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January, 2019:

Groundhog Day 2019 – Appraisal revisited

The University’s Appraisal policy for levels 4 and above was jointly agreed between UCU and the University of Southampton following the lengthy negotiations undertaken as part of the Reward Project.

Following the fiasco of the DAP (Development and Performance) proposals, based on the discredited General Electric or McKinsey 9 matrix, we pushed hard for a new appraisal process with core guiding principles and a developmental focus.

In recent weeks we have received copies of different local Faculty-specific guidance documents that appear to contravene the agreements and which potentially breach other agreed University policies, legislation and contractual arrangements.

We have been working with senior management representatives from HR to try to resolve the most pressing concerns about these changes to appraisal. Members will have seen we have had some welcome success clarifying that staff attendance at Open and Visit Days is voluntary and therefore should not be listed as a compulsory target in appraisal documents.

One of our concerns is with the inclusion of highly problematic metrics and performance targets in appraisal process. These include but are not limited to:

Use of Module Evaluation Questionnaire (MEQ) and NSS 

One guidance document supplied to UCU sets out a target MEQ score of at least 4 in all areas, and an expectations that staff ensure a student completion rate of at least 50%. We wonder how this is to be achieved? Locking students in a lecture theatre until they complete the MEQ perhaps?

There is a wealth of evidence of gender and racial biases in these kinds of student evaluations e.g. research shows that students consistently score women lower than men. Given this the use of these scores in appraisal presents a clear risk of indirect discrimination in contravention of the University’s own equality and diversity policies, training (section 1.3 of the University of Southampton’s EDI briefing), and the law.

Moreover, it is well-recognised that MEQs are not a measure teaching quality. The link between teaching effectiveness and high evaluation scores is weak, and reliance on these can have undesirable negative consequences (e.g. grade inflation, and even rewarding bad teaching). In addition, those responsible for teaching know that an unintended consequence of such targets is to discourage staff from teaching ‘difficult’ or compulsory models (there goes Statistics 101 for all but the Statistics undergrads).

If you need more evidence, our colleagues in the UCU branch at Essex provide further detail in their report on why MEQs are unreliable. The bottom line is that any University that values and respects academic research should not uncritically use these measures.

Several guidance documents reference the use of NSS scores as performance measures, despite the fact that the causal link between the input of an individual staff member and the NSS scores cannot be established or verified. And again the spectre of ‘improving completion rates’ reappears. How is this to be ensured – bribery with meals ? Don’t laugh; we know one Faculty that gave out chocolate bunnies.

Inappropriate use of REF benchmarking scores

And just when we thought it was safe to go out again, the REF has returned to blight our lives. Some Faculties are setting targets that require the publication of REF returnable 3* and 4* publications, others the production of the same. Once again we have been forced to remind senior managers that :
i) While the production of publications is within the control of individual staff, their publication is not.
ii) The peer-review process that generates indicative and actual REF scores is known to be unreliable.
iii) No feedback loop exists to inform departments how individual publications were graded in any REF exercise, thus judgements about ‘REF-ability’ are ultimately speculative.
iv) In the last REF, the level of agreement between the internal ratings of submissions and those awarded by the panels was far from perfect.

Problematic performance targets and recognition of leadership roles

The documents in circulation create a range of problems with the assessment of so called leadership roles. What ‘counts’ as leadership is highly variable – mentoring is identified as an example of evidence of leadership in one document but not all. A more fundamental problem though is that not all roles and committee memberships are fairly and transparently allocated – we know for example that women staff are disproportionately represented in roles that relate to education and pastoral care, but Senior Tutor roles for example are seldom listed or considered as equivalent to other leadership positions.

In addition to the metrics and targets noted above, we are aware that senior managers are cascading income generation targets to individual members of staff. These too have been highlighted as a source of work stress [paywall] and may run counter to collaborative and innovative research.

We raised these serious concerns with senior management at our JNC last year and wrote a follow up letter to all the Deans and HR. Sadly we received only one response from a Dean (thank you Professor Mills) but we did get a response from the Employee Engagement team in HR. To date we have had one positive meeting with this team and we are hopeful that we will make progress this year. We did however get a ‘no’ to our request that the Faculty-specific appraisal guidance documents in circulation should be withdrawn pending these discussions with UCU. So our advice to all our members as we enter the appraisal ‘window’ for this year is to keep letting us know about problems you encounter with the appraisal process, and we will keep pushing management to ensure a positive, non-discriminatory and developmental appraisal process.

New Year – New Hopes

This time last year we were preparing for what turned out to be the biggest and longest strike action taken at this branch – to protect our USS pensions. UCU members came out in the rain and snow (and occasionally in the sunshine) in unprecedented numbers to defend their defined benefit pension. UCU made a clear case that our pensions are deferred salary and that the proposed changes and cuts to benefits were unacceptable, coming as they had after years of below inflation pay settlements and significant increases in workloads.

