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Through the looking-glass

One of the most disturbing aspects of the last ten weeks has been the feeling that the foundations of the University’s governance are being shaken from within.  The disorienting prevarication of  senior management’s doublespeak and their stubborn refusal to model their own required standards of behaviour have, at times, left us lost for words and feeling as if we have entered an alternative reality – through the looking-glass – where things are never quite what they seem.

The continuing brouhaha surrounding senior management is hard enough to process, and we do not need to rehearse these issues further, when they are unravelling in the press. However, many members will be less aware of the ways in which senior managers have been breaking formally negotiated agreements and playing fast and loose with employment law.  Bear with us for the next couple of sections: you need to grasp some basics to understand why we are so exercised by the behaviour of senior management. If you are looking at this post and thinking “TL;DR,” you can cut to the chase by clicking here.

The Framework Agreement

Most of our colleagues could go through their entire time at the University of Southampton without knowing or caring about the Framework Agreement, but in fact it underpins every facet of their employment and determines the course of their career here. The origins of the Framework Agreement are that it was an agreement to bring together pay structure for all university staff which was negotiated between the national representatives of Universities and trade unions.  Each University then had to negotiate with trade unions to make a local agreement.  In Southampton, it was established in a process that ran from 2002 to 2005, and then some areas were revised by the Reward project, between 2012 to 2015. The time taken to negotiate the Agreement reflected the complexity and importance of the issues: alongside your contracts of employment, it provides a framework for your pay and conditions.

Within the Framework Agreement, there are four “job families”:  Education, Research and Enterprise (ERE); Technical and Experimental (TAE); Management, Specialist and Administrative (MSA); and, Community and Operational (CAO) [intranet links only] – covering different areas of the University’s work. Together, the job families and the framework are meant to ensure that employees are rewarded with equal pay for equal levels of responsibility, regardless of the type of work they do, and this puts into place the legal requirement for equal pay for work of equal value.

However, there are fundamental differences between the terms and conditions for the families, the most important of which relates to promotion: ERE staff can apply for promotion on merit – in effect, the grade is attached to the person, not the post. For other job families, the graded level is attached to the post: there are Level 4 jobs, Level 5 jobs, and so on. For employees in these families, promotion occurs if a job at a higher grade becomes available, or if their job is re-graded via the Job Evaluation Panel (below).

Southampton UCU represents staff in all families, Level 4 and above, with the majority of our members in ERE, MSA, and TAE.  There are no ERE levels below 4; there are no TAE levels above 5.

The Hay Process and the Job Evaluation Panel

The process by which a new post is placed within a job family and graded on the pay scale is based on a form of factor-based Job Evaluation known as the Hay Process. The University’s Job Evaluation Panel comprises HR and union representatives, all of whom have undergone two days of special training.  Job descriptions for new posts are reviewed by the Job Evaluation Panel, and the family and grade are allocated before the post can be advertised.  If there are discrepancies or areas that the Panel feel need to be resolved, the job description is sent back to the originator with comments for revision, and then resubmitted for the next time the panel meets.

When a unit, service, or department is restructured, sometimes old posts are terminated and new posts are created – this is not unusual and to be expected, as responsibilities are shuffled around.  If job roles are to cease as part of a restructure, then the post-holders are automatically “at risk of redundancy,” but this is often mitigated by the new posts on offer as suitable alternative employment. The Job Evaluation Panel exists to ensure that new posts are appropriately graded and to confirm/allocate the correct career pathway, so it plays a crucial role in any restructure.

Breaking Agreements

Recent University restructures have taken place in units and services that support its core activities, including the Library, Research and Innovation Services, Health and Safety, and the now disbanded LLAS (Centre for Language, Linguistics and Area Studies) and ILIaD (Institute for Learning, Innovation, and Development).  The restructuring of ILIaD’s activities showed why the Framework and the Job Evaluation Panel are so important: the posts involved teaching and research activities as well as teaching support and research support.  The complex mix of responsibilities meant that any restructure had to be very clear who would do what activities in the proposed new structure.

The ILIaD process was unnecessarily long and difficult, causing a great deal of stress to the staff involved, and we had hoped (see our blog from mid-September) that lessons had been learned from the mistakes.  The first inkling that some managers entrusted with restructures did not understand the job families had come during the ILIaD process: initially, management proposed a Level 3 ERE post (doesn’t exist in the Framework) and a Level 4 MSA lecturer (lecturing is not a core MSA activity). When Southampton UCU pointed this out, they had to go back to the drawing board – these proposed posts never made it as far as the Job Evaluation Panel, and were replaced with Framework-appropriate posts.

Around the time the ILIaD process was completed, another restructure began in NETSCC, (NIHR Evaluation, Trials and Studies Coordinating Centre), a research unit funded by the Department of Health.  We have referred to this shambolic restructure several times in our emails to members.  In the beginning, it appeared that the process was going relatively well: while there were problems in communication that might have appeared serious, we put this down to the fact that we were in the middle of the summer and hoped for the best.

The problem with NETSCC

By September, however, it became clear that there were fundamental problems with management’s proposals for NETSCC.  Although the number of redundancies had been reduced from 29 to 6, we were informed that ERE staff were going to be moved to MSA posts.  Two generic job descriptions were produced, which although badged as MSA had clear research and enterprise responsibilities.  We asked if they had been through the Job Evaluation Panel: first we were told that they had, and then we were told that the Head of Reward had said that they did not need to go to the Panel, because there were only minor variations in the existing job descriptions. We did not agree that the move from ERE to MSA could possibly constitute only a minor variation: the change in terms and conditions is fundamental.

