Top London university hit with resignations over approach to strikes and working conditions

Queen Mary university  (Queen Mary, University of London International Students)
Queen Mary university (Queen Mary, University of London International Students)

Several staff at a top London university have said they felt compelled to resign over working conditions and management’s approach to strikes.

Four former staff members at Queen Mary University cited management’s response to striking staff as a factor behind their departure alongside working conditions.

Not all of the resignations at the Russell Group university relate to the current round of national strikes called by the UCU union, which are paused.

The most recent to resign is politics professor Laleh Khalili, who handed in her notice this month, saying a “snitch form” where students are asked to tell management if strikes are discussed in class was a “final staw”.

She called it “unacceptable” and a “violation of our academic freedoms”.

“I know how corrosive an environment of distrust can be and spreading such horrendous sense of distrust between students and staff is just the most craven, cruel thing a management can do,” she told the Standard.

Ecologist Rob Knell, who resigned in December after 23 years, said: “The Principal’s behaviour towards staff exercising their legal right to take industrial action was not the only reason I left QM.

“When you’re contemplating a job offer from another university, however, and you receive an aggressive, bullying email from the whole senior exec team making threats about what will happen if you participate in action short of a strike then it makes the decision much, much easier.”

Phil Bull, a former Reader in Cosmology, said he handed in his notice in March last year over a university policy of docking striking staff pay until cancelled classes are rescheduled.

While losing pay on strike days is standard practice, Queen Mary has threatened to dock strikers’ pay for “partial performance” until classes are made up.

“Morale was already low, with a lot of staff feeling burnt-out after the pandemic, but this was the final straw for me,” he said.

A university spokesman said its priority was to protect students’ education, and that it fully respected the right of staff to partake in ongoing strike action.

James Eastwood, Co-Chair of the Queen Mary UCU Branch, accused the university of using “incredibly sinister” tactics in the ongoing row over pay, working conditions and pensions.

"Students are being asked to report on academics not only if a class is cancelled, but also if they discuss their reasons for taking strike action in class,” he said.

“This is a clear attack on academic freedom. Management are also using these reports to threaten staff with punitive pay deductions, not just for strike days but for every day after strike action when they refuse to reschedule a class - even when they are otherwise working normally.”

But a Queen Mary spokesperson said: “While disruption has been limited with less than 2% of our staff on strike, these staff have often taken action only on the days that coincided with their teaching duties.

“We have been consistently clear in asking staff when they return to work to prioritise all educational activities and deprioritise or stop all other work where needed, including research, conferences and sabbaticals, which we accept will be disruptive for the University.

“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. This position is consistent with UCU’s own advice to its members.

“The University policy in place in relation to the ongoing sector-wide industrial action fully respects the right of staff to take strike action, whilst focusing the resulting disruption away from our students’ education.”

The UCU paused seven days of strike action which had been due to take place from February 21 after “progress” in talks, but the dispute remains live.

The talks between unions across the sector and employers, represented by the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA), are continuing throughout this week.