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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.

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