By Oliver Jaser Clark, BA Arabic and History
A popular lecturer who attempted to improve relations between SOAS and the University College Union (UCU) has lost his job after his employment contract wasn’t renewed this summer.
Dr David Lunn, who taught at the SOAS South Asia Institute, was the SOAS branch secretary for the UCU, the trade union that represents academic staff. In his union role, Lunn helped draft a joint statement with SOAS in 2022 focusing on casualisation – prioritising the retention of staff. The joint statement pledged to ‘avoid disputes by finding agreeable resolutions going forward.’ Lunn also co-authored an article with SOAS Director Adam Habib in 2022, calling for a ‘social pact between university heads and unions.’
There was, however, no agreeable resolution for Lunn, whose departure shocked and upset many students. A GoFundMe campaign set up for him has raised £5,355 – more than its £4,500 target – from 98 donations.
“‘Our wonderful colleague, friend, comrade and tireless Branch Secretary, David Lunn, has reached the end of his latest contract after around 15 years on successive fixed-term contracts at SOAS.'”
‘Our wonderful colleague, friend, comrade and tireless Branch Secretary, David Lunn, has reached the end of his latest contract after around 15 years on successive fixed-term contracts at SOAS,’ Lisa Tilley, organiser of the fundraising appeal, wrote on GoFundMe.
‘While we refuse to accept this & plan to fight it by all means possible so that he can remain at SOAS where he belongs, we also want to send David a meaningful token of our appreciation for his service & friendship.’
Lunn was actively campaigning over the summer term about SOAS’ decision to dock 100% of the wages of academic staff who took part in a national marking and assessment boycott. ‘The decision to impose 100% deductions has created a strength of feeling within the branch that I have never seen before,’ Lunn said in May. ‘People simply cannot believe that management is [sic] being so punitive and so aggressive.’
Lunn’s departure comes as relations between universities and the academics, cleaners, and other employees who keep education institutions functioning are under strain across the country. Rising inflation and the cost-of-living crisis are reducing the quality of life for many university employees, and conditions are the worst for the lowest-paid staff, such as cleaners.
UNISON, which represents SOAS service staff, renewed its yearly strike outside the school during the first and second weeks of term. UNISON is campaigning for a ‘proportional increase in pay,’ after similar demands were met at University College London and King’s College London. UNISON also wants SOAS to increase its English language and IT training for workers — a request the union claims was ‘promised by SOAS five years ago.’ UNISON is also asking for more staff to be hired amongst the ‘lowest paid departmental staff.’
Consuelo, who has worked for 20 years as a cleaner at SOAS and now represents them, agrees with the UNISON demands. ‘It’s very difficult, our pay has not gone up since 2009 despite a 13% rise in inflation,’ translated from Spanish. In real terms, these wages are now worth less, ‘after the pandemic her [sic] council tax, rent’ and other expenses increased. ‘We also need our pay to go up a bit,’ Consuelo said.
Consuelo said English lessons were promised in writing five years ago but she only gets one hour of tuition each week. She was upset by the stance of the SOAS administration. ‘We’re all part of the same team,’ she said.
‘We [the union] should be working together with the management as we know how to run things too.’
In the last year, relations between the SOAS administration and unions have become more confrontational. Strikes have escalated, as have student protests, most notably over the school’s decision to hire an expensive private security firm to patrol the campus. The SOAS Spirit exclusively reported in April that SOAS spent £661,632.23 on external security on campus over the previous twelve months.
Sandy Nicoll, the SOAS UNISON branch secretary, said the presence of private security on campus was ‘completely unnecessary’ and ‘intimidating.’ He said the core problem was ‘prioritisation’ and that the university shouldn’t be keeping staff on short-term contracts and bringing in agency workers. He said SOAS needs a ‘core workforce.’ Especially because UNISON won a battle to be directly contracted by SOAS, and not outsourced to private companies in 2018. Nicoll highlighted casualisation – keeping workers on short-term contracts is a major problem at SOAS. He said the university should ‘treat people properly.’
Nicoll said students are ultimately the group that will suffer most from the lack of prioritisation of staff, stating ‘university working conditions and learning conditions are together,’ as ‘effectively the same thing.’ He said it was ‘unacceptable to dump more debt on students, because of mismanagement. Indeed, many students support the strike. SOAS Justice 4 Workers, a student-led campaign that supports UNISON, said standing with workers is important to them because, ‘we must ensure that all members of our community are cared for, respected, and treated with dignity’ and that service staff, ‘are as much a part of SOAS as our professors and fellow students.’Workers at SOAS are feeling the pressure of job insecurity at a time of rising inflation and cost of living. Lunn’s case shows how casualisation creates an unstable working environment for staff. UNISON”s Nicoll said that if things don’t change the current system will be ‘unable to survive.’