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February, 2019:

Senate and the Staff survey – update

Following an additional request from Senators, the Vice Chancellor shortened the formal Senate agenda for this Wednesday’s meeting, to enable an early adjournment. Most Senators (including those from the University Executive Board) remained for an informal ‘no agenda’ discussion from 3pm on the staff survey and its implications. They were joined by some additional staff and the VC chaired the session.

This discussion was broad ranging and enabled staff to raise concerns about the survey and what will have motivated staff to give the answers they did. It also touched upon the difficult context of higher education and the current economic climate.

There was an acknowledgement of the lack of trust and confidence between staff and senior management, and various suggestions were made about how to rebuild that. UCU welcomes the commitment of senior managers (including the University Executive Board) to explore ways of improving communications. We look forward to further action to address the key issues raised in our blog from 13th February.

It was agreed that there would be similar space for discussions of this type following future Senate meetings – at least for as long as Professor Spearing will be in the role of Interim Vice Chancellor. This is to be welcomed and we look forward to better communication resulting in a better working environment for all.

What is wrong with ‘the University’ (senior managers’) reaction to the 2019 staff survey

Over 4200 staff completed the staff engagement survey (69%) and the strength of feeling, particularly about the senior management of the University must be acknowledged and acted on. ‘The University’ needs to find ways to meaningfully engage with staff, and this means that senior managers must change their approach.

UCU members are particularly disappointed for the following reasons:

1. Senators requested the opportunity to discuss the staff survey at Senate and were told ‘The role of Senate is in Academic Governance and as such the Staff Survey would not fall within this remit’. Given what the survey results imply for staff retention and organisational leadership this seems surprising – unhappy staff who lack trust in senior managers may find it hard to deliver academic excellence. After further correspondence a hasty ‘informal’ (presumably un-minuted) meeting is to be convened, after a shorter Senate, to discuss concerns. We hope that all Senators, especially those who are University Executive Board members, will attend, and participate in this meeting.

2. The text comments provided in the survey will clarify why staff gave low positive responses to questions, in particular, those about ‘the University’ and senior management. However, we understand that these are not being shared with School/ Department Heads. Yet these comments could be anonymised and depersonalised and shared, especially as staff have taken the time to write them. Responses to Q31 suggest that only 19% of staff agree that ‘the University’ acts on staff feedback. Discussing the text comments is an opportunity to reverse this.

3. Staff are expected to ‘engage’ in conversation in their departments about the survey, with their line manager and their Head of unit. The answers to Q27 suggest staff feel that it is not safe to speak up, so this may not result in open discussion and debate. Senior managers will need to equip staff to engage actively, facilitating equal participation and critical conversations.

4. The survey suggests that staff are relatively content with local line management arrangements, and the teams they work in, but are very disillusioned with the senior management. Staff urgently need to be reassured that senior managers have understood the survey results and see that action is being taken, at the highest levels, to address their concerns.

We propose some immediate actions:

a) Senior managers must commit to resourcing a serious and meaningful reaction to this disastrous staff survey. This means as a first step organising external, independent facilitators for focus groups (where confidentiality and anonymity is guaranteed) to understand the problems and consider how to address them.

b) To be seen as ‘open and honest in their communication’ (Q26) the senior managers must engage Senate properly and openly in the critique and development of the response to the survey and the wider university strategy. This would help the Executive Board and Council to begin to make more consensual decisions, taking staff with them to rebuild ‘confidence in the leadership of the University’ (Q25).

c) Given the rates of experienced or witnessed bullying (shockingly high in some areas) senior managers should introduce as a matter of urgency compulsory training in areas where rates are highest and a hotline to report bullying in confidence.

Staff survey confirms substantial collapse in confidence in senior leadership of the University

UCU members will remember that the staff engagement survey was postponed from April to October 2018 until “after the university has undergone its reshaping exercises from 8 Faculties to 5.”

Yesterday, summary results from the survey (which had a 69% response rate) were cascaded to staff; these make for very grim reading indeed.

