Southampton UCU Rotating Header Image

Local Campaign

The problem with treating students as customers, or how module evaluation questionnaires and our timetabling policy damage the student experience

A long title, sure, but this issue lies at the root of many of the intractable problems that are having a most severe effect on our members.  We want our members, both ERE and MSA staff, to recognise that we can improve both student and staff experience without succumbing to the rhetoric and false logics of the marketisation of higher education (our strategy Simply Better, as we have now been told, has its roots in a “radically conservative” self-help marketing book by the same title).

This blog covers only the aspects that we addressed at the UCU JNC on 12 October 2017, but we are very happy to continue the conversation offline, and welcome members’ contributions. We would particularly encourage members who are on Senate to consider how they can help reframe the conversation within the university governance structure.

Module evaluation

There are so many things wrong with the ways student evaluation is used and interpreted, across the sector and in our own institution.  While it is important to have a means of informing module enhancement and tools for examining student experience, end-of-semester module evaluation questionnaires are, at best (even when they are conducted and interpreted appropriately), limited in the benefit they can impart, particularly that the students themselves can experience. We have created an initial resource for members’ use, centred on mid-module evaluation – already practice in some faculties – as a much more constructive way to engage students in effective change: click here to see our suggestions for Module Evaluations and Simply Better.

There is a weighty, constantly evolving literature that shows “student evaluation of teaching ratings and student learning are not related,” that “teacher effectiveness is negatively correlated with students’ evaluations,” and worse, that unconscious gender bias affects “even putatively objective aspects of teaching, such as how promptly assignments are graded” to a statistically significant degree. Our submission to the October JNC was unequivocal about this bias, and we consider the discussion to have put the University on notice. Management cannot now claim that they are unaware that student module evaluation questionnaires bear a significant and demonstrable burden of discrimination in contravention of the Equality Act, and  SUCU will support any member of staff wishing to commence a grievance who can show that their module evaluation scores have been used in a way that causes them to suffer detriment (see also the upcoming blog on our Appraisal discussion).

Timetabling policy

At the October JNC, we also addressed some serious issues with the Timetabling Policy:  currently, although it ostensibly allows for reasonable adjustments under the Equality Act, it contains a hierarchy of protected characteristics and who has those characteristics, student or staff – which rather confounds the concept of equality.  It also jeopardises the University’s Athena Swan award, so we want this fixed sooner rather than later: we have asked that the policy be considered as a matter of urgency at Policy Review.  We are also deeply concerned that some members with protected characteristics are being refused flexible working/timetabling requests, and we are pursuing this with the Equalities Officer as a matter of priority.

The conversation then turned to that aspect of the policy that has created disaffection and distress in the whole community: the fundamental principle (3.12.a) that student choice determines the timetable, not the other way around. We all know the havoc this manifests at the beginning of each semester, and it is not uncommon to find that we do not know where we are teaching, even days (or working hours) before the beginning of the semester, or that for a week or two (or more) the class size can be greater than the number of students a room can accommodate.   But it has ramifications further into the semester: for instance, if your module assessment design is based on an average intake of a certain number of students and you find you have double or half that number registered, all sorts of problems arise at the point of assessment (inadequate time for presentations, inadequate numbers for effective group work etc.).

This is not something on which the union is empowered to negotiate directly, but we can hold a view and we can represent our members’ views to the JNC.  We know that timetabling problems and mismatches between module design and module enrolment, issues wholly or largely out of the control of individual departments, have directly contributed to poor outcomes on NSS. We strongly assert that academic staff should not be held accountable, through measures taken via the Education Strategy, for problems created by a misguided adherence to the notion that student module choice trumps all other considerations.  Given an appropriate and meaningful choice, students – as far as we can tell – would opt for modules and courses to run smoothly and predictably: perhaps less variety overall, but with more timetabled options for popular/core modules.

Students are not customers, and strategies to address customer satisfaction (as if we were the book Simply Better‘s illustrative businesses Toyota, Tesco, and Ryanair) are not the first place we should be looking to improve the “quality of education and student experience we provide.  If senior management wants to know where the stresses are that make the real differences, then all they have to do is ask, listen, and accept – even if the message is not one they particularly want to hear. The Collegiality strand of Southampton’s Simply Better demands “high-performing leadership and management” and a “community built on trust and taking personal accountability.”

Go on, then. Let’s talk, and put it right – for all of us.

“What’s a JNC, then?” What your union has been doing for you this week

It’s been a hectic week (well, couple of weeks, really) at Southampton UCU HQ. Even while we’re all slowly uncurling from the brace position of Week 0 and greeting our new and returning students, our intrepid committee and caseworkers have been going about campaigning on pensions, negotiations, training, representation, committee meetings, liaising with our sister campus unions – all part of the rich tapestry of local branch business.

