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Workloads

OPEN LETTER TO MUSIC STUDENTS ON UCU INDUSTRIAL ACTION – Southampton, 19 February 2020

Dear Music Students,

We, staff and PhD students in Music, are writing this letter to explain our position in the upcoming University and College Union industrial action. Many of us will be striking. Some will not, or not the whole time. All of us sympathise with what the UCU is asking for in the disputes, which involve 74 UK universities.

First, we know that this means trouble for you. None of us who are striking take this lightly. Indeed, we are not getting paid for the days we strike. We believe that strikes are a last resort. Unfortunately negotiations have not yet achieved a result that the UCU and its members feel they can accept, for themselves, for you and for the future of higher education in this country,

You recently received a communication from the university claiming that the strike is over “pay and pensions.” Actually it is about more than that:

  1. Casualisation. In our department most classroom teaching is still done by staff on full-time contracts. The national trend, however, is for universities to use more “casual” teaching staff on yearly, academic-year only or even zero-hours contracts, despite the introduction of £9K+ home and large increases to overseas student fees. The effect, especially on younger academics, has been impossibly high levels of stress. We know that some of our own graduates, top students who went on to do PhDs, now earn less than the “living wage” as lecturers at prestigious institutions.
  2. Workload. Compared to ten years ago, before the increases in fees, British universities spend less on people. There have been significant cuts to crucial front-line administrative staff and widespread hiring freezes. The result is more work for fewer workers. It is no surprise that academics and academic-related colleagues across the country are reporting record levels of stress, and increasingly stress-related illness. Most of us will tell you that the price of giving you the education you deserve is longer hours, frequently in excess of the 48 hours per week laid down by the European Working Time Directive, which remains British law. All of us want to do our very best by you, but the price is getting higher every year. Our working conditions are your learning conditions.
  3. Pay equality. At many British universities, including ours, there is a disgraceful gap in pay between men and women, and between White British colleagues and members of racial and ethnic minorities. At the University of Southampton across all subjects men earn 16% more than women on average. For years our employers have agreed with us that this is unacceptable–and not enough has changed. We demand action.
  4. Pay. Senior academics earn good money. But many of us did not find secure employment until we were older, and when we did we worked for low entry-level salaries. We accepted these conditions because we were deeply committed to our work, and knew that pay would improve with seniority. Yet in the past decade, since the increases in student fees, by conservative estimates our average pay has fallen 15% behind inflation, and behind compensation for similar work in the private sector. We ask that this loss be made up.
  5. Pensions. Academic pensions are attractive, roughly comparable to those of teachers or local government employees. But they are under pressure. In 2015 we accepted a significant decrease in our pensions to make them more affordable (we understand that people are living longer!). The result for all but the most senior of us was a substantial loss (£100s per month) in future pension income. In 2018 our employers tried to impose a “defined contribution” (instead of “defined benefit”) model, which would have resulted in losses of up to £1000 per month for mid-career and even more for junior colleagues. As a result there were strikes at many universities, including this one. These strikes ended when the employers withdrew their plans. They have yet to offer an acceptable alternative.

Some of us took action over all of these issues in November and December. Since then there has been some movement on casualisation, workload and equal pay. The UCU are happy that employers now recognise these as national issues, and have made specific suggestions to address them. But union negotiators cannot accept these without mechanisms of enforcement. On pay the offer currently on the table (1.8%) is not acceptable because it is below most measures of inflation and does nothing to address the many years of relative decline. Employers have made a series of alternative suggestions about pensions, but are refusing to agree to pay for what these would cost.

Negotiations are in a critical phase. Those of us who are going on strike do so because we believe that only pressure on employers will convince them to move the short distance that separates us. If they do, and the UCU accepts their offer, those of us who plan to strike will return to work immediately.

What you can do if you support us:

  • Write to the Vice Chancellor, Prof Mark E. Smith (emailvc@soton.ac.uk). Although he has not been here long most of us have experienced him as a friendly and open person. Let him know, politely, and in your own words, that you are on the side of your teachers and the staff who support your learning, and that you would like him to use his influence to end this long and draining dispute.
  • Talk to your friends and family. Educate yourselves and them about what is at stake here: your learning conditions, and those of the students who come after you.
  • Come out and support us. This Thursday, 20 February, Music staff will be picketing near Building 2 from 10-11 and then attending a rally in Jubilee Plaza. Show your support. Bring your instruments. Come and sing with us!

Yours sincerely,

 

Tom Irvine

David Bretherton

Dan Mar-Molinero

Valeria de Lucca

Ben Oliver

Richard Polfreman

Drew Crawford

Francesco Izzo

Mark Everist

Bastian Terraz

Matthew Shlomowitz

Jane Chapman

Diana Venegas

Kate Hawnt

Ryan Ross

Peter Falconer

Catherine Fabian

Jeanice Brooks

Anisha Netto

Clare Merivale

Gintaré Stankeviciute

David Alcock

Clarissa Brough

Mary-Jannet Leith

Jamie Howell

Andy Fisher

 

Counting the cost of casualisation

The current strike ballot on pay, workload, and equality highlights the problems faced by casualised staff. These could be staff on fixed-term contracts (like the vast majority of our early career researchers) or those on hourly-paid or zero-hours contracts, with staff working for a relatively small number of hours per semester (such as with some of our teaching (and other) staff).

