An essential equation: saving jobs is a question of fractions for UCU at Sussex

University noncommittal on 'fractional scheme' to stave off redundancies. John Morgan writes

March 11, 2010

Academics at the University of Sussex have proposed cutting their hours and pay to stave off redundancies, but claimed management had sidestepped their "transformative approach" to local and national funding problems.

It was announced last week that members of the University and College Union at Sussex had voted to strike over the university's plans for 115 redundancies, which would result in a 9 per cent cut to the institution's teaching staff.

The vote is part of a wave of unrest driven by universities' redundancy plans, which has led to clashes between student protesters and police (see box below).

UCU members at the University of Leeds have also voted for strike action, while ballots are planned or under way at King's College London, University College London, the University of Kent and the University of Westminster.

However, Sussex UCU said its "voluntary fractional scheme" could offer a national blueprint for delivering savings while avoiding redundancies.

It proposes, for example, that 40 members of staff targeted for redundancy could instead voluntarily switch to 0.5 full-time equivalent (FTE) hours and pay, and another 100 staff from all areas could switch to 0.8 FTE.

The Sussex UCU executive says in a paper: "We believe that this is a genuinely transformative approach to the current local and national crisis in higher education funding; and that the use of these alternatives to redundancy would make Sussex a much more attractive place for staff and students."

Times Higher Education reported last week that managers at the University of Sheffield were considering options such as a four-and-a-half-day week to reduce staff costs.

The Sussex UCU paper says that, in addition to fractional working, 20 jobs could be saved by redeploying existing staff to new posts proposed in the restructuring, and three could be secured by a "targeted gift-aid" project raising £100,000.

That would bring down the number of jobs lost to 52.

The university's "costs of change" budget would not be spread so thinly, making an early retirement and voluntary severance scheme for those 52 workers "viable and attractive", the UCU argues.

The fractional scheme would not affect final-salary pension calculations and would need to include the opportunity to "regrow" jobs, the UCU adds.

Engagement issues

Paul Cecil, president of Sussex UCU, said the university's management "has been talking around the edges" of the proposals, but "has not engaged meaningfully" with them.

However, a Sussex spokesman said that some aspects of the proposals "were neither feasible nor strategic".

He added that the institution would not offer fractional working across campus to save posts in targeted areas.

"However, the university has said that a reduction in hours may be possible in some areas where there are proposed redundancies," he said.

"Sussex has set out parameters within which it could see a scheme working and will be meeting shortly with the UCU to discuss the issues in more detail."

Sussex has also come under fire for temporarily expanding its communications department to handle the publicity surrounding the redundancies.

A Sussex spokeswoman said the additional spend was equivalent to the cost of one half-time communications officer and had been requested by the governing body.

Mr Cecil said the move was "offensive" to staff facing redundancy.

At Westminster, the UCU is expected to ballot for industrial action over proposals to cut 285 jobs.

At UCL, UCU members plan to open a ballot on 22 March, in response to the institution's plans for compulsory redundancies among academics in its faculty of life sciences.


Riot police were called to the University of Sussex when students occupied the vice-chancellor's office, amid national unrest over higher education cuts.

The protest last week saw about 50 students occupy Sussex House, where vice-chancellor Michael Farthing and other senior managers are based.

Postings on a website, Stop the Cuts - Defend Sussex, said students had "barricaded themselves inside the management offices" in protest against plans to cut 115 jobs.

The vice-chancellor was not in the building at the time.

Sussex Police said that they were called by staff "who felt unable to leave the Sussex House building after it was occupied".

They added that they had stopped "a further 100 protesters from entering".

Two people were arrested in the incident.

Footage posted on the YouTube website showed one protester being hauled from the crowd by a police officer in riot gear, then wrestled to the ground.

A meeting of Sussex's senate, scheduled for 5 March, was postponed until 17 March after the protests.

In an email to staff, Professor Farthing says: "As well as work being stopped yesterday, we are now having to take time to assess the damage caused ... and to deal with the consequences of the disruption."

He added that more time was also needed to allow counter-proposals to the redundancy plans to be tabled, and for the senate working group to examine the options.

Sussex Police said that they had received no formal complaints about the policing of the demonstration, but "will be reviewing both the footage recorded by members of the public and that of the police evidence-gathering teams".

On 1 March, University of Westminster students occupied the office of its vice-chancellor, Geoffrey Petts, in protest against plans to cut 285 jobs.

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