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January, 2021:

UCU concerns about long-term planning for teaching – correspondence with senior management

Email sent on 14 January 2021 to all members of UEB.

Dear UEB members

This letter is in relation to the need for improved long-term planning regarding the delivery of teaching, in particular the inclusion of in-person teaching as part of the blended learning mix. We understand from the meeting with Richard Middleton on the 11th of January that UEB have been discussing this but that, to date, no longer-term decision has been made. 

Since the beginning of the pandemic, colleagues across the University have – in the face of workloads which are generally already excessive – accepted the additional burdens of adapting to pandemic-era blended learning.  However, the lack of transparent medium and long-term planning is increasing workloads and having a detrimental effect on staff wellbeing, and the ongoing uncertainty is only causing further stress and anxiety for staff. It would be in the interests of staff and students to make clear, public and realistic plans for the remainder of the teaching this academic year, so that colleagues can have the best chance of delivering their best possible work in a situation in which they can retain a sense of meaningful control over their professional output. Staff cannot work to the best of their ability so long as we remain in a situation of three-week planning windows. In view of current case levels, hospital admissions and deaths, of the time-lag between infections and admissions, and the speed of the vaccine rollout, we believe that it is currently unrealistic and potentially irresponsible to expect a return to pre-lockdown levels of in-person teaching before the Easter break. We remind you that our members voted in November for the reduction as far as possible of in-person teaching between January and March in order to keep local infection rates as low as possible. Transparency, trust and efficiency would all be best served by agreeing this and enabling staff to plan for it now.  

If UEB really considers it impossible to clarify plans for the upcoming term at this time, we call upon you to lay out in full detail the likely alternative scenarios and the conditions which would shift the University or parts thereof from one scenario to another. For instance: what levels of infections and hospitalizations, locally and nationally, would trigger the continued restriction of in-person teaching, as it currently is, to certain priority subjects?  If the increased transmissibility of the new virus variant results, as seems likely, in even lower capacities in some teaching rooms, what is the University’s plan to manage capacity? 

Failing to offer clarity and continuing to make decisions at the last possible moment threatens to undermine further the confidence of staff in the senior management team. It will also undermine the confidence that students and potential students will have in the University and add to their stress and anxiety.  

We look forward to receiving a prompt response to our concerns.

UCU equality concerns during the 3rd lockdown – correspondence with management

Email response received from Mark Spearing, 14/1/21, to UCU equality concerns during the 3rd lockdown.  Our initial email outlining the key issues can be found in the thread below.

I have read your email carefully, and appreciate the concerns that you articulate.  However, your assessment of the situation is not accurate, and in particular we have not changed our guidance and policies.   Our approach is exactly the same as it was for the first lockdown and period of school closure last March.  As the Vice-Chancellor made clear again last week, we understand and are very sympathetic to the challenges of juggling working from home with caring responsibilities. We encourage all staff, and particularly those with concerns such as those you raise, to talk to their line managers about their individual circumstances and needs, and we are encouraging – as the Vice-Chancellor did –  all line managers to allow staff, where possible, to manage their working life flexibly around their care obligations during this period of lockdown. We are equally conscious that it is not just those with school-age children who may be under pressure – others will have caring responsibilities for more vulnerable family members and friends, for others lockdown can be very isolating.

Regarding the particular questions that you raise, I do not believe that these are specifically EDI matters, although I recognise that there is an EDI component, so I would encourage you to raise them in the regular meetings with Richard.  If there are specific EDI issues, I would be happy to join you at one or more of these meetings.

My final comment, is that this is an exceptional time, and I feel very strongly that this requires us to work closely together and with understanding.  At the heart of this is looking after the people in the organisation, many of whom are your members.  I know that all members of UEB are committed to supporting our colleagues and mitigating the effects of Covid on them and our institution.   I think that it is very important that, as far as possible, we are working together to this goal, rather than in an adversarial fashion.  All decisions, including some of your suggestions, have consequences, which may have a negative consequence on staff.  Developing a shared understanding of the overall picture, including the financial aspects, was one of the key items we agreed when we developed our joint working charter in 2019.  I think that it is particularly important to keep this in mind at the moment.

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Email sent on 14 January 2021 to Mark Spearing, Executive Champion for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, cc’d to Richard Middleton, Chief Operating Officer.
Dear Mark 

We are writing to you in your role as the University’s Executive Champion for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion. 

Southampton UCU are deeply concerned about the additional strain that the new lockdown will have on all staff. In particular, many of our members are once again combining work, family life, childcare and home-schooling. 

While we acknowledge that the University has increased the domestic leave to which staff with caring responsibilities are entitled, this is not sufficient, given the length of the current lockdown. The proposal of allowing staff flexible working hours, whereby they may be expected to work in the early mornings, late evenings and weekends, while home educating during the working week, is not physically or mentally sustainable. The alternative proposal of a temporary reduction in working hours is inequitable, as it transfers the costs of the pandemic onto individuals (it will have an impact not only on pay, but also on pension contributions, annual leave and other benefits).  

SUCU are disappointed that the positive and supportive line UEB sent out in the first lockdown, of ‘do what you can’, has now been replaced with ‘take unpaid leave and reduce your hours if you can’t manage’. Indeed, we are saddened that the University considers it appropriate to promote its voluntary salary-reducing measures to hard-pressed staff at such a difficult point in the pandemic. Asking parents and carers to take unpaid leave is insulting to their hard work and commitment throughout the duration of the pandemic, which has already involving the sacrifice of family time, rest, leave and research.  

Furthermore, many members are also reluctant to reduce their hours, as they realise this will have a knock-on effect on their colleagues, at a time when all staff are overloaded with work and struggling to stay afloat. We are at a time when people’s reserves are already low after the impact of the first two national lockdowns, and staff are beginning to feel the impact of recent staff departures via voluntary severance.  The approach therefore has serious implications for health, safety and wellbeing of all staff, not just parents and carers. 

Ultimately then, without adequate intervention this crisis will result in serious long-term and profoundly unequal detriment to the careers and prosperity of all staff who have caring responsibilities.  This impacts particularly although not exclusively on women.   

We would appreciate an urgent response to the following questions so we can share this information with our members: 

1.     Why is the University not offering a part-time furlough option for those with caring responsibilities, as other institutions are? (e.g. see the following policy from the University of Oxford– https://hr.admin.ox.ac.uk/the-job-retention-scheme) 

2.     If a member of staff chooses to temporarily reduce their hours, where will this money go? If we had a commitment that it would be used to bring in temporary replacements then some members may be more inclined to take up this offer. 

3.     Will UEB reconsider their policy of asking staff to take unpaid leave if they cannot manage with existing workloads due to parenting/caring commitments? Staff in this position are doing the best they can and should be able to continue to receive full pay. 

4.     Can UEB send a clear urgent message to all line managers that staff should be able to prioritise those aspects of work that are essential and set aside activities that are non-urgent? 

5.     We ask that UEB provide clear reassurance that the impacts of COVID-19 will not have a detrimental impact on career progression, we would like to see a clear plan on how these mitigating circumstances will be fully factored into future promotion rounds, and how the equality impacts will be monitored and transparently shared. 

We look forward to receiving your prompt response.