Students’ union troubles highlight HE furlough scheme problems

Many universities are taking advantage of the government programme to support employees, but others are in disagreement with staff about how to use it

June 1, 2020
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Troubles with furloughing at two students’ unions, along with fixed-term contract issues at two other institutions, have highlighted problems surrounding how universities are using the government’s furlough scheme.

At Queen Mary University London (QMUL), the students’ union (SU) has called on the university, which has responsibility for the SU payroll, to allow its staff to access the scheme, but the request has been refused.

The staff, made up of QMUL students, have received little pay since the coronavirus lockdown began because their wages come from sales at campus bars, cafes and other services that are now closed. Following a union campaign, the university said in May that it would instead underwrite 80 per cent of forecast costs to run the students’ union services. However the students’ union argued that this would leave it with 36 per cent less money than it would normally get, pushing many students who rely on the wages into financial hardship.

The university said it “cannot in good conscience” support the claim because students’ union staff would receive more money from the furlough scheme than it has forecast they should receive. The union, however, says government guidance states that workers on zero-hour contracts should be paid 80 per cent of their average monthly wage and not 80 per cent of their forecast wage.

Unlike many other institutions, such as King’s College London, the University of Manchester and the University of Edinburgh, QMUL has not furloughed any of its own staff.

The University of Sheffield is also facing a battle over staff furloughing at its students’ union. About 500 workers, mostly students, employed by Sheffield’s students’ union, as well as 200 employees of the university’s arm’s length company Unicus, have been furloughed, but the 80 per cent cap has left them receiving less than the minimum wage.

The Unite union said the majority of affected staff have said they would struggle to pay for housing costs and called on the university to top up the wages to 100 per cent, which has been refused.

Unite regional representative Harriet Eisner said she found it “incredible” that the institution was “washing [its] hands” of young people who have paid tuition fees to the university and work there in order to pay for their food and accommodation.

A Sheffield spokeswoman said the university has already seen a loss of revenue from the coronavirus crisis and was predicting a difficult financial situation for the next year. Although the institution has topped up the pay of its own furloughed employees, it could not do the same for those working for the students’ union and Unicus, because they are separate employers, she said.

Academics at other institutions told Times Higher Education that there has also been confusion over how to implement the scheme, and some were still unsure about who was eligible to use it because universities technically receive public sector funding, which is ineligible for furloughing.

The government has said that higher education providers can access the scheme to help safeguard staff jobs, including those tied to short-term or hourly paid contracts.

It can be used if “the employee would otherwise be made redundant or laid off” and if the furloughing grant would “not be duplicative to other public grants that the HE provider receives and would not lead to financial reserves being created”.

At Goldsmiths, University of London, casualised staff, including associate lecturers, have been told that many contracts will be allowed to run out before being reassessed in October.

The local University and College Union branch has called for fixed-term contracts to be extended for six months. If those on such contracts cannot do their work or if the funds are not there, such staff should be furloughed, the union said. However, the institution has said it is “not appropriate to extend the contracts of associate lecturers with the purpose of furloughing them”.

The situation has left many “in the dark about their future and facing redundancy at this critical time”, the union’s associate lecture rep told THE.

A spokesperson for Goldsmiths said the institution “remains committed to paying all fixed-term employees, including associate lecturers, for the duration of their contracts and for any agreed additional work undertaken as a result of Covid-19”.

At the University of Liverpool, the UCU is asking for the 536 fixed-term contracts scheduled to run out before 31 July to be extended for six months. These staff are “incredibly anxious” about their future, the union said.

A university spokeswoman said Liverpool had “been working hard to support its staff throughout the pandemic” and would extend contracts that require work to be undertaken and have funding to support them, furloughing others “where this is appropriate”.

“However, the university is not able to artificially extend fixed-term contracts where there is no ongoing requirement for work beyond their defined end dates by drawing on the scheme,” she said.

UCU general secretary Jo Grady said the union shared “concerns about universities not protecting staff on insecure contracts, as well as students they employ. We need a stronger steer from government so no employer can escape from fulfilling their duty to use every option available to keep staff on their books.”

Roger Seifert, emeritus professor of human resource management and industrial relations at the University of Wolverhampton Business School, said “the problem has always been that the university sector did not start this crisis in a good state – too many staff were on insecure contracts”.

The furlough scheme “provides no guarantees of job retention and contains no promises of continued employment. On the contrary, universities are already lining up redundancy measures to reduce staff in line with reduced student numbers. This will mean work intensification for those who remain. It is hard to see any pay rises, any settlement of the pension issue and any reduction in precarious working practices…In most cases, all the options look bad for staff,” he said.

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