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February 5th, 2018:

It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it  – our problem(s) with senior management at University of Southampton

We recently posted the ‘correspondence’ between your recognised trades union and the VC/President regarding the upcoming dispute on pensions on this blog. It will be clear to members that the VC is no longer in responsive mode, as least as regards UCU; we have received one-line acknowledgments to all our recent emails.  The VC also has access to the medium of SUSSED and all staff email lists where he has chosen to criticise individual members of UCU, and most recently to provide  a very particular view of the position regarding the USS pension situation.

This does not feel like meaningful dialogue.

In the run up to strike action it is common for the respective sides to become ever more polarised, and we are not hopeful that communication between senior managers and UCU will improve in the coming weeks. We are about to withdraw our labour, following an overwhelming vote by UCU members, signalling that they will not accept cuts to their pensions. Understandably much of the attention, in emails from the branch and from UCU headquarters, has been on the pension dispute and the coming strike action.  But the pension is not the only area of concern for members of Southampton UCU. Locally we continue to represent our members on a number of other issues, not least of which is the proposed restructuring of the University and cuts to staff.  On these other local issues the senior management appears unwilling to engage in meaningful communication.

UCU wants to talk with senior managers about what they are doing. Below we list just five of the pressing local issues that we’d like to discuss properly with our senior management: the University restructure; staff cuts; appraisal; casualisation; and equal pay.

1. Restructuring the University

 To be clear, UCU members don’t necessarily have a problem with restructuring, but we remain deeply unconvinced that reconfiguring to five instead of eight Faculties is the best way forward. Staff and students here are already suffering the ill effects of ten years’ poorly managed organisational change – the INEX project, Transition, the move from three to eight Faculties, the Pay and Reward review are just a few of the large-scale changes we have endured in recent years. Staff numbers have been cut, teams formed and reformed, people moved in and out of Faculties, with little or no thought to organisational culture, wellbeing, or morale.

Successive staff surveys have revealed low trust in senior management and deep concern at their failures to listen to staff, and yet we are about to embark on yet another top-down major organisational reconfiguration. Staff and students need to be supported and listened to before and during significant change. Genuine engagement with staff requires meaningful negotiation and consultation with recognised trades unions, and strong organisational development support – both missing in the early stages of this restructuring. The recent announcement that Mathematics will remain as a single academic unit and not be split into two different Faculties is a small step in the right direction, but this came rather late in the process and only after sustained lobbying.

2. Staff cuts and saving money 

Again, UCU is prepared to listen to arguments about cutting staff.  Of course, we must take a hard line against the threat of compulsory redundancies, and we have been angered by the so-called protected conversations with targeted individual staff, pressuring some to leave the University.  But when the voluntary severance scheme was announced, we asked if it could be opened up beyond the six publicly identified areas, not least because this appeared more likely to achieve cost savings and would have spread the losses, thereby reducing negative impacts on education and research. The University Executive said no to this.

Moreover, whilst imposing cuts to academic, administrative, and support staff to save money, the senior leadership of the University have studiously ignored widespread commentary on senior staff salaries. So we are cutting staff after a bumper year when the University spent approx £700,000, paying off the outgoing VC and making our incoming VC one of the highest paid University leaders in the country.  Little wonder that former education minister, Andrew Adonis, singled out these pay packages for criticism, but the University accounts also show that the salaries and benefits for 15.2 members of the top tier (‘key management personnel’) totalled £3.723m (ave. £245K each) in 2016-2017. Perhaps if Southampton wanted to take a consistent approach,  while we are cutting student-facing staff to save money we could consider a little prudence at the top end of the salary scale.

3. Misuse of appraisal

UCU is becoming increasingly disturbed by the misuse of appraisal and the introduction of increasingly draconian performance review measures. Our current case work includes examples of inappropriate conversations with staff, bullying and harassment. In some cases ‘Performance Improvement Plans’ have been imposed in a very one-sided, unhelpful manner – a case of “you will deliver more with less, but don’t expect any help from us”. The lack of staff development resource (following the closure of ILIaD and the loss of key staff) and the withdrawal of budgets for staff training supports the conclusion that PIPS are less about improvement and more about dismissal.

