UK’s ‘home of trade union education’ faces union boycott

Ruskin College denies allegations of ‘victimisation’ of UCU members

July 17, 2019

A college with a proud trade union history could be facing a union boycott amid claims University College Union members are being “victimised”.

Ruskin College Oxford, an adult learning institution offering higher and further education courses founded in 1899, calls itself the “home of trade union education for more than 100 years”.

Former Labour prime minister Clement Attlee taught at Ruskin, while former Labour deputy prime minister John Prescott and long-serving Labour MP Dennis Skinner are among its former students.

But now, following the dismissal of a UCU branch officer, ten trade union leaders – including those from the National Education Union, Public and Commercial Services union and National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, as well as UCU – are calling on Ruskin to withdraw redundancy threats and drop disciplinary action against staff, or face a boycott.

The UCU said that tutor Lee Humber was sacked on 12 July and that four other tutors, who are also representatives of the union, are facing redundancy at the end of the month, including two who are also under disciplinary investigation.

Dr Humber had been suspended for “spurious reasons” soon after Ruskin’s UCU branch passed a motion of no confidence in the principal, Paul Di Felice, said the union.

The no confidence vote in April cited concerns including the exit of 83 members of staff over the past three years “as a result of [a] climate of stress, uncertainty and negligence”.

“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,” said Paul Cottrell, UCU acting general secretary.

The redundancies would result in five out of 12 permanent higher education posts at the college being lost and would “essentially kill off trade union higher education courses at the college as it lurches from educating and nurturing trade unionists to sacking them”, added Mr Cottrell.

The UCU is set to meet with the college and is warning that unless management change their position they will consider “calling for a boycott by trade unions of the college”. 

A letter, signed by the 10 union leaders, said that the course of action being taken by Ruskin “risks undermining the founding principles of the institution”. 

“There can never be an excuse to victimise or harass trade union reps,” it adds.

A UCU representative at Ruskin, who spoke to Times Higher Education, said the college is in a “state of decline” and the “jury is out as to whether Ruskin can survive this”.

A spokeswoman for Ruskin said it “absolutely refutes all allegations of victimisation of union reps”.

Ongoing disciplinary investigations are “entirely separate” from any trade union activity undertaken by those involved, she added.

The proposed redundancies announced earlier this month “affect those teaching on courses with significant under-recruitment and poor student retention”, she continued.

“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,” added the spokeswoman.

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