Student staff at Queen Mary fight for access to furlough scheme

Update: Sadiq Khan to Professor Colin Bailey: “Urgently reconsider” position on Job Retention – June 9, 2020.

Queen Mary, University of London (QMUL) have refused to allow over 300 student staff members access to the Government Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS), which would see them furloughed and receiving at least 80% of their income during the pandemic.

QMUL’s Student’s Union (QMSU) is run by the university, and has asked for their staff to be furloughed, but the university has denied this request. The university released a statement on 18 May, addressing concerns from students. They stated their reasoning for denying the request was as follows:

“Having considered all the guidance from the Government about the CJRS, our Senior Executive Team has ongoing concerns about accessing the scheme. The scheme is intended for organisations that cannot meet their outgoings. We are not, currently, in that position. We expect any attempt by a university to access the scheme to be closely audited by HMRC and the Department of Education to ensure that it falls within the issued guidelines.”

Negotiations have been going on for eight weeks, with no change to the university’s position. In the meantime, students are struggling financially, which has in turn affected their studies and mental health. According to QMSU’s calculations, the wages being paid to student staff by the university is “based on… forecasted budgets, their possibly available shifts and their possibly availability to work,” which is “impossible… to calculate and distribute fairly amongst our student staff.”

The wages offered by QMUL, of a total of £39,928, is calculated at 36.5% lower than what “the Union would be entitled to claim from the government overall.”

QMSU have recently launched a campaign against the university, called Furlough Our Student Staff Now. The SU released a press release, stating that this refusal to furlough student staff leaves them “destitute” as “hundreds of students who rely on their wages to pay rent and bills now have no income and cannot apply for Universal Credit due to their student status.” They also said that their refusal is “despite HM Treasury’s guidance that non-publicly funded roles in higher education institutions, of which these [student workers’] roles are, are eligible for the scheme.”

QMSU believes that the university’s decision “does not fall in line with [their] commitment on their own website that their students’ welfare is ‘our top priority’.”

As of 19 May, Principal Colin Bailey emailed students and staff regarding the campaign saying, “No student worker who is employed by the student’s union will be financially disadvantaged by this arrangement.” QMSU said, “We do not know how he can come to this conclusion when the University is currently offering student staff £23,072 less than what would be provided by the CJRS.”

QMUL sent a letter to the SU on 24 April stating that “the university will also underwrite the Students’ Union for an amount equivalent to what it might have received from the government’s CJRS had it furloughed staff funded through the commercial activity of QMSU Services Limited.” The Students’ Union disputes this.

Heather Louise-Tafferty, a student at QMUL who raised this issue via Twitter on 15 May, has been employed by the SU since 2017. She works at Drapers Bar & Kitchen, the on-campus bar, and has cited how the coronavirus pandemic has drastically affected her mental health. With QMUL’s decision to not furlough student staff, “financial stress has been added to the pile.”

“My parents are in Liverpool, my mum is a key worker, and two of my sisters are immuno-compromised,” Heather says. She also describes her family as “working-class,” and therefore does not have access to financial help: “Relying on the ‘bank of mum and dad’ is not an option.”

She is a postgraduate student, and only receives a loan of £10,906 to cover both tuition and living expenses. Her tuition fees are covered by this loan and a partial-scholarship provided by QMUL, but all living expenses come from savings and her steady shift work at Drapers Bar & Kitchen.

Heather will only receive £63.24 in wages this month: “It goes without saying that [those wages] will not cover the cost of my weekly food shop for the month, never mind rent and bills. My rent is £415 per month… bills are £45 per month.”

QMUL’s response finds that allowing student staff to access the furlough scheme is “unethical,” but Heather disagrees. She said, “I don’t see how using the government-mandated formula is unethical. I have worked at the Student’s Union so I can afford to be at a university that prides itself on its ethical employment practices. The actions of the university have damaged that reputation.”

Another student, Shumie Aktar, agreed. Shumie is a supervisor at Drapers Bar & Kitchen and at The Griff Inn, another outlet at QMUL. Shumie said her “experience at Queen Mary has been completely tainted by this lack of care to student staff.”

Shumie “is wholly reliable on [her] wages to pay rent, bills, and living costs in London, and would have received £819 under the furlough scheme. Instead, Shumie has only received £361 from the university. The disparity of £458 would have been vital in helping to pay her rent of £650 a month.

She said, “I have worked for the Students’ Union for 3 years, taking pride in representing my university. I averaged over 20 hours a week this year, juggling work with my degree so I can afford to live in London. I feel abandoned and quite frankly, appalled by the university’s negligence.”

Shumie compared the situation at QMUL to other Russell Group universities in London, such as Kings College London, Imperial College London and University College London, who have all furloughed their staff. She questioned how Colin Bailey, Principal of QMUL, could think “it is acceptable to leave his students high and dry in a pandemic.”

The SU’s statement said, “It is absurd that any students who were working on zero-hour contracts for other organisations have been able to access the furlough scheme, but not our own student staff. The university is actively preventing us from financially supporting our employees, abandoning them in their time of need.”

Heather agreed: “It is insulting that Colin Bailey [QMUL Principal], who earns £275,000 annually, doesn’t believe this makes me financially disadvantaged,” she said.

Fellow supervisor Lois Dodds echoes both her colleagues, stating that she felt “abandoned” and “embarrassed” by QMUL thinking “its acceptable to leave their students so vulnerable during a pandemic.”

The SU are clear that they are not “asking the university for financial support to support our student staff. All that we are asking is that they allow us to claim a grant from the government” by accessing the CJRS.”

They have created email templates, asking supporters to email Colin Bailey and Lord Tim Clement-Jones, Chair of QM Council, to “urge [them] to reconsider [their] decision.” A hashtag for the campaign has also been created on Twitter, in order to generate traction for the campaign.

Update: As of 9 June, Mayor of London Sadiq Khan has sent a letter to Colin Bailey regarding the students at QMUL who have been “hard-hit” by this crisis, advocating for their access to the furlough scheme. In the letter, Mr. Khan asks that Principal Bailey “urgently reconsider the decision by QMUL not to allow QMSU access to the CJRS.” Mr. Khan stresses his concern “that this decision will have a disproportionate impact on students from low-income backgrounds.”

There is now only one day left for QMUL to allow its students access to the scheme, as new entrants will be closed to the scheme as of 10 June. GMB London, a worker’s union, is also supporting the QMSU student workers and asking that Principal Bailey allow them access to the scheme. Negotiations between the QMSU and QMUL have not yielded a positive result for the student workers who are facing financial hardship.

The letter, obtained by London Student, is pasted below:

Sadiq Khan Letter to QMUL

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