Students at top London university urged to ‘snitch’ on striking lecturers | Industrial action


A prestigious London university has become the first in the country to use a “student snitch form” to encourage students to report striking staff, while threatening to dock full pay for 39 days if those named fail to reschedule missed teaching.

Queen Mary University of London was branded the “worst university employer in the UK” by the Universities and Colleges Union last July, after it deducted 21 days of full pay from more than 100 staff who refused to mark students’ work in June as part of a national boycott. But staff claim the university, a member of the esteemed Russell Group, has reached a new low and “destroyed trust” by “turning students into spies” to gather data on who went on strike in November and February, and which classes have not been rescheduled.

Laleh Khalili, a professor of international politics at the university, posted her angry resignation letter on Twitter at the end of last month, claiming senior management had made academics’ working lives “unbearably difficult”. She said the “odious” student reporting form, which is being called the “student snitch form” by union members, was “the last straw”.

Prof Laleh Khalili: the student reporting form was ‘the last straw’.

Prof Khalili said she had received messages of support from outraged academics around the world. “To me, these tactics are just cruel,” she added. “I’m generally a very soft-spoken person, but I couldn’t stay quiet any longer.”

One union member at the university , who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals, said: “I had a student in distress last week saying: ‘I filled in this form about missed classes and I didn’t understand I would be responsible for pay being deducted from my teacher.’”

The academic added: “They didn’t have the data to implement their pay docking, so they are trying to turn students into spies. It is destroying the trust you need in the classroom.”

A senior manager at the university, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said the university was asking line managers to confirm information gathered by the student form and “tap colleagues on the shoulder”.

The manager said: “It’s absolutely awful. These are people I know and like, and their pay will be deducted. I think about resigning a lot. I only stay because I think then at least I can try to help those targeted.”

The university has maintained internally that, despite being released just before the latest walkouts, the form is not motivated by the strikes. However, minutes of its industrial action strategy group meetings last year, seen by the Observer, confirm that it was developing a “reporting tool” to record “missed learning opportunities in case of further industrial action”.

The Universities and Colleges Union paused the latest round of university strikes on 17 February, despite opposition from many of its members, to allow for intensive talks with employers after “significant progress” was made on issues including pay, pensions and zero-hours contracts.

But a handful of universities, including Leeds University, are standing by threats to continue to dock pay beyond the actual strike days if staff don’t back down and reschedule missed teaching.

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After three days of strikes in November, QMUL told union members it would deduct 100% of pay for 39 days between November and January in which it says classes could have been rescheduled. Chloe Wallace, an associate professor in law at Leeds and president of its UCU branch, said: “The university management has formalised a threat to dock 100 per cent of pay from the point at which they say classes should have been rescheduled.”

She added that this was being left to heads of school to enforce, and “my impression is that most are very reluctant to do this”. She said staff were very stressed about the idea of losing considerable pay, and those without family support would have to resort to borrowing.

Vicky Blake, national president of UCU until last year, said: “UCU members are not paid when we go on strike, and it is truly appalling that some university management teams are using the threat of additional punitive deductions to try to bully members into not taking part.”

QMUL said it had been “consistently clear” that when striking staff returned they were asked to “prioritise all educational activities”, deprioritising other work like research, if necessary. It said: “We give staff sufficient time to make up for missed educational activities. Where this is not achieved, we consider that partial performance and will deduct pay appropriately.” On the student reporting form, it said: “In common with many other universities, we ask staff and students to tell us if education is missed so we can ensure it is made up.”

A University of Leeds spokesperson said: “The university’s priority is to minimise the impact of industrial action on our students. Where timetabled teaching activity is impacted by strike action, rescheduling of this activity must be prioritised.” He said this position was in line with guidance from the Universities and Colleges Employers Association.



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