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The Story of Resurrecting Thoughts from Beneath the Glass Ceiling – Mahesan Niranjan

We were asked to publish this guest post by a member of the University community. The views in the post are not necessarily those of the UCU Executive Committee, but we felt it raised many issues about which members are currently concerned.

Easter is the time of resurrection. To my friend, who doesn’t believe in that Biblical tale, the short break of a few days helped recall to the surface much thought he had suppressed over a period of three and a half decades.

The friend about whom I write teaches at a UK University, specialising in the subject of making inferences from large and complex datasets. His background of escaping from a racist environment is relevant to what follows. At the age of 20 one night, he stood at a police cordon crying, when the library in his town was torched by thugs under the supervision of government ministers. Then at the age of 22, during race riots, he gained his second lease of life by jumping from a second-floor balcony to escape machete-wielding militia.

For someone with that background, the protective bubble of research intense British universities is paradise. He is safe, pursuing curiosity-driven research and challenging junior members with open-ended coursework to show them there is joy in learning. Increasingly though, these are being threatened, with research quality measured by grant income and education packaged into learning outcomes.

Career-wise, it bothers him that he has reached the top and has to stop. If we view a university as consisting of a hierarchy of career jobs, positions of its upper strata of a senior chief, some deputy senior chiefs, other middle ranking chiefs and some deputy middle ranking chiefs are not accessible to my friend. Other observations have upset him, too. The classes he teaches are at best 15% female, homogeneous in ethnicity, and the purchasing power of his students is likely to be in the top fifth of the age group. Along those three orthogonal axes, his subject is far from being inclusive.

Of both the above – the glass ceiling and the non-inclusive enrolment — universities claim to be taking action: reports written, strategies drafted, charters signed, and awards distributed. Yet, over a thirty five-year period, nothing much has changed.  Noise, however, gets amplified. For example, should the proportion of female students in a class increase from 14% to 15%, someone in the hierarchy would claim credit for strategic planning. The phrase “Eee-Dee-Eye” has entered all walks of life like the mantra one repeats during transcendental meditation: rhyming, repetitive and meaningless.

On observing these, my friend shrugs his shoulders, buries the irritations they evoke and carries on with his scholarship. It is easy for him. The knocks he receives from the glass ceiling don’t hurt, for he is endowed with a thick helmet.  His knowledge of far worse. That of his library burning. That of jumping off a second-floor balcony to save his life.

What has changed this Easter, and why is there a re-surfacing of suppressed thoughts?

Context is important. About a year and a half ago, the Equalities Commission (EHRC) suggested UK universities are “institutionally racist”! In a follow-up report, Universities UK (UUK) agreed with that assessment. The timing of these coincided with Black Lives Matter protests. Health inequalities exposed by the pandemic added to the context. The Royal Society, too, chipped in with a report, observing significant differentials in attrition rates along ethnic lines, while failing to analyse why this is so. Then more recently, a UK government commissioned report on race suggested that such things won’t exist, if only one were to stop looking.

The response of universities to these events was predictable. They issued statements. My friend read about ten such and was amused by how correlated they were: (i) about taking it all seriously; (ii) about a lot of work having already been done; and (iii) about much work still remaining to be done. Perhaps the same management consultant was hired to write them. When EHRC and UUK described the universities as institutionally racist, not a single Vice Chancellor could respond by saying “No, my institution is not like that!” Even the future King did a better job when a member of the household was alleged to have expressed curiosity about the skin colour of Her Majesty’s then unborn great grandchild.

Where has my friend heard that shameful phrase “institutional racism” before? Twenty years ago, the Macpherson report on the Metropolitan Police’s botched up inquiry into the racist murder of a Black teenager used that description. Even if one could have some sympathy with the police accumulating statistical bias because, day in day out, they deal with crime, can my friend accept the environment he reveres so much, and where he has sought sanctuary, attracting such a description?

With these thoughts resurrected during the Easter break, my friend ponders: Why?

Mercifully, the ceiling above him is made of glass. He can see through it and look at the holders of high office. None of them could ever be described as racist. None of them would ever utter a racist word or even have racist thought. They value my friend as a person, as a colleague and as a scholar.

That poses a paradox. How is it that individuals who are not racist, collectively run organisations that is judged to be structurally so?

“When malice is not present,” I suggested, “incompetence is where the explanation lies.”

He dismissed me instantly on the grounds that any holders of high office are analytical problem solvers who know how to identify the root cause and solve it at source than fiddle with symptoms. Person specifications of senior jobs require those fine qualities. Having ruled out malice and incompetence, we are left with one last plausible explanation, the mistaken belief in meritocracy.