As the date for the closure of the consultation approached we became increasingly concerned that management were bypassing both the University’s ordinances and employment law.  Members that were to be moved to these new contracts should have been notified that they were at risk of redundancy (since their posts and contracts were to be terminated).  We then learned that these job descriptions would not apply to just the six members we were representing, but to 130 employees in NETSCC. Late in October, we finally got management to agree to send the job descriptions to the Job Evaluation Panel, and that if the Panel decided that the jobs were MSA, not ERE, then affected members would be told that they were at risk of redundancy, and due process would follow. We repeatedly requested that the consultation deadline be postponed to allow for clarity on the job descriptions and to ensure the employers’ legal obligations were met, but these requests were refused.

Cutting a long story short, the Job Evaluation Panel rejected the job descriptions as not compatible with the MSA job family.  The consultation closed on 31 October 2017, and staff were invited into one-to-one meetings, with the pathway still not confirmed: the staff were not told they were at risk.  Our request to reschedule the meetings was refused. Members shown ‘individual comparator tables’ and informed they would be expected to undertake a change in contract. No information shared prior to these meetings with the UCU representatives.

Management further claimed that the changes could be effected by a variation of contract – something which we vigorously disputed.  Moreover, they claimed that the changes would support employees’ career progression, when it is clear that exactly the opposite would be true: remember, MSA grades are attached to the post, not the person.

Late in the evening of 23 November, we were sent a letter from the NETSCC Senior Management Team, informing us that a meeting of three senior academics on UEB and the Chief Operating Officer, Ian Dunn, had decided the posts were MSA posts, and that letters would be sent to employees the following day, giving them one month to accept or decline the new job description and contracts.  Note: none of the people involved in making this decision normally attend Job Evaluation Panels and we would have expected their guidance to have gone back to the panel for ratification.

Our members in NETSCC are furious, but exhausted. They must now make a decision about whether they wish to accept the new contract, or face unspecified consequences from their employer.  We have asked for an Emergency Joint Negotiating Committee to discuss the legal and procedural irregularities of the process, and we have asked that the Vice-Chancellor be present at the meeting to account for this sorry mess.


If you have got this far, or if you have clicked the link above to skip all the detail, you may be wondering why all this should matter to you.  You will know whether your post is ERE, TAE, or MSA.  You will understand what that means to your career progression and the kinds of activities that you are required to perform.  You will know if you are required to teach and research, or provide support for those who do. The decision taken by senior management to bypass the Job Evaluation Panel puts all this in doubt, and sets an extremely dangerous precedent that we cannot permit to pass unchallenged.

If senior line managers can unilaterally decide that a post is ERE or MSA, then they can manipulate contracts in preparation for the REF, or produce posts that perform ERE functions without appropriate development, training, or reward. We may find that Level 3 posts are created for teaching; or Level 4 MSA posts “managing” research but not returnable in the REF, and not needing ethics approval because an activity is considered “evaluation” rather than “research.”

We have seen this contempt for the Framework Agreement already in the way that senior management have prevaricated and procrastinated over the Reward policies, particularly the Appraisal policy.  With the so-called Voluntary Severance Scheme, we have seen them manipulate the law and our own Ordinances on redundancy consultations.

We have arrived at a position where it is increasingly difficult to trust what our senior management tell us, and we cannot rely on them to follow their own procedures.  We have a comprehensive Framework Agreement negotiated over several years and just three years ago was endorsed by a vote of our members of 94.5% voting yes to the agreement, which can seemingly be undone by the COO and three senior academics on UEB.

We are also already rapidly reaching a point where we have no confidence in our leaders to lead.  We call on our members to support us in our mission to bring management to account for their actions – Southampton UCU have not had a satisfactory response to any of our enquiries for weeks.  Perhaps if enough staff and students demand explanations for the behaviour of senior management, we will eventually get an explanation that makes sense.

Local UCU Friday update

It’s been a very busy couple of weeks at Southampton UCU HQ, for obvious reasons.  There is quite a chill about. We might even say, winter is coming.

We would have liked to have updated you on progress made in conversations with senior management, but that is not possible.

On 22 November, representatives from all three campus unions met with the Vice-Chancellor, the Chief Operating Officer, two of the three Directors of HR and the Head of Employee Relations.  We were joined by the Vice-President for Research.  The Vice-Chancellor left the meeting after half an hour.

At this meeting, a set of questions was put to senior management.  We repeated the questions five times, and were refused an answer each time. The Chief Operating Officer then told us that we should put the questions in writing.

This we did, in an email sent on 24 November. Since the information should have been readily to hand, we allowed 48 working hours for a response.  We were sent a holding message on 27 November, but we have not had any further communication from senior management on these issues.

As voted for unanimously at our EJNC on 15 November, we also asked again for the Voluntary Severance Scheme to be opened to all members of staff at the University. We further requested that the deadline for the Voluntary Severance Scheme be extended to 31 March 2018, which would allow staff to consider their positions in the new Faculty and School structure – the full details of which will not be known until mid-February.

