Downing is one of multiple colleges planning staff redundanciesSir Cam, Flickr

The past few weeks have seen the start of what risks becoming a tide of redundancies being made across Cambridge colleges. At present, three of the 31 colleges – Queens’, Trinity, and Downing – have announced more than 100 redundancies, exclusively from non-academic positions such as housekeeping, catering, maintenance and IT. Laying off low-income staff in the midst of a global pandemic, and at what looks like the beginning of a second wave of infections, is nothing short of barbaric. These are the same “essential”, “front-line” workers who have worked on-site throughout the pandemic to ensure that the colleges are kept running for those staying in them. It is revealing of the emptiness of the collegiate system that while they welcome their students back with platitudes of “community-mindedness”, they are at the same time treating essential parts of the community as disposable.

“The choice to make redundancies is exactly that: a choice.”

Colleges are keen to peddle the narrative that these redundancies are an unfortunate, but unavoidable, result of the current economic downturn, but this is not the full story. Cambridge Defend Jobs, a collective of union members, students, workers, and academics from across Cambridge, is challenging this narrative. This broad coalition is driven by the belief that people’s jobs – their livelihoods – should be protected now more than ever, and that the recognition of unions such as UNITE in colleges is key to ensuring this.

Job cuts are not inevitable, and redundancies need not be taken as a given outcome of a broader economic downturn, especially in such wealthy institutions as these. Two-thirds of colleges have already confirmed they have no plans for redundancies. This is positive in and of itself, but also shows that redundancies are by no means an economic necessity for colleges: it is a matter of priorities, of who is included in the ‘college community’, and who they see as disposable. Similarly, the University hasn’t announced any lay-offs yet, and Vice Chancellor Stephen Toope has said in an email to staff, “The very last resort in a worst-case scenario is to contemplate potential generalised redundancies.” It is frankly outrageous that these redundancies appear to have been a very first resort for several colleges already.

The choice to make redundancies is exactly that: a choice. It is a choice to ignore the many other viable options available at times of financial hardship. For one thing these colleges are all extremely wealthy, with endowments of many millions of pounds, even billions. Trinity College, for example, is wealthier than all other universities in the UK, aside from Cambridge itself. If a global pandemic is not the time to dig into your savings to protect the livelihoods and lives of your staff, when is? What is it even there for if not this? And all of these colleges have members of staff earning five-figure salaries, with no word of pay cuts here, voluntary or otherwise.

One of the reasons colleges can get away with treating their staff like this is the failure of colleges to formally recognise unions. The colleges are still being run like medieval fiefdoms, relying on a veneer of paternalism and tradition to justify the lack of any kind of union recognition. They are happy to pose as businesses to turn a quick buck from the conference game, but also want to be seen as poor but worthy seats of learning, in need of charity. They can’t decide if they are ivory towers or Alton Towers.


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In recent weeks, unions across the country have proven themselves invaluable to workers under threat of redundancy. They are crucial to challenging this harmful narrative. In the last week, Public and Commercial Services Union members at the Tate ended 42 days of strike action over the announcement of over 300 job cuts, after Tate seceded to their demands to protect jobs and pay. At SOAS, even the spectre of strike action was enough to protect workers there: after Unison members voted 75% in favour of a strike, management quickly backed down on their announcement of up to 88 compulsory redundancies. At The University of Sheffield, UNITE spearheaded a successful campaign to prevent up to 8000 workers being “fired and rehired” in an attempt to cut costs. In a well-unionised workplace, bosses can no longer view redundancies as an easy option.

If the days of paternalistic employment, jobs for life and nothing changing are over, and the colleges want to reap the benefits of the real world, they need to come to terms with the fact that in the real world successful businesses work with unions, not against them.

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