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Branch Committee

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.

Branch action plan update

Thank you to all of you who came to our well attended General Meeting last month, and to those who also came to the Workload Reps workshop. We are delighted to have established our new group of H&S workload reps who will take forward our actions to address workplace stress and work overload. Please save the date for our AGM which will be held on June 5th, starting at 12:30 (room tbc) where we can update you on this campaign.

The nominations for General Secretary of UCU will close on 8th April and we are hoping to arrange hustings to give members here a chance to meet and hear from all the candidates. Please look out for details of this.

Below is the update on local branch activities and our plans for the coming months presented at the GM. This action plan is very much an evolving document, supported by your branch exec, departmental reps and caseworkers, and individual members who bring concerns to us. If you can help the work of your union or want to find out more about local and national campaigns please do get in touch (ucu@soton.ac.uk).

No place for racism at our University

We are sad to have to use this blog to remind members about the distribution of potentially offensive/intimidating posters on our campuses. Our Estates and Security teams are aware of this and are doing their best to remove these.

Staff and students should not approach anyone seen distributing these posters, but should report this to Security on ext 22811 and email Diverse@soton.ac.uk with details. Please don’t attempt to remove the posters yourself.

These posters appear to be from Generation Identity, a far right and white nationalist movement. This movement and these posters have no place on our campuses.

The TUC developed the Migration Messaging project with Hope not Hate and Migrant Voice as a way to promote progressive messages which shift the blame for workplace and social problems away from migrant communities. Some of the case studies supporting the TUC work were taken from the campaign in Southampton against the screening of the Channel 4 documentary ‘Immigration Street’ in 2014, and some of our members were involved in this work. The appearance of vile posters on our campuses is a reminder that our community cannot and must not stop fighting racism. So please do let Security know if you see any of these posters around campus.

We also remind members that there is a stand up to racism march in London this Saturday 16th March linked to the UN’s International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. 

Following the news on 15 March we have added the following link to the NEC statement on the New Zealand terror attack.

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Another one bites the dust (but the top team is still the problem)

Staff and students here at University of Southampton say goodbye to another VC this week. This one didn’t last as long as the last, but managed to oversee a period of great turbulence, poor morale, and cuts to frontline staff.

We are not alone – University of Leicester announced this week that their VC Paul Boyle is departing. Reading their branch blog we feel, again, that sense of déjà vu. As at Leicester, one of the first acts by Sir Christopher was to rename his role ‘President and VC’. This led, naturally, to the creation of Vice-President roles, and not long after, to the expansion of their number and the senior salary pay bill.

While we were promised no more destructive organisational change it took a mere 18 months for a series of projects to unfold – each with more *hilarious* monikers: we had the Wellington Project – the voluntary severance scheme that accompanied – yes, you’ve guessed it – the reorganisation of the University (from 8 Faculties to 5). We wondered if the senior management were having a laugh (Wellington being a type of boot, and so many staff being ‘given the boot’). We also had a Hartley project that entailed, what we considered to be quite heart-less, voluntary redundancies. Like so many other Universities, we endured these losses from a live building site. The slogan “Buildings not Brains” seems to accurately summarise the situation.

The delayed staff survey results, discussed in a previous blog, confirmed what most already knew, that this University has some serious problems. The survey showed that staff lack confidence and trust in the highest levels of leadership here. Staff feel that senior managers are not honest or open, and do not respond to feedback. Southampton UCU and our Senate have responded robustly, calling for serious and meaningful action by senior managers to address this disastrous staff survey.

With Sir Christopher’s departure there is a danger that the organisational narrative will become “It was the last guy’s fault”. We feel a need to push back on this, now, before it takes hold. Yes, Sir Christopher was part of the problem; he oversaw and agreed to many of the negative changes and processes enacted in recent years. But he was not alone. The University strategy, the direction of travel and the tactics employed, are owned by the senior management team. This group, all earning excessive salaries, seem out of touch with frontline staff and the real work of higher education. They have consistently failed to listen to staff and students. Instead of working collectively and supportively with us to defend higher education they have been seduced by metrics, league tables, bonds, and marketization.

With the VC’s departure we have a chance to reclaim the university. We ask the senior managers, especially the Vice-Presidents and Deans, who will be ‘in charge’ in this interim period to remember what higher education really is.  This is their moment to engage properly with frontline staff and students to address the real problems we face.

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.

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.

