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University rankings, markets and spin

In the current globalized economy, rankings are an obsession supposed to help consumers make an informed choice. Apart from the well-founded criticisms of ‘virtual customers’ flooding some platforms with positive feedback, the sheer amount of ‘information’ available often transforms even positive choices into daunting decisions.

With the growing marketization of the UK Higher Education and the metamorphosis of students into customers, the latter need to be ‘guided’ through their choice of university. Students are now told they need to ‘invest’ in themselves rather than become educated. And what better guides are there than league tables and customer feedback? The latter is ensured by the National Student Survey (NSS) in which ‘student satisfaction’ is dominant, as if satisfaction were a good measure of education. As for the former, there is no shortage of that either. League tables have flourished ever since the first release of the Shanghai Jiaotong ranking in 2003 and there are now many different sets of rankings and criteria. Unfortunately, ranking universities is somewhat more complex than ranking tennis or chess players. Universities do not oppose each other in events with a specific outcome (win, draw or loss) and they have a series of complex missions not easily captured in scores.

How did we end up here? In part this is the result of the incorporation of the former polytechnics as Post-92 Universities, and the target of 50% of school leavers going on to higher education. The sector is bigger and universities need to work harder to differentiate themselves. A ‘market’ needs data to drive ‘customer’ choice. As with any online shopping platform, it does not matter how relevant the customer feedback review is as long as it is there. Nevertheless, students are led to believe that the 10th ranking university is better than the 15th one. One look at the Unistats website (https://unistats.ac.uk) reveals the vast amount of ‘information’ students are deluged with when trying to make an ‘informed choice’. Apart from the stress this creates for students, these rankings do other kinds of damage, as captured in the excellent Distinguished Lecture Professor Dorothy Bishop gave at the university last year about the TEF and its shortcomings.

University reputations are high-inertia beasts, very difficult to move, one way or another. Rankings on the other hand, by releasing data every year, can tempt us to establish short-term correlations between measures, strategies and rank variation. A quick look at some rankings’ time series (Figs. 1-3) mostly shows stability over the last 5 to 10 years, and it is very difficult to establish whether a year-to-year variation is significant.

Figure 1 – from Evolution of UoS rankings in the UK,

Figure 2 – from Evolution of UoS THE World University rankings

Figure 3 – from the Evolution of UoS QS World rankings

An exception is the sharp decrease in 2018 (Fig. 3), but even here the reasons are likely to be multiple and these data would need to be rigorously analysed before any serious conclusion could be drawn.

A worrying trend is how communications teams often cannot resist the temptation and use the yearly release of these rankings to spin the news. In last year’s news post, while we took a strong hit in ranking as mentioned above, the message was Southampton’s ranking reflects its performance in the ‘pillars’ used by the THE to generate its list. Once again this year, the University’s strongest pillar is for International Outlook with a score of 92 – more than double the sector median score of 43.7. Southampton also scored well for citations at 86, some 39 points above the sector median with scores for Teaching and Research also above the median.” We might also have come third in the UK for coffee machine quality… The great thing with these rankings is that there is always something you can cherry-pick to make you look good.

But no worries, this year’s news saw the return of our glory. In this year’s financial statement, it is said (p. 3) that “In the spring/summer we received a flurry of good news, all pointing to the positive impact of our strategy and operational focus on quality: we rose 6 places in the Complete University Guide, 12 places in the Guardian University league table, 12 places in the Times Good University Guide, regained our place in the World’s Top 100 in QS and were awarded a Silver in the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). […]. All major achievements.” This is Baldrick (from the BBC series Black Adder) at his most cunning: ‘drop’ in the rankings, come back to near where you were and praise the university strategy for a huge leap forward.

It goes without saying, NSS can be spun too. In the same document, there is more fantastic news: “The focus and effort that we have put into improving the student experience has been positively reflected in a gain of 1% in the overall satisfaction score to 84%.” Of course, any of our students making this statement in a Statistics exam would fail to get the marks, so this is not setting a great example. The strong evidence provided by Prof. Dorothy Bishop [sharepoint site, password needed 25:00, slide 29] should encourage us to take these with a pinch of salt rather than use flawed statistical commentary to spin the data in the direction you want.