Confidence in the leadership of the University has always been shaky, but the 2018 result shows a significant drop in confidence to 25%; in other words, three quarters of the 4284 colleagues responding to the survey do not have confidence in the senior leadership team. We here at UCU are not surprised. For months and months, UCU have been saying that staff and students have serious concerns about the senior leadership of the University, and about poorly managed organisational change. The staff (dis)engagement survey provides a critical and very clear indication of what staff think of the senior team and their strategic leadership.

When we look a bit deeper into detail of the responses, it is clear that many of our staff love the work they do and, for the most part, have good relationships with colleagues and local line managers. But, it all falls apart when we look at the results for senior leadership of the University. On key questions (Qu 24-25) about whether the University is well placed to meet opportunities and challenges of the future, and confidence in the leadership, less than one third express support for the senior team.

When asked if the Executive Board are open and honest (Qu 26), staff report a mere 24% agreement and this plummets to as low as 16% in Arts and Humanities, 18% in Engineering and Physical Sciences and 19% in Social Sciences; these are truly alarming figures.

In a previous blog we noted the steep rise over recent years in the number of senior leaders, notably the increase in Vice President and associated roles. Like many in the higher education sector we have long been concerned at the pay and remuneration of our Vice Chancellor (who receives a salary of £423,000), and at the more than doubling of the number of staff earning over £100k per annum (from 66 in 2010 to around 140 in 2017*). The staff survey results invite serious assessment of whether the University is receiving value for money from these senior leaders.

The survey also included questions about experiencing bullying and witnessing bullying. UCU are disturbed to see that between 15% and 28% of staff report having witnessed bullying across the University in the past year. This too is a damning statistic.

We look forward to the senior management responses to these – and the other – results. We will welcome the opportunity to work closely with the senior management and new Vice Chancellor to restore confidence across the University and repair some of the damage done over the last few years.

* figures taken from Financial Statements and Statistics 2016-2017 

NEC elections and voting – why bother?

We have had lots of new members join UCU and our branch in the past 12 months, and we know that some of you may not know how the union is organised. There is lots of information on the UCU website and Amanda in our local union office loves to meet new members and knows everything (well nearly everything) about UCU. But we know – because you tell us – that you are all busy people and may not have time to delve into the archives of UCU. Many of us simply pay our union subs in the knowledge that UCU will be there to help us if we experience a difficulty at work, and that we will mobilise collectively when needed to defend pay, pensions and work conditions.

Anti-trades union legislation means that now we are under greater pressure to demonstrate that our members are engaged in decision making, particularly about industrial action. We now need at least 50% of our members to participate in ballots about strike action. This is why we need up to date information about your membership details and why we pester you to vote. We hope you have all returned your ballot paper for the Pay and Equality vote. This blog is to tell you that you will be receiving another ballot paper soon – this time for the National Executive Committee (NEC). This committee is responsible for conducting the union’s business between our annual Congress meetings. The elected members of NEC, include HE and FE members, some of whom are elected regionally, some on a UK-wide basis, plus equality seats and officers of the union.

In the past our branch executive has not published a slate or voting preferences, instead leaving members to make up their own minds based on the candidates statements. However we do often get asked who we are voting for, and who might best represent the views of members here. The past year, and the strike to defend pensions in particular, has shown us that it is important to have a strong, representative NEC that can act strategically and respond to support members’ concerns. For that reason your branch is breaking with tradition and encouraging members here to vote for candidates that we believe will represent us. Two candidates for South HE seats are our own Denis Nicole and Catherine Pope, and we would also urge you to vote for Sally Pellow from Reading Branch. We suggest voting just for these three candidates in the South HE to maximise the chance of them being elected.  In addition members of your branch executive will be voting for the following candidates:

Vice President Adam Ozanne

UCU Treasurer Steve Sangwine 

UK-elected HE Pat Hornby-Atkinson and Ann Gow

Disabled members Lucy Burke

Black members Victoria Showunmi and Maxine Looby

Please do read the candidates statements and use your vote to ensure that we have a strong and effective NEC that can represent your views. All ballots close at 12 noon on Friday 1 March 2019.