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Why pensions matter (and why you really must vote to save USS)

When I started working in academia I didn’t think much about my pension. I joined USS because I thought I should (a bit like my reason for joining AUT the forerunner to UCU). Someone explained that my pension payments – made by me and my employer – were deferred salary.

That made sense.  My pension is money paid to me but kept back for when I can no longer work. Over the years I put up with pay freezes and below inflation pay awards, the gender pay gap, and short term fixed term contracts, in the knowledge that I would be OK when I retired.

The current proposals to close the defined benefit element – if enacted – rob us of that future financial security.

UCU have calculated that ending guaranteed pension payments would mean a loss more than £200,000 over the course of a retirement for a typical member of staff.  You can see the First Actuarial report analysis here, and admire the critique from our resourceful colleagues at Sheffield UCU below (reproduced graphically for best effect):

UUK have been muddling with the figures on potential losses by including state pension in their calculation (see here an analysis of the impact of their proposals produced by Aon) but even if we take their estimate, current USS members lose 20% of the value of their pension.

Even with UUK taking  liberties with the calculation of the size of your pension cut, this still produces a reduction of 20%.  That’s a lot of deferred salary.  Are you prepared to take a 20% pay cut?

It is difficult to precisely calculate the level of cut in pension our members could face, due to the nature of the move from defined benefit to defined contribution pensions.  Essentially, University employers are wanting to move the risk of providing pensions from Universities to individual employees.  This is an unnecessary gamble, and means that retirement income will be dependent on the peculiarities and upheavals in the stock market.

Little wonder we are angry and starting to get serious about our pensions.

As I write our UCU national negotiators are continuing to put forward counter proposals for a way forward.

  • We know that there are very different views about the methodology for valuing the scheme and the way of managing risk.
  • We know that most employers could afford an increase in contributions from the current 18% of pensionable salary to at least 21% (and this may not be needed in perpetuity).

Your local UCU branch like others around the country has been asking our Vice Chancellor to stand with staff to defend our pension. So far Sir Christopher and the senior management have continued to support the UUK and USS Board proposals. (Perhaps their relatively higher salaries mean that they have fewer financial worries about their futures?).

UCU are balloting for nationally coordinated action initially aimed at shutting down lectures and classes, including a refusal to reschedule any lost due to strikes, throughout February. Already, the pressure created by the strike ballot has forced UUK to extend their deadline for talks, due to end on 19 December 2017, to 23 January 2018. They have also been persuaded to consult their members on an alternative proposal from UCU, which maintains the defined benefits (DB) cap at £55,500, reduces accrual rates to one-eightieth and means increased contributions for both employers and staff (based on the previous cost sharing agreement).

But we cannot afford to be complacent. We know that only the threat of sustained strike action will move the employers’ position, and we must deliver a clear message – before the ballot closes – that we will not tolerate this attack on our pensions.

It is time to think about your pension, but also to act. We need a 50% turnout in the vote for the ballot to be legally binding, so your vote really does matter – regardless of whether you vote in favour or against the strike.  And we need this 50% from University of Southampton members, as the ballot will be counted locally: if Southampton members do not vote in the necessary numbers, our voices will not be heard in the ballot.

PLEASE ENSURE THAT YOU HAVE POSTED YOUR BALLOT PAPER BY 16 JANUARY AT THE LATEST.

If you have not yet received or have misplaced your ballot papers, please visit this address before 12 January for a replacement: https://www.ucu.org.uk/ussballotrequest

We are having a General Meeting on 9 January 2018 at 1215pm, in 45/2040 (Lecture Theatre A), which will be addressed by Christine Haswell, UCU’s National Pensions Official, and we will be running surgeries after the meeting.  Please let us know on ucu@soton.ac.uk if you wish to attend – all members are welcome, or if you are not a member, please come and join!

Please tell your colleagues to VOTE. If they are not members they can join UCU today at https://www.ucu.org.uk/join – and if they do so by 12 January, they can get a ballot paper.

If you want to know more about the arguments about USS there are resources here and our UCU colleagues at Sheffield have produced some useful audio and slide sets:

Catherine Pope
Southampton UCU vice-president

Get The Vote Out: Pensions update, and just who/what is Mercer?

We hope by now that all members will have received their half-a-Christmas-card with our cheery round robin reminding you to vote. You may also meet some of us on Thursday, as we knock on doors to introduce ourselves and to, once again, remind you to vote.  We need to stress to each and every member how important it is to get that ballot paper posted, regardless of whether or not you support the action. The turnout is key to whether or not it will be a valid ballot.

The only member who did not receive half a Christmas card was the Vice-Chancellor himself, as we understand that he no longer contributes to USS, having achieved the maximum number of years’ contribution.  We sent him a whole card, but in it we included a letter:

Dear Sir Christopher

On behalf of USS and UCU members employed at the University of Southampton I would like to ask you once again to challenge the UUK and USS board proposals for the future of our pensions.  Your colleague, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Warwick, Stuart Croft, has produced a couple of blog posts that provide a model for how someone in your position can support the employees of his institution by questioning the rationale behind the latest changes: https://warwick.ac.uk/services/vco/blog/

 

We note that you have invited Mercer to brief staff on 18 December 2017, claiming that Mercer work only for the University of Southampton, and not USS, UUK, or UCU.  While it may be that the representatives from Mercer who join us on 18 December have no professional relationship with USS, we note that the USS Actuary, Ali Tayyebi, is also a Mercer employee. It would be helpful if you could make this potential conflict clearer in the material advertising the event.

 

Given the hotly contested debate about the methodology for valuing the pension, and in the interests of giving staff the fullest possible evidence on which to base their decisions, we ask you also to invite representatives from First Actuarial to provide their view of the situation, at some point early in the new year before the ballot closes. First Actuarial have provided an alternative narrative throughout the negotiations, and have recently completed an evaluation of the latest proposals: https://www.ucu.org.uk/media/8916/TPS–USS-no-DB-comparison-First-Actuarial-29-Nov-17/pdf/firstacturial_ussvtps_nodb_29nov17.pdf. This demonstration of impartiality would be welcomed by members.