The dire competition imposed on the HE sector by gradually removing public funding has led our universities to become individualistic, hoping that they will do better than the others. A symptom of this trend was revealed during the pension dispute and recent news that some universities are tempted to ‘leave the USS boat’ to escape any solidarity. Unfortunately, this competition is a negative sum game. Our ‘competitors’ have the same degree of intelligence as we have and fighting them will only result in all of us taking the hit. The risk is that while we spend all our energy trying to be ‘better’ than the others using such short-term and flawed criteria, we cease to be good according to academic criteria.

Rather than compete, we should collaborate and lobby against the plan to turn our universities into businesses. We should work in a university where honesty and transparency takes precedence over spin. In times of financial hardship, the right leadership would respond as an academic community, not as a corporation. We do not need ‘business plans’, ‘performance metrics’ and senior managers having to sign Non Disclosure Agreements before engaging with university strategy. We need open and honest debates and transparent decision making. These issues are at the heart of what staff and students believe are at stake in the appointment of our new VC. They are why we are asking for better senior leadership and a stronger more robust Senate.

 

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.

My name is bond, university bond…

Several universities have borrowed significant amounts of money from private and/or public investors. UK universities have issued £4.4bn in bonds since the beginning of 2013. This figure is scary given the total yearly HE sector income of about £30bn. This university has a £300M bond issued in 2017.

When we borrow money for a house mortgage, we repay interest and capital, so that the whole loan is eventually repaid. Or we can pay interest only, but this means there is still a debt to be cleared at the end of the term. The interest-only model is used for the university bond. The university will pay 2.25% interest every year, some £6.7M, and are supposed to pay the full £300M back in 40 years. (Oxford, has a bond for 100 years). The bond is akin to issuing shares to a group of shareholders who will have a steady regular income but it turns our university into a for-profit organization bound to make a yearly surplus to satisfy these investors.

This is the climax of marketization. Universities are burdened with financial obligation and under the surveillance of rating agencies. In recent weeks your UCU officers have been told that we are not allowed to know student numbers because this is ‘price sensitive’ information and we must not alarm the investors. How did we end up in an education institution that cannot tell us how many students we have?

When the bond comes to term those who made the financial decisions will be long gone, yet staff at the university will have paid the price many times over. How did we end up here? Such endeavours would have been unthinkable twenty years ago. The game changer of course was the reduction in public investment in Higher Education. Alongside the introduction of student fees and loans these kinds of bond arrangements shift public investment into private debt. A great way to make the national budget look better but not necessarily the best way to support education. The bond is a millstone around our necks: it demands that we – the staff – generate surplus. This is clear in the 10 year plan [password required], the source of pressures to reduce staff pay, pensions and announce redundancies, which UCU are currently fighting.

In the appointment of our next Vice-Chancellor, it is essential that we, as an academic community and as UCU, seek a Vice-Chancellor who will stand up with our community against the marketization of education. We need a Vice-Chancellor who will work towards more democracy and listen to frontline staff and students so that we are integral to the university strategy rather than mere recipients. There is still time to sign the petition about the appointment of the next VC and to make sure your voice is heard.

Workloads matter

Thanks to all members who attended the GM last week. We were really pleased to have Adam Lincoln, the Bargaining and Negotiations Official (Health, Safety and Sustainability) from UCU HQ as our speaker. Adam reminded us of the sad death of a colleague at Cardiff who took his own life after expressing concerns about being overloaded, UCU have for a long time been aware of rising workplace stress and staff concerns about workloads. Indeed action on workloads this was one of the elements in our recent pay claim. We know it is of concern to many of you especially following the recent round of cuts to staff which has seen the reallocation of their work to already over-burdened staff.

Adam told us about a new UCU campaign to build a network of workload reps who can use the Health and Safety legislation and legal protections to address workload stress and overload. This will begin with a process of identifying and appointing H&S workload reps in target departments. If you care about rising workloads talk to us about becoming a workload rep for your department – this is a small, defined role that means you can do your bit to make a difference. If you want to help please do volunteer – contact Amanda (ucu@soton.ac.uk). (The ppt slides and campaign packs on workloads are available from the UCU office).

