Heriot-Watt staff balloted on strike action over proposed job cuts

Members of staff at Heriot-Watt University go to the ballot tomorrow (Tuesday, Septemver 29), to decide on strike action over the proposed loss of more than 130 jobs through compulsory redundancy across the university’s three sites.

Monday, 28th September 2020, 1:59 pm
Updated Tuesday, 29th September 2020, 4:57 pm
The campus at Netherdale in Galashiels, shared by Heriot-Watt University and Borders College.
The campus at Netherdale in Galashiels, shared by Heriot-Watt University and Borders College.

The university, which has more than 20,000 students enrolled in its campuses in Edinburgh, Orkney and Galashiels, insists that the coronavirus pandemic had resulted in a “significant impact” on its income, and says it needs to reduce staff levels – currently at 2,081, with 63 employed at Galashiels – to cut costs.

It’s not yet known how many jobs are at risk in Galashiels.

A spokesperson for the university said: “The global pandemic has resulted in a significant impact on the university’s income.

“This financial challenge is resulting in the need to make some difficult decisions, and this includes proposals to reduce the number of roles across the university.

“We are committed to finding these through voluntary means wherever possible, either through potential redundancy or other voluntary options such as a reduction in working hours, career breaks and flexible retirement.

“We continue to consider all suggestions for cost savings, and consultation with unions and staff around the proposals for role reductions, which includes a number of externally-funded research roles coming to their natural end, is ongoing.

“No final decisions have yet been made and the programme for voluntary options is currently still open.”

However, the University and College Union (UCU) says the rushed timetable to cut jobs – with the first staff due to leave at the start of November – means that alternative options for savings have not been sufficiently explored, and is sending ballot papers to members to decide on its response, which could include strike action.

The union, which has 400 members within the Heriot-Watt alumni and support staff, says that job losses in Galashiels will have “significant local impact” and the loss of so many members of staff, both in academic and support roles, would have a drastic impact on both the student experience and the university’s reputation.

It also claims that remaining staff would be left with higher workloads and less contact time with students, who would be taught in bigger classes.

The university last carried out a round of redundancies in 2017, when 70 staff lost their jobs and recruitment was frozen.

The union is arguing that, coming so soon after the last round and before the full financial fallout from the Covid-19 crisis for universities is clear, there were questions to be answered about whether the crisis was being used as a smokescreen for unjustified job cuts.

UCU’s Scotland official Mary Senior said: “This decision to cut 130 jobs at Heriot-Watt University will add to the worry and upset among staff and students.

“The news comes at a time when staff have worked tirelessly to keep the university running during the Covid-19 crisis and when the chances of finding other work will be hard.

“That these cuts come so soon after jobs losses in 2017 raises questions about the university’s management and whether managers are using the Covid crisis as a smokescreen for unjustified job cuts.

“UCU is open to negotiation and consultation to avoid compulsory job cuts.

“We urge the university to work with us to identify alternative savings, not rush through job losses at this difficult time.

“However, we are clear that members need to show their strength of feeling against these job losses, and that’s why we are balloting members for strike action to defend jobs.”

South of Scotland list MSP Michelle Ballantyne commented: “Galashiels is home to many alumni of Heriot-Watt who will be sad to hear this news.

“The university offers a great breadth of courses and will be devastating to lose any of these options as a result of job losses.

“Increased pressure will also be put on remaining staff while contact time with students could be threatened.

“These jobs are valuable not only to local community, but to the future of Galashiels as our students and lecturers contribute enormously to life in the town.

2Whilst ordinarily I do not support strike action, I hope the university will do everything in its power to avert the need for this course of action by trying to ensure that the Galashiels campus retains its full contingent of staff.

“The site is also home to the Scottish College of Textiles, which has a global reputation for its innovative design and creative expertise.

“We should be doing all we can to strengthen that institution’s standing rather than threatening it with staff reductions.”

The ballot opens tomorrow (Tuesday) and will close on Tuesday, October 20.