of those, several hundred are pursuing a Masters’ degree, almost all of them from overseas. The School generates a substantial income for the University.

Those 4,000 students cannot be taught properly without the help of our PhD students. With Graduate Teaching Assistants (GTAs) being discontinued, and with a shortfall of at least 15 full-time members of faculty, PhD students – as well as others employed through Unitemps – play a vital role in the functioning of ULSB. Each year, they lead hundreds of seminars and mark thousands of exams and assignments. There is no question that the work they do is business critical, particularly in the current climate when the University’s leadership is telling staff to put ever increasing time and effort into student-facing activities.

In early April, University’s senior managers abruptly terminated almost all Unitemps contracts in the University, including those for nine PhD students in ULSB. This put our colleagues into immediate financial hardship. We – Leicester UCU – did everything possible to have those contracts reinstated, negotiating with the University’s executive board as well as the School’s management. We pointed out that, this financial year, ULSB returned £400,000 in unspent non-pay budget to the centre. (This is money we were permitted to spend to support research – conference attendance, for instance – but have now returned due to the current financial situation.) We also pointed out that the money needed to prevent hardship for ULSB students on Unitemps contracts was merely £5,800. We even suggested that we use individuals’ and the School’s departmental discretionary funds (DDFs) to cover the cost of reinstating those Unitemps contracts.

The leadership of the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Science (CoAHSS) – presumably enforcing University Executive Board diktat – rejected all our arguments and offers. The last word from the Head of College was that the contract termination was a ‘done deal’ – and that no further negotiation was possible. Progress we made in discussions with the University’s deputy vice-chancellor and its executive board regarding our precariously-employed colleagues was abandoned with disturbing alacrity. We suspect this was never about the money, but about a point of principle – to not bow to any suggestions coming from the University and College Union (UCU). Unfortunately, this power play was done on the backs of our most vulnerable colleagues. It does not bode well for our future position in our University and it poisons our relations with the University’s management. Bad faith, rather than collaboration, is what we have to read into this.

We consider it morally indefensible that actions of the University senior management have plunged the most vulnerable of our colleagues into financial hardship – while they themselves continue to sit on combined salaries of more than a million pounds.

With the leadership essentially washing their hands of the problem, we took the matters into our own hands. We crowd-funded amongst other colleagues to raise the £5,800 lost by our PhD students. (The fact that this amount was so little despite nearly 350 hours of work having been cancelled demonstrates the scandalously low value put on the vital contribution of casualised teachers.)

“I cannot express how much this means to me. To think that others who are also going through this uncertainty (and unfair demands from management- it was unacceptable to shift all that grading on to an already overwhelmed staff) are thinking about us PhD students has been comforting to me.” – PhD student 2

Our fundraiser got off to a flying start, with over £1000 donated within the first 24 hours. Donations dried up after a couple of weeks, however, and we closed the campaign when we had raised £3,675 – just under two-thirds of our target. We regret, of course, that we were not able to raise the full amount.

We distributed these funds to those who had lost work in proportion to the amount of work they’d lost. Amounts disbursed ranged from £123 to £978.

“Thank you very much for your help and support. Please extend my thanks and regards to everyone involved in this wonderful initiative.” – PhD student 3

We are gratified by the response from those we’ve been able to support. They have told us that the crowdfunding campaign meant the world to them. They also said that reading donors’ messages of solidarity gave them an emotional uplift when they were feeling utterly betrayed by the University. Everyone who donated gave those students more than just financial support: they have also provided an emotional boost, letting them know there are people out there who care, who are doing their best to reverse an injustice.

“I got my contract scrapped out of the blue. I was in extenuating financial hardships, and extremely devastated having seen this typical market approach from my university. I felt I was left alone. I am deeply thankful to you for this generous effort. Thank you so much. ” – PhD student 4