 

University Governance – Time to take back control?

The news that our VC and President Sir Christopher Snowden is retiring a little earlier than anticipated has provoked a number of conversations by staff and students about what kind of VC we should hope for next. The emerging consensus seems to be ‘not more of the same please’.

Several colleagues have expressed relief at Sir Christopher’s departure and suggested that this is an excellent opportunity for those critical of the direction of the University over recent years to inform the appointment process for the next VC. We very much hope that the next VC will rebuild relations with academic and academic-related staff, and begin to repair the damage done to our University

The appointment process for the new VC must be transparent and take account staff concerns and morale. We have had two VCs in a row who arrived with a negative reputation for difficult relations with staff in their previous Universities. Sadly both lived up to these poor reputations and both wasted considerable staff time and effort on top down reorganisations and cuts to frontline staff.

Having met the new Chair of Council before he took up his post, UCU will be seeking further dialogue over the coming months to help him understand staff and student concerns. Some key points that we will be putting forward are that our next VC:
1/ should receive a salary much closer proportionately to that of other senior University staff
2/ must dispense with management approaches based on surveillance and bullying, and instead adopt an approach which is collegial, consultative and supportive and, above all, which values staff
3/ should take a more active role in national debates about Higher Education and argue for Universities as a public good.

One of the reasons we have ended up with out of touch leadership and excessively paid top teams is the disconnect between front line academic and academic-related professional staff and the governance of the University. The opportunities for Senate to genuinely influence the direction of travel have been curtailed and many senators complain that they are forced to rubber stamp changes rather than being allowed to debate and influence them. Council too looks increasingly out of touch. Our analysis suggests that we have one of the most unbalanced Councils, dominated by private sector corporate representatives. Despite recent efforts Council still fails to be truly diverse.
Students too are poorly represented in these governance structures – a few sabbatical officers are allowed to attend and make reports but again the ability of the study body as a whole to comment on changes is limited.

UCU have been watching our colleagues over the border in Scotland responding to the Higher Education Governance (Scotland) Act introduced in 2016. This set out new requirements for Universities in Scotland in terms of how their Courts and Senates should be constituted, notably requiring that more than 50 per cent of members are elected, and that 10 per cent of members are elected students. We are aware that University of Edinburgh has a Task Group, convened by the Principal, to consider possible models which would comply with the Act. We need to ensure that our governing bodies represent frontline staff, and students and something like this would be welcome here. We had already flagged concerns that the restructure of the University will reduce representation on Senate and are awaiting a response on this. In addition we are concerned at reports from some faculties here that opportunities to stand for Senate are not communicated in timely ways, and that the process for election is not open or transparent. This too has to be investigated and improved.

Staff and students are rightly concerned that the University will appoint another VC who wreaks yet more damage. UCU will be arguing forcefully for a stronger voice for frontline staff and students in the selection process. We will continue to push for better governance. It is time for everyone who is concerned about our University to raise their voices – it is time we took back control.

Recruitment week and beyond – upcoming Branch activities from 24 September 2018

*TODAY * 24 September 13:00-14:00 6/1081 (Nuffield Theatre) Open meeting
Come along and bring a friend. Find out about the national Pay and Equality campaign and ballot. Help us set our local branch priorities. Ask us about benefits for members.

26th September 12:00-14:00 UCU at WSA Cafe
We’ve let Amanda out of the office at Union House and she will be providing info about UCU on our stall at the WSA cafe. Please come and talk to her about why you should join your union. If you are already a member come and say hi and tell us how we can help you.

26th September 12:00-13:00 PGR Induction Physics and Astonomy B46/5081
PGRs Introduction to UCU – the union for academic and academic-related staff *INCLUDING PGRs* – talk for Physics and Astronomy PGRs by Cori Ruktanonchai from UCU Branch. Find out about our free membership offer and how we can support you

26th September 17:00-18:00 PGR Induction – Information stand at Avenue Campus Foyer
UCU represents PGRs as well as staff at the University. Find out about our free membership offer and how we can support you.

