On Monday March 19, the senior management of King’s College London, including vice-chancellor Edward Byrne, hosted an open meeting with occupiers, representatives of students and staff, both academic and cleaning, at James Clark Maxwell Building.
A group of students have been occupying various floors of the building since Wednesday 14 March, despite repeated intimidation from management.
Discussion regarding the status of cleaners became heated with occupiers and cleaning representatives demanding that the cleaners be brought in-house. This would involve King’s following the example of the LSE and SOAS who have already pledged to bring cleaning staff in house after committed campaigns at their respective institutions.
Dr Ian Tebbett, Vice President of KCL Operations, made it clear that King’s would not seek to break the contract it currently holds with cleaning contractors when the break clause opens next year, despite outcry that the cleaners are exploited by Servest.
Particular outrage was expressed by the audience when Dr Tebbett suggested that cleaners should ‘refuse’ to do jobs not provided for by the health & safety terms & conditions of their contract without providing any answers as to how KCL how make sure that Servest would not punish its cleaners.
Nevertheless, Dr Tebbett maintained that KCL would look into the working conditions of its cleaners and re-examine its options when the current contract with Servest eventually came up for tender again. In the meantime the justification offered was that KCL lacked expertise in the field of cleaning management and consequently could not bring the cleaning staff in-house. This was to be seen in contrast with the issue of catering which senior management had brought in-house 5 years ago following assessment that showed KCL did have the managerial ability to run the service in-house.
The final defence offered by management was that KCL had brought forward a pay-rise for its staff five months ahead of schedule in-line with its joining the London Living Wage scheme. Ultimately, the refusal of KCL management to commit to bringing the cleaning services in-house resulted in anger and disappointment on the part of the gathered audience.
When the discussion came to the UCU strikes and the proposed pension changes forwarded by UUK, Professor Byrne took the lead. His first comment that this had been ‘the most stressful situation in his 40 years in education’ garnered little sympathy.
Professor Byrne maintained that the strikes had wrongly directed criticism towards the university management when it is the government regulator who has caused the need for pension changes in its valuation of the USS pension fund.
Here, Professor Byrne offered more well-received words in stating that KCL had agreed to increase its contribution to pensions given that academics would do the same. Further, he added that “far too many staff were on one year contacts” and that this was something he sought to change.
In terms of pledges for the future, Professor Byrne stated an offer to write a letter in consultation with the KCL UCU asking for an independent review of the pension scheme. Professor Byrne added that he had regularly asked for UUK to make concessions.
Provost and Senior Vice President Sir Professor Robert Lechler, indicated that Professor Byrne was coming under unfair criticism for his £458,000 remuneration by interjecting that Professor Byrne had donated portions of his salary back to the university and not accepted any further pay-rises. This was not received well by the audience of protesters and occupiers.
In drawing conclusions, it appears that little will change as a result of this meeting with neither side showing a conciliatory approach; the protesters stood by their demands and the management by their positions.
However, the level of frustration felt by protesters appeared to take management by surprise who acknowledged a need to re-examine their options and consider their alternatives where possible going forward. It remains to be seen what the effects of such consideration will eventually be.