Following motions of no confidence passed in June/July by all three staff trade unions (UCU, Unison and Unite), the University of Leeds vice chancellor and president Simone Buitendijk has announced that she is stepping down with almost immediate effect. Professor Buitendijk’s tenure has seen a steady deterioration in industrial relations and democratic engagement with staff and students at the university. This is reflected in multiple student occupations, simultaneous strikes by all three campus unions, two marking and assessment boycotts and a generalised loss of trust and goodwill at the university. Whilst the majority of industrial action is a matter for national sector-level negotiations, the situation at Leeds has been exacerbated by punitive measures leading to additional strike action by UCU in June 2023.
Throughout her tenure, Professor Buitendijk has been reluctant to meet with trade union representatives. In addition, during her time at Leeds, the number of elected staff representatives on the senate has been reduced and elected staff representation has been removed from the university council. In consequence, there are decreasing avenues and fewer mechanisms for staff voices to be heard by university management. Genuine staff engagement has been replaced by infrequent ‘Town Hall’ meetings, which have been stage managed and do not include genuine opportunities for staff questions and discussion. Such a lack of voice was reflected in the 2023 Employee Engagement survey, in which only 29% of staff agreed that they felt their voice counted and less than a third stated that they felt there was honest and open two-way communication at the university. The survey further evidenced widespread discontent amongst staff, with particularly poor scores for the level of confidence held in senior managers, with less than a third of staff indicating that they felt that senior managers had the capability to deliver the university strategy.
Staff have not been the only members of the university community to feel disaffected by Professor Buitendijk’s style of leadership. Students have also critiqued the ways in which their concerns have been handled (or ignored), particularly relating to treatment of staff and to climate policies, which has resulted in several occupations by students. The recent closure of the purpose-built student hub – the Marjorie and Arnold Ziff Building – and consequent relocation of the Lifelong Learning Centre has been a particularly controversial decision. We hope that this resignation paves the way for the incoming leadership to return the Ziff building to students, as a reflection of their commitment to remaking the university as an institution which puts the interests of students at its centre.
Picket lines have become a regular feature of life at the University of Leeds in recent years as staff have come to feel that industrial action is the only option. University leadership has failed to engage seriously with staff or to make progress on workplace improvements agreed with trade unions. Staff unions have consistently urged Professor Buitendijk to engage in a positive way with employer bodies UCEA and UUK to support staff and bring a positive resolution to the disputes. Sadly, Professor Buitendijk has consistently declined to do so.
We hope that Professor Buitendijk’s resignation indicates a recognition that it is time to start listening to and negotiating with staff unions instead of the senior management trying to defeat the staff. We look forward to rebuilding trust and goodwill on campus through more constructive dialogue between Professor Buitendijk’s successor and senior management, and staff and their representatives.
This page was last updated on 5 October 2023