Southampton UCU Rotating Header Image

Uncategorized

Climate strike rally – thanks for supporting our event

 

Thanks to all who attended the rally in Jubilee Plaza, to our excellent speakers who gave the gathered crowd plenty to think about, and to others who tweeted images, pledges and requests for action.

Also thanks to the Sustainable Energy Research Group (SERG) who planted a tree close to Jubilee Plaza directly after the rally.

 

We are of course only at the beginning of a journey and we intend to work closely with SUSU, other Union colleagues and the University Executive Board (UEB) to ensure that the University achieves the commitments in Southampton City Green Charter (see earlier posts for links).  Any suggestions for activities or actions in the future are welcome, but watch this space…

#climatestrike 20th September, 1200-1230, Jubilee Plaza

Friday will be a major day of global action for the Climate Strike and last week the TUC passed a motion (tabled by UCU) to support the school student Global Climate Strike on 20th September and has called on TUC affiliate unions to organise a 30 minute work day campaign action to coincide with the school students strike on 20th September.

Please come along, if you can, to demonstrate your support. There are a range of speakers confirmed – all will be saying a few short words on #climatestrike and they are:

  1. Bea Gardner (UCU Postgraduate Representative and SUSU link)
  2. Emily Harrison (President, SUSU)
  3. Rachel Mills (Dean of the Faculty of Environment and Life Sciences)
  4. Simon Kemp (Professorial Fellow in Education for Sustainable Development)
  5. Roger Tyres (Research Fellow, Faculty of Social Sciences)

Come to pledge your support for the school strikers, and make practical suggestions to help the University as a whole fulfil the Southampton Green Charter commitment to be carbon neutral by 2030.

Climate Strike – 20 September 2019

In our blog of the 22nd July we said that we would be offering public support for the next ‘Climate Strike’ organised by the Student Climate Network.  This is to confirm that there will be a lunchtime event for staff and students between 1200 and 1230 on Friday 20th September at Jubilee Plaza, Highfield Campus. The University is fully supportive of this and hopes to offer speakers, and is involved in planning the event and communications. We have yet to confirm exactly what will take place but please check back on this blog for more details.

On the same day there are other events – for instance there will be a city-based event between 1100 and 1600 in Guildhall Square, and October Books in Portswood are hosting a range of activities between 1300 and 1700.

If you are unable to get to Highfield Campus on that day, but would like to explicitly offer your support we encourage you to do something locally at your campus or wherever you are at the time. You can publish a photo of you and your colleagues via the hashtag #ClimateStrike using @SouthamptonUCU and @unisouthampton.

More information to follow… suggestions also welcome!   Send these to the UCU office 

You can find more information about how  UCU is supporting the Climate Strike here

 

 

 

 

UCU letter to employers’ assertions about the USS dispute

The date for the opening of the ballot on USS pensions is fast approaching (opens 9 September – look out for your ballot paper!).   UCU national negotiators have set out the demands to our employers in the letter below, a copy of which was sent from our branch to the VC, Professor Mark Spearing, today.  We hope for a positive response which we will share with members.

 

 

Support the climate strikes

Following the publication of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) special report late last autumn, there has been a renewed drive from environmental campaigners to see meaningful action to halt climate change. The report warned we have less than 12 years to cut carbon emissions by 45% to avoid the most catastrophic effects of global warming. Leading the call to action have been thousands of inspiring young people, who have been taking monthly strike action to protect their futures. As part of the student climate network, they have highlighted that, without action, they will face a runaway greenhouse effect in their lifetimes. 

Many staff and students here at Southampton share this commitment to protecting the environment, and we have seen several protest actions on the issue at Highfield campus in recent months.   Southampton UCU branch is pleased that the University was a founding signatory to the Southampton Green City Charter, which was launched in June. The charter includes the commitment to be carbon neutral by 2030, and we look forward to hearing how the university plans to meet this substantial, but necessary, commitment.  In addition, following discussion at our recent AGM, Southampton UCU branch has endorsed the Southampton Green City Charter and will follow these principles in our future activities. 

