Ruskin College have been accused of ‘victimising’ trade union representatives after a University and College Union (UCU) branch officer was fired in mysterious circumstances, and four others are due to be made redundant.

Dr Lee Humber was suspended from his position as a lecturer in health and social care in April, just two days after organising a vote of no confidence in the college’s principal, Paul Di Felice. After months in limbo, Humber was fired last week, prompting outrage from the UCU. Ruskin College denies that the dismissal was related to Dr Humber’s trade union activity.

Speaking to Cherwell, Dr Humber praised “the absolutely fantastic amount of support I got from colleagues in the UCU, from the union leadership and from the thousands of other trade unionists who wrote their support and invited me to address their branch and union meetings.”

“It was clear from the very start that trade unionists and many, many others understood that this as an attack on me as a trade union officer, on our UCU branch and on the national union generally.”

Ruskin College did not respond to a request for comment.

The adult learning institution, which is affiliated to Oxford University, has been embroiled in an official dispute with UCU over its treatment of staff. The college, which has traditionally maintained strong links to the trade union movement, has recently moved to scrap trade union courses and to casualise teaching contracts in a bid to stem falling student numbers.

These proposals led to a vote of no confidence in the college’s Principal in April, which was passed “unanimously” by Ruskin College’s UCU branch.

Two days after organizing the vote, Dr Humber was suspended from his post as a lecturer in health and social care. The Ruskin UCU branch said at the time: “We believe that Lee is being victimised in order to intimidate us as a union branch. This is utterly disgraceful behaviour from the management of a college with such deep roots in the trade union and labour movement.”

The campaign to reinstate Dr Humber has attracted the support of ten union leaders and the Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell. In a statement following Dr Humber’s suspension, Ruskin UCU said: “We believe that Lee is being victimised in order to intimidate us as a union branch. This is utterly disgraceful behaviour from the management of a college with such deep roots in the trade union and labour movement.”

UCU have criticized the college’s restructuring proposals on the grounds that falling student numbers are a result of poor management rather than staffing costs or course content. Ruskin College received a 90% student satisfaction rating for the quality of its teaching in 2018, but just 35% for the quality of its management – the lowest in the country. No data is available for 2019.

In a separate incident, the Ruskin Students’ Union was forced to relocate its May ball to a local pub after what it described as “poor, bureaucratic management” of their budget by the college.

The college’s business development plan has resulted in a pivot away from secure, long-term contracts towards the hiring of temporary and insecure agency staff. In 2018, the college spent 19% of staffing costs on contracted workers, compared to just 5% in 2015. These changes saw Ruskin College placed on UCU’s “list of shame” for academic institutions undermining staff pay and job security through casualisation.

In that time, the number of in-house staff has fallen from 75 to 55. Ruskin UCU allege that more than 80 staff, disproportionately women, have left during that period, including three entire senior administrative and recruitment teams.

The union allege that this high turnover is the result of a “climate of uncertainty, stress and fear” created by the Principal. The text of the no-confidence motion passed by the group states: “A large number of women have stated in exit interviews that they are leaving directly because of the Principal.”

The branch also accused the college of failing to carry out stress risk assessments for staff, in violation of their legal duties.

Last week, Ruskin College’s management outlined a further phase of restructuring to take place before the new academic year, including the discontinuation of four of the college’s six higher education courses in a bid to make the college less reliant on trade union teaching for its income. All five employees due to lose their posts as part of these changes are UCU Branch Committee members, which has led to accusations that union activists are being targeted.

Ruskin UCU says that staff and students were not consulted on the move to shrink the college’s higher education programme. In a statement, the union said: “We firmly believe the college is being wound down for merger. This will see multi million pound assets, prime Oxford real estate and working-class resources built up over 120 years given free to the private sector.”

In a statement, Ruskin College said: “Disciplinary investigations are internal staff disciplinary matters which are entirely unconnected with any trade union activity of those involved. It would be wrong for any institution to seek to discipline or suspend a member of staff as a result of their union activity; the notion that Ruskin College, the home of trade union education for more than 100 years, would do so is absolutely inconceivable. 

“Trade union membership at Ruskin is actively encouraged among the staff and there are currently four unions well-represented in College. Contrary to claims, the vote of no confidence in March was not unanimous, even among UCU members, and was supported by less than 20% of staff. Ruskin College remains the largest provider of trade union training in the UK with up to 3,000 reps trained each year.”

Speaking to Cherwell, Dr Humber said: “Everywhere in the country I went to speak to people and address meetings support was fantastically genuine and warm. Of course, coupled with this positive end of proceedings were – initially at least – feelings of anxiety.

“I worried about how I was going to support my family, whether the stress the dispute bought on me would infect my young kids, about what would happen in the future. Thankfully, due to the great resilience of my family, itself underpinned by the incredible depth and breadth of support we received, we’ve all grown out of it and we’re facing the future with great optimism.”

Asked how he was informed of his dismissal, Dr Humber said: “A simple letter. It was the 43rd letter they’d sent me (in the first 50 days of my suspension) arriving on the Friday as so many of their meant-to-be intimidating communiques had. It was no surprise to any of us.

“They made various allegations all of which we refuted in great detail in a 14-page document we sent to the disciplinary hearing. They’ve dismissed our refutation. We’ve now appealed against this decision and they’ll turn that down too.

“Then, at last, we’ll be out of the Alice in Wonderland world of Ruskin-based disciplinary procedure, where they’ve consistently made up policy and process to suit their own ends, and on into the world of ACAS and Employment Tribunals where there are real rules by which both parties in this dispute must abide.”