UCU leaflets and desk ornaments

Union campaigning materials in the autumn sunshine, accompanied by the Heart of the Union and Tony, the AUT Brain.

The focus (highlight?) of the week has been the two Joint Negotiating Committee (JNC) meetings on Thursday 12 October, the morning devoted to matters concerning all campus unions, and the afternoon to matters solely relating to UCU members.  The JNC is perhaps the most important event of each term, as it is where we initiate, debate, and complete formal negotiations with university management.  Any matter that has an impact on our terms and conditions of employment will eventually end up tabled at JNC: for instance, in September, we established new ground rules for policy development and approval, where University policy affects our T&Cs – and JNC is where all that work is finalised.  Most importantly, JNC is where we can hold the university to account if we feel that things have not gone – or are not going – according to the law, or our negotiated agreements, or to good practice.

We covered a great deal of ground yesterday in these meetings and some matters deserve write-ups of their own, just so this update doesn’t get too long.  For each, there is a tl;dr summary, but if you want to know more, I’ll be providing more detailed coverage over the weekend (13 Oct: I’ll be adding links as I write the more detailed posts).

  1. Pensions: The University has made its position clear, and will be issuing a press release soon.  We are very disappointed that the response has not engaged with the detailed criticisms of the valuation.  (In other news, we’ve continued campaigning for the consultative ballot on national strike action over the threat to USS.)
  2. Education matters – module evaluation scores and timetabling: We raised significant issues from our members relating to the conduct of module evaluation questionnaires and the inappropriate uses to which scores are being put, and we questioned reasons for the policy of retaining MEQ data on employees for six years.  We requested an urgent review of the Timetabling Policy, in terms of its incompatibility with the Equalities Act, and in the way some faculties are failing to implement flexible working requests.
  3. Appraisals and ERE Reward policies: We delivered robust criticism of the implementation of the ERE Reward policies, particularly appraisal, and established that the University has been operating outside our negotiated agreement of 2014.  The policies will now undergo urgent and long overdue review.

Other matters can be summarised briefly here. We raised several incidences of the University’s failure to respond to FOI and data access requests, and received assurances that the team dealing with data access has been strengthened. Also under the umbrella of communication, we reminded management that if they are going to use NSS results on feedback to, um, encourage individuals and departments to do better, they they need to up their game on feedback to us: focus group activity, working groups, suggestion email addresses… Management tell us that they engage with staff in a variety of ways, and are always seeking input and acting on it, so if that’s the case, we need to see the outcomes.

Two matters will need further discussion and work before our next JNC in March, so I’ll leave them with you to come back to us: the “expectation” of turning student emails around in three days (turnabout is fair play, so if you are left weeks without a response from HR or management, do let us know); and the imposition of Clarity [link to intranet; not for public users] as sole agents for university business travel.  We say this decision relates to our terms and conditions, particularly for those of us who self-fund our research travel, so we have insisted that it be referred to JNC’s Policy Review Group.  Please let us know if you have any difficulty arising from this (currently) unnegotiated decision.

Your UCU branch president,
Laurie

 

 

A very busy week, and lots of progress to report

The Penguins of Solidarity re-enact our Strategy Day with Tony, the AUT Brain

I had not anticipated writing another blog quite so soon after the last, but some important things have happened this week, and – accepting the risk that members might get blog-fatigue before the autumn term has even started – I thought it was a good idea to update on the many positive outcomes of all the intense activity.

Tuesday we held our Strategy Day, and it was wonderful to welcome so many people – executive committee members, caseworkers, departmental reps – to what was a very productive session.  On the morning agenda were some important national issues, particularly changes to membership terms and pensions.  Briefly:

  • From 1 October, PGR students who teach during their doctoral studies are to be offered free full membership, valid for four years, or until the member achieves a more secure job. PGR students are already offered free membership, but not with all the benefits of full membership.  This is a very welcome change, and we hope you will advertise this to your PG teaching fellows and assistants. https://www.ucu.org.uk/article/8916/Future-of-the-profession-free-membership-FAQ  Other changes from the union are in the pipeline, including CPD provision, help for international staff, and some significant adjustments to benefits. We’ll keep you updated.
  • Pensions: While we were discussing the problems of the 2017 USS valuation and the continued and growing threat to our pensions, the University of Sheffield decided in the interests of transparency to publish the valuation documents, something that UCU activists have been demanding for months: https://www.sheffield.ac.uk/hr/thedeal/pensionupdates/ussvaluation At branch and at national level, UCU is very concerned that the valuation methodology is inappropriate and damaging, and will leave scheme members increasingly worse off, potentially putting us into renewed conflict with our employers.  We have requested a meeting with the Finance Director to discuss USS, and we will be blogging about that in the near future.  You can follow the thoughts of Mike Otsuka, Professor at LSE, here.
Southampton UCU 2017 Strategy Day