 Meanwhile, school students have appealed to the trade union movement to support their next strike action. UCU proudly responded to this call by unanimously passing a motion to take solidarity action with young people, including a 30-minute work stoppage on 20th September.  The national UCU will submit a motion to the upcoming Trade Union Congress (TUC) to support this action. UCU Southampton Branch has officially backed it and you can declare your individual support for the solidarity stoppage and read more about the TUC motion here.

 In liaison with the student union and the Southampton Trades Council, Southampton UCU plans to hold a lunchtime rally on the 20th.  We will keep members updated as plans develop in the coming weeks. We are still looking for a UCU environment rep to join the executive and to lead on this and related work – if you are interested in getting involved, please let us know.

 

 

USS update

If you attended the AGM earlier this month, you will already know that there is going to be a ballot for further strike action this Autumn. The UCU position is one of No Detriment, and the decision to ballot for strike was proposed and accepted at Congress earlier this summer. In April, our pension contributions increased from 8% to 8.8%. The current proposals from USS will increase the total contributions of employers and scheme members by at least a further 1.4%, with our member contributions rising by at least 1.3% since the start of the dispute. If the employers do not agree additional contingent contributions, the increases will be even worse.USS is proposing rates that will increase our contributions to at least 11% after 2020.

Industrial action by UCU members led to the establishment of a Joint Expert Panel last year, comprising both UCU and UUK representatives. The Panel confirmed UCU’s belief that the pension scheme has a sustainable future, and made reasonable recommendations to USS. If applied, these recommendations would have resolved our dispute and would have resulted in no contribution increases or benefit cuts for members. Our employers however, instead of committing fully to the Joint Expert Panel recommendations, are proposing we should increase our contributions based on a pessimistic valuation of the scheme.

And a story came to light in the last week (featured in USS briefs on twitter and in the FT) that the Chair of USS trustees (David Eastwood) was rebuked by the Pension’s Regulator (tPR) for misrepresenting the tPR position on an issue key to that valuation. Currently VC of Birmingham University, David Eastwood was told in January that the USS report mistakenly suggested that the tPR insisted on using the most cautious of discount rates, which resulted in a larger projected deficit. Despite an email on the subject, he and the board have done nothing to correct their statements or acknowledge the potential impact on the valuation of the scheme. We also have to wonder what the effect on the negotiations would have been had this been made public to all parties at the time. You will also have seen this in UCU General Secretary elect Jo Grady’s most recent email (from Monday 24thJune).

This follows reports that a USS trustee (statistics expert Professor Jane Hutton) claims to have been prevented from carrying out a full analysis of the scheme valuation.

A further complication to the debate is the decision (confirmed 20thJune) of Trinity College, Cambridge to withdraw from USS – on the grounds that there was a remote risk that its assets would be required to bail out the scheme in a worst-case scenario. UCU has already called for a boycott of Trinity College – as outlined in the brief from Head Office on the 21stJune.

To keep up to date with USS developments you could follow FT journalist Josephine Cumbo on Twitter or visit the UCU USS pages.

Southampton UCU BBQ

We braved the weather and held a barbecue for UCU members and their families on Thursday 20th June on the Common outside of Avenue Campus. Alongside the feast of meaty and vegetarian hotdogs, it was an opportunity to chat, meet new people and recreate the very friendly and constructive atmosphere of the picket line last year. It was also the last appearance of the Dinosaur of Solidarity and an opportunity to thank Cathy Pope for all her work for this branch. We will miss her a lot but, as she wisely said, we are a very active branch, with lots of new people and ideas. The barbecue was the first in a long series to come, and more UCU social events will follow starting in September!

It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day…

This is the first blog of the new UCU year and exec, so as incoming president I wanted to put in a short welcome on behalf of the branch and the new exec. I am very sad to see Cathy Pope leave the University this year but on behalf of the exec wish her the very best in Oxford and we look forward to her continued support as a Regional representative on the NEC. Our exec, reps and members will continue the good work that she has been involved in over the last 16 years!

You can see the full list of newly elected Southampton UCU branch officers for 2019-20 here – most were introduced at the AGM. We all very much look forward to working with you in the coming year, and want to hear your thoughts and feedback. Please contact us through your local reps, exec members or via the standard UCU email address.