Since we have had no response, we thought it would be acceptable to allow our members, if they so wished, to repeat the questions in their own communications with senior management.  You will find the text of the email below.

From: UCU U.
Sent: 24 November 2017 15:59
To: Vice-Chancellor
Cc: Dunn I.; Hollowbread S.C.; Ciarleglio A.; Bradley A.E.E.
Subject: Formal follow up to meeting on 22 November

Dear Sir Christopher

Further to the meeting held on 22 November 2017 with yourself, Ian Dunn and representatives from HR, the purpose of which was to provide “an opportunity for the unions to seek clarity on the proposals regarding the size and shape of the University as set out in the Vice-Chancellor’s All Staff Address on Monday 13 November”, we are formalising our questions about how the areas in which Voluntary Severance has been offered have been determined.  In the meeting, you requested that we write to you to formalise our inquiry.

Could you please provide us with the following for the purposes of collective bargaining:

  1. The minutes of the meetings at which the selection of the six academic areas (Music, English, Chemistry, Law, Social Sciences and Tribology) was decided;
  2. A record of the precise grounds on which the decisions were based for each of the six academic areas (Music, English, Chemistry, Law, Social Sciences and Tribology);
  3. The statistical data to support these decisions for each of the six academic areas;
  4. The date on which the minutes of these meetings were accepted;
  5. Details of the targets set per Faculty and per academic unit, outside of the six academic areas identified, as part of these projects;

We believe that the university should already have the information requested, so we believe that it is reasonable to expect a response to the points raised above by 5pm Tuesday 28 November.

As explained above, UCU is requesting this information for the purposes of collective bargaining.  As we discussed in the meeting with you on Wednesday 22 November, we are also requesting that this information is circulated to staff in each of the six academic areas (Music, English, Chemistry, Law, Social Sciences and Tribology).  As you know, staff in these areas have been told that they have until 14 December 2017 to consider whether they would like to apply for the Voluntary Severance Scheme.  We believe that it is in the interest of these staff members, as well as the interest of University of Southampton, for staff to have all of the relevant information, so that they can make informed decisions about potential applications for Voluntary Severance.

As we mentioned, from feedback at our general meeting on 15 November, our members are concerned at the lack of engagement from University Management with its staff and the lack of transparency surrounding these proposals.  The sharing of the information requested in this letter, would be helpful to reassure our members that the University of Southampton is prepared to engage with openness and transparency about these proposals.

We would also like to re-state our request that the VS Scheme be opened up to all staff, and this was unanimously supported by UCU members at the meeting on 15 November.  In addition, we are requesting that University of Southampton considers extending the deadline for applications to the Voluntary Severance Scheme to 31 March 2018, to allow for decisions to be based on the full disclosure not only of the information requested above but also the detailed structure of the new Faculties.

We look forward to hearing from you with a response to this request, by 5pm on Tuesday 28 November 2017.

Southampton UCU Executive Committee

We hope you find this information, such as it is, useful.

A torrid time

The Penguins of Solidarity have a message for you. Join UCU.

It’s a torrid time at the University of Southampton.  I think we can all agree on that.

The all-staff address on Monday 13 November was not the beginning – we know that the ‘proposals’ for both the restructuring of our university and for the reductions in staffing (proposal OED: ‘A plan or suggestion, especially a formal or written one, put forward for consideration by others’) were being formulated many months ago. What makes them feel less like proposals are the timescales allowed for our community to consider them – collectively in Senate and as departments, and individually as staff ‘targeted’ by the Voluntary Severance (qua redundancy) Scheme. The clock is ticking, and decisions will be made in days and weeks that will affect or undo whole careers.

We have a problem on our hands, and it has to do with rhetoric, emphasis, partial or conflicting information, distortions of reality, power, privilege, and perception. Once upon a time, in our innocence, we called this ‘spin’. We understood that on either side of a debate, there would be a tendency to embellish the argument, talking up positives and playing down negatives. We recognised ‘spin’ for what it was, because our democratic structures, academic freedom, healthy scepticism, and a buoyant economy allowed us the luxury of feeling empowered to ignore inflated rhetoric. The general security of academic freedom meant that as long as we obeyed the law and did our job well, we were empowered to offer critique.

The shift in power balances, in broader society and within our university community, has made ‘spin’ into something more insidious.  When one side of the debate loses its voice or its power to intervene – for instance, when decision-making committees become advisory, and when those advisors lose economic power – then the distortions and omissions become what we now know as ‘gaslighting’.

We saw a variety of messages delivered by senior management to various constituencies in the university last week.  Early on Monday morning, six areas of academic activity were emailed by their Deans, and staff were asked to attend a late afternoon meeting.  Just after lunch, the all-staff address underlined an intention to ‘minimise adverse impact on staff and students’ and ‘improve structure, clarity, productivity and collegiality’, but it also said the university needed to reduce its staff costs by a further £15m, and a voluntary severance scheme would be opened to ‘targeted’ areas.  In those meetings, staff were told that senior management were aiming to lose 50-75 members of staff.  We don’t need to be expert mathematicians to work out that the only way dismissing 75 members of staff could save £15m is if they all earned £200K.  Last time we looked, there weren’t that many members of the academic community who earned that much, certainly not in the areas that have been targeted by the VS.  Perhaps in other parts of the campus…

We are looking at significant losses of staff across the University, probably from all areas, to meet this savings target, but you wouldn’t know it from the communications sent to Professional Services staff (our non-academic colleagues). Granted, they were warned that eventually administrative staff costs would have to be ‘addressed’, but the discourse centered on having compassion for the poor academics who would be ‘facing uncertainty’ (i.e. losing their jobs) not on potential impacts (job losses) in Professional Services.  If there are going to be only five faculties in August 2018, this requires just five faculty administrative structures.  Look past the ‘poor academics’ gaslighting and the bigger picture of wider cuts emerges.

