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April, 2019:

New VC. New Direction?

The Chair of Council has announced the appointment of Professor Mark E Smith as our new VC, to start in October 2019.

We are hoping that Professor Smith will prioritise coming to speak to the campus trades unions who represent frontline staff here and we look forward to welcoming him at Union House. While we were not allowed a formal role in the selection process we hope that our attempts to put forward staff views about the kind of VC we need have had some impact. We delivered the UCU petition, and put forward staff views in meetings with the recruitment firm, and to senior managers. We said that we need someone who understands the damage caused by poorly managed organisational change and poor senior leadership practices. And above all we said that we needed someone who will listen to staff. We said that the new VC should have a salary and reward package more closely aligned with the public sector pay ratio. Professor Smith’s salary will be £287000, somewhat lower than the most recent VC’s pay and close to our request that the VC be paid “no more than 20 times the salary of the lowest paid employee in the University.” (Although this is before including the free house and other perks). We note that this salary does not seem to be much higher than his declared pay in 2015 (according to Wikipedia). We hope this is a good sign and that he might become a champion for our planned fair pay campaign.

So what do we know about Professor Smith? His disciplinary background is as a physicist interested in nuclear magnetic resonance and this may make him understand parts of our University better than others. He is not be confused with the singer songwriter associated with the post-punk group the Fall. He did his PhD at Warwick in 1987. His bio leads us to hope that he retains some understanding of life at the frontline of teaching and research. (We are always hopeful here at UCU). While at Lancaster new links were forged with China, so he may have similar expansionist ideas to those of our previous VCs. This campus may account for his record as 14th highest VC spender on flights,  and we note the environmental issues raised by these ‘offshore operations’ that perhaps conflict with our ‘sustainability’ ambitions. We are hopeful that he will have learnt from his experiences at Lancaster and perhaps understand why large expense accounts are so problematic when frontline staff have had below inflation pay rises and cuts to pensions in successive years.

Those wondering about his relationship with the campus trades unions at Lancaster, might like to see him in action addressing the UCU Picket Line there last March. We will be talking to comrades at Lancaster UCU to find out more over the coming weeks, but our view at this time is to welcome this important appointment and to retain our optimism that Professor Smith will reverse some of the damaging senior management practices we have experienced.  We sincerely hope he will work with us to help University of Southampton become Simply Better.

Half time report – how are the senior managers doing with their response to the staff survey?

Southampton UCU have been collating feedback from colleagues about the senior management responses to staff survey. We learned that Arts and Humanities had a good feedback session, led by their Dean, as well as drop in sessions. It seems these were characterised by listening and recognition of the seriousness of some of the negative feedback provided in the survey. It was disappointing to hear staff in some other Schools/Faculties report less positive responses to feedback sessions. One member said their event consisted of “the senior team doing all the talking and no action plan”.

The problems identified in the survey are clear – and are predominantly about a lack of confidence and trust in the top team. The engagement plan, which appears to be designed to restate the survey results to ever smaller groups of frontline staff appears to be slightly missing the point. UCU continue to be concerned that senior management are not listening to feedback, or to frontline staff or students. We have again heard senior managers using the narrative “it was the VCs fault” and “the survey was last year and is out of date” as excuses to negate the important messages – which are consistent across surveys in previous years – about senior management failings. We think it is time that senior managers took responsibility for the problems created by the strategy and policies they have introduced.

We understand that one Dean has undertaken an alternative analysis of the text comments from the survey (which can only be circulated within the UEB due to ethics and data protection) and that this has produced helpful insights. We hope that all of UEB will look at this analysis to understand and respond to the comments so that these responses to the survey are not wasted.

One of the big challenges for senior managers here is the organisational culture in which staff still do not feel supported to speak up. Feedback about problems and constructive criticism are often ignored or punished. UCU would like to know what the senior managers are planning to do to restore trust.

