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September, 2017:

A very busy week, and lots of progress to report

The Penguins of Solidarity re-enact our Strategy Day with Tony, the AUT Brain

I had not anticipated writing another blog quite so soon after the last, but some important things have happened this week, and – accepting the risk that members might get blog-fatigue before the autumn term has even started – I thought it was a good idea to update on the many positive outcomes of all the intense activity.

Tuesday we held our Strategy Day, and it was wonderful to welcome so many people – executive committee members, caseworkers, departmental reps – to what was a very productive session.  On the morning agenda were some important national issues, particularly changes to membership terms and pensions.  Briefly:

  • From 1 October, PGR students who teach during their doctoral studies are to be offered free full membership, valid for four years, or until the member achieves a more secure job. PGR students are already offered free membership, but not with all the benefits of full membership.  This is a very welcome change, and we hope you will advertise this to your PG teaching fellows and assistants. https://www.ucu.org.uk/article/8916/Future-of-the-profession-free-membership-FAQ  Other changes from the union are in the pipeline, including CPD provision, help for international staff, and some significant adjustments to benefits. We’ll keep you updated.
  • Pensions: While we were discussing the problems of the 2017 USS valuation and the continued and growing threat to our pensions, the University of Sheffield decided in the interests of transparency to publish the valuation documents, something that UCU activists have been demanding for months: https://www.sheffield.ac.uk/hr/thedeal/pensionupdates/ussvaluation At branch and at national level, UCU is very concerned that the valuation methodology is inappropriate and damaging, and will leave scheme members increasingly worse off, potentially putting us into renewed conflict with our employers.  We have requested a meeting with the Finance Director to discuss USS, and we will be blogging about that in the near future.  You can follow the thoughts of Mike Otsuka, Professor at LSE, here.
Southampton UCU 2017 Strategy Day

Southampton UCU 2017 Strategy Day

In the afternoon, we discussed six related areas of concern that I have outlined in previous posts:

  • workload
  • misuse and abuse of the appraisal process
  • misuse and abuse of student evaluation
  • performance management
  • restructuring/redundancies/settlement agreements
  • the upcoming review of Statutes and Ordinances

From the feedback and ideas raised in the session, we are devising action plans for both negotiation and campaigning on all of these points.  We plan to set up some FAQ pages in the very near future: one in relation to appraisal concerns, and another with some points about settlement agreements.  We are, as always, keen to hear about your experiences, good and bad, in relation to first five; if you think you have expertise or experience that will help us with the sixth, we’d love to hear from you.

Wednesday was also a full day, this time with a number of meetings with HR and other professional services.  The general feeling at the end of the day was encouraging, having achieved some progress towards clear lines of consultation and negotiation on policies (to include principles, procedures, and guidelines) in the morning, and having addressed some points of concern directly with HR representatives in the afternoon. We had a valuable lessons-learned meeting, subsequent to a complex restructuring last academic year, that has helped us establish good practice for what we hope will be more effective and compassionate consultations in the future, with better outcomes for all concerned.

Finally, the statement below is a very positive outcome from our afternoon meeting with Andy Cast, Interim Director of HR Business Partnering, in relation to settlement agreements and protected conversations:

Under Employment Law a mutually agreed exit is achieved using a settlement agreement to ensure that contractual, common law and most statutory claims are settled, including claims of discrimination.  The discussions leading to the employee’s departure are conducted via a protected/without prejudice conversation to terminate the employment contract on terms mutually agreed between the employer and employee.  On occasions the University would like to be able to offer an opportunity for colleagues to leave under these voluntary terms.  Normally there will be a workplace dispute, relationship breakdown or an ongoing performance issue which initiates such action.  A settlement agreement can be requested by the employer or employee.  If the University wishes to offer one of these settlement agreements to a colleague, it will ensure 5 working days’ notice is given for any protected/without prejudice conversation, along with the opportunity for the staff member to bring a Union Representative or companion with them if they wish to do so.  For more information about settlement agreements, please see the ACAS guidance here.

This statement will be added to our FAQs on settlement agreements, but we wanted you to have the text as soon as possible, as it has reassured us of the university’s commitment now to give notice to employees if it wishes hold such a meeting, giving the employee the opportunity to arrange representation, if they wish.

