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October 20th, 2017:

The times, they are a-changin’

The Penguins of Solidarity rally around our community

This week Southampton UCU reps have been working with colleagues in the latest Faculty to be hit by a restructuring programme – or as it is rather euphemistically described in briefing papers, ‘Realigning resource to meet the decline in student numbers’. (SUCU believe that a genuine ‘people strategy’ would refrain from labelling people – our friends and colleagues – as resources, but we are where we are).

This announcement has been preceded by a preliminary consultation period.  SUCU representatives have repeatedly reviewed the draft consultation materials, scrutinising the equality impact assessment and working with HR to reduce the number of ‘resource units’ (i.e. colleagues) at risk. These negotiations are informing our own plans for how best the branch can support staff. This is becoming the bread-and-butter, everyday work of our branch, as successive restructures and redundancies are announced. We are (mostly) a volunteer force, but thankfully we also have the support of our regional officials and the back-up of the national teams.

At the staff meeting called to open this particular consultation, the Vice-Chancellor explained that the University’s apparently sizeable surplus in its accounts was really an operating surplus of only £3m on a turnover of £600m. He said that despite the austerity measures, notably the recruitment freeze, staff numbers have risen more quickly than the numbers of students and this will necessitate further restructuring. This will not be happy news for staff who have been threatened with redundancy in cross-University ‘Transition’ and ‘In-Ex’, and other localised restructuring schemes over recent years. And let us not forget the 250 or so staff who appear on the fixed term redundancy notification every 3 months, for whom fear of losing their job is a hardwired expectation.

Job insecurity is becoming a way of life across the university.  That said, it is worth noting that once again the proposed job reductions involve frontline staff – this time it is academics, while previous restructures have targeted administrative and support staff. Yet the elephant in the room is the apparently inexorable rise in higher earners (those earning over £100k) employed here over recent years, who are seldom ever in the frame for redundancies.

Another interesting reveal in the consultation process was that Sir Christopher’s summer reading of the NSS data identified evidence of tactical voting in at least one subject area. Subsequently it has emerged that this was in part due to the efforts of one disgruntled individual with a sizable Facebook network mobilising a protest vote. This is, of course, appalling, but we have yet to see any of our sector leaders seriously challenge the NSS methodology, and highlight the obvious problems of manipulation.

Led by the National Union of Students, students in other institutions boycotted the NSS precisely because it is a problematic measure and because it was reportedly to be used to enable fee increases by the ‘best’ (TEF-Gold rated) institutions. We share the NUS’s concerns, and we would like to see that our leaders do, too. We want them to set out a vision of education as transformative, life changing and necessarily challenging – not to use the questionable results of a survey based on the ‘student as consumer’ model as yet another performance management metric to browbeat individuals and teams.

We recognise that there is always room for improvement, but this improvement cannot happen in a vacuum, and will not happen if we carry on in a culture of fear.  Instead of telling us just to do ‘simply better’, we suggest that the University return to providing meaningful staff development and support: the closure of our learning and teaching unit – ILIaD – earlier this year has left a significant gap in provision for staff looking to improve their skills.

Sadly, we expect to see much more of this sort of activity across the University in the coming weeks.  We urge you to urge your colleagues: join the union, get active, get informed, and feel empowered.  We still have Senate, we still have our Statutes and Ordinances, and we must fight to preserve them.  No one is saying that the next few months are going to be easy, but they will be less distressing if we work together with a common purpose.