Nearly a dozen unions challenge college for union reps after lecturer sacked

Ten trade unions are involved in a dispute with a cash-strapped college that trains “thousands” of their members each year, after several unionists were suspended or were threatened with redundancy.

Their leaders have written to Ruskin College after the University and College Union said branch officer and lecturer Lee Humber was sacked on 12 July for circulating information about a motion of no confidence in principal Paul Di Felice, which passed days before Humber was suspended.

The vote of no confidence was brought due to alleged threats of redundancy hanging over the heads of tutors whose courses “do not recruit sufficient students”, and because of what the union called Di Felice’s continued “mismanagement and general incompetence”.

Three other union representatives, who are staff members at the college, have been placed under disciplinary investigation and two union members have been placed at risk of redundancy, according to the UCU.

In the letter, leaders of ten unions speak of their “profound concerns about the way Ruskin College management appears to be victimising UCU trade union reps”.

Ruskin College states on its website that it “continues to have close ties with the Trade Unions, a relationship that has seen thousands of Trade Unionists educated at the college each year and many of Ruskin’s alumni go on to take key positions on trade unions bodies”.

It has refuted allegations that it has victimised union representatives, and said its ongoing disciplinary investigations into staff are not related to any of their trade union activity.

Ruskin’s managers “continue to pursue positive dialogue with the UCU to bring a swift resolution” to the dispute, the spokesperson continued.

But they said it would be “inappropriate and unfair” to make any further comment on this matter while investigations are ongoing.

It has been claimed the college wants to get rid of four posts, which the UCU believes will lead to the withdrawal of all the higher education courses that have traditionally been run by the college for trade unionists.

“We are concerned this course of action is not only wrong in itself, but also risks undermining the founding principles of the institution,” the letter reads.

The college spokesperson said the redundancies that have been announced will only affect those teaching on courses with poor recruitment and retention and have nothing to do with trade union activity by the involved staff members.

Ruskin has only recently climbed out of financial difficulty, having had to approve a recovery plan in November 2017 to address “severe solvency issues faced and the significant historic operating deficits incurred by the College over many years,” its 2017/18 accounts say.

It achieved a surplus of £221,000 that year, after generating a deficit of over half a million pounds in 2016/17.

It has faced further problems during 2018, when it was subject to an FE Commissioner report which criticised Ruskin College’s past failure to address the deficits.

Commissioner Richard Atkins also commented on the low student numbers and the under-utilised areas of the college.

However, while claiming they are trying to address areas with low student numbers, the UCU’s acting general secretary Paul Cottrell said staff have made it clear they have “no faith in the direction the college’s management is heading”.

He accused Ruskin of “lurching” from educating and nurturing trade unionists to sacking them.

A meeting between the UCU and the college has been scheduled for Friday, and the union has warned that unless managers step back, it will consider calling for unions to boycott the college.

The trade union leaders which signed the letter are:

  • Ian Lawrence (Chair of TUCG, and General Secretary, NAPO)
  • Ronnie Draper (General Secretary, BFAWU)
  • Matt Wrack (General Secretary, FBU)
  • Michelle Stanistreet (General Secretary, NUJ)
  • Kevin Courtney (General Secretary, NEU)
  • Mark Serwotka (General Secretary, PCS)
  • Steve Gillan (General Secretary, POA)
  • Mick Cash (General Secretary, RMT)
  • Dr. Jo Grady (General Secretary, UCU)
  • Bob Monks (General Secretary, URTU)