Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Victims of Metropolitan Adversity

A CROWD demonstrated today outside the Tower House premises of London Metropolitan University in Holloway Road, in support of staff members Jawad Botmeh and Max Watson, who have been suspended and are facing disciplinary action on as yet unclear charges.

Jawad, whose hearing was this afternoon, is supposed to have "brought the University into disrepute", though as more than one speaker remarked, it would be hard to beat the London Met administration when it comes to that!

A member of staff at the Working Lives Research Institute in London Met, and recently elected as a Staff Governor, Jawad Botmeh served a prison sentence from 1996 to 2008 for his alleged part in a conspiracy to bomb the Israeli embassy.
He always insisted on his innocence, as did fellow-accused Samar Alami, and the only evidence linking him to it was that he had attended a car auction with someone who bought a second-hand car that was used in the bombing. No attempt appears to have been made to trace this person.

On the day of the explosion neither of the accused was near the embassy. Hence the charge of "conspiracy to cause an explosion", though no other conspirator was found, and the press has felt free to refer to the two as "embassy bombers". The widespread view, from people who knew Jawad and Samar , through to Amnesty International and many MPs,  is that the pair were innocent, and set up as scapegoats. Former MI5 agents David Shayler and Anne Machon say the security services knw in advance of the bombings (besides the embassy, Balfour House in Finchley was hit a couple of days afterwards), and probably know who really did them.

Whatever the truth, Jawad made no secret of his conviction when he applied for a job in 2008, indeed he offered it as relevant experience. Since then, colleagues say, he has been a valued co-worker and friend, which is why they elected him a Staff Governor.

Yet apparently the Vice Chancellor took this as signal to ask about Jawad, after five years, and the director of personnel said they did not know about his background, even though he declared it when he came there. Apparently he has been accused of "breach of trust", though colleagues say it is the London Met that is being untrustworthy.

Jawad's colleague in the Working Lives Research Institute, Max Watson, is also chair of the London Met branch of the public service union Unison. Max was recently singled out in an all-staff e-mail from the vice Chancellor, because of the union's opposition to the privatising firm Capita getting involved in the universitiy's business affairs.

 Both Unison and the lecturers' union UCU had speakers at the demo and there was a roar of assent when they accused the management of trying to soften up their unions in preparation for privatisation measures. There was also a message of support from Islington North MP Jeremy Corbyn, who is visiting Gaza. News also came via the Unison secretary at SOAS  that Birkbeck and SOAS union members and supporters were holding a solidarity picket.

 London Met as been in the news a few times in recent years, and it has seldom been good news.

In July 2008 it was reported that a financial crisis was looming, because London Met had been misreporting data on student drop-outs for several years and, consequently, the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) was proposing to claw back at least £15 million for the overpayment in 2008-9.

News of the crisis led to a demonstration of staff and students outside the universities Tower Building in January 2009. They were calling for the vice-chancellor to be sacked and standing against possible job cuts. In February 2009 the figure of overpayment was revised to £56 million by HEFCE, who were seeking to recover the money.

Local newspaper the Islington Gazette reported on the high stress levels among staff, including those on long-term sick leave. Alan Pike, a UNISON official, was quoted as saying "In the past two months, we have had about 20 support staff come to us with stress."

On 19 March 2009, in response to the crisis, vice-chancellor Brian Roper resigned his position with immediate effect but continued to receive  his salary until December 2009. Controversially, he received a series of bonuses during the period when the University was returning inaccurate data to HEFCE.

On 29 April 2009, the University and College Union (UCU) announced that members at London Metropolitan University voted overwhelmingly in favour of strike action and 'action short of a strike' against the loss of at least 550 jobs. In May 2009 Alfred Morris, former vice-chancellor of the University of the West of England and University of Wales, Lampeter, was appointed interim vice-chancellor.

Then last year the UK Border Agency took away London Met's trusted status for the issue of visas to foreign students, and cancelled the visas of thousands of  students, throwing them into chaos in the middle or final year of courses, for which they had already paid. The Trades Union Congress meeting in Brighton in September called for an amnesty for the students, and London Met said it was considering legal action against the Agency.

As well as the Working Lives Research  Institute, the TUC's own archives and library are also based in the London Metropolitan University.

With the university's whole future looking under threat, could it be that outside influences have seen this as a good time to put the vice chancellor and administration under pressure, and that Jawad Botmeh and Max Watson are innocent victims being thrown to the wolves in this crisis?        



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