The strike campaign revealed fundamental flaws in the valuation of the pension, and in the way that many of our employers – including our own VC – represented our interests in negotiations with USS. Our pressure on our employers won concessions from USS, not least the establishment of the JEP, which reviewed the methodology and valuation of our pension. Unfortunately, intransigence on the part of USS and some employers means that we have to continue to press USS to implement all the recommendations of the JEP. To that end this branch has written an open letter to our VC Sir Christopher Snowden to ask him to ensure that the JEP recommendations are implemented.

Against the backdrop of this vital national campaign about USS, this branch was busy in 2018 supporting UCU members facing job cuts and highly disruptive organisational change. We helped staff facing Voluntary Severance across several departments, and those affected by Voluntary Redundancy in Health Sciences. We were sad and angry that the VC and senior managers reneged on earlier promises of ‘no more reorganisations’. Once again we found ourselves having to protect individual members and groups facing threats to their livelihoods. Sadly it was often necessary for us to push the senior management to adhere to employment law and recognise the damage of poorly managed organisational change.

Members of the branch attended numerous consultations with senior management on a range of issues from the project restructuring our Faculties from 8 to 5, as well as reviews of professional services, and closures of units. We constantly asked senior management to follow, and where necessary, improve, policies.  Over the course of 2018 we were forced to raise many concerns, in particular, about the abuse of appraisal and performance metrics. Members also raised complaints about the introduction of the new Clarity travel system and, thanks to positive engagement by the senior management side with UCU, many initial problems were resolved. We will continue, of course, to take your complaints about the new travel process to the management team – please let us know of  difficulties you experience.

In 2018 we lobbied the University Council as part of our campaign to improve University governance. We highlighted staff and student concerns about the cuts to frontline staff and dissatisfaction with the excessive rates of pay for both the VC and the ever growing number of senior managers. Linked to this, and prompted by members we created a petition about the new VC, and you may have seen that the UCU elves reiterated our demands before the Christmas break. We will continue to push the university to improve senior management.

Throughout the strike and beyond we had several successful branch General Meetings and these were well attended and sparked vigorous debate. We held three branch strategy days, and have been able to offer training for new representatives. We have outlined priorities for the branch in 2019 as follows:
Better Governance – more diversity in membership of key governance committees and restore effective staff representation at Senate and more public sector and education to Council.
Improve Appraisals – fix the many problems with new appraisal metrics and processes to restore the positive and developmental appraisal process negotiated with UCU
Ensure Equality – focus on the gender pay gap and take action on unconscious bias
Deliver Living Wage – work with sister unions to ensure living wage for all staff at the University and push for fairer VC and senior management salaries
Defend Health and Safety – focus on excessive workloads and overwork culture at the university, stamp out bullying and harassment, but also continue to push senior managers to mitigate serious risks to health of staff and students.

Alongside these our network of volunteer caseworkers and reps will continue to support members across the University. As ever the more members we have the stronger we are – so please do speak to your colleagues about joining UCU. We will be continuing our series of UCU workshops and Take a lunch break meet ups. We welcome ideas from you about how to get members involved in the work of the local branch.

As we head into Semester 2 we will retain our optimism for 2019. Let us hope that the new VC is able and willing to listen to frontline staff and our students, and will work with us to improve our University.

Open letter from Southampton UCU Executive Committee to University of Southampton President and Vice-Chancellor regarding the USS Pension Scheme

Dear Sir Christopher

We write with concern as to the recent developments regarding the USS pension scheme.

As you know, nearly a year ago staff here at Southampton took unprecedented action to defend their USS pensions. Since the JEP report and the decisions of UCU and UUK to endorse the JEP’s recommendations, USS has stated that it will now undertake a fresh valuation of the USS pension scheme using March 2018 data. This new valuation requires participating employers to be consulted on the assumptions used to value the scheme’s liabilities

https://www.ussemployers.org.uk/sites/default/files/field/attachemnt/2018-technical-provisions-consultation.pdf

The JEP estimated that if all its recommendations were implemented, current benefits (minus the match) could be secured for 29.2% – 3.2% higher than the current 26%, but substantially lower than the 36.6% previously proposed by USS.

In the new technical provisions, USS states that it is not persuaded of the case for two of the proposals made by the JEP: the postponement of de-risking in the first 10 years and the smoothing of contributions over two valuation cycles. However they also say that, even without implementing these two recommendations, contributions can be as low as 29.7% if they can agree suitable contingency arrangements with the employers.

The USS consultation with the employers finishes in mid-February and we ask on behalf of Southampton UCU members and members of the USS pension scheme here that this University will call for the full implementation of the JEP, including the postponement of de-risking and the smoothing of contributions.

We seek assurances that this University will:

  • call for the full implementation of JEP recommendations;
  • support measures to secure the lowest contributions possible for staff (mindful that pay has not kept pace with inflation);
  • support further work by the JEP to improve the methodology for future valuations which would have the support of all sides.

We look forward to your response and formally request permission to communicate such to our members.

Thank you.

Yours sincerely

Catherine Pope

On behalf of Southampton UCU Executive Committee