Students were told ‘all the subjects you are familiar with will continue in the new faculties and there will be no disruption to your studies’.  This is probably the most insidious message of all. The ‘proposals’ for staff reductions mask the decimation of departments and teams, leaving staff with little or no time to consider how to reshape the curricular offer for 2018 and beyond.  Senior management seem not to have understood that a three-year undergraduate curriculum is a delicately balanced and intricately managed structure, that postgraduate supervision is often based on the expertise of a single individual. The ever-changing, ever-demanding quality assurance processes might even make it impossible to reshape a viable curriculum around remaining staff – recognising, of course, that staff will not only leave through severance/dismissal, but also through resignation and retirement because of low morale, and disillusionment with the direction of the so-called strategy. And those of us who were around during the last restructure will remember the chaos that ensued when the administration of degree programmes delivered by Student Services was shunted from pillar to post.  If anything is going to affect student satisfaction, this is.

We have stated before, and we will continue to state, that the problems facing the university – some of which (Brexit, austerity, student fees) are undeniably external – have been exacerbated by senior management’s refusal to engage openly with our community about anything, including the restructure, the jobs savings, and also the capital investment plans. Even though we have adopted a motion calling for Voluntary Severance to be truly voluntary across the university, we need to be clear that we are not legitimising a false dichotomy of buildings/estate versus job cuts. It may also be the case that the building programme is far too ambitious given the prevailing political, social and economic uncertainty within the UK and further afield.

If the unions and all staff had been genuinely consulted, it is probable that we could have found an alternative and more sustainable solution to our problems. We have expertise and institutional knowledge that would certainly have been valuable in the formative stages of this plan, and the trust engendered by an open approach would have stood us all in good stead. Making hard decisions collectively rather than having this ‘vision’ imposed could have made better decisions.  They might not have been ‘simply better’ in the jargon of the current plan, but they would have been better: better for students, better for staff, better for the community.

We see in the marketing self-help book Simply Better (which we have been told underlies the strategy adopted by senior management) a section called ‘How Hierarchy Can Improve Performance’, which describes the management style in an insurance company, Swiss Re Life and Health America Inc.  Its CEO, Jacques Dubois, is described as observing that ‘managers often see themselves as delegators, which he believes is dysfunctional since delegating puts decisions in the hands of potentially inadequately qualified people. Dubois goes further: “By raising decision making to the highest level possible, we get to see our people in action.  It motivates them. They deal with the top.” There were few standing committees, but meetings happen as needed.  Decisions get made’ (p. 159).

However, Simply Better makes no reference to the Dunning-Kreuger effect.  What if decisions are being made by people who have no concept of the consequences, who are not possessed of enough information or the right information, and have no notion that they are, or even could be, lacking in that capacity? Nor does it heed the advice of Cromwell, in his letter to the General Assembly of Scotland, 5 August 1650, “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken.”

We are meeting with staff in affected departments, but we would urge all departments, all areas, to have some open and honest conversations, to demand transparency from senior management about their short-, medium-, and long-term intentions for their activities.  For the sake of current and future students, for the sake of staff, we need information so that we can negotiate, plan, and continue to educate and research at the standard of which we are all capable.


What’s it for?

Southampton UCU asked two interesting questions last week in a meeting with senior HR colleagues: What is appraisal moderation for? What are appraisal scores for?

We posed these questions because of growing concerns about how appraisals are being conducted and the use of moderation in ways that did not adhere to our negotiated agreements. We are especially concerned at the use of a bell curve (normal distribution) in moderation of appraisal scores – outside the agreed policy – despite a wealth of evidence that this practice is not only flawed but deeply counterproductive.

The original purpose of the agreed appraisal system

Members may recall that teams from UCU spent over two years in a negotiations process called the Pay and Reward (P&R) Project – looking at a range of policies for managing careers and promotion of our staff. At the heart of this negotiation was the new appraisal system. Both sides – the union and the managers – recognised that the old PPDR (personal performance development review) was broken. We needed a system that enabled us to help staff set objectives and develop, and which could enable managers to support them in ways that in turn helped the University achieve its ambitions. There was willingness from all parties to work hard to get it right.

Key to the roll out of the new appraisal policy [intranet link only] was a programme of staff development helping people to understand what good appraisal looked like. And while not everyone likes ‘active learning scenarios’ one aspect of this training – delivered by actor-facilitators – was powerful at reminding staff what could go wrong in these important conversations. Alongside this core training there was some online training to support the process (though never intended as a substitute for the interactive learning) and a new online appraisal system for storing annual documentation. The latter was not perfect, we all recognised that the software might need to be improved over time in response to feedback from users.