Mary Morrison, President, UCU Southampton

 

AGM Report

The AGM took place on 5thJune at Highfield Campus – thanks to those members who attended to hear Christine Haswell of UCU give an update on USS. If you would like to read in detail about the latest USS news please see this link  . As things stand, it is highly likely that UCU will be balloting for industrial action in the Autumn.

We also heard Cathy Pope, outgoing UCU Southampton president, give a report of the main events of 2018/19. Cathy talked about issues that the branch has been working on where we have been representing members collectively or individually, in particular the amount of case work that the branch is handling, and some restructures, including the Health and Safety Committee restructures and other aspects of H&S work and other departmental / unit restructures. Broader issues included appraisal procedures and implementation of appraisal policies and the gender pay gap. The report will be summarised in the minutes of the AGM which will be sent to all members.

BBQ

Claire le Foll is taking the lead to organise this and you should all have had an invitation to the UCU barbecue on the Common on the 20thJune, starting at 4pm. We intend to give Cathy a proper send-off there and will be located somewhere near the top of the common near to the Avenue Campus (see invite in your inbox). Please bring something to drink and a re-usable drinking cup!

Two big issues discussed at the AGM were:

Appraisal

This remains problematic with members telling us they feel unfairly treated or that their appraisal was not conducted properly. There are ongoing talks to revise the existing policy on appraisal and we are aware of different approaches to implementing the policy locally. The senior management team have suggested further guidance on this and we will support them to try and reduce the number of problems that arise in appraisal. In recent weeks we have seen genuine commitment to solving some of these problems and desire to work with all the campus trade unions. As before please tell us about your experiences to help us inform this process.

Workload

We now have a team of trained workload reps and we need to hear from you about the problems you experience. Write to us at the usual address or approach your local reps if you have information to share now. We will come back to you soon with more details of what the workload reps will be doing.  Dario Carugo (Communications officer) and Claire Le Foll (Campaigns and Membership officer) are going to be working actively on this campaign over the coming months and we would encourage you to get involved by joining a working group.  Please email us if you are interested.  In addition, at JNC it has been proposed to develop some high-level guiding principles for workload allocation.

Environment

It was also discussed that UCU Southampton should support Southampton City Council’s proposals for a Green Charter to improve the working and living conditions in the City and to work towards a sustainable city. The Green Charter has yet to be published but it was agreed at the AGM that it was a good initiative. We still need to identify an environment rep for the exec to lead on this and related work – if you are interested or know another member who might be please get in touch.

Stop press: Members have contacted us this week (week beginning 10thJune) about press coverage of an industrial tribunal which took place in the first week of June, where the University was ordered to pay £2.5 million to an ex-staff member who made accusations of discrimination on race and religion. University management have made a short statement on SUSSED to the effect that there will be an independent investigation to understand what happened, and have confirmed to us that they are looking for the opportunity to present the considerable body of evidence that they had put together in their defence, as soon as possible. We will keep in touch with the senior management team and are confident that they will report back as soon as they are able.

 

 

 

Strike ready. An update on USS, and a warning.

Members of USS pension scheme are now paying an extra 0.8% into their pension scheme and have received a USS member letter explaining that there are more increases to come in October and next April. Our employers are no longer matching the additional 1% contributions that some members opted to make to try to restore some of the benefits they were promised.

Your pension is deferred salary. Against the backdrop of a below inflation pay rise these increases in contributions represent yet another cut in your pay.

The pension strike last year fought off threats of a Defined Contribution only scheme that would be much worse for all members. The strike also won independent scrutiny of USS via the Joint Expert Panel (JEP). At the time of the strike, UCU was in dispute with many employers (Southampton included) who, represented by UUK, were allied with USS to try to force detrimental changes to the pension scheme.

UCU responded with the longest and largest strike action we have ever taken. In the months following the strike, we have seen many employers shift their position, in the light of evidence presented to them and in consultation with staff and unions. Many employers have now accepted the JEP recommendations in full (sadly not this University). Frustratingly, at a time when UCU and UUK are in agreement, USS are refusing to listen and are insisting that the employers sign up to contingent contributions

The JEP was highly critical of the USS position and changes to the valuation of our pension. The JEP has more work to do regarding governance of the pension scheme, and the heavily contested valuation methodology. A new, 2018 valuation will be completed by the end of June 2019. The University of Southampton has invited Brendan Mulkern back to run a couple of talks on 29/4 and 2/5 to update staff (we note that Mr Mulkern is Senior Pensions Adviser to UUK, although this is not listed on the advert about these workshops.)