A UCU survey from earlier this year prompted 67 responses from Southampton University staff (1.8% of total respondents). The report explored financial insecurity within this group, with respondents to the survey clearly reporting real problems resulting from the precariousness of their income – see tables below copied from the report.

About 60% of respondents have experienced problems with making ends meet, 40% with paying bills, and 30% with paying their rent.

Have you experienced any of the following issues as a result of your employment on insecure contracts? Numbers answering yes Percentage
Problems securing rented accommodation 571 28%
Problems paying rent 613 29.8%
Problems getting a loan 562 27.4%
Problems paying bills 828 40.3%
Problems making ends meet 1228 59.8%
Problems with VISA status 149 7.3%
Problems accessing or maintaining access to benefits 263 12.8%

 

Staff also reported high levels of stress – caused in part by financial insecurity but also by the nature of the work depending on the contract (such as not enough time to prepare, no dedicated workspace and so on).

On a scale of 1 to 10 where 1 = not stressful at all and 10 = extremely stressful, how stressful do you find working on an insecure contract?
  Numbers of responses Percentage of respondents
10 (extremely stressful) 649 24.6%
9 472 17.9%
8 682 25.9%
7 391 14.8%
6 163 6.2%
5 105 4%
4 46 1.7%
3 75 2.8%
2 22 0.8%
1 (not stressful) 33 1.3%

 

For the full report and all findings see Counting the costs of casualisation in higher education – Key findings of a survey June 2019.

Casualisation can mean insecurity, inability to progress and unfair disadvantage. Whilst short-term contracts are often embedded in current research funding models, the recent UCU survey showed that the large majority (97% of respondents) on a fixed-term contract would rather be on a permanent contract, while 80% of those who were hourly-paid would rather be on a contract that guaranteed them hours, even if it meant less flexibility.

The HESA figures for 2017/18 show that of the 2,995 academic staff in the University of Southampton, 1,235 are on fixed-term contracts. We do not have figures for how many are on hourly paid contracts locally. We would like to hear from members here about their experiences of casualised contracts, the impact on themselves, on colleagues and on students. Write in confidence direct to ucu@soton.ac.uk.

And in the context of the current ballot, we urge members to vote to end rising job insecurity.

 

Mental health – top tips from Ruby Wax, but can we also fix the structures?

We are pleased to see that our new Chancellor Ruby Wax has given a short interview in the latest staff magazine, drawing attention to mental health. [intranet only] This is clearly very well-intentioned, and a welcome intervention. Ruby reminds us to look out for the signs that someone is distressed and to be more open and honest about mental health matters. Like Wellfest – the University’s day of wellbeing – the message is aimed more at students than staff, but nonetheless this interview is a positive start to Ruby’s tenure.

UCU will be running and participating in events next week to raise awareness about workloads and stress and mental health. We hope that senior managers will begin to recognise that a key factor in reducing mental ill-health and a lack of wellbeing are structural factors e.g. excessive workloads, intolerable and unachievable performance expectations and metrics, and (as the staff survey shows) lack of the resources and support needed to do one’s job. Whilst we want to encourage healthy eating, exercise and mindfulness activities, we recognise that half an hour of these a week will not address the cultural and organisational contexts that staff and students report as damaging to their mental health and wellbeing.

Next week is UCU recruitment week and Mental Health Awareness week and so our events will focus on wellbeing at work and what we can do to help remove the stigma and discrimination that people living and working with a mental health condition or issue face. Please come along and talk to us about what you would like us to do to address wellbeing in the workplace – our reps/officers will be very interested to hear your ideas.

Schedule of events:

Monday 13 May – 1-2pm, room 2/1079, Highfield Wellbeing – An interactive session for all staff
This session will start with a brief presentation from Dr Sarah Kirby, a registered Health Psychologist in the Department of Psychology. Sarah is the FELS Wellbeing champion and has been actively engaged in this field of work for many years. Following this introductory overview, there will be an interactive discussion during which colleagues can raise their own concerns and/or concerns on behalf of their friends and colleagues.
The session will be mainly focused on well-being and everyday hassles, barriers, challenges and opportunities. The session is open to all staff, whether union members or not.

Tuesday 14 May – 12.30-1.30pm, room 58/1025, Highfield
Our sister union, Unison, will be running a Lunch and Learn event – How to Deal with Stress
Places are limited so to book a place please email unison@soton.ac.uk

Wednesday 15 May – 10-4pm, Garden Court
The University is hosting Wellfest and there will be mindfulness sessions running at 10 am and 1pm as well as other events. UCU will be hosting an infostand at the event, so please come along to say hello, pick up some information and share your ideas on how to improve wellbeing at the university. Free gifts available.

Thursday 16 May – 12-2pm, Staff club
Visit our infostand in the foyer of the staff club and discuss how you would like the University to address wellbeing and support staff facing mental health issues/concerns. Free gifts available.

Friday 17 May – 4pm onwards, Arlott bar
End the week with a coffee/beer and relax with UCU reps, officers and fellow members for an informal gathering.

We look forward to seeing you at one of our events. And please do feel free to pass this information on to non-member colleagues and encourage them to join UCU.