We have not yet received a reply.

In case the relationship between Mercer and USS is not clear to our readers, USS state on their website that the scheme valuation “is carried out by the trustee with the support of the scheme actuary, an appointed specialist who reports to the board, as required by law and under the scheme rules.”  The scheme actuary, as we stated in our letter to the VC, is employed by Mercer. You can even download Mercer’s latest valuation from this page on the USS site.

Our Pensions department sent out an invitation to all USS members on 11 December, saying “The session will be run by independent pension experts, Mercer, who are working for our University and not for USS, UUK or University and College Union (UCU).”

We note that as of 13 December, the news post on SUSSED still states: “The Mercer pensions experts, who will run these sessions, work for the University of Southampton, not for USS, Universities UK (UUK) or University College Union (UCU).”

We asked Pensions on 11 December and 13 December to ensure that members were made aware of the interest. As yet, they have not.

We find this extraordinary, particularly given the number of times senior management have accused UCU of lying and misleading its members, students, and the public.

Perhaps they know something we don’t, or have a different definition of the word “independent.”

We do hope that Mercer, at least, will be honest with those who attend the Monday session.

 

 

Don’t just be in the Union: Be the Union

Hi, I’m Sarah.

I’m a working mum to two young children, an ex-academic and a scientist at heart, a Learning Designer in iSolutions…and the Academic-Related Professional Services Officer on Exec. If you have some time, I’d like to tell you about my journey here, what it means to me, and what it means for you.

Why did I join UCU?

I used to work in ILIaD. Yes; the Institute for Learning, Innovation and Development (if you don’t remember it you can find it prominently positioned on Sussed, 10 months after its dissolution and replacement structure took effect). I joined UCU because, despite reassurances from senior management that no staff would be at risk of losing their jobs, I was nervous and stressed. I worked in a department that had been restructured 3 times in 4 years by this point. In total I have worked at the university since 2010; personally experiencing fixed term contracts, redeployment, and patchy employer support through two periods of maternity leave. I had battled alone through this, and when faced with another restructure I thought I’d join up. I felt better knowing that someone would be supporting me, we weren’t getting support from HR; quite the opposite. When we pointed out careless mistakes and what appeared to be a fundamental lack of understanding, we were met with aggressive-defensive arguments or silence.

I was lucky. I knew there was a role for me in the new structure (other colleagues, despite assurances, have since been shown the door). I was worried because my job title was changing in a way that devalued my skills and qualifications.

The UCU rep for the ILIaD restructure was excellent. He was professional, a calming presence in all staff and member meetings, and had an accurate eye for detail. You might have read his earlier post; if you haven’t please do. I came out of the other side of the restructure with my role (which I still love) intact but also my original job title and a new-found respect for the work of UCU reps and caseworkers. It wasn’t clear how the past failings that contributed to the restructure were going to be addressed, so how could the team avoid being in this stressful situation again? ILIaD is just one in a line of iterations of this type of Professional Services unit; think CITE, LATEU and so on.

Why did I join the Branch Executive group?

Working in Professional Services in a MSA job family I was a natural fit for the role of Academic-Related Professional Services Officer. It was my chance to change things for the better, to support others going through difficult times, and to highlight issues that might otherwise go unnoticed; the poor experiences of women on maternity leave and their return to work and the removal of the requirement for ethics approval for non ERE-staff gathering data are issues I’m still tackling. I thought my restructure was something of a unique case, but I’ve seen 5 restructures across the university since March last year, and only 1 of those appears to have gone smoothly. It doesn’t fill me with confidence for what lies ahead.

Your UCU executive group

In the relatively short time that I’ve been part of this group, I’ve gotten to know a team of principled, hardworking and concerned citizens. They are caring, decent people who believe in fairness and honesty. They are ERE, MSA, TAE, students, parents, friends… and in every individual role in the wider university they are part of the fabric of this institution. I’m proud to stand beside them in asking that the rest of the university upholds the Nolan principles, that people are treated with decency, and to challenge the assertion that a good education can be purchased as if it were a car or a television.

Your Academic-related Professional Services Officer

I’ve mentioned a few issues that are important to me as a member of MSA staff, but my role on Exec is to represent the interests of members. As the NETSCC restructure has shown, senior management consider a move from ERE to MSA as a variation of contract. If you are ERE now, there’s a possibility I might be representing your interests in future. I think the issues that I’m interested in affect many MSA, TAE, and CAO staff but I need you to tell me what you are concerned about. Contact me via the UCU@soton email address.

Your Union, our Union.

Exec are here for you and we also have a favour to ask. We need you to be here for us. Ask yourself; are you willing to help? Can you be a point of contact in your building or faculty? Can you spare some time for casework? Whatever you can offer is greatly appreciated.

It’s yours. It’s mine. It’s ours. Don’t just be in the Union: Be the Union.

An Open Letter to the Chair of Council, from a concerned member of the community

Yesterday, our member Prof Mahesan Niranjan sent us a copy of an open letter that he sent to the Chair of Council. He asked us to circulate it to our members, and to urge them to circulate it to other members of the university community and beyond. He has given us permission to reproduce it here, so please find the text below, without further comment.


School of Electronics and Computer Science
University of Southampton

12 December 2017

Dr Gill Rider,
Chair of University Council.

An Open Letter on Recent Happenings

As I mentioned in an email last week, the University attracting media spotlight for the wrong reason concerns me greatly. I know that very high salaries paid to a small number of people at that top of organisations, which is a national problem, cannot be addressed by targeted attacks on a few individuals. I also know that it is usual to maintain “stiff upper lip” over salary paid to a colleague. Hence our own Vice Chancellor’s salary is not a topic I would comment on.

