UK’s ‘Home of Trade Union Education’ Under Fire from UCU for Union Busting

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Ruskin College Oxford is facing claims of victimising unionised members of staff, who are threatening to boycott.

Ten trade union leaders, including the University and College Union (UCU) are demanding that Ruskin College withdraw redundancy threats and drop disciplinary action against staff, following the dismissal of a UCU branch officer. Dr Lee Humber was initially suspended by the college in April. Four other tutors and UCU representatives are facing redundancy at the end of the month, including two who are under disciplinary investigation. The UCU are threatening to boycott if the college does not respond to allegations of victimisation.

The independent college has a proud heritage of activism and trade unionism. Since 1899, key Labour Party figures have studied or taught there, including Clement Attlee, former Labour Prime Minister, who taught at the college, and former students include John Prescott, Deputy Prime Minister under Tony Blair and Dennis Skinner, the longest-serving Labour MP elected since 1970.

The dispute begun after Dr Humber’s initial suspension for “spurious reasons”, which came shortly after Ruskins College’s UCU Branch held a vote of no confidence in the Principle, Paul Di Felice. The motion of no confidence passed ‘overwhelmingly’ due to concerns about the mis-management and quality of student experience as well as the loss of 83 members of staff over the past three years, which is “a result of [a]climate of stress, uncertainty and negligence”.

In a facebook post, Ruskin College UCU said:

Given the attempt to discredit us by the management we believe our concerns about the mis-management of the college should be shared publicly. It was very soon after this document was circulated to the college’s Governing Executive that Lee was suspended – we believe that the timing is no coincidence.

Paul Cottrell, UCU acting general secretary, made the following statement:

Ruskin College’s response to challenging financial problems and a lack of confidence from the staff should be to address the issues head on, not shoot the messengers. Staff and students have made it clear they have no faith in the direction the management is heading.

Ruskin College makes much of its links to the wider union movement and origins as a workers’ college, which makes the sacking of union reps all the more offensive,

The college has to step back from these attacks on our members otherwise we will have to step up efforts to resolve this mess and that may well include strike action. Ruskin College boasts of its working class, trade union and social justice history, but in reality our reps are being harassed and victimised.

He also added that risk of the five staff being made redundant would diminish the number of higher education posts from 12 to a mere eight if the college moves one onto a fixed term contract and axes and terminates the other four as allegedly planned and that such a move would “essentially kill off trade union higher education courses at the college as it lurches from educating and nurturing trade unionists to sacking them”.

A spokeswoman for Ruskin said it “absolutely refutes all allegations of victimisation of union reps”. The statement says that the college “would like to reiterate that the ongoing disciplinary investigations are entirely separate from any trade union activity undertaken by those involved”.

The proposed redundancies announced earlier this month affect those teaching on courses with significant under-recruitment and poor student retention.  The delivery of high quality degree and MA programmes remains a priority for the College but it is neither financially viable nor in students’ best interests to run courses with only a handful of students. We will continue to develop our HE curriculum and deliver courses which are valued by our students and have a demonstrably transformative effect on their lives and futures.

The UCU and Ruskins College are due to meet, although the UCU says that it will consider “calling for a boycott by trade unions of the college unless management reconsider their position.

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Natural Sciences student and News & Investigations Editor 2019-20.

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