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Student Occupation Leads to Open Meeting with University Provost

Felice Southwell writes about the recent open meeting organised by student activists between a representative of University management and Surrey staff and students, which addressed various issues that many students are affected by and yet misinformed about.

By Felice Southwell

An open meeting between a representative of University management and Surrey staff and students shed light on the University’s position after four weeks of industrial action.  

The meeting took place on Thursday 22nd March, with the Provost and Executive Vice-President, Professor Michael Kearney, in attendance.

The meeting was organised by a group of students who occupied the top floor of Senate House outside Vice-Chancellor Max Lu’s office earlier in the month.

On the agenda was a discussion on the UCU strike action, the living wage on campus and Student’s Union funding, which followed from the occupiers’ demands.

Students began the meeting with some statements, explaining that they had organised the meeting to be able to hold University management to account and create an open dialogue.

Many staff and students attended the popular event, and there were questions from the floor about the University’s controversial handling of the Action Short of Strike (ASOS) during ongoing disputes between the University and College Union (UCU) and Universities UK (UUK) over the changes to staff pension schemes.

For many questions, Professor Kearney was frank about the issues but also highlighted his limited ability to respond in full detail.

On Surrey’s decision to reduce pay deductions for ASOS from 100% to 25% earlier this month, he stated that “We will continue to re-evaluate our position over the coming days; we do not look to apply it, and there have been no deductions to date”.

Also on the panel was Surrey UCU representative, Allison Cottell, who argued that Surrey’s position was still out of kilter with the other 60 Universities involved in ASOS.

Sources disclose that the University has since emailed staff confirming that they “will not make any deductions for ASOS during this current dispute.”

Throughout the discussion Professor Kearney focussed on the balance between the USS scheme and job security of current and future staff in Higher Education.

A member of the audience asked why the University was pursuing such an ambitious growth strategy, outlined in their corporate strategy document, if it was concerned with job security and sustainability.

Professor Kearney responded by saying that Universities need to increasingly compensate for the changed funding structure of Higher Education and to get “headroom” to invest in infrastructure, one has to increase student numbers to create an economy of scale.

The proposed changes to USS would change lecturer’s pensions from a guaranteed retirement income to a defined contribution scheme where pensions are subject to stock market fluctuations. Earlier this month, UCU rejected a deal put forward by UUK, and negotiations are due to resume soon.

The students that organised the meeting, who form Occupy Surrey, said that the discussion on the University as a living wage employer was encouraging and that they will ‘continue to hold university management accountable on this going forwards”.

They also commented that, despite the absence of current Students’ Union officers, the open meeting was packed and there was numerous officers-elect there.

In respect of the meeting, Professor Kearney said, “It was useful to have an open and constructive dialogue on important issues and, as always, helpful to hear first-hand of peoples’ concerns and experiences.”

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