Birmingham says picket lines on campus are ‘trespassing’

UCU says some universities are using ‘highly questionable tactics’ as strikes are set to enter their second week

November 29, 2019
University of Birmingham
Source: iStock

The University of Birmingham has sent an email to staff warning that picket lines on campus are “trespassing”, staff at the institution have said.

In a briefing email on 22 November, Tim Jones, vice-principal of Birmingham, said that the university is private land and that picketing on the university campus would constitute trespass, according to a petition calling for university management to reverse their decision.

Members of the University and College Union are in the middle of eight days of strike action as part of disputes over pay and pensions.

The petition, which had more than 1,000 signatories at the time of writing, also asked university management to “provide appropriate and legally adequate evidence-based justification for the approach taken, and to engage with the local branch of UCU in anticipation of on-campus activities”.

In a letter to Professor Jones, legal experts from other UK universities said they were “deeply concerned” by the news. According to the letter, a university campus “is best understood as privately owned public land” and therefore “we cannot see how a total prohibition on picketing and rallies on campus is a proportionate limitation of European Convention on Human Rights rights”.

“Picket lines and rallies at the University of Birmingham, as our colleagues there have confirmed to us, have been good natured, passionate, respectful and extremely well attended,” they add. 

A spokesman for the University of Birmingham said: “We have worked with UCU’s designated picket supervisor during the current industrial action and pickets have been held every day at the locations agreed with UCU, which are at all of the main entrances to campus”.

“There is a long tradition of pickets being held safely and peacefully at these locations by a number of unions. This is what they have proposed to do in line with the government’s Code of Practice on Picketing. This approach to the location of pickets being outside of premises is common across HE and other sectors,” he said.

“Our focus remains on ensuring the safety of all our staff irrespective of whether they are striking, as well as that of students and visitors.”

Earlier in the week, management at Sheffield Hallam University also came under fire for their handling of the industrial action.

The university was accused of “trying to turn students into snitches” after it posted a form on its website where students could enter the details of lectures missed because of the action.

UCU general secretary Jo Grady said universities had “tried a number of highly questionable tactics to try and disrupt strikers’ activities and intimidate students”.

“Those that do these sorts of things send a worrying message to staff and students that they have little desire to actually engage with the issues at the heart of the dispute, or avoid disruption to students,” she said. “Instead of threatening staff and students, these universities would be much better off putting their efforts into trying to resolve the disputes.”

UCU has said that further walkouts are likely to happen in the new year, as negotiations have yet to find a solution to the dispute. The union also announced that it would re-ballot 13 universities who failed to make the turnout threshold in the previous round.

anna.mckie@timeshighereducation.com

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