Fighting to defend a working class Ruskin

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Lee Humber (front centre) gained support at UCU congress. Pic: Sadie Robinson

The relatively small University and College Union (UCU) branch at Ruskin College passed a vote of no confidence in the college’s principal, Paul Di Felice, on Wednesday 27 March. This came after several years of decline in student numbers during which time systems of management — including, crucially, systems of managing recruitment — have fallen into a chaotic state.

In the National Student Survey, Ruskin students recorded a 90 percent satisfaction rating for the quality of teaching during the 2017-18 year, but only 35 percent for management. This is disastrously low and likely to discourage future students from applying. The long decline has also seriously affected staff morale with 87 staff members voluntarily leaving or being pressured to leave by an aggressive management approach.

It was in this context, after much debate, that the vote of no confidence was passed. The following day I circulated the final formulation of the vote, agreed on by the branch committee, in my role as branch membership secretary. And the day after that I was suspended.

Of the thousands of people up and down the country who are now aware of this dispute, probably only the principal and his small group of hangers-on argue my suspension is unconnected with my role as a union officer.

The college has followed no recognisable national or local policy procedure for my suspension and it has taken on HR consultants to pursue a case against me. As I write, we are in the dispute’s seventh week, but my union has yet to see details of the reasons for my suspension.

The attack is being pursued with such determination largely because of the trend towards casualisation in Further Education (FE) and Higher Education (HE). Ruskin College is unusual in potentially providing an all through education. It has, in the past, prided itself on taking on students with no qualifications and supporting them through to completing a degree. Some students have stayed with the college for five years, moving through the levels.

Until March this year tutors were on permanent contracts, moving between teaching FE and HE on the same terms and conditions. During the period I have been suspended the principal has moved to end this, increasingly employing visiting tutors on short term contracts to teach on FE programmes. HE tutors will be employed on different terms and conditions if they teach FE as their contracts are “de-coupled”.

It is likely that over summer the principal will use the lack of recruitment to make redundancies, running a skeleton HE programme staffed by visiting tutors and potentially shutting down HE recruitment altogether.

Many of the staff believe this would leave him an untenable rump college, ripe for merger with one of the FE conglomerates who’ve been greedily eyeing Ruskin’s real estate for the past two years. The senior leadership team all come from FE backgrounds. And the principal has well established links with two of the expanding private companies — Activate Learning and the Warwickshire Group. He has also been using an FE management consultancy firm, Click Management, extensively (and very expensively) since 2016. A move to casualisation is essential for his version of the college’s future.

The national context encourages him in this. With competition in the post-16 sector intensifying and institutions vying for students, universities continue to explore ways of reducing costs. Casualisation is central to this, giving university managements the power not to run programmes that fail to recruit to a profitable level. Millions have been spent on new buildings to accommodate more students in bigger classes, while staff numbers have dwindled.

It has been striking over the last two months how highly the labour movement values the Ruskin approach. It is clearly perceived as an asset to trade unionism and to the education of working class people. Thousands have signed petitions, sent messages of support and selfies, and attended the nationally supported demonstration through Oxford in mid-May.

The list of supporters includes rank and file trade unionists, union leaders and the front bench of the Labour party, as well as those who approach this simply as a social justice issue. They are defending a person-centred Ruskin, supporting individuals to realise their potential. This vision is diametrically opposed to the neoliberal profit-and-loss based approach pursued by the principal. Shamefully his backers include Doug Nicholl, current chair of the Board of Governors and of the General Federation of Trade Unions, a trade union centre affiliated to the TUC.

So, is it possible to win this dispute? Of course it is! The principal has a small group of often reluctant supporters and the institutional power of the college; on our side we have the labour movement. If we can channel that collective power the branch is confident we can win. The national UCU has been supportive throughout. Recently it has a proud history of organising disputes nationally. The Ruskin branch is determined to fight on to have one of its own reinstated, to defend trade unionists’ rights to organise and to defend and reimagine a Ruskin College fit for the times in which we live.