Southampton UCU had clear objectives in the negotiation of the new appraisal policy. We wanted a system that supported better management and development of our staff. We welcomed appraisal as an opportunity for staff to celebrate success and, where necessary identify areas for further support and development. Our vision of appraisal was a conversation – taking place regularly but formally documented annually – that moved away from managers telling staff what to do, towards shared and supportive listening, reflecting and planning. Local employers such as UHS NHS Trust have just such a system – indeed this particular example even has staff wellbeing at the heart of its appraisal process.

UHS Appraisal Process

At the very least, the system was meant to embody a future-focussed principle:

Emphasis on the Future – The majority of the appraisal will be future-focused, modelled on existing ‘Personal Best’ discussions. This will include:
1. Vision and intent
2. Processes rather than outcomes, including development of competencies.
3. Support, resources and training required.

The current distortion and misapplication of the appraisal system

Since its implementation in the 2015 academic year, it has become clear that the University of Southampton appraisal system is not compliant with the agreement we negotiated. The document that was ratified by UCU’s national panel still remains, but its visibility and intent have been obscured by the ratings scheme, added to the document late in the negotiations and only agreed with very specific limitations as to its use, and a moderation process and guidelines that were never part of the negotiated agreement. Nor is the process even being followed according to its own guidelines: rating criteria were meant to be defined locally, but this is inconsistent with the moderation process, and the moderation process lacks transparency and allows the moderators (possibly far removed from the team) to overturn a recommendation from line manager. Crucially, the moderation process breaks confidentiality of the appraisal conversation, and this is against one of the first principles in the agreed policy. The software does not even encourage the completion of the ‘thorough appraisal’ which the policy scopes:

1. Joint review and update of job description
2. Assessment of contribution to the University
i. Review achievement against past objectives
ii. expectations via future objectives
3. Behavioural competencies
4. Career aspirations
5. Development objectives

Alarmingly, training for appraisers has disappeared (apart from the online module), and since there has been no professional development training available for academic staff since 2016, there is no way to act on any development needs identified in appraisal conversations. All that has been achieved by the hundreds of hours spent on the project in its development is the creation of successive layers of documentation that must be processed by dozens of already overworked academics, the practical outcomes of which may not be acted upon constructively.

Our specific question, ‘What is moderation for?’ arises from this chaos: why is it vital that not too many colleagues are seen to be good at what they do? We might answer this positively – because while we would want to celebrate excellence wherever we find it, exceptional work must really be exceptional. When we agreed to the moderation of 4- and 5-rated scores, this was the rationale. But when the moderation process was introduced, it extended across the full range, turning the scores into the focus of an entirely different enterprise.   The moderation process now lacks transparency and allows the moderators (possibly far removed from the team) to overturn a recommendation from line manager.  Appraisal stopped being about celebration and development, and became all about sorting the wheat from the chaff. And because we cannot act constructively on any shortcomings identified in the process, those who are scored or moderated down to the bottom of the scale face only negative outcomes.

Below are some of the concerns raised by members in direct contact with SUCU, some of whom have gone on to be represented by the branch. These are indicative, not exhaustive; some are more serious than others. Some represent potential discriminatory behaviour; some represent behaviour likely to instigate a grievance; some are simply breaches of the principles agreed in the policy. Some of the concerns have been raised with us simultaneously with a request for representation in a ‘protected conversation’, after a settlement agreement has been presented to the member. These issues were presented to HR via a JNC paper over six weeks ago, and we have not yet had a formal response. Informally, in the meeting last week, we were told by senior HR managers that they could not account for how appraisals were conducted at Faculty level.

  1. Appraisal conducted as a perfunctory online process, not face-to-face
  2. Appraisal focussed on outcomes, rather than based on development needs
  3. Moderations not communicated to member
  4. Moderations communicated to member without justification
    1. Line manager unable to explain moderation decisions
    2. Refusal to communicate the basis of a moderation decision leading to an as-yet-unresolved FOI request
  5. Promotion/end of probation denied on the basis of student module evaluations
  6. Research leave denied on the basis of moderated appraisal score
  7. Appraisal outcome submitted by line manager without agreement of appraisee
  8. Failure of manager(s) to conduct appraisal, potentially resulting in outcome of ‘2’ through no fault of the appraisee – particularly seen in cases where employee has two managers/is employed cross-faculty
  9. Failure to return moderated scores, even as late as September 17, exacerbating and complicating the redundancy consultation that began earlier in the summer
  10. Performance measures used outside the appraisee’s control (grant income; student evaluation)
  11. Appraisal not conducted in line with member’s contract, leading to an improperly constituted capability procedure
  12. Single element of appraisal framework becoming the basis of the final score (research, teaching)

Fundamental to all of these issues – and the problems, even crises – that they have wrought on members is the rating system, to which we reluctantly agreed, and the use of the moderation process and the benchmark ‘bellcurve’ distribution, to which we did not. The principles, which stressed a forward-looking, developmental conversation, have disintegrated into a numbers game, in which the only monitoring or measure of success reported to JNC has been completion rates. When we are all expected to exceed expectations without exceeding expectations (see the VC’s address of 2 June, streaming at 1:06:38: ‘we all need to appreciate that for most of us, we would expect to get a rating of meeting expectations in most years for the job we are doing – in some years I really hope we would all get exceeding expectations’), the scores become meaningless in terms of career development or performance enhancement. They are only there to pit our individual achievements against each other, rather than to encourage community. This gives us the answer to our second question ‘What are appraisal scores for?’ Their only purpose is as management information – poor, unreliable, and crude data that inform performance management of and by inadequately trained or prepared academic managers, and that might ultimately inform restructuring and redundancy consultations.

