Academic staff and students at Goldsmiths, University of London held a virtual picket in response to senior management’s restructuring plan that involved laying off staff and further marketising courses.
The five-day picket that ended on March 5 was part of the industrial action initiated by the Goldsmiths branch of University and College trade union (GUCU) in January 2021.
The action, which the university said it deeply regretted had happened, involves a marking boycott and refusal of face-to-face teaching due to Covid concern.
GUCU’s virtual open rally on March 5, the final day of the virtual picket, was attended by about 200 attendees including students and staff.
Supporters were urged to post an image or a video with a protest sign and tag it with #SaveGoldsmiths; the hashtag reached over two million people on social media in just four days.
GUCU said it had been taking action because of Goldsmiths’s senior managers’ refusal to rule out laying off staff. The union has also strongly criticised the university’s willingness to hand over control of Goldsmiths to commercial banks that may provide loans to plug the deficit of between 6-7 million pounds.
Measures due to a ‘tough year’
GUCU says job cuts could affect a mixture of academic and professional staff, including librarians, security, student support and other site staff.
Meanwhile, senior managers at Goldsmiths, which offers arts and humanities courses among others in New Cross, Lewisham, say the change in approach is due to the financial position and current deficit of the university.
Recent government announcements on Higher Education funding propose millions of pounds of cuts to London institutions. Estimates show these changes will see the College lose over £2m in funding every year.
A spokesperson for Goldsmiths, University of London told Eastlondonlines in an email: “The College has always made it clear we will exhaust savings opportunities in every other area of non-pay spending first with redundancies always our last resort.
“The recovery plan needs to tackle our existing deficit, ensure spending is affordable and manage the multi-million-pound impact Covid-19 has had on Goldsmiths’ finances.
“We deeply regret that staff have voted for action short of a strike when no decisions have been made on a detailed recovery plan as yet. We have been meeting regularly with our staff trade unions on these issues and remain committed to finding a shared resolution to this dispute including requesting that we take these discussions to ACAS.”
ACAS is an organisation that advises employers and employees on workplace rights, rules and practice, offering training to resolve disputes.
The university has also said many students have deferred in the most recent academic year; only a third of offer holders have enrolled.
Amid a global pandemic, many universities have struggled to recruit students, especially international ones. More than 15% of Goldsmiths students come from overseas.
GUCU said Goldsmiths has used “union-busting tactics” to try to dissuade GUCU members from participating in the industrial action; the tactics include a refusal of furlough to any staff involved in the marking boycott and refusal to teach face-to-face.
The union also said the university management misrepresented GUCU’s position in its public communication.
A range of groups expressed solidarity with staff who were striking including the Goldsmiths Rent Strikers, Goldsmiths Anti-Racist Action Group (GARA), the Students Union Executive Committee, and multiple staff and leaders from other universities facing similar struggles.
Michael Rosen, poet and Professor of Children’s Literature at Goldsmiths and John McDonell, MP and former shadow Chancellor spoke at the rally on March 5.
Rosen said: “We are the power and the knowledge that is being given to students and it should be the job of senior management to defend education, defend the conditions of education, defend students’ right to education – that should be their bottom line.”
He added that he was proud to be part of the action and called upon the government as a whole to stop threatening and justifying cutbacks with “debt demons” which he said was a mirage that had been used for at least 10 years or more with austerity.
‘Uber drivers of this University’
Precarious workers, who lecture on contracts similar to that of zero-hour contracts, also shared their experiences.
Neda Genova, GUCU short course representative, said: “Our position right now is closest to being the Uber drivers of this university.
“They don’t even recognise us as workers, but rather, are trying to treat us as independent contractors.”
Short course lecturers have been urged to advertise their course themselves and face being cancelled last minute if uptake is not deemed profitable. Other issues include no sick pay or pay for preparation work and their right to trade union representation denied.
Geneva said: “What I want to highlight is that short courses are not a marginal issue for universities because to a large extent they delineate what might become a very grim future for the whole sector.”
Frances Corner, who took over as Warden in 2019, has said: “In some cases, there will be no options, just decisions and these will be taken through the formal, representative governance and decision-making that already exists.
“Our focus must be about how we reshape our College, improve our student experience dramatically and at the same time rebuild our finances.”
The restructuring plans have been renamed from Evolving Goldsmiths to the Recovery plan.
Goldsmiths’ Council approved the draft recovery framework in December 2020 to begin discussions with banking partners over potential borrowing for the College.
They say the “broad road map” for securing the future of Goldsmiths will inform a more detailed recovery plan later on.
Corner also urged a collective effort to combat tough times and said: “We have no time to play a blame game and look backwards or gaze inward.”
A spokesperson for Goldsmiths, University of London said: “The College is conducting a review to identify significant savings in non-pay areas including project and equipment expenditure and what we spend on our estate. We are also considering raising money from selling assets, including a number of buildings we own which are not major teaching spaces.”
Supporters of the week of action noted that no one within the management team took any cut to their pay.
John McDonnell MP said at the virtual rally: “Right across higher education people have drawn a line in the sand… There’s a creative wave of struggle and opposition that is breaking out and inspiring people.
“Actually we should be boosting the investment in higher education and further education for the needs of the society that we want to create. The way in which people are fighting back about marketisation is about how we now have democratic colleges and what that should look like.”
The chair of The University of East London’s UCU, Gargi Bhattacharyya, has seen similar proposals and faced immediate dismissal as a result of redundancies.
Bhattacharyya said: “If you’re a union rep and your employer hates you, you should always think that means you’re doing something right. Tattoo it on your heart and be proud.”
Many students, who would see their class sizes increase significantly, and alumni have expressed their support for their academic and support staff.
Miri de Villers, a first-year journalism student at the university, told ELL: “Although the industrial action has taken a toll on students this term who are already struggling, I cannot deny the absolute necessity of this strike and the solidarity I feel with the entire community at this time.
“I was blindsided into applying for a university I thought was radical and progressive which hasn’t been the case at all.
“What is radical is what the staff and students are doing to fight the institution at this time. I know things are going to change, which is the only reason I’m sticking around.”
Many other students posted photos or videos in support of GUCU’s action and the virtual picket.
GUCU said that staff and students should not pay for the deficit caused by bad management.
The union also said they would continue the industrial action until senior managers were willing to step back from their “destructive” plan.