Staff on precarious contracts made redundant in COVID-19 cuts

Lucy Adams explains the recent redundancies seen at Newcastle University...

Lucy Adams
4th April 2020
Image: Wikimedia Commons
Just over two weeks after University and College Union (UCU) Four Fights strikes came to an end, Newcastle University has responded to the COVID-19 pandemic by issuing redundancies to staff on insecure contracts in a time of global crisis. It is unclear whether these staff will be eligible for furlough pay under the UK Government’s Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme and there has been no further clarification on this at the time of publication, despite online outcry from the UCU.

Amidst the possibility of a worldwide recession and in anticipation of a steep decline in international enrolment, a hiring freeze was implemented at the University as an initial measure. On the 1 April,  casualised academics and those on fixed-term contracts received an email informing them that these contracts would not be renewed in September.

Over 70% of research staff at UK universities are on precarious contracts. Often these can be terminated at one week’s notice if funding is withdrawn. Jazmin Scarlett, a lecturer in Physical Geography at Newcastle, shared on Twitter: “I’ve just been made redundant and no longer have a job by July... so honestly, how is the day getting any better when it’s not even 9am...”

A new university-made website called Newcastle University Community Combats COVID-19 proclaims below its title that “we’re a strong community bursting with exceptional, talented and compassionate people, and we’ll get through this together. #WeAreNCL”. Contrasting this claim to unity is a screenshot that has been widely circulated online, showing a brief email from People Services notifying a staff member of their drastic change in circumstances: “Dear Dr [redacted], Please find attached documentation confirming your dismissal by reason of redundancy. Kind Regards.”  

In light of this news one unnamed student has been applauded for making their outrage on behalf of vulnerable staff known to university administration. In an email to Vice-Chancellor Chris Day that has been made public, the third-year student highlighted “an absolute lack of compassion” shown by the “cruel” nature of actions which “encourage students like me to look at other universities in the UK for further study.” A new Twitter account, @CoronaContract, has created a petition in a similar vein, demanding “an immediate contractual guarantee of two years' work, at or above current level of remuneration, for all casualised university staff” which has amassed over 800 signatures.

The Universities of Bristol, Sussex and Portsmouth have all made similar cuts to Newcastle, with the University of Sussex terminating all temporary contracts. Sheffield University has taken steps in the opposite direction, notifying thousands of casualised workers that it will ensure they are protected and announcing that furloughed workers will receive the 20% difference on top of the government’s scheme so their wages are paid in full.

Dr Jo Grady, General Secretary of UCU, released a statement regarding redundancies, commenting “The way universities behave during this period will be remembered forever. This is shameful behaviour.”

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