Southampton UCU 2017 Strategy Day

In the afternoon, we discussed six related areas of concern that I have outlined in previous posts:

  • workload
  • misuse and abuse of the appraisal process
  • misuse and abuse of student evaluation
  • performance management
  • restructuring/redundancies/settlement agreements
  • the upcoming review of Statutes and Ordinances

From the feedback and ideas raised in the session, we are devising action plans for both negotiation and campaigning on all of these points.  We plan to set up some FAQ pages in the very near future: one in relation to appraisal concerns, and another with some points about settlement agreements.  We are, as always, keen to hear about your experiences, good and bad, in relation to first five; if you think you have expertise or experience that will help us with the sixth, we’d love to hear from you.

Wednesday was also a full day, this time with a number of meetings with HR and other professional services.  The general feeling at the end of the day was encouraging, having achieved some progress towards clear lines of consultation and negotiation on policies (to include principles, procedures, and guidelines) in the morning, and having addressed some points of concern directly with HR representatives in the afternoon. We had a valuable lessons-learned meeting, subsequent to a complex restructuring last academic year, that has helped us establish good practice for what we hope will be more effective and compassionate consultations in the future, with better outcomes for all concerned.

Finally, the statement below is a very positive outcome from our afternoon meeting with Andy Cast, Interim Director of HR Business Partnering, in relation to settlement agreements and protected conversations:

Under Employment Law a mutually agreed exit is achieved using a settlement agreement to ensure that contractual, common law and most statutory claims are settled, including claims of discrimination.  The discussions leading to the employee’s departure are conducted via a protected/without prejudice conversation to terminate the employment contract on terms mutually agreed between the employer and employee.  On occasions the University would like to be able to offer an opportunity for colleagues to leave under these voluntary terms.  Normally there will be a workplace dispute, relationship breakdown or an ongoing performance issue which initiates such action.  A settlement agreement can be requested by the employer or employee.  If the University wishes to offer one of these settlement agreements to a colleague, it will ensure 5 working days’ notice is given for any protected/without prejudice conversation, along with the opportunity for the staff member to bring a Union Representative or companion with them if they wish to do so.  For more information about settlement agreements, please see the ACAS guidance here.

This statement will be added to our FAQs on settlement agreements, but we wanted you to have the text as soon as possible, as it has reassured us of the university’s commitment now to give notice to employees if it wishes hold such a meeting, giving the employee the opportunity to arrange representation, if they wish.

Wishing you all the very best for the weekend, and the coming weeks leading up to the beginning of the autumn term

Laurie

 

Southampton UCU consultative ballot on new contract of employment

Dear colleague

We are currently balloting members on whether to accept or reject the new master contracts of employment.  You should already have received an email with a unique voting link and you have until Tuesday 10 October at 5pm to vote on the proposals.  If you have not received this email please contact Amanda at ucu@soton.ac.uk as soon as possible.

Southampton UCU has been in negotiations with University of Southampton on the new master contracts of employment for staff at Levels 4-6 since summer 2013. These negotiations have been taking place with renewed intensity in the last academic year. The stated intent of University of Southampton in re-drafting contracts of employment is, “To produce a set of modernised contract of employment templates which are legally compliant, written in ‘plain English’, to make the terms and conditions of employment simpler to understand, and, where possible, to future proof standard clauses. It is important to note that the existing terms and conditions of employment are not being changed in this revision.”

The proposed contract is for new staff joining the University, or for staff who are taking up a new post. At present this does not affect contracts for existing staff, who will for the time being remain employed on their current contracts of employment. Southampton UCU is keen to ensure consistency and equity in terms of employment at University of Southampton, therefore if our members approve the new master contracts of employment for new staff, we will in principle approve these contracts being rolled out to existing staff at a future date.  During the lengthy negotiations we carefully considered the views of University of Southampton and the University considered feedback from your Southampton UCU reps. We feel that we are now able to present to our members the final version.

We encourage members to look at the new contract as well as the summary document, both of which can be found here:  https://groupsite.soton.ac.uk/Administration/Master-Contracts-Project/Pages/Home.aspx

PLEASE USE YOUR VOTE.

 

 

International staff survey

UCU is the largest post-16 education trade union in the world and we are committed to representing our international workforce and fighting for their interests in uncertain times.

Please help us to support international staff by completing our survey of non-UK education workers and sharing it with colleagues.

Most recently, UCU’s campaigning on behalf of international staff has focused on developing UCU’s immigration employment advice service for both EEA and non-EEA nationals which now includes support for member’s families. UCU’s on-going ‘UK universities and colleges are international’ campaign also provides resources and guidance for your local UCU branch.