Wishing you all the very best for the weekend, and the coming weeks leading up to the beginning of the autumn term

Laurie

 

September update: Pay and priorities

As many of us descend into the long Sunday night that is September, preparing for the first Monday morning of the new academic year, Southampton UCU are putting together our own “syllabus” for 2017-18.*  We are having our annual strategy day next week (12 September), at which we will set our priorities for the coming year. If you are interested in coming along and still haven’t let us know – do it now (so we can make you welcome and feed you lunch).

More of that in a minute, but it would seem remiss of me not to at least mention the brouhaha in the press this week about top salaries in the university sector.  Most of us can only sit back in bewilderment at the insensitivity of comments made by a variety of leaders in HE.  On Monday, we witnessed the VC of Oxford University admitting that her pay is very generous in relation to the vast majority of her academic staff (but not in comparison to footballers and bankers, so that’s alright then). Today, the government has stepped in, with Jo Johnson set to tell UUK that senior management salaries should be curbed, with fines if excessive salaries cannot be justified. UCU has responded to Johnson’s proposals, underlining the need for transparency.

In the same report, the head of the Russell Group trots out the “global market” argument (“At the same time, our members are operating in a fiercely competitive international market for the best research, teaching and leadership talent. Ultimately this pays huge dividends, adding tens of billions of pounds to the economy every year and helping to maintain the UK’s position as a world leader in science and innovation”), weirdly forgetting, it seems, that senior management don’t actually deliver the research, teaching, and leadership all by themselves:  all staff in all universities contribute to the sector’s importance and position, sometimes despite the conditions in which we are asked to work, and the terms under which we are remunerated.

The national issue of pensions is also ever-present, and we expect that there will be further erosion to our benefits proposed.  We will keep you informed of national campaigns.  As a first action, you could consider signing a petition demanding that USS shows the way it has arrived at its dubious valuation:     https://you.38degrees.org.uk/petitions/uss-must-show-its-workings.

Back to priorities:  as I have outlined previously, there are a number of important and intersecting concerns that have risen to the top of our agenda over the summer.  These are (in no particular order, because intersecting…): workload; abuse and misuse of the appraisal process; abuse and misuse of student evaluation; the upcoming review of the University’s Statutes and Ordinances (which form part of our terms and conditions); performance management; restructures.  I anticipate that these issues will inform the basis of our negotiations with the university, along with the ongoing work of policy review, contractual negotiations, and casework.

We already have a working group looking at workload issues, and we have volunteers who are helping with the Statutes and Ordinances review. But we still need your help: while our team of caseworkers are dedicated and efficient, the casework load is ever increasing, and we are always grateful for more volunteers who are willing to support colleagues.  We will provide you with training and support, and will not give you more than you can handle: sometimes, a member just needs advice or someone to help them consider alternative courses of action in any given situation.  Our more experienced caseworkers and our regional support officer and regional official, Scott Alexander and Moray McAulay, are on hand to deal with the difficult or sensitive cases.

Reports back from members show a variety of approaches to performance management, which range from the supportive and reasonable to the downright alarming. Please keep the reports coming: we will do all we can to keep information confidential.  We are continuing to press management into action on these points: keeping in mind the university’s published values of quality, sustainability, and collegiality, we want to work with management to ensure that all measures taken to improve performance, in whatever part of the university, are proportionate, fair, and should respect the legal rights of the employees and the university’s duty of care.

Saving the most important to last, we are now negotiating in restructures in a number of different areas in the University.  We do not expect that this activity will decrease.  We are also handling individual cases for members who are being offered settlement agreements to leave the university, with no warning, often at meetings that have been called under the pretence of a different matter.  Please be aware: if you arrive at a meeting at which an HR partner is in attendance without prior notice, you can request an adjournment until you have sought advice from UCU, and leave the meeting.  You can also request union representation if you are informed HR will be present at any meeting to which you are called.

We don’t want to alarm staff unnecessarily, but we want to make sure that you are supported, and that you know we are here to support you. We are so much stronger when we act as a community.

Wishing you all well

Prof Laurie Stras
President, Southampton UCU

*And if you are one of our colleagues that has been teaching or providing support for students throughout the summer, or working in professional services doing urgent tasks that cannot be completed in the main teaching semesters, we salute you.