27th September 10.45-11.45 PGR Induction FEPS B46/3001
Introduction to UCU – the union for academic and academic-related staff *INCLUDING PGRs* – talk for FEPS PGRs by Cori Ruktanonchai from UCU Branch. Find out about our free membership offer and how we can support you.

27th September UCU 12:00-14:00 at Highfield Campus Lattes cafe
It’s recruitment week for UCU – Come along to find out more about why you need to join a union and how UCU can help you. Bring a friend. Ask us about the #DinosaurOfSolidarity … or ask us why we are concerned about the governance of the University.
Already a member? Come and pick up leaflets to GET THE VOTE OUT for our PAY & EQUALITY BALLOT.

3 Oct and 9 Oct 10:00 47 University Rd (Union House) Get the Vote out 

**visit departments /office doorknocking **
Our Pay and Equality Ballot is open. We are fighting for decent pay, and action on gender pay gap, job security and workloads. PLEASE COME AND HELP by joining our volunteers to visit departments to encourage people to vote. We must get over 50% turnout in this important ballot. Contact ucu@soton.ac.uk if you want to help but cannot make these dates.

Who pays to work at the University? or ‘A different kind of expenses scandal’

Following on from the concern about VC expense accounts earlier in the year, staff here have recently received emails reminding them of the rules governing expense claims and asking us to use the new corporate travel agency to make travel and accommodation bookings. UCU members have raised various concerns about the additional charges and sometimes higher priced tickets incurred via this new system, but this blog is about a different kind of expense – the money many staff spend to support the work they do here at the University, but which they cannot or do not reclaim.

Below is the list of the out of pocket expenses of staff we have compiled from a small sample of members of Southampton UCU. We welcome your additional examples to add to this list:

  • Exchange rate and commission charges on foreign currency used during work related travel, conferences etc. These can add up, especially for those who have to make frequent visits abroad on University business.
  • Allied to this many staff now pay their own conference fees and travel expenses to disseminate their University work or undertake professional development. Those caring for babies and young children may bear the cost of a companion to look after them if they have to accompany them, and this is another extra cost.
  • Ditto for research trips – many disciplines have no research budget or limited funds for ECRs only so that other staff are forced to self fund these vital activities.
  • Publication comes at quantifiable cost for many. Some colleagues have to pay for image reproduction costs and rights and these cost can exceed £1000. If these are not covered by a grant then the staff member has to pay to publish.
  • Visa costs for overseas travel are another a huge expense – we know of at least one junior colleague who had a prestigious fellowship that did not cover these costs.
  • Computers /laptops: several colleagues report that they have had to buy/upgrade these from personal funds.
  • Stationery: as budgets have been cut the impact has been felt on these everyday supplies. UCU members report buying envelopes, notepads as well as materials used in teaching or research. The Secret Teacher alerted readers of the Guardian to the fact that school teachers have long been subsidising school budgets, and it seems a similar practice occurs here. We are also aware that some research staff buy the majority of their own equipment for unfunded field trips for research or teaching.
  • Visiting speaker and external examiners’ refreshments– once again cuts to budgets mean that looking after these visitors typically means just a sandwich and a can of pop, and this often does not seem to adequately express our gratitude for expert speakers and examiners who may travel for 4-5 hours to viva our students, assess our education programmes or share their research knowledge. Whilst this varies by Faculty, we know that some staff are paying out of their own pockets to save the University’s reputation and maintain goodwill.
  • Books – yes some of us still use books, and we also pay for personal subscriptions to journals and these are a business expense.
  • Mobile phone – many staff use their personal mobile and data allowance for work and do not claim this. Having access to the internet at home has become necessary for most as work has followed us home in evenings and weekends.
  • Professional society subscriptions and memberships are another work expense falling on academic-related professional services, and academic staff alike – often these are required for accreditation or promotion and yet are paid from personal income.
  • We are aware that staff here sometimes house visiting colleagues and overseas students who may not have the budget to afford local hotel accommodation. These are more hidden expenses that staff pay.
  • And while we are making the list, we should probably add the cost of tissues for distressed students and staff as there seem to be more of the latter than in the past, perhaps as a result of the recent redundancies and reorganisations.

