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New VC. New Direction?

The Chair of Council has announced the appointment of Professor Mark E Smith as our new VC, to start in October 2019.

We are hoping that Professor Smith will prioritise coming to speak to the campus trades unions who represent frontline staff here and we look forward to welcoming him at Union House. While we were not allowed a formal role in the selection process we hope that our attempts to put forward staff views about the kind of VC we need have had some impact. We delivered the UCU petition, and put forward staff views in meetings with the recruitment firm, and to senior managers. We said that we need someone who understands the damage caused by poorly managed organisational change and poor senior leadership practices. And above all we said that we needed someone who will listen to staff. We said that the new VC should have a salary and reward package more closely aligned with the public sector pay ratio. Professor Smith’s salary will be £287000, somewhat lower than the most recent VC’s pay and close to our request that the VC be paid “no more than 20 times the salary of the lowest paid employee in the University.” (Although this is before including the free house and other perks). We note that this salary does not seem to be much higher than his declared pay in 2015 (according to Wikipedia). We hope this is a good sign and that he might become a champion for our planned fair pay campaign.

So what do we know about Professor Smith? His disciplinary background is as a physicist interested in nuclear magnetic resonance and this may make him understand parts of our University better than others. He is not be confused with the singer songwriter associated with the post-punk group the Fall. He did his PhD at Warwick in 1987. His bio leads us to hope that he retains some understanding of life at the frontline of teaching and research. (We are always hopeful here at UCU). While at Lancaster new links were forged with China, so he may have similar expansionist ideas to those of our previous VCs. This campus may account for his record as 14th highest VC spender on flights,  and we note the environmental issues raised by these ‘offshore operations’ that perhaps conflict with our ‘sustainability’ ambitions. We are hopeful that he will have learnt from his experiences at Lancaster and perhaps understand why large expense accounts are so problematic when frontline staff have had below inflation pay rises and cuts to pensions in successive years.

Those wondering about his relationship with the campus trades unions at Lancaster, might like to see him in action addressing the UCU Picket Line there last March. We will be talking to comrades at Lancaster UCU to find out more over the coming weeks, but our view at this time is to welcome this important appointment and to retain our optimism that Professor Smith will reverse some of the damaging senior management practices we have experienced.  We sincerely hope he will work with us to help University of Southampton become Simply Better.

Appraisal guidance – a welcome pause

On behalf of members we have raised several concerns about new appraisal guidance and performance expectations documents that have been appearing in different Faculties and Services. Members and reps in Arts and Humanities recently had a very constructive meeting with their Deanery team and reached agreement that the guidance document issued recently is to be considered ‘paused’ at present. We are looking forward to further discussions with senior managers across the University about improving how we appraise, support and develop staff.

As a reminder, UCU recently got senior managers to confirm that Weekend open day/visit work by level 4 and above staff is voluntary and should not be set as a performance expectation. We continue to push back on other unreasonable expectations creeping into appraisal processes. We also note your continued concerns about excessive workloads for academic and academic-related professional staff and we are delighted to announce that we have recently trained our first group of Health and Safety Workload reps. These new reps will be focussing on using the support offered by H&S legislation and the collective power of our union to address workplace stress and work overload. This work is part of the national campaign on workloads, and more details of our involvement in this can be found here.

No place for racism at our University

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

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

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

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

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

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

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International Women’s Day 2019 – our embarrassing gender pay gap

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Visa concerns, and pushing back against the hostile environment

Southampton UCU has been responding to concerns from members this week about University communications with staff and students about the UKVI audit and visa status. We are well aware that many in our community are negatively affected by national policies on migration, as well as the Brexit process, and we have been urging senior managers to ensure that the University does not follow the Government’s ‘hostile environment’ agenda, or feed people’s stress and anxiety about these issues.

We asked the senior managers what the VC has done to support our international colleagues and students, and we were directed to the press statement from the Russell Group, and told that the VC has helped influence the debate through this group and UUK. We were also informed that “the VP International, Winnie Eley has plans to engage this issue systematically in the coming months as an integral part of our international strategy.” We welcome moves by the VC and senior managers to support our diverse community and remind members that UCU has teamed up with Thompsons Solicitors to publish this guidance for EU workers applying for settled status which explains the current legal rights of EU workers and how this might change post-Brexit.

It doesn’t mean we aren’t angry.

Members will have seen the result of the HE ballot, which saw a turnout of 41%, with a 70% vote in favour of a strike and 80% for action short of a strike (80.5%). The turnout was disappointingly short of 50% threshold required by the current legislation.

Our employers will no doubt be relieved that they will not be faced with strike action (some members may feel the same, especially those still paying debts incurred from the USS strike action this time last year).

But this does not mean that staff are not angry about the issues at the heart of the ballot.