But there are more serious issues at stake that make me write this, and fundamental to what I write are two observations:

  1. University is about scholarship. We are a community of scholars in the pursuit of discovering new knowledge and in its dissemination, both to the wider society and to the junior members who come to study here. We educate by stretching their minds. Our research is driven by intellectual curiosity. Scholarship being our core business, academic staff are our revenue generators.
  2. In a research active university like ours, there is significant subsidy from teaching income to research. Research grants do not cover their full cost (FEC) and are subsidised from the block grant (QR) and student fees. To a certain extent this subsidy is justified because unless we engage in cutting edge research, we cannot educate students at the frontiers of knowledge. But universities have pushed this too far, paying for highly expensive research which ought to be funded either directly by the Government (e.g. MRC’s Laboratory for Molecular Biology) or by industry (e.g. Drug discovery research at GSK). When this subsidy to research is high, we cannot give our students the attention they deserve — and pay for — resulting in diminished quality of education.

I submit that drifting away from a recognition of the above two factors is what has caused the current unhealthy situation in which the Sector is attracting much media focus and public anger nationally, and we see much frustration and unhappiness among staff on our own campus.

Since my short tenure as Senate appointed member of University Council ended in August, I have no formal position to raise issues of concern directly with you. Hence this open appeal.

  1. I ask Council to consider announcing that while the University will honour the present Vice Chancellor’s contract, in future appointments we will set a salary cap of £ 200,000 for this position and scale down other senior salaries similarly. Let us take the lead and set an example to the Sector and declare in our advertisement that we in Southampton do not take pursuit of financial reward to be an indicator of talent.
  2. I ask Council to intervene and persuade management to reverse the decision to target Voluntary Severance on selected disciplines. If the primary problem we are trying to solve is a financial one, it makes better sense, in the first instance, to run a VS scheme campus-wide so the shock may be absorbed by the whole community. Should that not achieve the reduction necessary, we can scale down selected areas in line with demand for those subjects. But why do this over such short timescale? At the high level, in theory, we are running a ten-year plan with admirable long-term thinking, but in practice, at the implementation level, we are acting in haste, giving people just ten weeks to decide on a VS offer.
  3. I ask Council to take a closer look at the subsidy between teaching and research. Are we engaged in expensive research in Highfield and other loss-making projects in faraway places? Is it fair that the financial burden of these — however prestigious they are — be borne by our students incurring long-term debt? Let us work towards closer integration between teaching and research so that expensive research in some areas is not subsidised by teaching income from others.
  4. I ask Council to intervene and change the discourse on our campus, from one that continuously sees academic staff merely as salary costs, to one which sees us as revenue generators, achieving it through our scholarship. Shortly after the VS scheme was announced, I met three colleagues from one of the targeted areas. They were in shock. They had no idea that their subject area was financially weak. Over the years, they have had no information from which they could have worked it out and taken part in the planning process that could have re-built their areas. This is because much of the planning within Faculties happens with minimal transparency or consultation, which in turn is because staff do not feature in our discourse as revenue generators. An attitude change here would increase engagement to the benefit of us all.
  5. I ask Council to persuade management to suspend the appraisal system which in its present form does not appear to be fit for purpose. Insistence on a sharply peaked distribution of quantified performance is the biggest demoralising factor on campus at present. I am aware several colleagues, including myself, are working hard to resist the thought “if after doing so much I am slapped with a 3/5 and declared mediocre, should I not do less next year?” I myself will not be reducing my efforts because I am driven by intellectual curiosity and my commitment to my students, but the offence I suffer serves no purpose. “It is a waste of time,” an appraiser agreed with me, “it is a waste of time,” that appraiser’s appraiser also agreed with me. “Why then are you guys doing it?” I asked. “Because that is what we are told to do,” say both! In a good university such as ours, lost productivity due to diminished morale may outweigh any gains from a badly designed system of performance management. Please, let us not take that risk.
  6. I ask Council to create conditions in which the Ten Year Plan is owned by — and felt to be owned by — the entire University community, than as a top-down adventure imposed upon them. I myself am fully persuaded by the necessity of it and was supportive of it throughout its planning stages which overlapped with my tenure on Council. Across campus, I see very little awareness and buy-in from colleagues. Hence, I ask that the group working on its implementation be expanded with five colleagues elected by Senate to play a role in effective consultations, and to have a say in prioritising projects.

Dear Gill, at the start of this academic year, I emailed you and the Vice Chancellor with a photograph of an overcrowded class with my students stood at the back and seated on the aisles. You may recall that I ended that email with the comment: “Forgive me, I write because I care.” You were gracious in your reply, saying “Niranjan, I know you care.”

The effect of your acknowledgement was magical. My subject of Machine Learning is taught under testing conditions, with class size doubling, students admitted without sufficient scrutiny of their mathematical background and suggestions for improvement often rebuffed by middle management. Yet, I am pleased to say, I pulled it off, receiving a long applause at the end of the module, evaluation only slightly damaged (4.6/5, down from 4.8/5) and a student commenting: “One of the greatest and most stimulating module I had at University, in my 4 years.”

I do not say the above to blow my own trumpet. I hope it illustrates that our commitment to students and acknowledgement by university leaders of what we do well can be far more effective than top-down management and the neat “bell curve” of appraisal scores. The former is the best way to get the most out of the business of scholarship we are here for, and the latter is the way to kill it.

My position while making this plea remains exactly the same (“I write because I care”), and I very much hope your acknowledgement of it does not change either.

I also hope that sharing my thoughts openly with you and our University community might help shift the current mood on campus from one of anger to one of dialogue and debate, and that collegiality — a pillar of our strategy — is not perceived by the community as simply a catchphrase.

Yours Sincerely,

Mahesan Niranjan
Professor of Electronics and Computer Science

 

Friday update: We can demand better

It’s been another busy week for the local branch, as you no doubt will have gathered by the number of emails dropping into your inbox.  We had our monthly branch executive meeting, as well as a more open meeting for reps and volunteers – running the national pensions campaign at the same time as trying to keep abreast of our considerable and ever-growing local issues is a huge ask, so we are grateful for every offer of help we receive.

We would have had an important meeting about facilities time on Monday, rescheduled from as long ago as August, but it was cancelled at only hours’ notice by management. “Facilities time” refers to the hours worked by union officials and volunteers on union business – including negotiation, casework, and representation – and the recompense for that work received by Faculties and Academic Units.  Given the huge increase in the amount of work we are now covering this meeting has been high on our priority list, but alas, we have not been offered a new date.