The money we spend on our work is often not made visible. We spend money to support our research, education and professional activity and seldom bother to add up what it costs to work at the University of Southampton. At a time when the employers are offering a pay settlement that is below inflation, and are still threatening our deferred salary (pension) this subsidising of the University starts to rankle. Our current VC receives £423,000 a year and we suspect he, along with other senior managers, has no idea how you are subsidising the work of the University from your wages. UCU will  continue to push senior management to start valuing our staff and properly reward them for the work they do.

We are currently balloting members on pay and equality. The value of your wages has been steadily eroded by inflation. As we have shown above many staff are paying considerable sums to subside University work. UCU has asked for a 7.5% uplift on salaries and for more substantial effort to address job insecurity, the gender pay gap and excessive workloads. We need to get 50% turn out in this ballot if we want to take action to get a better deal. So please VOTE NOW AND VOTE YES to strike action and yes to action short of a strike.

 

This blog was edited 1/10/18 to correct phrasing about VC salary package which is £433,000.

 

Vote YES for a fair pay deal

Earlier this year UCU members were asked what they wanted to do about the derisory pay offer made by our employers. Responses from UCU members here more than cleared the 50% bar demanded by TU legislation – you said, overwhelmingly, that you want to take action on pay.

The Pay and Equality ballot closes Friday 19th October at 12 noon. 

Senior managers have ‘implemented’ a 2% pay increase – but do not be fooled by this. The value of your wages has been going down. The last above-inflation pay rise was in 2014. UCU have asked for a pay increase of 7.5% or £1,500, whichever is greater.

We note that the VC’s pay was a whopping £433,000 (including pension) in 2016/17. Sir Christopher is paid more than double the head of our local hospital, although the hospital budget is larger than that of the university, and they have more staff. We note also that in 2007, the then VC, Bill Wakeham was paid ‘just’ £242,000 (including pension) so Sir Christopher’s pay represents an increase of 79% over 10 years. It is time that University senior managers showed front line staff that they are valued too.

UCU also want a nationally-agreed framework for action to close the gender pay gap by 2020. The most recent gender pay return for University of Southampton shows a mean gender pay gap of 20.2%. Women here are paid, on average, 20% less than men. Women continue to be under-represented at the highest levels of the pay scale and little effective action has been taken to address this inequality.

The 2018 pay claim asks for a nationally-agreed framework for action on precarious contracts. We have a small army of staff employed on fixed term and hourly-paid contracts. This ‘disposable’ labour force deserves a better deal.

Finally our UCU negotiators have pointed out that increases in workload and excessive hours also contribute to the decline in pay of University staff. We have had a year of more cuts to staff and yet no decline in the work to be done. The work of all the people who have left and the vacant posts deliberately left unfilled has been redistributed. During the strike at the beginning of the year people kept saying how good it was to ‘go home on time’ and to spend weekends with family and friends. Staff here routinely take work home after their working day is over. Most work more than their contracted hours. Many of us are bombarded with work emails at all times of the day and night. We have put up with almost constant restructuring, moving from 3 to 8 to 5 Faculties, facing the cuts associated with “INEX”, “Hartley” and “Wellington” projects. We have delivered more and more for this University and yet we are not recompensed. Our pay claim asks for a payment to recognise these excessive workloads. 

There is still time to avoid a dispute this year. Sir Christopher, as a key voice in Universities UK,  could represent us and use his excellent contacts to press for a better deal for University staff.

In the coming weeks we will be working to “Get the Vote Out” and will be visiting workplaces to encourage members to vote and asking non-members to join UCU. If you can help – please contact Amanda (ucu@soton.ac.uk).

You should receive your ballot papers over the next few days. We must achieve a turnout of at least 50% to take lawful industrial action so your vote is vital.

You can read the union’s full claim here and click here for further information and the latest in the campaign.

Please Vote YES to strike action and YES to action short of a strike (ASOS).

 

*this blog was updated on 6/9/18 to add details about hospital chief, and previous VC pay (thanks to our member for reminding us of these comparisons). We also added the date that the ballot closes.

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.