What can we do now?

The meeting with HR ended with a plan and a request. The plan was to set out a timetable for the long-awaited formal review of the Reward policies. The request, made directly to the HR Director who sits on UEB, was that she take our proposal to the rest of senior management for the rating system and the moderation process to be abolished as soon as possible. In its place, we proposed a report template based on the principles that we agreed in 2014.

Eventually the software should be reframed to reflect the agreed principles and scope of appraisal – and, given the traumatic experience of many members of the current system, we would recommend that wellbeing be added to the discussion. Proper training must be re-instated, for appraisers, appraisees, and HR partners – and the time for new and refresher training must be added to workload models (when they finally appear – but that’s another blog).

We are only too aware that the appraisal system, with all its faults, both in design and delivery, is a major cause of poor staff morale. While the branch will inevitably have its hands full with restructures, current and future, we do not forget our commitment to support the staff that remain employed here. We still want the University of Southampton to be a happy and thriving community of workers. We see a functioning, supportive appraisal system at the heart of such an aspiration, and we will continue to press management until we have achieved this.

The student as consumer II: what happened to academic teams?

This blog has started as more of a personal reflection, but it may end up as a call to action. We’ll see.

A conversation last week with an administrator from another part of the university (let’s call her Caroline) led me to think a bit about the academic team – students, academic staff, and administrators who participate together in an ongoing project of scholarship. Some colleagues may remember, in the mists of time, when the University had academic teams.  We called them departments. Each department had at least one departmental administrator, who supported the Head of Department in administrative tasks, both teaching- and research-related, helped students navigate the course, and – in many cases – provided the quasi-familial glue that held the department together. As with all roles, some department administrators were more skilful than others, and each had their strengths as well as weaknesses, but they were, by and large, people whose jobs were to be there for the department.

Even further back in the mists of time, academic departments had their own budgets, ran their own activities, and when they needed support for those activities, they went to support teams who pitched up with what was needed, be it technical assistance, teaching innovation, or specialist printing… but I digress.

Now, much has moved on from those halcyon days – our responsibilities to HESA, HEFCE, QAA, and RCUK (and the Borders Agency, and..and..) have expanded beyond all recognition. As the sector shifted inexorably from a resource for public good to a provider of private gain, our University moved with the times. It created a belatedly Thatcherite “internal market” for support services in the late 1990s, and then – disastrously – in the new century “Transitioned” into the form we see now, in which many “departments” are virtual within Academic Units or Faculties; in which – as Caroline pointed out – administrators no longer work directly for academics, but are in structural silos according to responsibilities, line-managed and appraised by someone who may work on an entirely different campus; and in which the student is a consumer (the “student-consumer,” as one upcoming policy event now has it) rather than a participant.

When the conversation turns to the University’s (rather than Faculties’ or Academic Units’) responsibility for NSS, I frequently hear, “well, students talk to each other, so we need to make sure that everyone gets the same level of service.” From a quality assurance point of view, there is certainly a strong case for ensuring procedural equivalence (if not equality) across the University. But Transition began a process that has all but wiped out something irreplaceable to the student experience. Administrators were removed from departments and corralled into open-plan offices – this might have been seen as a more efficient way to work, but it ripped the soul out of our departments, and things have never been the same. Transition, and every successive centralising restructure, first destabilised, then demolished, then in places erased all memory of the academic team.

In many parts of the University, students begin their academic journey in contact with an Admissions Team, their local queries are dealt with at a Faculty/AU Student Office by someone at a hatch or a counter, they rock up to lectures and tutorials where their presence may or may not be recorded (don’t get me started about whether or not attendance can be mandatory, and what that means for student support…), but they do not belong anywhere particular.  Caroline told me last week that she has seen students wandering campus in tears: now that almost all pastoral support has been devolved to academics, who are busier and busier, and thinner and thinner on the ground anyway, it is not unlikely that both their Personal Academic Tutor and the Senior Tutor are teaching or in administrative meetings. Who is there for that student, especially if they are on a joint honours course? With no academic team to belong to, where do they, and where do their tutors, find their community, their tribe, and their support? There are nightlines, advice centre drop-ins, the First Support team – and they do very good work, but there is no substitute for the personal relationships that used to bind our teams together.

My own students (I am both a PAT and Senior Tutor for my AU) are privileged because we may be the one of a very few AUs that still has an administrator who sits in an office in the middle of our campus space – Music is separated from the rest of Humanities at the Avenue, so there has to be a Faculty outpost at Highfield. The students think of the staff in that office as Music staff, even though technically they are not – but in general, those administrators know all our students by name and have an understanding of who they are, what issues they might have, and even – gasp! – might have some sort of friendly rapport with them.

