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Queen Mary University students facing financial hardship due to furlough struggle

PUBLISHED: 12:00 21 May 2020 | UPDATED: 15:00 22 May 2020

Students at Queen Mary University in Mile End are locked in a heated debate with the university over access to the government's furlough scheme. Pic: QMU

Students at Queen Mary University in Mile End are locked in a heated debate with the university over access to the government's furlough scheme. Pic: QMU

Archant

The Queen Mary University of London Students’ Union (QMSU) is locked in heated debate with its own university over access to the government’s furlough scheme.

Based in Bethnal Green, QMSU employs 300 students to work across various outlets on zero hour contracts, paying wages from the turnover of those businesses.

However, to reduce administration costs, pay is processed using the Queen Mary University of London (QMUL) payroll system.

This means that although QMSU and QMUL are separate entities, the latter must consent before the former can furlough its staff, who would then receive 80 per cent of their wages.

The group has yet to receive this consent, causing those affected huge financial hardship, according to QMSU commercial services officer Joe Vinson.

The campaign poster for the Queen Mary Students' Union (QMSU) group, who are campaigning to be given the consent required from the university to access the government furlough scheme. Picture: QMSUThe campaign poster for the Queen Mary Students' Union (QMSU) group, who are campaigning to be given the consent required from the university to access the government furlough scheme. Picture: QMSU

“Students don’t work for pocket money,” he said. “Some of my colleagues work 40 hours per week to afford to study in one of the most expensive cities in the world.

“QMUL has treated them with contempt and abandoned them during a global crisis.“

Joe, who also represents these students, claims the university has not yet offered a reason for its refusal, but rather has “stonewalled” all attempts at reaching an agreement.

The university sent an email to affected students on Monday, May 18, in an attempt to clarify matters.

President and principal Colin Bailey wrote: “A month ago we offered to cover the salary costs of all staff, including student staff, up to the amount that the SU felt that they could have legitimately claimed from the government’s furlough scheme.”

He confirmed that students have been paid for March and April.

Joe says this is “not true”: “They did offer to underwrite 80pc of our forecasted budgets, but not what we know we can claim under the coronavirus job retention scheme, which is significantly higher.”

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This impasse has led to significant financial difficulties, with affected students neither able to access furlough nor apply for universal credit.

Al Elbireer, a second year law and politics student, said: “Where I would have been earning approximately £400 this month under the furlough scheme, instead I’m making £29.”

Al accused the university of being in “continued denial of the situation”, adding that there is that is “no palatable justification for not placing us on furlough”.

Postgraduate student Heather Lafferty says the £63.24 she is set to receive in wages this month “will not cover the cost of my weekly food shop”, let alone other overheads.

“Relying on the bank of mum and dad is not an option”, she said, before calling the university’s actions “unethical at best”.

Emma Hardy MP, shadow minister for further education and universities, voiced her support for QMSU in a letter written to Mr Bailey on Monday, May 18.

In asking for the consent required, Ms Hardy observed that the current circumstances are likely to most affect “those students who have overcome the greatest barriers to get to university”.

Bethnal Green and Bow MP Rushanara Ali also confirmed that a phone call is scheduled with QMUL for tomorrow (Friday, May 22), with the aim of reaching a resolution.

Tower Hamlets Mayor John Biggs has also emailed Mr Bailey to ask for an explanation.

A dedicated campaign page features regular updates. The most recent of these — posted by Joe on May 19 — expands on the offer to underwrite 80pc of QMSU’s forecasted budget: “The guidance set out by the government states a specific formula for how furlough payments should be calculated, which translates into a figure of approximately £62,926.68 for the month of April 2020.

“Under the scheme that QMUL is offering, QMSU would only have £39,928 to pay our student staff this month. This is a difference of £22,998.68 and 36.55pc lower than what we believe the union would be entitled to claim from the government overall.”

In a statement, QMUL said: “Queen Mary University of London is committed to ensuring, as far as we are able, that no student is financially disadvantaged by the Covid-19 pandemic.

“We are continuing to review the guidance for the furlough scheme to assess whether Queen Mary should apply to furlough any of its staff, in line with the government’s guidelines.”


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