We are clear that increased contributions from members are unnecessary. We continue to support the recommendations of the JEP.

Members here, in a branch that does not make decisions to take industrial action lightly, were clear last year that reductions in pension benefits are not acceptable. The recent ballot also showed significant support for action on pay and equality, even though we did not quite achieve the 50% turnout required by anti-trades union law.

In the face of threats to our pension, and unnecessary increases in USS deductions from our pay and yet another derisory pay offer from our employers we may have to take action again. Reluctantly, we ask UCU members to start saving money (if they can) and to be ready for further strike action. We have had enough of cuts to pay, reduction in pension benefits and a system which casualises and overloads our staff. Our #DinosaurOf Solidarity may be sleeping, but we know that members here can, and will, “Rise Like Lions” when pushed.

 

The Story of Returning to the Tea Estate

Guest blog by Mahesan Niranjan

This time last year, I wrote an open letter to the Chair of our University Council (archived on the UCU blog here). I raised several points about scholarship and the need for better governance structures to support it. Nearly a hundred colleagues from across campus thanked me and agreed with my views. But, apart from a single exception, all of them ranked below the level of Head of Department. From the upper echelons, the reaction was simply one of politely raised eyebrows at my audacity in exercising my right to write.

More disappointing was my inability to trigger any open discussion within the community. Nobody expressed a view – in agreement or not – in public. I wondered why. Perhaps I was just wrong. Wrong about high salaries at the top end of our hierarchy. Wrong about annual appraisals and their demoralising effect. Wrong about the need for greater participation by the community in decision making. Wrong that scholarship is our revenue generator, hence academics should not be seen simply as costs. Wrong about the tuition fees we charge subsidising contract research. Perhaps those who agreed with me were a minority.

Or maybe we have accepted that we are mere human resources required to turn up at work and follow commands without question.

Hence this year, my reflections are inward. About myself. About my career of three decades. After all, I will be sixty soon. Grateful for what I have so far had. I can relax, have fun and reflect. Yes, reflect, for ‘tis the season of reflection.

I grew up in a tea estate in the central hills of Sri Lanka, a region of exceptional beauty. Hill after hill with rows of fresh green tea bushes. A tea estate has a special kind of beauty. Neatly pruned bushes grown to waist levels of the workers who pluck them. The workers, in bright coloured sarees with cane baskets hanging over their shoulders pluck tea with impressive skill: two leaves and a bud snipped with precision, and a palm-full of them periodically tossed over the shoulders into the basket. They continually chew mouthful of betel leaves to be spat on the deadly blood-sucking leeches that get between their bare toes.

Management of the estate is neat, efficient and hierarchical. There is the top level guy, usually the owner, referred to as the planter. Between him and the workforce is a layer of supervisors, known as kanganis. The planter sets the high level objectives for the estate. He (always it is ‘he’) defines how the workforce is partitioned into teams and which kangani supervises which team. Periodically, he shuffles the groups of workers among the hills. In days gone by, the planter was an European colonialist. The global thinker with vision and skill to spot where tea will grow and where it will be consumed, and what human resources would be needed to pluck the leaves and how precisely they shall be managed to maximise throughput. Since independence, the State and local entrepreneurs have taken over the estates, but retained the management techniques.

The kangani knows his place between the planter and the workforce. He is ambitious, dreaming of becoming a planter himself one day, though the probability of achieving that is infinitesimally small. In pursuit of that ambition, the kangani nods in the direction above to anything the planter cares to utter,  and barks orders downwards at the workforce. The objectives set by the planter are passed down as targets the workers should achieve: Pluck X kg a day, and you get N Rupees. Incentives also exist: Pluck 10% more the set target on any day, you get a reward of 1% increase in pay. If you overshoot, the target is raised by 10% the next day. Once in a while, when the kangani’s back is turned, the workforce have fun. They mimic his nods: “yes, Sir, yes, Sir, three bags full, Sir,” they tease and giggle.