The Chief Operating Officer’s email of 4 December 2017

As members will know, on Monday we received a response to the questions we put to senior management on 22 November. While it contained little information that was not already in the public domain, it did contain a rather astonishing passage:

Thank you for your email of the 24th November 2017 requesting the information you would like to see that supports our decision to offer a voluntary severance scheme to six areas of the University.

You have requested the information for the purposes of collective bargaining. I must emphasise that we have launched a targeted voluntary severance scheme and are not consulting with you about proposals to dismiss as redundant 20 or more employees. As such the University does not have a duty to provide the requested information and will not be providing minutes of meetings or details of meetings where decisions were taken. [our emphasis]

Keep this in mind. We will come back to it in a minute.

The Chair of Council’s email of 1 December 2017

As every employee, and anyone who listens to the news or reads the papers, will know, the Chair of Council sent an email to all staff on 1 December, saying that the Vice-Chancellor did not sit on the committee that awarded his pay in 2016 – in a statement that the University has since been forced to clarify in the national press.  We leave it to readers to decide whether or not the intent to mislead was deliberate, but we reproduce the text here, and ask our readers to note the verb tense (English – one of the departments under threat – teaches very useful critical reading skills). The email sets out a situation that is impossible: the Remuneration Committee as described could not have set, regularly reviewed, or agreed the Vice-Chancellor’s pay for 2016, since it has only been in existence since September 2017:

The Remuneration Committee followed a core principle of transparency around Sir Christopher’s pay. Therefore we simplified it to pay one overall figure, not the complex remuneration packages that others have of salary, bonus and various other allowances, including the usual 18% employer pension contribution, which get reported in different ways.

Our governance

We have rigorous and effective governance in place relating to Vice-Chancellor pay. His salary was benchmarked, set and is regularly reviewed and agreed by the University’s independently chaired Remuneration Committee, which reports to the University Council. The Vice-Chancellor is not a Member of the Remuneration Committee and he only attends by invitation to discuss other business. We have always been transparent about his pay, internally and externally. Members of the Remuneration Committee and Council are acutely conscious of the responsibility we have for ensuring appropriate remuneration, and are sensitive to the healthy public debate about remuneration levels, equality in wages, value for money, and reward for responsibility and performance.

The rest of the substance of the email was an attempt to justify the Vice-Chancellor’s salary, which has increased by 71% since 2009 and 30% since 2015 (£253K in 2008/9, £332K in 2014/15; £433K in 2016/17).  We find it curious that the rhetoric used to justify senior management pay always invokes the private sector (“But if we want a world-class leader, which we have in Sir Christopher, remuneration has to be set accordingly. During our search it became very clear that Vice-Chancellors in the USA, Asia and Australasia earn significantly more than in the UK”), while at the same time the rhetoric used to minimize increases in all other university workers’ pay invokes public sector pay restraint.

Responsibilities of senior management

At the bottom of Dr Rider’s email is a link to The University Council web pages which, if followed through, leads to the Statement of the Council’s Primary Responsibilities.  This is an interesting document.

Para 2.6 states that Council has a responsibility “to conduct its business in accordance with best practice in university corporate governance and with the principles of public life drawn up by the Committee on Standards in Public Life.”

Para 3.2 states:

  • The President & Vice-Chancellor’s actions will be consistent with the principles of public life, known as the Nolan Principles, drawn up by the Committee on Standards in Public Life.
  • The President & Vice-Chancellor will act at all times to further the best interests of the University, its staff and students, and will be mindful of the importance of preserving the University’s reputation.

Para 3.6 states, “Paragraph 3.2 above states that the President & Vice-Chancellor’s actions shall be in accordance with the principles of public life. Likewise, the actions of the Vice Presidents, the Chief Operating Officer and the Deans will be consistent with the principles of public life, known as the Nolan Principles, drawn up by the Committee on Standards in Public Life.”

The Nolan Principles

It is clear from the above that all members of Council and all members of the senior management of the University have a clear duty to abide by The Seven Principles of Public Life, known as the Nolan Principles.  These are:

1. Selflessness
Holders of public office should act solely in terms of the public interest.

2. Integrity
Holders of public office must avoid placing themselves under any obligation to people or organisations that might try inappropriately to influence them in their work. They should not act or take decisions in order to gain financial or other material benefits for themselves, their family, or their friends. They must declare and resolve any interests and relationships.

3. Objectivity
Holders of public office must act and take decisions impartially, fairly and on merit, using the best evidence and without discrimination or bias.

4. Accountability
Holders of public office are accountable to the public for their decisions and actions and must submit themselves to the scrutiny necessary to ensure this.

5. Openness
Holders of public office should act and take decisions in an open and transparent manner. Information should not be withheld from the public unless there are clear and lawful reasons for so doing.

6. Honesty
Holders of public office should be truthful.

7. Leadership
Holders of public office should exhibit these principles in their own behaviour. They should actively promote and robustly support the principles and be willing to challenge poor behaviour wherever it occurs.

Some questions

We ask our readers to consider:

  • whether the Chief Operating Officer’s email of 4 December 2017 demonstrates the fourth and fifth principles, accountability and openness, or whether it in fact, demonstrates the opposite, refusing to reveal information he is not legally obliged to reveal.
  • whether the Chair of Council’s email of 1 December 2017 demonstrates that Council and senior management adhere to all of these principles: selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty, and leadership.
  •  whether senior management’s behavior in relation to their employees in NETSCC, described in our blog on Tuesday, demonstrates the third, fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh principles: objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty, and leadership.
  •  whether the Vice-President for Research’s unilateral decision to remove all gathering and use of data by central Professional Services teams from the oversight of the Ethics Committee demonstrates the second, third, fourth, fifth, and seventh principles: integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, and leadership.
  • whether senior management’s inability to ensure that its appraisal system is fairly operated according to our negotiated agreement, and its longheld stance that it was not in contravention of that agreement, demonstrates the third, fourth, fifth, and seventh principles:  objectivity, accountability, openness, and leadership.
  •  whether senior management’s continued endorsement of a discriminatory process of module evaluation, and the use of the data it produces in the evaluation of its employees’ performance demonstrates the third, fourth, and seventh principles: objectivity, accountability, and leadership.
  • whether the institution’s woeful record on response to Freedom of Information requests  demonstrates the fourth, fifth, and seventh principles:  accountability, openness, and leadership.

