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August 2nd, 2018:

What do you people do all summer?

There is a common misconception (perpetuated by the BBC Radio 4 drama The Archers, and the occasional taxi driver) that Universities have long summer holidays when everyone goes on lengthy vacations. We know, of course, that while many of the students are away, for many of us the work of the University goes on. Indeed for some it intensifies – the timetabling and admissions teams for example experience high workloads in this period. The Academic Centre for International Students (ACIS) team provide all the pre-sessional teaching for the hundreds of students joining the University from overseas. For researchers, the summer months are often dedicated to fieldwork, experiments or analysis that cannot be completed in term time, then there are conferences to disseminate research, writing projects and new funding bids to prepare. For other educators there is teaching preparation for the new academic year, reviewing and evaluating the past year’s activity and always, always, admin to be ‘caught up’ with. Supporting all this are our academic related professional colleagues who also have overflowing in-trays and inboxes, and who attend to the continued smooth running of our libraries, IT and HR systems, equipment and research governance.  And of course, the work of estates, health and safety, cleaning, catering and administrative staff also continues – with the additional challenge that the University is often hosting conferences and visitors amidst major building work.

Your UCU branch also stays open over the summer. Your executive team were left in charge of the UCU office while our fabulous office manager Amanda took her holiday recently and for me as your new president it was a sobering reminder of the volume of work the branch does.  In this two week period UCU representatives and officials dealt with several new and ongoing restructure consultations – involving teams, services and units where staff jobs are being directly threatened. We managed to support all our members involved in these – providing caseworkers and advice, and thus far we have successfully managed to ensure there are no compulsory redundancies. We also provided support to a number of staff making ‘compromise agreements’ or settlements (whereby the University agrees to compensation when a contract of employment is terminated – as in the case of voluntary severance). All this was on top of our ‘regular’ individual case work where our volunteers support staff experiencing difficulties at work. Alongside this we often provide information and advice to staff who are unsure of policies or rights – such as maternity leave entitlement or the flexible working policy.

We continue to attend meetings with senior managers and HR and we have written elsewhere about our meeting with the incoming Chair of Council. Regular meetings include ‘Reward’ where we are pushing senior managers to address the problems our members experience with appraisal and to understand our serious objections to bell curve moderation. The ‘Wellington Project’ * and associated meetings about restructuring, reconfiguration, faculty and service ‘closures’ have taken up much of our time, as has the process of consulting on non-standard contracts where we are trying to improve job security of our hourly paid and fixed term staff.

Our union is only able to do this work supporting our members because of the dedication and effort of our volunteer caseworkers, departmental reps, working group and executive committee members, and our team of officials in the regional office and national headquarters. I’d like to give a dinosaur sized shout out to all of them for the work they have done all year and will continue to do over the summer and year ahead.

The executive team have held two strategy afternoons to plan our branch priorities for 2018/19 and we are planning a further branch development day in Semester 1 for reps and officers to take this forward. We have our EGM on 6th September 1pm in 44/1057 to discuss union democracy and 2018 congress. We will soon be running national ballots on Pay and Brexit.  We also expect more updates regarding the fight for a decent pension so look out for notices about General Meetings to discuss these also. (There are regular updates about the Joint Evaluation Panel (JEP) on the UCU website here.)

We need some additional helpers to help Get the Vote Out for the Pay ballot and we will visiting as many workplaces as we can to remind members to vote.  If you can assist with this or any of the work we do please contact Amanda Bitouche (ucu@soton.ac.uk)

 

 

* this is the name the senior managers use to refer to the reshaping of the University – we have resisted reminding them that this is also the name of a boot and this might be seen as unfortunate given the accompanying redundancy threats. 

 

University Governance part #1: the one where UCU met the new Chair of Council

University governance is a hot topic in several UCU branches at the moment. We heard at our recent AGM from Hedley Bashforth of Bath UCU about how their branch successfully used their governance structures to draw attention to the excessive pay of their VC and senior management. Others will recall the dispute at Leeds University in 2017 prompted by senior management attempts to change the statutes and ordinances there.  The recent branch conference at Bristol UCU debated governance and concluded that “Power needs to move away from the centre and towards staff”. We agree. Many of the problems we face, particularly those associated with recent decisions to restructure the university (again),  appear to be fueled by a failure of senior managers to listen to, or meaningfully engage with staff.

It was therefore a refreshing change when representatives from UCU were invited to meet with the incoming Chair of Council Phillip Greenish as part of his induction last week. Your branch President and Secretary who attended this meeting were pleased to have this opportunity to share your concerns about senior management and University governance.  Phillip asked us to keep the content of the conversation private but we can share with you the content of the briefing we prepared for him and that we asked to be circulated to Council members (see below).

