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Accusations of ‘threats and intimidation’ as college lecturers cast vote of no confidence in UHI Inverness principal Professor Christopher O’Neil

By Alasdair Fraser

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UHI Inverness Management Staff.
UHI Inverness Management Staff.

College lecturers have cast a “decisive vote of no confidence” in the leader of UHI Inverness amid allegations of pay dispute intimidation.

Members of the Educational Institute of Scotland-Further Education Lecturers’ Association (EIS-FELA) cite threats to dock their pay during legitimate industrial action for the emergency vote against principal and chief executive Professor Christopher O’Neil.

It is claimed the threats were made in communications from UHI Inverness against lecturers participating in a results boycott.

But Professor O’Neil has hit back at the union’s assertions, suggesting the vote was not representative of the majority of staff and claiming it fell within employment law to dock pay for withdrawing labour in an “extremely disruptive” marking boycott.

The union says the boycott was part of “lawful industrial action, sanctioned by a vote among college lecturers amid an ongoing national dispute” over pay.

While other colleges had retracted threats to dock pay, EIS-FELA accused UHI Inverness of escalating the intimidation, with “aggressive tactics designed to undermine legitimate industrial action”.

College lecturers nationally have been embroiled in a dispute over a pay award initially due in September 2022.

EIS area officer David Baxter expressed grave concerns regarding the college's stance.

He said: "Our members have voiced a unanimous lack of confidence in the leadership at Inverness College UHI.

“Threatening lecturers engaging in legitimate and legally sanctioned industrial action not only undermines the dignity of lecturers in their workplace but also contradicts the very essence of Fair Work Principles mandated for public bodies.

"Our lecturers' commitment to maintaining high standards of education and their dedication to their students' future is unwavering.

“Yet the actions of the college's administration, particularly the doubling down on threats of pay deem, have led to a significant erosion of trust and respect.

“Such aggressive tactics are designed to undermine legitimate industrial action and have no place in the public sector."

The EIS-FELA Inverness College UHI branch highlighted what it saw as a discrepancy in responses to industrial actions across the sector, accusing Inverness College UHI of escalating its stance.

Mr Baxter added: “It's important to clarify that not all colleges have resorted to threats of 100 per cent pay deduction for participation in industrial action, nor have all sought to backdate pay deductions.

“This disparity in responses further accentuates the unreasonable position taken by the leadership of Inverness College UHI.

“Our members are clear in their position. Leadership that genuinely upholds dignity in the workplace and adheres to Fair Work principles does not resort to intimidation or bullying.

“The actions of the college's leadership not only sets a concerning precedent for industrial relations within our educational institutions but also jeopardises the quality of education our students receive.

“It's imperative for the college's leadership to reconsider its approach, respect the lawful actions of its lecturing staff, and engage in constructive dialogue to resolve this dispute."

The EIS reiterated its commitment to “seeking fair resolutions to pay disputes and upholding the highest standards of education within Scotland's colleges”.

A statement added: “The union calls upon the leadership of Inverness College UHI to heed the collective voice of its lecturers, students, and the broader community it serves.

“Only through mutual respect and understanding can a fair and equitable solution be reached.”

Professor O’Neil said: “We understand this vote of no confidence is not representative of our staff body.

“We respect the democratic right of union members to ballot for industrial action and if they choose to withhold their labour they cannot expect to be paid.

“Our priority is to provide an excellent learning experience for all our students. Entering results is a key function of a lecturer and this current marking boycott ­- the second in a year - is extremely disruptive to our ability to certificate students’ qualifications to allow them to progress onto employment or further study.

“To minimise this impact, we notified our curriculum staff in a professional manner that participating in a resulting boycott is an unacceptable partial performance and a breach of contract.

“Our approach is in line with employment law, and it has been confirmed that 90 per cent of Scottish colleges are following the same line.”

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