Precedents for community action have been set at Birmingham and Bath, and our students are readying their own all-student vote on senior management’s plans for the future. The University – all of its members, students and staff – can, and should, demand better from our Council and our senior management.

 

 

 

 

Through the looking-glass

One of the most disturbing aspects of the last ten weeks has been the feeling that the foundations of the University’s governance are being shaken from within.  The disorienting prevarication of  senior management’s doublespeak and their stubborn refusal to model their own required standards of behaviour have, at times, left us lost for words and feeling as if we have entered an alternative reality – through the looking-glass – where things are never quite what they seem.

The continuing brouhaha surrounding senior management is hard enough to process, and we do not need to rehearse these issues further, when they are unravelling in the press. However, many members will be less aware of the ways in which senior managers have been breaking formally negotiated agreements and playing fast and loose with employment law.  Bear with us for the next couple of sections: you need to grasp some basics to understand why we are so exercised by the behaviour of senior management. If you are looking at this post and thinking “TL;DR,” you can cut to the chase by clicking here.

The Framework Agreement

Most of our colleagues could go through their entire time at the University of Southampton without knowing or caring about the Framework Agreement, but in fact it underpins every facet of their employment and determines the course of their career here. The origins of the Framework Agreement are that it was an agreement to bring together pay structure for all university staff which was negotiated between the national representatives of Universities and trade unions.  Each University then had to negotiate with trade unions to make a local agreement.  In Southampton, it was established in a process that ran from 2002 to 2005, and then some areas were revised by the Reward project, between 2012 to 2015. The time taken to negotiate the Agreement reflected the complexity and importance of the issues: alongside your contracts of employment, it provides a framework for your pay and conditions.

Within the Framework Agreement, there are four “job families”:  Education, Research and Enterprise (ERE); Technical and Experimental (TAE); Management, Specialist and Administrative (MSA); and, Community and Operational (CAO) [intranet links only] – covering different areas of the University’s work. Together, the job families and the framework are meant to ensure that employees are rewarded with equal pay for equal levels of responsibility, regardless of the type of work they do, and this puts into place the legal requirement for equal pay for work of equal value.

However, there are fundamental differences between the terms and conditions for the families, the most important of which relates to promotion: ERE staff can apply for promotion on merit – in effect, the grade is attached to the person, not the post. For other job families, the graded level is attached to the post: there are Level 4 jobs, Level 5 jobs, and so on. For employees in these families, promotion occurs if a job at a higher grade becomes available, or if their job is re-graded via the Job Evaluation Panel (below).

Southampton UCU represents staff in all families, Level 4 and above, with the majority of our members in ERE, MSA, and TAE.  There are no ERE levels below 4; there are no TAE levels above 5.

The Hay Process and the Job Evaluation Panel

The process by which a new post is placed within a job family and graded on the pay scale is based on a form of factor-based Job Evaluation known as the Hay Process. The University’s Job Evaluation Panel comprises HR and union representatives, all of whom have undergone two days of special training.  Job descriptions for new posts are reviewed by the Job Evaluation Panel, and the family and grade are allocated before the post can be advertised.  If there are discrepancies or areas that the Panel feel need to be resolved, the job description is sent back to the originator with comments for revision, and then resubmitted for the next time the panel meets.

When a unit, service, or department is restructured, sometimes old posts are terminated and new posts are created – this is not unusual and to be expected, as responsibilities are shuffled around.  If job roles are to cease as part of a restructure, then the post-holders are automatically “at risk of redundancy,” but this is often mitigated by the new posts on offer as suitable alternative employment. The Job Evaluation Panel exists to ensure that new posts are appropriately graded and to confirm/allocate the correct career pathway, so it plays a crucial role in any restructure.

Breaking Agreements

Recent University restructures have taken place in units and services that support its core activities, including the Library, Research and Innovation Services, Health and Safety, and the now disbanded LLAS (Centre for Language, Linguistics and Area Studies) and ILIaD (Institute for Learning, Innovation, and Development).  The restructuring of ILIaD’s activities showed why the Framework and the Job Evaluation Panel are so important: the posts involved teaching and research activities as well as teaching support and research support.  The complex mix of responsibilities meant that any restructure had to be very clear who would do what activities in the proposed new structure.

The ILIaD process was unnecessarily long and difficult, causing a great deal of stress to the staff involved, and we had hoped (see our blog from mid-September) that lessons had been learned from the mistakes.  The first inkling that some managers entrusted with restructures did not understand the job families had come during the ILIaD process: initially, management proposed a Level 3 ERE post (doesn’t exist in the Framework) and a Level 4 MSA lecturer (lecturing is not a core MSA activity). When Southampton UCU pointed this out, they had to go back to the drawing board – these proposed posts never made it as far as the Job Evaluation Panel, and were replaced with Framework-appropriate posts.

Around the time the ILIaD process was completed, another restructure began in NETSCC, (NIHR Evaluation, Trials and Studies Coordinating Centre), a research unit funded by the Department of Health.  We have referred to this shambolic restructure several times in our emails to members.  In the beginning, it appeared that the process was going relatively well: while there were problems in communication that might have appeared serious, we put this down to the fact that we were in the middle of the summer and hoped for the best.

The problem with NETSCC

By September, however, it became clear that there were fundamental problems with management’s proposals for NETSCC.  Although the number of redundancies had been reduced from 29 to 6, we were informed that ERE staff were going to be moved to MSA posts.  Two generic job descriptions were produced, which although badged as MSA had clear research and enterprise responsibilities.  We asked if they had been through the Job Evaluation Panel: first we were told that they had, and then we were told that the Head of Reward had said that they did not need to go to the Panel, because there were only minor variations in the existing job descriptions. We did not agree that the move from ERE to MSA could possibly constitute only a minor variation: the change in terms and conditions is fundamental.

