Failed talks over job cuts left strike action looming at the University of Leeds, prompting the vice-chancellor to warn that it must not become “a battleground for the future of higher education in the UK”.
The collapse in negotiations held through the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service came less than 24 hours after University and College Union members at Leeds voted to support industrial action if talks failed.
Leeds is planning to make £35 million of annual savings, which the UCU said will lead to 700 job losses.
A UCU spokesman said the union was “shocked at the attitude adopted by the university” and its “refusal to rule out compulsory redundancies”. It referred to “provocation from the management side”.
Michael Arthur, the Leeds vice-chancellor, said in an open letter to staff following the breakdown in talks: “We do not… believe that the interests of our university are best served by making Leeds the battleground for the future of higher education in the UK. The UCU’s repeated and unrealistic demands for absolute guarantees about compulsory redundancies spread fear, lower morale and undermine collegiality. The threat of industrial action to pursue this impossible demand is totally misguided.”
A strike over cuts would throw the spotlight on to Professor Arthur, who used his role as head of the Russell Group of large research-intensive universities to urge the Government not to be hasty with its own cuts.
The immediate sticking point of the talks concerned redundancies in the faculty of biological sciences, where a review is taking place separately from the university-wide economies exercise. All academic staff at the faculty have been told they must reapply for their jobs.
Malcolm Povey, Leeds UCU president, said: “I thought we were talking about biological sciences, about a review that began last year. It affects just over 20 staff, which in a university the size of Leeds is trivial. They have broken [the talks] up over that. They have said there must be compulsory redundancies.”
The UCU spokesman said the union “would continue to try to seek a negotiated solution”.
An emergency general meeting will be held by Leeds UCU on Wednesday, when next steps, including industrial action, will be discussed.
In his letter, Professor Arthur said: “There appears to be no further scope for discussions through Acas following the UCU’s demand for a guarantee that there would be no compulsory redundancies, ever, in the faculty of biological sciences. While we have been prepared to repeat our undertaking to do everything we can to avoid compulsory redundancies in [the faculty] and across the university, no responsible employer could give an undertaking of this kind, in particular at a time of massive public expenditure cuts and in a recession. We remain open to talking with UCU, with or without Acas, about everything else.”
Looking at the university-wide cuts, Professor Arthur said compulsory redundancies “are a very last resort, and they are certainly not an imminent threat. To be absolutely clear – we will make compulsory redundancies only if we are forced to do so by confirmed government cuts and where there are no other options; we will not make compulsory redundancies on the basis of current assumptions about future income and costs.”