This may seem all very nice but not necessarily germane. However, when it comes to dealing with students (and staff, for that matter) with specific mental health issues, or those that have sudden personal crises, and even those that just want to share something wonderful that has happened to them, that relationship can make all the difference. The day before my conversation with Caroline, a student in deep crisis felt able to come to our administrator, who then was able to provide some initial comfort and guidance before coming to find me and the PAT. I cannot imagine that student feeling comfortable going to a counter or a hatch, in floods of tears, in order to talk to a complete, or nearly complete stranger. But as it was, they had immediate and personal support, and within minutes they were safely in an office where they could cry until they were able to express the problem, and by the end of the day we were on our way to identifying solutions.

That student is in the third year, and will be filling out the NSS in a matter of months. I wonder if we did a quick analysis around the University, whether we would find lower NSS scores overall in places where the academic team is most fragmented or even non-existent? Where it is impossible to place a sign saying “Welcome to the Department of X-ology” because such a place is only virtual? Where the students would not be able to name or recognise the person responsible for administering their academic progress, or vice versa?

When you think of the student as a consumer rather than a participant, your perception of their needs and wants is changed. I rather suspect the University thinks its responsibility to the NSS is to provide a better student experience through administrative efficiency, because it is measurable. In order to find answers about administrative effectiveness, our senior management have been putting their faith in an opaque consultancy process called Uniforum, the results of which have been impossible to obtain (commercially sensitive, don’t you know?).  When we ask for data – because we care about our students and our colleagues, and because we want some agency in the future of the university – we are rebuffed. But when we tell them things (because our experience should be of value), via whatever consultation or staff engagement mechanism they care to dream up, they have not yet listened.

The big question is, of course, is there a will or a way of turning back the clock? Or can we do it in a move forward, rather than a move back? If this is a moment of great change in the university, why should we not take the opportunity to make it as positive a change as possible? What do you think? Would the re-establishment and repair of fractured academic teams make a difference? To the student experience? To the staff that bear the the day-to-day responsibility for making the student experience better?

Outcomes of the General Meeting, 24 October 2017

As members will be aware, we held a General Meeting this lunchtime to update the membership on local matters, and to discuss the USS valuation and the potential for a national dispute.  The President’s report highlighted the current position of the University after the results of the TEF and the NSS, citing some sadly prophetic words from national UCU’s own briefing on TEF, released in late June. We also briefed on progress and developments regarding our local priorities, set at our Strategy Day: appraisals, MEQs, consultations, and settlement agreements.

Our invited speaker Chris Mason, UCU Pensions official, and our own Denis Nicole, who sits on UCU’s National Executive Committee, helped shed light on some of the more detailed and contentious issues surrounding the pensions valuation, and there was a lively discussion about what the branch felt was important to understand about pensions, what strike action might mean, and what kind of strike action we felt able to support.

Thanks for a well-attended meeting!

Two draft motions for the special conference and meeting to be held in Manchester on 9 November 2017 were submitted to the GM for approval.  The discussion did much to clarify what matters to members of the branch, and helped everyone understand better the issues at stake.  It was to the credit of the members attending that this respectful and productive debate resulted in amendments that were unanimously approved.  They are reproduced below.

We are still looking for a third delegate to attend the 9 November events on our behalf – it is essential that we are well represented, as if we do not use our representation to its maximum benefit, we may end up with a call to action that does not reflect well our priorities here.  If you are willing to represent us (we will pay your expenses!) please get in touch with the branch via email, or on 023 80592364 as soon as you can.

Many thanks!


Motion for Special HE Sector conference to determine national UCU industrial strategy

Motion on industrial action to protect pension rights

Conference notes

  1. That the willingness to take industrial action is necessary to defend USS pensions.
  2. That a marking boycott is not an effective threat in many institutions because of the increasingly casualised workforce, and a boycott’s disproportionate burden on a subset of the full membership.

Conference believes

  1. That well-supported work-to-contract and full strike action are the only effective means of delivering a meaningful national action.

Conference resolves

  1. To ballot for industrial action with strike action plus work-to-contract not before January 2018; with escalating strike action as necessary.
  2. To increase the quality and quantity of advice to branches on effective work-to-contract strategies.
  3. To escalate the political campaign to win the argument for not changing the pension scheme.


Motion for meeting of pre-92 USS branches to determine a response to proposals in respect of USS:

Motion to resist ideological interference in USS proposals

Conference believes that

  1. Predicting a possible future unsustainable deficit via a disputed methodology has provided an ideological justification for the privatisation of collective Defined Benefit schemes and movement into individual Defined Contribution schemes.
  2. The recklessly prudent change in investment strategy to ‘manage risk’ and the Pension Regulator’s recent re-evaluation of the covenant are ideologically driven rather than rooted in reality.

Conference resolves

  1. To state in all UCU literature that we insist that employees should not pay for this constructed deficit, either in increased contributions or in reduced benefits.
  2. To encourage the USS JNC to resist inappropriate intervention from the Pension Regulator.
  3. To refuse to accept detrimental changes to the USS pension scheme by identifying viable solutions which allow retention of secure benefits for members.


The times, they are a-changin’

The Penguins of Solidarity rally around our community

This week Southampton UCU reps have been working with colleagues in the latest Faculty to be hit by a restructuring programme – or as it is rather euphemistically described in briefing papers, ‘Realigning resource to meet the decline in student numbers’. (SUCU believe that a genuine ‘people strategy’ would refrain from labelling people – our friends and colleagues – as resources, but we are where we are).