The briefing below may be TL:DR (Too long: Didn’t read) so the summary version is: We want better governance and senior management, and we need the University to stick to negotiated agreements and policies. The list of our concerns is long but we highlighted three pressing matters for Council’s attention:  1. Workloads and poor mental health of staff 2. casualization and 3. the gender pay gap.

Text of the UCU briefing for University Council

UCU is the recognised trades union for academic and academic-related professional staff at the university. We represent staff employed at level 4 and above. UCU is the largest post-16 education trades union in Europe and nationally represents staff in Higher and Further education as well as in prison, agricultural and adult education.

The branch here has an executive team of 16 elected officers and a casework team of volunteers who support individuals experiencing difficulties at work.  All the officers are in employment in the University and devote a limited number of hours during or outside working time to UCU duties. We are supported by regional and national officials, and have access to employment lawyers when needed.

Our branch is one of the largest in the South of England and we have members across all staff grades. Membership has grown considerably in response to local organisational changes and national threats to our pensions. You will be aware of the significant strike and working to contract action at the beginning of the year, and may have the impression that this is a militant branch. In reality the branch is considered moderate by our peers. In the past we have worked positively and effectively with the senior managers to improve the working lives and experience of staff and students here. Unfortunately relationships with senior managers have deteriorated over the past few years.  We have also seen an increase in the number of staff needing our support.

There are three pressing issues we would like to raise with you and the Council

  1. Governance of the university. Staff here want governance that reflects our values. We need our senior managers to be, and be seen to be, more accountable to our community. Governance processes need to be much more open and transparent. Academic and academic-related staff representation and engagement in Senate needs to be strengthened – this vital body has become a passive recipient of information and is not currently effective. We also urgently need more diversity in the membership of Council. Certain kinds of private sector experience are over-represented and we need much more recognition that we are an academic institution closely aligned with the public sector values. We also need to see greater diversity of membership of our governance structures in terms of race, gender and disability to better reflect our community.
  2. Poor senior leadership and people management. Staff are concerned at the disconnect between senior managers and staff. Successive staff surveys have highlighted this and yet little progress is being made. We believe that if senior managers engage with staff and actively attend to organisational culture and low morale we can make this a great place to work we will attract and retain the best staff, and this in turn will attract students and research funding. We have suffered 15 years of restructuring and cuts, moving from 3 Faculties to 8, and now to 5, and this has seriously reduced our ability to deliver. Staff here feel demoralised and devalued. We need better managers and leaders.
  3. Failure to adhere to agreements and policies negotiated with the trades unions. Members of all the campus trades unions have worked hard to support senior managers to improve the University. As the recognised trades union for level 4 and above we have negotiated policy and practice changes and balloted our membership when necessary to ratify these. We have been dismayed at the way some senior managers have ignored these agreements to the detriment of staff and students here.

What we are asking you

We welcome this opportunity for two of the branch executive to meet the new Chair of Council. Some of us also met members of Council during the industrial action and were pleased to discuss our concerns with them.

We would like to ask members of Council to seek views of trades unions, staff and students.  Come and listen to us.  Please visit staff where they work so you can see first-hand what they experience (the view from Building 37 and the Senate rooms gives a very particular view of our workplaces and we are sure you comprehend the importance of also seeing life ‘below decks’).

We also ask you to work with us to address our concerns.  These include but are not limited to

  • Workloads and poor mental health – We continue to battle a workplace culture of presenteeism and overwork. The University is reliant on hours of unpaid labour by staff – at night and weekends. We see increased stress, mental illness and musculoskeletal conditions resulting in sick leave. Sometimes, tragically this overwork contributes to suicide. We must do better.
  • Casualization – lack of job security is detrimental for staff but also to the ambition of the University – fixed term staff are constantly distracted by having to look for jobs elsewhere. We need to value our staff so that we get the best from them.
  • Gender pay gap – it is shameful that we have made so little progress addressing this issue (and other diversity challenges). We need action to reduce our 21% pay gap, this means actually delivering on Athena SWAN action plans and developing all staff to challenge hidden biases.We need also to take meaningful steps to address pay disparities.

Finally we ask you to support the trades unions at the University. We want to work with senior managers and use our governance structures to improve the education and research we do. We have done so in the past and we can do so again. Please help us do this.

We hope that this is the start of a productive conversation between Council and the representatives of staff at this University and look forward to further meetings and discussion with members of Council.