The UCU post-Brexit charter, produced in December 2016, sets out eight key policy priorities, and UCU’s general election manifesto also called for further protections. The UCU submission to the ‘impact of exiting the European Union on higher education’ inquiry was prominently cited in the final report.

The union does much to represent international staff but we need to do more. Please help us to better support members and future members by completing and sharing our survey of non-UK education workers.

Many thanks, Sally Hunt

UCU general secretary

p.s. – Office for Students: The Department of Education is recruiting for board members for the newly established Office for Students. Members may wish to consider this opportunity to contribute at a senior level to post-16 education. The union does not have any formal role in this process but we recognise that members may be interested in the role.

National Senior Management survey for UK University staff

The National Senior Management Survey (SMS) is an anonymous survey for university staff around the UK to complete about the practices of their senior management team. The survey is a form of audit that seeks to move the gaze from the narrow metrics of staff performance to the senior management teams who set the conditions through which staff performance becomes possible. The results will be disseminated as widely as possible and a league table of findings will be produced. In so doing it seeks to ask questions of the current trajectory of higher education in the UK and to broaden debate about what universities should and could be for our students.

You can complete the survey here:  https://smsproject.wordpress.com/

Preliminary findings were reported in the THE recently: https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/overpaid-and-overbearing-uk-university-staff-management

Southampton UCU General Meeting – 29 March

Members are invited to attend the next UCU General Meeting which is being held on Wednesday 29 March at 12.15pm in room 85/2207.  The topics of the meeting are:

Experiences with appraisal, two years in; and

A forward look at REF and TEF

We are now into the second year of the new appraisal process and have received a variety of concerns from members, both appraisees and appraisers, on the new system, particularly in relation to moderation at Faculty and University level, and the requirement within Faculties for final scores to conform to the “bell curve” of expectations.  The meeting will provide a forum at which you can raise your concerns, which we can then take forward with management.

With both REF and TEF on the horizon we will be discussing the impact of these processes on your current roles: in particular, possible changes in pathways (from balanced to teaching only) and how this fits with your career plans. We welcome your ideas and contributions, especially if you have concerns you would like to raise.

As we will be providing a light sandwich lunch could you please email Amanda (ucu@soton.ac.uk) if you will be attending, and any special dietary requirements, by Thursday 23 March.  Lunch will be available from 12.15pm with the meeting commencing at 12.30pm prompt. 

Universities are International – Open meeting 1 March

UCU is holding an open meeting for staff to discuss Brexit and international issues.  We are concerned by the impact of recent political decisions on our staff and students and would like to engage with colleagues to understand more about the issues that are important to you.

At the meeting we will discuss how we are campaigning on your behalf, including details of our policy charter, and how we will be engaging with management at University of Southampton to take your concerns forward. 

The meeting is being held on Wednesday 1 March at 12.30pm in room 6/1083.  It is open to UCU and non-members alike so please encourage your colleagues to attend.

If you are unable to make the meeting but have questions/queries that you would like raised, please email ucu@soton.ac.uk

 

1 Day Without Us – 20/2/17

Southampton UCU is proud to support 1 Day Without Us, a National Day of Action on 20th Feb 2017 to celebrate the contribution of migrants to the UK, to coincide with UN World Day of Social Justice.

 

We have an infostand as part of the University’s Diversity Showcase Day on 20th February in Garden Court.  Come and chat to us, join in a bit of fun, and share your stories with us.

We would also ask all supporters to take photos and post them on social media using the hashtag #1DayWithoutUs. We also invite you to take selfies individually and  post them with your personal messages of support using the hashtag.

More details here: http://www.1daywithoutus.org/

Find out more about UCU’s campaign to defend the rights of EU nationals and how you can become involved. https://www.ucu.org.uk/we-are-international

Southampton UCU is holding an open meeting at 12.30pm on Wednesday 1 March in room 6/1083 (Nuffield) to discuss the impact of Brexit on our international staff and students.  We would be interested to hear your views and concerns so please do come and join us – ALL WELCOME.

It couldn’t happen at a university?

Apart from the UCU web site, we have a number of valuable sources of information. Wonkhe is building a considerable reputation, and of course many of us buy the Times Higher Education Supplement. For wider employment issues, there are the Labour Research Department publications, and the Hazards Campaign on health and safety; this has strong involvement from our old friend Jon Bamford.

Among the press, we have worryingly few friends. I read the Guardian most days, but recently the news is sometimes so bad that I can only face the Sudoku. By far my best source of news is my subscription to Ian Hislop’s Private Eye. They do some really good Christmas cards too; unfortunately, you are now too late to either buy or post them.

As Ian almost never wins in court, I feel safe in attaching a tiny sample from last week’s edition. It couldn’t happen in a university, could it?

Denis A Nicole
Southampton University UCU Branch President