Talking to members here we know just how furious staff are about successive below inflation pay rises (and the prospect of paying more for our USS pension despite the recommendations of the JEP). We share your outrage at the casualization of the sector. We too are infuriated with the failure of employers to take meaningful action to address inequalities. We also know how overloaded everyone is due to increasing workloads and performance expectations.

Staff here have sent a clear message, via the recent staff survey, to senior management about their dissatisfaction with their leadership of the University. Staff reported a lack of confidence, a lack of trust and a sense that the senior managers do not listen or respond to feedback. Over the past few years staff and students have also repeatedly spoken out against excessive pay at the top of our University. And in the recent ballot many staff here also voted for strike action over pay and equalities.

Our employers should take note.

The message from the national ballot is that a significant number of UCU members are very angry about Pay, Precarity, Inequalities and Workloads. Locally, the staff survey signals problems at the top of the University of Southampton.

This is a moment for the senior managers to show that they can listen and respond.

The University Executive Board could seize this opportunity to work with staff and students. They could stand with staff on Pay and defend our pensions. They could take meaningful action on equalities. They could work towards ending the over-use of casual contracts. They could tackle excessive workloads, presenteeism and bullying. We believe they should.

Senate and the Staff survey – update

Following an additional request from Senators, the Vice Chancellor shortened the formal Senate agenda for this Wednesday’s meeting, to enable an early adjournment. Most Senators (including those from the University Executive Board) remained for an informal ‘no agenda’ discussion from 3pm on the staff survey and its implications. They were joined by some additional staff and the VC chaired the session.

This discussion was broad ranging and enabled staff to raise concerns about the survey and what will have motivated staff to give the answers they did. It also touched upon the difficult context of higher education and the current economic climate.

There was an acknowledgement of the lack of trust and confidence between staff and senior management, and various suggestions were made about how to rebuild that. UCU welcomes the commitment of senior managers (including the University Executive Board) to explore ways of improving communications. We look forward to further action to address the key issues raised in our blog from 13th February.

It was agreed that there would be similar space for discussions of this type following future Senate meetings – at least for as long as Professor Spearing will be in the role of Interim Vice Chancellor. This is to be welcomed and we look forward to better communication resulting in a better working environment for all.

What is wrong with ‘the University’ (senior managers’) reaction to the 2019 staff survey

Over 4200 staff completed the staff engagement survey (69%) and the strength of feeling, particularly about the senior management of the University must be acknowledged and acted on. ‘The University’ needs to find ways to meaningfully engage with staff, and this means that senior managers must change their approach.

UCU members are particularly disappointed for the following reasons:

1. Senators requested the opportunity to discuss the staff survey at Senate and were told ‘The role of Senate is in Academic Governance and as such the Staff Survey would not fall within this remit’. Given what the survey results imply for staff retention and organisational leadership this seems surprising – unhappy staff who lack trust in senior managers may find it hard to deliver academic excellence. After further correspondence a hasty ‘informal’ (presumably un-minuted) meeting is to be convened, after a shorter Senate, to discuss concerns. We hope that all Senators, especially those who are University Executive Board members, will attend, and participate in this meeting.

2. The text comments provided in the survey will clarify why staff gave low positive responses to questions, in particular, those about ‘the University’ and senior management. However, we understand that these are not being shared with School/ Department Heads. Yet these comments could be anonymised and depersonalised and shared, especially as staff have taken the time to write them. Responses to Q31 suggest that only 19% of staff agree that ‘the University’ acts on staff feedback. Discussing the text comments is an opportunity to reverse this.

3. Staff are expected to ‘engage’ in conversation in their departments about the survey, with their line manager and their Head of unit. The answers to Q27 suggest staff feel that it is not safe to speak up, so this may not result in open discussion and debate. Senior managers will need to equip staff to engage actively, facilitating equal participation and critical conversations.

4. The survey suggests that staff are relatively content with local line management arrangements, and the teams they work in, but are very disillusioned with the senior management. Staff urgently need to be reassured that senior managers have understood the survey results and see that action is being taken, at the highest levels, to address their concerns.

We propose some immediate actions:

a) Senior managers must commit to resourcing a serious and meaningful reaction to this disastrous staff survey. This means as a first step organising external, independent facilitators for focus groups (where confidentiality and anonymity is guaranteed) to understand the problems and consider how to address them.

b) To be seen as ‘open and honest in their communication’ (Q26) the senior managers must engage Senate properly and openly in the critique and development of the response to the survey and the wider university strategy. This would help the Executive Board and Council to begin to make more consensual decisions, taking staff with them to rebuild ‘confidence in the leadership of the University’ (Q25).

c) Given the rates of experienced or witnessed bullying (shockingly high in some areas) senior managers should introduce as a matter of urgency compulsory training in areas where rates are highest and a hotline to report bullying in confidence.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* figures taken from Financial Statements and Statistics 2016-2017