During my childhood, I hated the tea estate. I hated the fact that the beauty of the estate hides intolerable inequality, poverty, hierarchy and exploitation. I wanted to leave the place as soon as possible and pursue scholarship and the discovery of knowledge, driven by curiosity. I did precisely that, leaving the tea estate and hiding myself in the bubbles of the Universities of Cambridge, Sheffield and Southampton. Three wonderful decades.

Somewhere mid-career an interesting thing happened. I was asked to take on a university management role. My father was amused. “How could you do a management job?” he wrote. “You are an absent minded scholar. You hate wearing a neck-tie. You read the Guardian. You buy the Big Issue. You go to work in socks and sandals. Son, you do not even have a strong enough brake between thought and speech.” Despite such scepticism, I took the role.

Towards the end of my tenure in the said management job, my father asked how it went. “Alright,” I reported, immediately inventing a performance measure to justify the claim. “Yes, a small number of people didn’t like the way I did the job, but they all ranked above me in the hierarchy, and those who ranked below all seemed appreciative.” The dislikes and likes being above and below, respectively, shows I did alright, I explained.

“How did you achieve that?” he asked. “I owe it,” I said with  sincerity, “to the transferable skills you taught me, from the way the tea estate was organised: the separation of the skill of the workforce from the profit-making objectives of the planter, by the ambitious intermediary, the kangani.” “All I had to do was to recognise the importance of the workforce, and not mimic the kangani. I simply refused to nod in agreement upwards and avoided barking orders downwards.” My father was amused by the term I had just used. “What did you say, transferable… what?” he asked. He was a teacher of English and a scholar of Sanskrit. He was a good linguist, too. Our mother tongue, Tamil, comes from the Dravidian family of languages, distinct form the Indo-European family which include English and Sanskrit. He has studied the flow of words, morphological changes and grammatical structures between Sanskrit and Tamil. His particular interest was in Hinduism, a religion in which communication between man and stone is executed in Sanskrit. Despite that background, my father has never come across the phrase “transferable skill”. As a teacher, he has always insisted that the primary purpose of education is joy, the pleasure achieved by discovering knowledge. He would accept the ability to solve previously unseen problems as a secondary benefit.

I have plagiarised his practice. I try to instil the idea that there is fun in machine learning, which is the subject I teach, and insist that my success is measured by my students being able to solve problems they have not seen before. The pleasure I achieved last week, for example, when a student of eight years ago wrote to thank me when he got appointed to a lectureship, far outweighs the irritation I tolerate when the moderated appraisal score is returned informing me of my mediocre performance in the previous year. It is apparently axiomatic in present day universities that there is a sharply peaked “bell-curve” of performance into which our scholarship could be packed.

I regard quality assurance processes as necessary, but not sufficient proxies for achieving high quality. There is an anecdote I heard about someone who wrote in an Annual Module Reflection Form (AMRF): “As a result of innovative teaching this year, half the candidates achieved a grade higher than the median mark.” That AMRF has been approved by several committees and filed somewhere, as testimony to the quality of the quality assurance processes that dominate our lives.

It wasn’t my father’s ignorance of the phrase “transferable skill” that bothered me. My casual use of the phrase shamed me. Whatever next, I wondered. Have I been house-trained into the system? Will I now speak of “strategic priority”? Or will I have a “vision”? Or will I start believing in “learning outcomes”? Or will I be “moving forward”?

A month after that conversation with my father, I was nearing the end of my tenure in that management role. I was called into the office of a senior manager. “You seem to have done alright… we would like you to continue for another term.” He had consulted the foot soldiers. “They all seem to like your work,” he reported his discovery, quickly adding “me too.”  I declined the offer. “I do not wish to continue. I need to get back to the research lab, the classroom, the journal club and the coffee room of the foot soldiers.”

So, I went back to the tea estate! Spotting two leaves and a bud at a glance with amazing skill; manipulating my fingers to pluck them with speed; rhythmically shoving handful of them into the basket that hung on my back. I am promised incentives if I perform above target: 10% plucked above target gets 1% increase in pay. But the kangani moves my target whenever I overshoot it.

Yet, occasionally, when the kangani’s back is turned, I do have fun, thinking of the tea estate workers and their “yes, Sir, yes, Sir, three bags full, Sir!”, for ‘tis indeed the season of reflection.