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December 5th, 2017:

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.