Health and safety – shared concerns

At our General meeting last year, we reported that the branch was experiencing problems trying to engage with the senior management to address serious safety concerns at this University. Managing risks to the health of staff and students is, and should be, a shared concern. This is an area where the trades unions can work in partnership to keep us all safe and well. Sadly that partnership is breaking down.

Nationally UCEA (the body that represents employers), the trades unions, and USHA have agreed that “in exercising their statutory functions, trade union health and safety representatives have a key role to play in representing the views of staff groups, participating in employers’ health and safety consultation structures and promoting opportunities for joint working and collaboration”. This is something that we want senior managers to recognise. This role for trades union representatives makes sense; union reps are ‘on the ground’ in our workplaces, and so can monitor safety and take action to address risks. Crucially, they are also protected by health and safety legislation, making it possible for them to speak out when needed.

The TUC describes the benefits of the ‘union effect’ on health and safety: organised workplaces are safer workplaces and, when asked, 70% of new trade union members say that health and safety is a “very important” union issue (more important than pay). UCU health and safety representatives across the UK make a real difference in Universities, helping to prevent workplace hazards, injuries and accidents, and intervening on matters ranging from open plan offices to excessive workloads, and prevention of bullying, through to fire safety and the storage of chemicals.

We are saddened that our attempts to work with the University to ensure and improve the health, safety and welfare of staff, students and visitors, appear to have been thwarted in recent months. In the closing months of last year this manifested in the senior management’s repeated refusal to hold an emergency Joint Negotiating Committee meeting, delayed responses to communications about our concerns, and a refusal to allow our national H&S officer to support our representatives undertaking an inspection. We had invited our national H&S official to support our H&S reps in an inspection of Building 53 because we have long had serious concerns about safety, following casework related to staff sickness, problematic water quality, and a dangerous incident with a pressurised system. Despite giving ample notice of this inspection UCU, were told at short notice that our official, Adam Lincoln, was banned from entering the building. Adam frequently accompanies UCU reps in such inspections across the country and at our General Meeting he wryly observed that he had found it easier to conduct such inspections in some of the UK’s most challenging prisons than here.

We had hoped that by undertaking this inspection we could clarify the actions needed to protect people working in this building. Reluctantly, because of the serious nature of the threats to health and well-being, the joint campus trades unions decided to report our concerns to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). We are awaiting their response.

UCU are now taking the unprecedented step of detailing our concerns here in the hope that the senior managers will take action to protect staff and students. We are concerned about the following reported hazards and threats to health and wellbeing:

1. We do not believe that senior managers have enacted appropriate control measures, mitigation and remedial actions in Building 53 in response to concerns listed in our previous communications to the employer (beginning in 2014) and as set out in the formal complaint to the HSE (also copied to the senior management). The health and safety risks to staff health and wellbeing posed by significant structural defects with Building 53, include but are not limited to:

a. pipework in this building has been installed incorrectly and uses wrong and incompatible components. This has led to several “minor” incidents and at least one spectacular, and potentially fatal, near miss.

b. exposure of staff (and potentially students) to harmful dust that includes a category one sensitising agent, and that several colleagues appear have been harmed

c. potential drainage problems, due to drains that are not constructed of appropriate material

In addition to these specific issues in Building 53 we have raised further concerns that:

d. Near-miss and incident information is not being passed on from the safety office to Departmental managers

e. The campus trades unions are experiencing difficulty in obtaining safety information from the University about halls of residence, notably pertaining to fire safety and cladding.

2. We do not believe that effective or appropriate health and safety consultation arrangements are in place across the University to enable the University, its employees and recognised trade union representatives to cooperate effectively. The reorganisation of trade union representatives on the Health and Safety Committees and forums represents a negative shift away from a culture of joint working and cooperation.

3. The Joint trades unions Joint negotiating Committee (JJNC) is the appropriate body to resolve disputes and disagreements in relation to these matters. The senior management have refused repeated requests for an emergency JJNC to discuss matters relating to Building 53.

We will be reiterating the concerns outlined above to the senior management.  We have offered to resolve B53 issues via a working group and joint inspections and we hope to be able to tell members that we have made progress soon.  Please tell us if you have additional health and safety concerns about your workplace at the University.

