TUESDAY saw a historic moment for the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI), as the local University College Union (UCU) branch took strike action for the first time in the university’s history.

UCU members at UHI took strike action on Tuesday, the first day in what the branch has called “escalating strike activity” - with two days of further action planned for next week, and three in the following.

Sorcha Kirker, branch officer at UHI UCU, said it was a “historic, but deeply sad moment” which reflected the “magnitude” of the situation.

She told The National that many staff had faced increasing stress and worsening health conditions as a result of the threat of redundancy and the university management’s response to strike action.

Kirker said: “We have people breaking down in staff meetings, people crying, people that have been signed off sick from stress.

“There have been people reporting worsening mental health conditions, disabilities, general health conditions.

“It’s absolutely unacceptable.”

UHI, founded in 1992, is a tertiary institution encompassing both further and higher education, with sites across the Highlands and Islands, Moray, and Perthshire.

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The university has roughly 36,000 students across its partnerships and roughly 330 employees within UHI's head office.

Union members were first balloted for strike action after hearing of potential mass redundancies across the institution.

According to UHI UCU, staff were told 44 roles were at risk of redundancy, which equates to around 10% of the staff base.

Kirker, who is the branch committee campaigns and communications officer, first joined the union over a year ago, when the university introduced a hybrid working policy which made in-person working compulsory for at least two days of the week.

“At the time, we were coming out of Covid-19, it was a completely new environment in education," she said. 

“Seemingly out of nowhere, the university was going back on things they’d previously said about working from home – it caused a lot of stress for people. It was handled terribly.

“Then it struck me – I wasn’t in the union. So, I joined immediately.”

Kirker advocated for all staff to join the union because “it’s a protection”.

Redundancies could happen as early as next month

The branch said that the university emailed all staff on August 14 announcing that they were going to make £3 million worth of cuts to the staff budget, and £1m to the main budget.

“Why [did the university] prioritise staff redundancy?” asked Kirker, who criticised the university management’s handling of the situation.

She continued: “There was then a staff forum three days later, on August 17, where staff were told 44 roles were at risk.

“So, staff first heard about the redundancies and then also heard whether they were going to be made redundant within the space of a week.”

Kirker told The National that staff facing redundancy have received letters with an end date starting November 30.

“They’re going to be made redundant a month before Christmas, in the middle of a cost-of-living crisis.

“We already have staff using food banks, taking second jobs – we have staff with families and mortgages.”

In a survey conducted by UCU UHI on the redundancy consultation process that took place, an overwhelming 87% of respondents said they did not feel assured that staff concerns were being addressed transparently and thoroughly by the senior executive team.

A total of 91 staff members responded, reflective of 70% of union members.

Kirker added: “The human element of [staff striking] doesn’t always get picked up in the press.

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“And it’s right that we focus on the student experience and things that have high impact, but there are sad and terrible situations happening to staff right now – I wish we could highlight those more.

“I don’t think that I’ve ever directly witnessed such an important situation being so gravely mishandled, and there’s almost no support being provided for staff.”

She added that the situation for staff who are not at risk of being made redundant was “just as worrying”, due to the extra workload remaining staff would be picking up.

The university hopes ‘further discussions can resolve the dispute’

In a statement to students, last updated on Tuesday, the university said it hoped for a resolution.

The statement reads: “We are continuing to support ongoing negotiations between the further and higher education sector and the Further Education Lecturers’ Association (EIS FELA) and University and College Union (UCU) and strongly hope that further discussions can resolve the dispute.”

This comes after EIS FELA undertook action short of a strike, which concluded on October 12.

Responding to this statement, the branch said they were unaware of negotiations taking place with UCU.

UCU UHI have said that the university did not acknowledge or respond to UCU Scotland’s notification of strike action before sending an email to staff regarding pay deductions.

Kirker said the email contained “a list of threatening pay deductions, which are significantly more severe than you would see in general".

“They were threatening a full day’s wage for a half-day strike. They were threatening that they would have the ability to take 100% of wages for action short of a strike, which is just working to contract, it’s doing a 9 to 5.”

Vicki Nairn, UHI's interim principal and vice-chancellor, told the National: “We recognise and respect the right of UHI executive office University and College Union (UCU) members to take industrial action. We are working to minimise the impact of this action on our students and the wider staff body, and we have support services in place.

"We have invited representatives from the UHI branch of UCU to a meeting so we can discuss a positive resolution and we continue to meet regularly with our elected staff committee.”

'The only way for any success is collective action'

Kirker described the experience of striking as “quite surreal” to most branch members.

“It’s the first time we’ve ever been on strike, and that really goes to demonstrate the magnitude of the situation, that people are actually prepared to do this.”

The branch said an informal meeting with the senior executive team at UHI is due to take place on Friday.

Kirker added that the branch first asked for an informal meeting a year ago.

When asked why staff should join the union, Kirker stressed the importance of collective action.

She said: “Particularly in situations like mass redundancies, which is what’s proposed at UHI, the only way for any success is collective action, and to support each other and to try and move forward together collectively.

“Joining a union, it’s a protection. You never know quite when you’re going to need that protection, it could come completely out of the blue.

“If you’re not part of the union, you cannot participate, you cannot support, you cannot help to push that forward for the benefit of everybody.

“Fundamentally, this is our first ever day of strike action. It’s a historic moment, but it’s also a deeply, deeply sad moment because many of us hoped that it would never actually come to this.

“The staff at UHI exist to try and ensure that there’s access to education for some of the most rural communities in Scotland, to show people that they don’t have to leave that region to get access to education – you can have it here.

“Our goal right now is to save jobs. If we don’t take a stand and make some noise, if we don’t try and fight back, they will only come back in the future, and it will be worse.”

UHI has been approached for comment.