UCU backs down to avoid libel case

Union withdraws INTO criticism, saying it lacks funds for costly legal dispute. Melanie Newman reports

October 16, 2008

The University and College Union (UCU) has retracted a briefing paper that heavily criticised INTO University Partnerships after the private education company threatened to sue the trade union for libel.

INTO, which prepares international students for UK higher education under commercial partnerships with universities, threatened the UCU with legal action in July over its "Into the Unknown" briefing, which alleged that joint ventures with the company would harm university reputations.

An INTO spokesman told Times Higher Education: "Just to confirm, solicitors acting for INTO have written to the UCU legal team noting that the defamatory allegations made by UCU will not be reinstated on their website and, moreover, that UCU had no wish to defame INTO. Now that the union is on notice of the falsity of its original allegations, any repetition of those allegations would clearly be regarded as malicious."

The UCU said: "We are a trade union, not a multimillion-pound business, and we do not consider spending money on a libel lottery in the High Court to be the best use of members' subscriptions. Therefore, we have withdrawn the 'offending' briefing and replaced it with one that largely uses the company's own words."

The retraction marks the latest in a continuing row between the union and INTO over UCU's concerns about its role in what the union describes as the "creeping privatisation" of universities.

When the University of Essex announced last week that it would not be entering into a joint venture with INTO after months of discussion, the UCU claimed it as a victory in its campaign against university partnerships with private providers.

A spokesperson for the university said that Essex had opted to bring all its pre-degree, undergraduate and postgraduate English and fast-track programmes, currently run by Insearch, in-house. They will now be run from a single academic department.

UCU general secretary Sally Hunt said: "We are not prepared to watch our universities risk hard-won reputations and future financial health by signing capital and revenue over to what are in effect private-sector property developers." The union added that privatisation would "badly damage the reputation of UK higher education".

"The UCU has raised concerns that staff in particular would get a raw deal if INTO were to take over the running of educational courses in universities," it said.

INTO's spokesman said: "We respect Essex's decision and wish them luck with their operation. We do not believe that decision had anything whatsoever to do with the UCU."

melanie.newman@tsleducation.com.

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