When he spoke at our General Meeting last year, Adam Lincoln outlined the new UCU Workloads campaign designed to tackle the problems associated with the ever-increasing workloads. Following the sad death, from suicide, of a colleague at Cardiff last year we feel impelled to speak out about workload-related stress at University of Southampton. We note the successful campaign at Liverpool Hope University which resulted in the HSE serving an enforcement notice on that University for failing to properly assess workplace stress risks. [apologies, for the paywall]. At our General Meeting last year, members agreed that we needed to run the workload campaign locally, and we are recruiting a number of new Health and Safety representatives who will focus only on these workload concerns. This will be a key UCU branch priority for 2019. If you think you can help, or want to find out more please contact Amanda (ucu@soton.ac.uk).

While we are here we would also like to promote the Hazards Campaign manifesto for a ‘safety system fit for workers’. Launching the manifesto Janet Newsham said: “Work contributes to a huge amount of public ill-health, to health inequality, lower life expectancy, fewer years of healthy life, kills over 50,000 people in the UK each year, makes millions ill, injures over half a million and the quality of jobs contributes to poverty and ill-health. But all of this is preventable. The right framework of strong laws, strict enforcement and support for active worker and union participation will have massive payback for workers, employers and whole economy.” The campaign seeks to create “a health and safety system based on prevention, precaution and participation of strong active unions.” Southampton UCU are committed to ensuring the safety and well-being of staff and students and we hope that the senior management shares this commitment.

The Story of Returning to the Tea Estate

Guest blog by Mahesan Niranjan

This time last year, I wrote an open letter to the Chair of our University Council (archived on the UCU blog here). I raised several points about scholarship and the need for better governance structures to support it. Nearly a hundred colleagues from across campus thanked me and agreed with my views. But, apart from a single exception, all of them ranked below the level of Head of Department. From the upper echelons, the reaction was simply one of politely raised eyebrows at my audacity in exercising my right to write.

More disappointing was my inability to trigger any open discussion within the community. Nobody expressed a view – in agreement or not – in public. I wondered why. Perhaps I was just wrong. Wrong about high salaries at the top end of our hierarchy. Wrong about annual appraisals and their demoralising effect. Wrong about the need for greater participation by the community in decision making. Wrong that scholarship is our revenue generator, hence academics should not be seen simply as costs. Wrong about the tuition fees we charge subsidising contract research. Perhaps those who agreed with me were a minority.

Or maybe we have accepted that we are mere human resources required to turn up at work and follow commands without question.

Hence this year, my reflections are inward. About myself. About my career of three decades. After all, I will be sixty soon. Grateful for what I have so far had. I can relax, have fun and reflect. Yes, reflect, for ‘tis the season of reflection.

I grew up in a tea estate in the central hills of Sri Lanka, a region of exceptional beauty. Hill after hill with rows of fresh green tea bushes. A tea estate has a special kind of beauty. Neatly pruned bushes grown to waist levels of the workers who pluck them. The workers, in bright coloured sarees with cane baskets hanging over their shoulders pluck tea with impressive skill: two leaves and a bud snipped with precision, and a palm-full of them periodically tossed over the shoulders into the basket. They continually chew mouthful of betel leaves to be spat on the deadly blood-sucking leeches that get between their bare toes.

Management of the estate is neat, efficient and hierarchical. There is the top level guy, usually the owner, referred to as the planter. Between him and the workforce is a layer of supervisors, known as kanganis. The planter sets the high level objectives for the estate. He (always it is ‘he’) defines how the workforce is partitioned into teams and which kangani supervises which team. Periodically, he shuffles the groups of workers among the hills. In days gone by, the planter was an European colonialist. The global thinker with vision and skill to spot where tea will grow and where it will be consumed, and what human resources would be needed to pluck the leaves and how precisely they shall be managed to maximise throughput. Since independence, the State and local entrepreneurs have taken over the estates, but retained the management techniques.

The kangani knows his place between the planter and the workforce. He is ambitious, dreaming of becoming a planter himself one day, though the probability of achieving that is infinitesimally small. In pursuit of that ambition, the kangani nods in the direction above to anything the planter cares to utter,  and barks orders downwards at the workforce. The objectives set by the planter are passed down as targets the workers should achieve: Pluck X kg a day, and you get N Rupees. Incentives also exist: Pluck 10% more the set target on any day, you get a reward of 1% increase in pay. If you overshoot, the target is raised by 10% the next day. Once in a while, when the kangani’s back is turned, the workforce have fun. They mimic his nods: “yes, Sir, yes, Sir, three bags full, Sir,” they tease and giggle.

