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December 13th, 2017:

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