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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* figures taken from Financial Statements and Statistics 2016-2017 

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.

Groundhog Day 2019 – Appraisal revisited

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

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

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

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

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

Use of Module Evaluation Questionnaire (MEQ) and NSS 

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

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

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

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

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

Inappropriate use of REF benchmarking scores

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

Problematic performance targets and recognition of leadership roles

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

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

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

New Year – New Hopes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.