During my childhood, I hated the tea estate. I hated the fact that the beauty of the estate hides intolerable inequality, poverty, hierarchy and exploitation. I wanted to leave the place as soon as possible and pursue scholarship and the discovery of knowledge, driven by curiosity. I did precisely that, leaving the tea estate and hiding myself in the bubbles of the Universities of Cambridge, Sheffield and Southampton. Three wonderful decades.

Somewhere mid-career an interesting thing happened. I was asked to take on a university management role. My father was amused. “How could you do a management job?” he wrote. “You are an absent minded scholar. You hate wearing a neck-tie. You read the Guardian. You buy the Big Issue. You go to work in socks and sandals. Son, you do not even have a strong enough brake between thought and speech.” Despite such scepticism, I took the role.

Towards the end of my tenure in the said management job, my father asked how it went. “Alright,” I reported, immediately inventing a performance measure to justify the claim. “Yes, a small number of people didn’t like the way I did the job, but they all ranked above me in the hierarchy, and those who ranked below all seemed appreciative.” The dislikes and likes being above and below, respectively, shows I did alright, I explained.

“How did you achieve that?” he asked. “I owe it,” I said with  sincerity, “to the transferable skills you taught me, from the way the tea estate was organised: the separation of the skill of the workforce from the profit-making objectives of the planter, by the ambitious intermediary, the kangani.” “All I had to do was to recognise the importance of the workforce, and not mimic the kangani. I simply refused to nod in agreement upwards and avoided barking orders downwards.” My father was amused by the term I had just used. “What did you say, transferable… what?” he asked. He was a teacher of English and a scholar of Sanskrit. He was a good linguist, too. Our mother tongue, Tamil, comes from the Dravidian family of languages, distinct form the Indo-European family which include English and Sanskrit. He has studied the flow of words, morphological changes and grammatical structures between Sanskrit and Tamil. His particular interest was in Hinduism, a religion in which communication between man and stone is executed in Sanskrit. Despite that background, my father has never come across the phrase “transferable skill”. As a teacher, he has always insisted that the primary purpose of education is joy, the pleasure achieved by discovering knowledge. He would accept the ability to solve previously unseen problems as a secondary benefit.

I have plagiarised his practice. I try to instil the idea that there is fun in machine learning, which is the subject I teach, and insist that my success is measured by my students being able to solve problems they have not seen before. The pleasure I achieved last week, for example, when a student of eight years ago wrote to thank me when he got appointed to a lectureship, far outweighs the irritation I tolerate when the moderated appraisal score is returned informing me of my mediocre performance in the previous year. It is apparently axiomatic in present day universities that there is a sharply peaked “bell-curve” of performance into which our scholarship could be packed.

I regard quality assurance processes as necessary, but not sufficient proxies for achieving high quality. There is an anecdote I heard about someone who wrote in an Annual Module Reflection Form (AMRF): “As a result of innovative teaching this year, half the candidates achieved a grade higher than the median mark.” That AMRF has been approved by several committees and filed somewhere, as testimony to the quality of the quality assurance processes that dominate our lives.

It wasn’t my father’s ignorance of the phrase “transferable skill” that bothered me. My casual use of the phrase shamed me. Whatever next, I wondered. Have I been house-trained into the system? Will I now speak of “strategic priority”? Or will I have a “vision”? Or will I start believing in “learning outcomes”? Or will I be “moving forward”?

A month after that conversation with my father, I was nearing the end of my tenure in that management role. I was called into the office of a senior manager. “You seem to have done alright… we would like you to continue for another term.” He had consulted the foot soldiers. “They all seem to like your work,” he reported his discovery, quickly adding “me too.”  I declined the offer. “I do not wish to continue. I need to get back to the research lab, the classroom, the journal club and the coffee room of the foot soldiers.”

So, I went back to the tea estate! Spotting two leaves and a bud at a glance with amazing skill; manipulating my fingers to pluck them with speed; rhythmically shoving handful of them into the basket that hung on my back. I am promised incentives if I perform above target: 10% plucked above target gets 1% increase in pay. But the kangani moves my target whenever I overshoot it.

Yet, occasionally, when the kangani’s back is turned, I do have fun, thinking of the tea estate workers and their “yes, Sir, yes, Sir, three bags full, Sir!”, for ‘tis indeed the season of reflection.