This announcement has been preceded by a preliminary consultation period.  SUCU representatives have repeatedly reviewed the draft consultation materials, scrutinising the equality impact assessment and working with HR to reduce the number of ‘resource units’ (i.e. colleagues) at risk. These negotiations are informing our own plans for how best the branch can support staff. This is becoming the bread-and-butter, everyday work of our branch, as successive restructures and redundancies are announced. We are (mostly) a volunteer force, but thankfully we also have the support of our regional officials and the back-up of the national teams.

At the staff meeting called to open this particular consultation, the Vice-Chancellor explained that the University’s apparently sizeable surplus in its accounts was really an operating surplus of only £3m on a turnover of £600m. He said that despite the austerity measures, notably the recruitment freeze, staff numbers have risen more quickly than the numbers of students and this will necessitate further restructuring. This will not be happy news for staff who have been threatened with redundancy in cross-University ‘Transition’ and ‘In-Ex’, and other localised restructuring schemes over recent years. And let us not forget the 250 or so staff who appear on the fixed term redundancy notification every 3 months, for whom fear of losing their job is a hardwired expectation.

Job insecurity is becoming a way of life across the university.  That said, it is worth noting that once again the proposed job reductions involve frontline staff – this time it is academics, while previous restructures have targeted administrative and support staff. Yet the elephant in the room is the apparently inexorable rise in higher earners (those earning over £100k) employed here over recent years, who are seldom ever in the frame for redundancies.

Another interesting reveal in the consultation process was that Sir Christopher’s summer reading of the NSS data identified evidence of tactical voting in at least one subject area. Subsequently it has emerged that this was in part due to the efforts of one disgruntled individual with a sizable Facebook network mobilising a protest vote. This is, of course, appalling, but we have yet to see any of our sector leaders seriously challenge the NSS methodology, and highlight the obvious problems of manipulation.

Led by the National Union of Students, students in other institutions boycotted the NSS precisely because it is a problematic measure and because it was reportedly to be used to enable fee increases by the ‘best’ (TEF-Gold rated) institutions. We share the NUS’s concerns, and we would like to see that our leaders do, too. We want them to set out a vision of education as transformative, life changing and necessarily challenging – not to use the questionable results of a survey based on the ‘student as consumer’ model as yet another performance management metric to browbeat individuals and teams.

We recognise that there is always room for improvement, but this improvement cannot happen in a vacuum, and will not happen if we carry on in a culture of fear.  Instead of telling us just to do ‘simply better’, we suggest that the University return to providing meaningful staff development and support: the closure of our learning and teaching unit – ILIaD – earlier this year has left a significant gap in provision for staff looking to improve their skills.

Sadly, we expect to see much more of this sort of activity across the University in the coming weeks.  We urge you to urge your colleagues: join the union, get active, get informed, and feel empowered.  We still have Senate, we still have our Statutes and Ordinances, and we must fight to preserve them.  No one is saying that the next few months are going to be easy, but they will be less distressing if we work together with a common purpose.


“And all for Love, and nothing for Reward”

“They for us fight, they watch and duly ward…. And all for Love, and nothing for Reward” (The Faerie Queene, Bk 2, VIII/2).

Southampton UCU have been concerned about the implementation of appraisal, probation, and promotion – the collection of policies called ‘Reward’ – for many months.  We have raised our concerns repeatedly at JNC meetings, but have found senior management reluctant to engage, either claiming that our concerns are unfounded or saying that the issue involves only “individual cases” that we may not discuss in the meeting.

This past academic year, we have seen a huge increase in casework around appraisal, probation, and promotion, with members at all levels – from new lecturers to distinguished professors – feeling aggrieved about the initial process with their line managers or, frequently, the moderation of their agreed appraisal scores. In some cases, unsatisfactory moderated scores have led to members facing performance management/capability processes.

All the ERE Reward Policies were negotiated with UCU, and ratified by our National Ratification Panel, in 2014. According to the agreed terms, these policies should have been jointly reviewed on an annual basis, but this has not happened.  Moreover, the implementation of these policies, both in the broadest sense (the appraisal moderation guidelines) and in some individual cases, has been outside the terms agreed in 2014.   Up to this point, management has refused to recognise this to be the case, but at the October JNC, HR finally admitted that the policies’ implementation was not in accordance with the negotiated agreements.

Having agitated for a review of the policies for many months, we are relieved that this review is now going to take place, commencing at the end of the month.  We have requested an analysis of last year’s results, for probation and appraisal, focussing on moderated scores, analysed against protected characteristics (gender/race/age/sexuality/religion) and by department/AU/professional service. We deeply regret, however, that we have been told that because the appraisal window for Level 7 has already opened, no changes to the policies can take place in this academic year.  We take the view that since moderation – by far the most damaging and contentious element of the process, and the one that sits largely outside the agreed policy – will not be taking place until January at the earliest, we should be able to make progress on making this part of the process fairer.

We would like to remind members of our view on module evaluation questionnaire scores. These MEQ results have been shown to inherently biased against lecturers with protected characteristics, and thus have no place in performance review or management. This view is supported by the Module Survey Policy, which does not list performance review as an aim for MEQs. We will seek clear guidance for line managers and appraisers on the appropriate use of student module evaluation.  We also will continue to press for a fit-for-purpose learning and teaching CPD programme for all staff, that can help both teaching staff and managers respond to any fairly identified needs.


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,