ONE of Scotland’s top universities is facing possible strike action over moves to axe 130 jobs.

Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh is planning the cuts as it battles to deal with the financial fallout of the coronavirus pandemic.

It is understood roles across the institution have been earmarked, in both teaching and non-teaching areas.

Heriot-Watt also said some of the affected jobs were externally-funded research posts “coming to their natural end”.

The development has been strongly criticised by the University and College Union, which confirmed it would move to a statutory ballot on industrial action up to and including strikes.

Mary Senior, UCU’s Scotland official, said: “The decision to axe 130 jobs at Heriot-Watt University is piling the worry, uncertainty and angst upon staff and students at this already difficult time, with the Covid-19 virus spreading more rapidly. Making the cuts so soon after the redundancy round of 2017 raises questions about the university’s management and that this is an attempt to take advantage of the global pandemic.

“UCU remains open to negotiation and consultation to avoid compulsory job cuts, and we are urging the employer to do all they can to look to alternative options. “However, our members are clear that they need to show the employer the strength of feeling against further cuts, and that’s why we are now moving to a statutory ballot to oppose redundancies.”

It comes after the EIS, Scotland’s largest teaching union, raised fears about universities and colleges “rushing” to axe jobs in anticipation of a double whammy from Covid-19 and Brexit.

There were worries that student recruitment, particularly from overseas, would be badly affected. However, indications have emerged that the picture may not be as bleak as first predicted.

Earlier this month, Further Education Minister Richard Lochhead said the latest UCAS data showed that, while the figure for accepted applications from EU students is down by five per cent, the figure for non-EU international students is up by 11%, giving an overall increase of 3%.

He also told Holyrood’s education and skills committee that the Scottish Funding Council had said the latest forecast for the university sector’s deficit in the coming academic year was £191 million, which compares to an initial range of £384m to £651m.

A spokeswoman for Heriot-Watt University said the pandemic had resulted in a “significant impact” on its income.

“This financial challenge is resulting in the need to make some difficult decisions, and this includes proposals to reduce the number of roles across the university,” she added.

“We are committed to finding these through voluntary means wherever possible, either through potential redundancy or other voluntary options such as a reduction in working hours, career breaks and flexible retirement.

“We continue to consider all suggestions for cost savings, and consultation with unions and staff around the proposals for role reductions, which includes a number of externally-funded research roles coming to their natural end, is ongoing. No final decisions have yet been made and the programme for voluntary options is currently still open.”

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “This is a difficult time for many as we navigate our way through this crisis. Last month the Further Education Minister wrote to the principals of our colleges and universities, reinforcing his expectation that institutions adhere to Fair Work principles as staff and resource requirements are reviewed. He also urged them to consider compulsory redundancies only as a last resort, after all other cost-saving measures have been fully explored.

“While it is not for the Scottish Government to intervene, industrial action is in no-one’s interests... and we expect the university and the unions to work together and make every effort to protect staff jobs and minimise disruption to students.”