As the date for the closure of the consultation approached we became increasingly concerned that management were bypassing both the University’s ordinances and employment law.  Members that were to be moved to these new contracts should have been notified that they were at risk of redundancy (since their posts and contracts were to be terminated).  We then learned that these job descriptions would not apply to just the six members we were representing, but to 130 employees in NETSCC. Late in October, we finally got management to agree to send the job descriptions to the Job Evaluation Panel, and that if the Panel decided that the jobs were MSA, not ERE, then affected members would be told that they were at risk of redundancy, and due process would follow. We repeatedly requested that the consultation deadline be postponed to allow for clarity on the job descriptions and to ensure the employers’ legal obligations were met, but these requests were refused.

Cutting a long story short, the Job Evaluation Panel rejected the job descriptions as not compatible with the MSA job family.  The consultation closed on 31 October 2017, and staff were invited into one-to-one meetings, with the pathway still not confirmed: the staff were not told they were at risk.  Our request to reschedule the meetings was refused. Members shown ‘individual comparator tables’ and informed they would be expected to undertake a change in contract. No information shared prior to these meetings with the UCU representatives.

Management further claimed that the changes could be effected by a variation of contract – something which we vigorously disputed.  Moreover, they claimed that the changes would support employees’ career progression, when it is clear that exactly the opposite would be true: remember, MSA grades are attached to the post, not the person.

Late in the evening of 23 November, we were sent a letter from the NETSCC Senior Management Team, informing us that a meeting of three senior academics on UEB and the Chief Operating Officer, Ian Dunn, had decided the posts were MSA posts, and that letters would be sent to employees the following day, giving them one month to accept or decline the new job description and contracts.  Note: none of the people involved in making this decision normally attend Job Evaluation Panels and we would have expected their guidance to have gone back to the panel for ratification.

Our members in NETSCC are furious, but exhausted. They must now make a decision about whether they wish to accept the new contract, or face unspecified consequences from their employer.  We have asked for an Emergency Joint Negotiating Committee to discuss the legal and procedural irregularities of the process, and we have asked that the Vice-Chancellor be present at the meeting to account for this sorry mess.

WHY THIS MATTERS

If you have got this far, or if you have clicked the link above to skip all the detail, you may be wondering why all this should matter to you.  You will know whether your post is ERE, TAE, or MSA.  You will understand what that means to your career progression and the kinds of activities that you are required to perform.  You will know if you are required to teach and research, or provide support for those who do. The decision taken by senior management to bypass the Job Evaluation Panel puts all this in doubt, and sets an extremely dangerous precedent that we cannot permit to pass unchallenged.

If senior line managers can unilaterally decide that a post is ERE or MSA, then they can manipulate contracts in preparation for the REF, or produce posts that perform ERE functions without appropriate development, training, or reward. We may find that Level 3 posts are created for teaching; or Level 4 MSA posts “managing” research but not returnable in the REF, and not needing ethics approval because an activity is considered “evaluation” rather than “research.”

We have seen this contempt for the Framework Agreement already in the way that senior management have prevaricated and procrastinated over the Reward policies, particularly the Appraisal policy.  With the so-called Voluntary Severance Scheme, we have seen them manipulate the law and our own Ordinances on redundancy consultations.

We have arrived at a position where it is increasingly difficult to trust what our senior management tell us, and we cannot rely on them to follow their own procedures.  We have a comprehensive Framework Agreement negotiated over several years and just three years ago was endorsed by a vote of our members of 94.5% voting yes to the agreement, which can seemingly be undone by the COO and three senior academics on UEB.

We are also already rapidly reaching a point where we have no confidence in our leaders to lead.  We call on our members to support us in our mission to bring management to account for their actions – Southampton UCU have not had a satisfactory response to any of our enquiries for weeks.  Perhaps if enough staff and students demand explanations for the behaviour of senior management, we will eventually get an explanation that makes sense.

Local UCU Friday update

It’s been a very busy couple of weeks at Southampton UCU HQ, for obvious reasons.  There is quite a chill about. We might even say, winter is coming.

We would have liked to have updated you on progress made in conversations with senior management, but that is not possible.

On 22 November, representatives from all three campus unions met with the Vice-Chancellor, the Chief Operating Officer, two of the three Directors of HR and the Head of Employee Relations.  We were joined by the Vice-President for Research.  The Vice-Chancellor left the meeting after half an hour.

At this meeting, a set of questions was put to senior management.  We repeated the questions five times, and were refused an answer each time. The Chief Operating Officer then told us that we should put the questions in writing.

This we did, in an email sent on 24 November. Since the information should have been readily to hand, we allowed 48 working hours for a response.  We were sent a holding message on 27 November, but we have not had any further communication from senior management on these issues.

As voted for unanimously at our EJNC on 15 November, we also asked again for the Voluntary Severance Scheme to be opened to all members of staff at the University. We further requested that the deadline for the Voluntary Severance Scheme be extended to 31 March 2018, which would allow staff to consider their positions in the new Faculty and School structure – the full details of which will not be known until mid-February.

Since we have had no response, we thought it would be acceptable to allow our members, if they so wished, to repeat the questions in their own communications with senior management.  You will find the text of the email below.


From: UCU U.
Sent: 24 November 2017 15:59
To: Vice-Chancellor
Cc: Dunn I.; Hollowbread S.C.; Ciarleglio A.; Bradley A.E.E.
Subject: Formal follow up to meeting on 22 November

Dear Sir Christopher

Further to the meeting held on 22 November 2017 with yourself, Ian Dunn and representatives from HR, the purpose of which was to provide “an opportunity for the unions to seek clarity on the proposals regarding the size and shape of the University as set out in the Vice-Chancellor’s All Staff Address on Monday 13 November”, we are formalising our questions about how the areas in which Voluntary Severance has been offered have been determined.  In the meeting, you requested that we write to you to formalise our inquiry.