All staff at the University at some point went through a recruitment and selection process that deemed them worthy of appointment: why then do we refuse to develop and support them? Many colleagues already tell us that they pay for conferences, research materials, and business-related travel out of their own salary – now it seems they have to add training and development to these expenses. Are we really saying that the University of Southampton cannot afford to develop its own staff?   Southampton UCU simply wants senior managers to adhere to the negotiated appraisal process and to start supporting staff to deliver to their highest potential.

4. Casualisation 

We have always been critical of the reliance on short-term contracts and the damage that job insecurity does to education and research. We have an army of early career staff delivering research and education who struggle to make ends meet and are constantly at risk of contract termination. These staff are typically enduring high living costs whilst paying off debt incurred from years of study.  Many commute, either because partners work elsewhere, or because they can’t afford to move for a short temporary contract, or just can’t afford to move, full stop. Some will have been hit by the rise in train fares in January and those who drive already tell us how punitive the car parking charges are here.

Precarity damages education and research. Hourly-paid lecturers on short term contracts cannot engage in team meetings or curriculum development – this is bad for their development and students’ education and support.  Researchers on fixed-term contracts are preoccupied by their contract end date, and may find it impossible to get a mortgage, find they are not eligible for enhanced maternity pay, and so on, all to the detriment of our research. Alongside them, academic-related colleagues also find they too are increasingly offered only temporary contracts – and thus we regularly lose organisational memory and capacity.

Finally, a body of staff comprised largely of short- and fixed-term, hourly-paid, and fractional contracted staff will struggle to form a cohesive and supportive community, among themselves and with the students. This may be the intention of senior management, of course, but it is to the detriment of the institution, both currently and in the long term. We are all damaged by the reliance on casual teaching staff. UCU nationally and locally has continuously pointed to the damage wreaked by casualisation in higher education. We believe the University of Southampton should deliver on the commitments that it has given to UCU to reducing its reliance on casualised labour, in the interests of everyone.

5. The gender pay gap and equal pay

Senior managers are currently preparing the latest local pay review. UCU expects that that this will once again demonstrate a very significant gender pay gap at the University.  While much is made of the ‘equal pay’ for men and women within job grades (e.g. at level 4) the average gap between men and women’s pay in higher education is 12% – in 2015,the mean gap across all grades at Southampton was 22.9%, whereas in HE nationally it was 18.9%. Women continue to be clustered lower down the pay scale and in part-time jobs. The four most senior academic roles, some of our highest paid positons in the University (the VC/President and three Vice-Presidents), are all white men.

The new JNCHES Equal Pay Reviews and Gender Pay Gap Reporting Guidance for Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) – published as part of the Pay Settlement for 2016/17 – calls attention to gender and diversity issues in our Universities, but this University does not seem to be at the forefront of those tackling these inequalities.  While the University of Essex took action and moved  female professors up three pay points to bring their average salaries in line with male counterparts there is no talk of such a move here. UCU has repeatedly called attention to pay gaps – not only gender, but also race and disability. Locally, we have asked for greater transparency in promotion and for better staff training on unconscious bias, but we see little evidence that senior managers wish to address this problem.

What is the branch doing? And how can you help?

Members of UCU can rest assured that this branch will continue to push senior management here to address these issues; your branch representatives take every opportunity to press for improvements to the working lives of staff here, and to defend education and research.  We do this alongside significant individual case work (and thanks are due to all our volunteers who support members in case work). We have pressed senior managers to improve the wording of redundancy and severance agreements, to improve their processes for consultation with staff, and to stop bullying and harassment. We will continue to make the case that the University will prosper if senior managers listen to staff and students. We will continue to do all this whilst pursuing the strike action to defend pensions that you have mandated. As ever we ask members of the branch to volunteer to help us take forward our work on these issues. If you can help – even for half an hour a week, we can use you.