Bullying

One interesting response that some senior managers have made to the survey results concerns bullying. It has been suggested that ‘the problem’ is academic staff bullying of Academic related professional staff (ARPS). This is not our reading of the survey results, or our experience from casework with members who have been bullied (who include ARPS and Academic staff at different grades). We are aware that the loss of frontline staff, and poorly managed organisational change has increased the stress and pressure on all staff, and wonder if addressing these problems might reduce poor interactions and improve working relationships. But beyond this we also believe that all staff need better anti-bullying training. More work needs to be done to find out about the nature of bullying and harassment at the University, especially to understand why some places (e.g. WSA) appear to have higher reported rates of bullying, but this needs to be approached carefully and cannot be done in the large or focus group format of the current engagement meetings.

Improved communication from the interim VC and UEB

We have been reading with interest the new UEB blogs and this is a step in the right direction, making senior management activity more transparent. However some of the current content is rather superficial and has been derided as ‘pretend communications’. Staff here would welcome UEB reports that provide more than an annotated agenda and tell us what is being done to respond to staff and student concerns. UCU also welcome the new all staff emails from Mark Spearing as interim VC although we note that the subject line could be better labelled to prevent these emails from becoming lost in the daily avalanche of emails. (Perhaps instead of ‘My Monthly Email’ it could say ‘VCs update’?).  Communication between senior management and staff  has been highlighted as a problem area in the survey, and information sharing is one response to this. Staff here would welcome more self-critical reflection by UEB and the interim VC about management decisions that have led to the distrust and lack of confidence identified in the staff survey – this would show us that they have understood the results of the survey.

To address the question posed in the title of this blog. How are our senior managers doing? We feel there are few moves in the right direction, but sadly still a lot of evidence that the messages from the survey have not been understood, so there is still a way to go.

Strike ready. An update on USS, and a warning.

Members of USS pension scheme are now paying an extra 0.8% into their pension scheme and have received a USS member letter explaining that there are more increases to come in October and next April. Our employers are no longer matching the additional 1% contributions that some members opted to make to try to restore some of the benefits they were promised.

Your pension is deferred salary. Against the backdrop of a below inflation pay rise these increases in contributions represent yet another cut in your pay.

The pension strike last year fought off threats of a Defined Contribution only scheme that would be much worse for all members. The strike also won independent scrutiny of USS via the Joint Expert Panel (JEP). At the time of the strike, UCU was in dispute with many employers (Southampton included) who, represented by UUK, were allied with USS to try to force detrimental changes to the pension scheme.

UCU responded with the longest and largest strike action we have ever taken. In the months following the strike, we have seen many employers shift their position, in the light of evidence presented to them and in consultation with staff and unions. Many employers have now accepted the JEP recommendations in full (sadly not this University). Frustratingly, at a time when UCU and UUK are in agreement, USS are refusing to listen and are insisting that the employers sign up to contingent contributions

The JEP was highly critical of the USS position and changes to the valuation of our pension. The JEP has more work to do regarding governance of the pension scheme, and the heavily contested valuation methodology. A new, 2018 valuation will be completed by the end of June 2019. The University of Southampton has invited Brendan Mulkern back to run a couple of talks on 29/4 and 2/5 to update staff (we note that Mr Mulkern is Senior Pensions Adviser to UUK, although this is not listed on the advert about these workshops.)

We are clear that increased contributions from members are unnecessary. We continue to support the recommendations of the JEP.

Members here, in a branch that does not make decisions to take industrial action lightly, were clear last year that reductions in pension benefits are not acceptable. The recent ballot also showed significant support for action on pay and equality, even though we did not quite achieve the 50% turnout required by anti-trades union law.

In the face of threats to our pension, and unnecessary increases in USS deductions from our pay and yet another derisory pay offer from our employers we may have to take action again. Reluctantly, we ask UCU members to start saving money (if they can) and to be ready for further strike action. We have had enough of cuts to pay, reduction in pension benefits and a system which casualises and overloads our staff. Our #DinosaurOf Solidarity may be sleeping, but we know that members here can, and will, “Rise Like Lions” when pushed.