Could you please provide us with the following for the purposes of collective bargaining:

  1. The minutes of the meetings at which the selection of the six academic areas (Music, English, Chemistry, Law, Social Sciences and Tribology) was decided;
  2. A record of the precise grounds on which the decisions were based for each of the six academic areas (Music, English, Chemistry, Law, Social Sciences and Tribology);
  3. The statistical data to support these decisions for each of the six academic areas;
  4. The date on which the minutes of these meetings were accepted;
  5. Details of the targets set per Faculty and per academic unit, outside of the six academic areas identified, as part of these projects;

We believe that the university should already have the information requested, so we believe that it is reasonable to expect a response to the points raised above by 5pm Tuesday 28 November.

As explained above, UCU is requesting this information for the purposes of collective bargaining.  As we discussed in the meeting with you on Wednesday 22 November, we are also requesting that this information is circulated to staff in each of the six academic areas (Music, English, Chemistry, Law, Social Sciences and Tribology).  As you know, staff in these areas have been told that they have until 14 December 2017 to consider whether they would like to apply for the Voluntary Severance Scheme.  We believe that it is in the interest of these staff members, as well as the interest of University of Southampton, for staff to have all of the relevant information, so that they can make informed decisions about potential applications for Voluntary Severance.

As we mentioned, from feedback at our general meeting on 15 November, our members are concerned at the lack of engagement from University Management with its staff and the lack of transparency surrounding these proposals.  The sharing of the information requested in this letter, would be helpful to reassure our members that the University of Southampton is prepared to engage with openness and transparency about these proposals.

We would also like to re-state our request that the VS Scheme be opened up to all staff, and this was unanimously supported by UCU members at the meeting on 15 November.  In addition, we are requesting that University of Southampton considers extending the deadline for applications to the Voluntary Severance Scheme to 31 March 2018, to allow for decisions to be based on the full disclosure not only of the information requested above but also the detailed structure of the new Faculties.

We look forward to hearing from you with a response to this request, by 5pm on Tuesday 28 November 2017.

Southampton UCU Executive Committee


We hope you find this information, such as it is, useful.

Our communication with the Vice-Chancellor regarding Warwick’s response to UUK’s proposals for USS

Southampton UCU sent the following email to the Vice-Chancellor this evening:

Dear Sir Christopher
We write to you again on behalf of our members and all members of staff here in the USS pension scheme. Following the USS Trustees’ adoption of a more conservative approach to the scheme valuation, we understand that Universities UK (UUK) is supporting the closure of the defined benefit element of the current pension scheme.

We would like to know, did the University of Southampton approve the latest UUK proposal before it was put to the negotiators, and if so, will you let us see the costings related to the proposal?

We ask you to put every pressure on UUK to change this decision.

This change, if implemented will have a huge, negative impact on staff here, and in other Universities. The closure of the defined benefit scheme will result in a more cautious investment strategy and will inhibit future funding of our pensions. This will be detrimental for current and future staff, and puts even those already drawing a pension from USS at risk.

This will destroy the future financial security of our staff. Not only that, the reducing of employer DC contributions to 12%, in part to finance alleged historic deficits (which, if they exist, are the employer’s responsibility) represents a huge intergenerational unfairness.

We ask you to stand with Stuart Croft, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Warwick, to defend our pensions, and to endorse his statement with a statement of your own. See: http://blogs.warwick.ac.uk/execteam/entry/which_way_forward/

The valuation of the scheme and the approach to the management of risk are hugely contested. Stuart Croft has called for “more transparency, particularly on issues such as self-sufficiency, mortality assumptions and projections for gilt yields, since these are the building blocks upon which a new greater conservatism has been placed.” Please support his challenge to the current increasingly conservative approach to USS.

We are aware that local competitor universities such as Portsmouth and Bournemouth offer alternative, more attractive pension schemes, and this is damaging the recruitment and retention of staff, and our reputation. The University of Southampton must be able to offer a decent pension to current and prospective staff, and must work to protect the pensions of its retired staff. We urge you to join with other VCs opposed to the USS proposals, and work to defend the future pension benefits of all members of USS.

Sincerely
Southampton UCU Executive Committee

A torrid time

The Penguins of Solidarity have a message for you. Join UCU.

It’s a torrid time at the University of Southampton.  I think we can all agree on that.

The all-staff address on Monday 13 November was not the beginning – we know that the ‘proposals’ for both the restructuring of our university and for the reductions in staffing (proposal OED: ‘A plan or suggestion, especially a formal or written one, put forward for consideration by others’) were being formulated many months ago. What makes them feel less like proposals are the timescales allowed for our community to consider them – collectively in Senate and as departments, and individually as staff ‘targeted’ by the Voluntary Severance (qua redundancy) Scheme. The clock is ticking, and decisions will be made in days and weeks that will affect or undo whole careers.

We have a problem on our hands, and it has to do with rhetoric, emphasis, partial or conflicting information, distortions of reality, power, privilege, and perception. Once upon a time, in our innocence, we called this ‘spin’. We understood that on either side of a debate, there would be a tendency to embellish the argument, talking up positives and playing down negatives. We recognised ‘spin’ for what it was, because our democratic structures, academic freedom, healthy scepticism, and a buoyant economy allowed us the luxury of feeling empowered to ignore inflated rhetoric. The general security of academic freedom meant that as long as we obeyed the law and did our job well, we were empowered to offer critique.

The shift in power balances, in broader society and within our university community, has made ‘spin’ into something more insidious.  When one side of the debate loses its voice or its power to intervene – for instance, when decision-making committees become advisory, and when those advisors lose economic power – then the distortions and omissions become what we now know as ‘gaslighting’.

We saw a variety of messages delivered by senior management to various constituencies in the university last week.  Early on Monday morning, six areas of academic activity were emailed by their Deans, and staff were asked to attend a late afternoon meeting.  Just after lunch, the all-staff address underlined an intention to ‘minimise adverse impact on staff and students’ and ‘improve structure, clarity, productivity and collegiality’, but it also said the university needed to reduce its staff costs by a further £15m, and a voluntary severance scheme would be opened to ‘targeted’ areas.  In those meetings, staff were told that senior management were aiming to lose 50-75 members of staff.  We don’t need to be expert mathematicians to work out that the only way dismissing 75 members of staff could save £15m is if they all earned £200K.  Last time we looked, there weren’t that many members of the academic community who earned that much, certainly not in the areas that have been targeted by the VS.  Perhaps in other parts of the campus…

We are looking at significant losses of staff across the University, probably from all areas, to meet this savings target, but you wouldn’t know it from the communications sent to Professional Services staff (our non-academic colleagues). Granted, they were warned that eventually administrative staff costs would have to be ‘addressed’, but the discourse centered on having compassion for the poor academics who would be ‘facing uncertainty’ (i.e. losing their jobs) not on potential impacts (job losses) in Professional Services.  If there are going to be only five faculties in August 2018, this requires just five faculty administrative structures.  Look past the ‘poor academics’ gaslighting and the bigger picture of wider cuts emerges.

Students were told ‘all the subjects you are familiar with will continue in the new faculties and there will be no disruption to your studies’.  This is probably the most insidious message of all. The ‘proposals’ for staff reductions mask the decimation of departments and teams, leaving staff with little or no time to consider how to reshape the curricular offer for 2018 and beyond.  Senior management seem not to have understood that a three-year undergraduate curriculum is a delicately balanced and intricately managed structure, that postgraduate supervision is often based on the expertise of a single individual. The ever-changing, ever-demanding quality assurance processes might even make it impossible to reshape a viable curriculum around remaining staff – recognising, of course, that staff will not only leave through severance/dismissal, but also through resignation and retirement because of low morale, and disillusionment with the direction of the so-called strategy. And those of us who were around during the last restructure will remember the chaos that ensued when the administration of degree programmes delivered by Student Services was shunted from pillar to post.  If anything is going to affect student satisfaction, this is.

We have stated before, and we will continue to state, that the problems facing the university – some of which (Brexit, austerity, student fees) are undeniably external – have been exacerbated by senior management’s refusal to engage openly with our community about anything, including the restructure, the jobs savings, and also the capital investment plans. Even though we have adopted a motion calling for Voluntary Severance to be truly voluntary across the university, we need to be clear that we are not legitimising a false dichotomy of buildings/estate versus job cuts. It may also be the case that the building programme is far too ambitious given the prevailing political, social and economic uncertainty within the UK and further afield.

If the unions and all staff had been genuinely consulted, it is probable that we could have found an alternative and more sustainable solution to our problems. We have expertise and institutional knowledge that would certainly have been valuable in the formative stages of this plan, and the trust engendered by an open approach would have stood us all in good stead. Making hard decisions collectively rather than having this ‘vision’ imposed could have made better decisions.  They might not have been ‘simply better’ in the jargon of the current plan, but they would have been better: better for students, better for staff, better for the community.

We see in the marketing self-help book Simply Better (which we have been told underlies the strategy adopted by senior management) a section called ‘How Hierarchy Can Improve Performance’, which describes the management style in an insurance company, Swiss Re Life and Health America Inc.  Its CEO, Jacques Dubois, is described as observing that ‘managers often see themselves as delegators, which he believes is dysfunctional since delegating puts decisions in the hands of potentially inadequately qualified people. Dubois goes further: “By raising decision making to the highest level possible, we get to see our people in action.  It motivates them. They deal with the top.” There were few standing committees, but meetings happen as needed.  Decisions get made’ (p. 159).

However, Simply Better makes no reference to the Dunning-Kreuger effect.  What if decisions are being made by people who have no concept of the consequences, who are not possessed of enough information or the right information, and have no notion that they are, or even could be, lacking in that capacity? Nor does it heed the advice of Cromwell, in his letter to the General Assembly of Scotland, 5 August 1650, “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken.”

We are meeting with staff in affected departments, but we would urge all departments, all areas, to have some open and honest conversations, to demand transparency from senior management about their short-, medium-, and long-term intentions for their activities.  For the sake of current and future students, for the sake of staff, we need information so that we can negotiate, plan, and continue to educate and research at the standard of which we are all capable.

 

Why I’m a UCU representative – a personal account

Dear colleagues

I should start by explaining that you probably don’t know me, and if you do it’s because either you work with me, or I’ve met you over the last year as a UCU rep. All of what follows is drawn from my own experiences in that role.

 As a UCU rep, I have only one task, and that’s to represent members.  UCU has given me training, support and most importantly the voice to do this. When you meet me as your rep, for whatever reason you are probably not going to be in the best situation.

 I might have met you before a tense meeting with your line manager, who has been bullying you for the last year. After the meeting you thanked me for my actions and realised you don’t have to suffer alone.

 Alternatively, I am walking in with you to a meeting to discuss your future in a restructure, and I’ll make sure your voice is heard, adding my own if needed. If the worse happens and you find out you are leaving UOS, I’ll walk out with you and sit down to talk over your options.

 Since my volunteering to act as rep at UoS, I have sometimes seen working relationships broken, and have comforted people in tears at how they have been treated. I’ve also had a number of 1-1 meetings with HR where I’ve fed back on those experiences and offered to try and work together to stop this happening. I felt we were making progress, and I genuinely want things to be simply better, for everyone.

 Not everyone falls back to a confrontational style. Sometimes, I sit down together with the HR representative over a coffee.  We talk about our children, Netflix, Brexit and then we open our notebooks and try to navigate a solution together. I wish this happened more often.

 In all of these interactions, I’ve never knowingly misrepresented the truth, been offensive or breached trust. I try to keep to high professional standards, and I’ve even sought feedback from the senior managers I’ve sat across from. One Dean wrote to my HoAU telling them how impressed they had been with my actions in formal 1-1’s. I’ve been told the University needs more concerned citizens like me. Maybe that is true.

 For me UCU is about support for its members. If I think UoS isn’t meeting its own procedures or legislation it’s my role to tell them this, and I will continue to do so as long as members ask me to.

 So if you do meet me as a UCU rep, I’m sorry we have to meet like that. But I promise to help.

 If you think you can help as well, contact UCU. We need more concerned citizens.

Mark Dover, Southampton UCU Honorary Secretary and Caseworker