Senior managers of universities tend to believe that their positions were attained by fair and rigorous processes with merit as their determinant. This is perpetuated by a remuneration system that has expanded its scale in recent times. It is then easy to make the transition from a job interview position of “I am good, pay me a high salary” to a self-fulfilling position of “I am paid a high salary, so I must be good!” Such self-evaluation is a right, my friend concedes, but is that supported by available data, he questions.

This belief is so strong that we have seen several examples of unhealthy behaviour recently: a leader found guilty of bullying holds onto their job; another who erected fences around student halls of residence, attracting a vote of no confidence, also remains in post; another claimed that even though their salary is admittedly high, soccer players earned more; yet another reportedly filed a claim of two pounds for biscuits.

Power does corrupt, does it not?

Once the mindset of meritocracy gets entrenched, cloning becomes the driving force in making appointments. One would want to find someone “solid” to be their deputy or to carry their legacy. In that process of cloning, the use of recruitment consultants is a clever way the system keeps the “other” out. These talent-spotting agents are skilled at saying: “the job attracted a large number of highly qualified applicants” in so many eloquent ways. One could be sceptical of such claims when considering, across the sector, the statistics of international searches discovering that the favoured local candidate to be the best since sliced bread.

More broadly, illusory meritocracy also hurts at the level of enrolment, when entry grades we set are insensitive to wider educational inequalities at schools. To my friend, long-term payoff could only be maximised by encouraging applicants from under-represented communities into Foundation Year programmes and offer them the motivation and skills the schools were not resourced to impart.

With these thoughts resurrected, my friend had a terrible time this Easter weekend. His doctor has ordered doubling his daily dose of Amlodipine as a temporary solution to hypertension.

But he has a long term solution, too, when Semester starts and burying disturbing thought becomes easy: there are research questions to pursue; part of a new module to teach; a challenging assignment to set, and to show students that intellectual curiosity is fun.

A safe and enriching life indeed, beneath the glass ceiling.

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Author’s Disclaimer:

Material in this piece is based on publicly available data and aims to address a generic structural issue of importance. Except in the few examples specifically linked, no part of this blog should be taken as referring to any specific institution or office holders in it.

 

Comms with senior management about returning to campus on 12 April

Further to our email (see below) to the Vice Chancellor on 31 March raising our concerns about returning to campus on 12 April, we received the following response from Roberta Head, HR Director Client Services on 1 April.

To: Southampton UCU Executive Committee,
Dear Colleagues,

Thank you for your note dated 31st March to the Vice-Chancellor relating to the arrangements for return to campus on 12th April. He has asked me to respond as many of these items were dealt with in our joint meeting earlier in the week and we want to ensure that our response is fully informed by our previous discussions with you.

We have been very happy to have ongoing detailed and frequent dialogue with our UCU colleagues on the return to campuses, including at weekly meetings with our Health, Safety and Risk team. We have discussed this at the regular meetings with our Trades Unions led by Richard Middleton including the most recent meeting on Tuesday 30th March . At all of these meetings colleagues have been able to discuss the plans for a safe return to campus and raise issues and concerns for response. This positive engagement has helped us to plan and we believe has provided an opportunity for meaningful consultation.

In addition, we have been clear about our plans for return to teaching on 12th April, and the need to revisit risk assessments, for some weeks. Colleagues have been engaged in planning for the return of students and have been making amendments to risk assessments since the Government announcement. We would always have planned to have students on practical programmes on site on the 12th April, since this became possible after the 8th March. The generic risk assessment for learning and teaching will revert to that which staff engaged with in the autumn term, with the additional enhancements added relating to face coverings which has been shared directly with all students who are returning to campus. We believe that this means that we have planned well in advance.
Whilst we note members’ concerns relating to the percentage of 16-24-year-olds who will have received a vaccine, we remain confident that the risk mitigation measures that we have agreed will keep students and colleagues safe. We continue to offer access to a testing regime, enforce social distancing and have guidance in place on the wearing of face coverings and hygiene. As always our approach will be monitored and reviewed in light of any new information and Government guidance.

I hope that you would agree that we have been clear that any return for students on 12th April will be in line with Government guidance. We have planned on the best-case scenario but it is possible that we will, in fact, not be able to bring students back at the level of the autumn term. Should this be the case a number of the points your raise become less relevant.
With best wishes,
Roberta

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We have today (31 March ) written to the Vice-Chancellor and senior management over continued concerns about returning to campus on 12 April.

Dear Vice-Chancellor

We write regarding the latest University communications about the return to campus teaching and working. 

Whilst we recognise the importance of a return to normality on campus—from both a financial and a student wellbeing perspective—we must insist that this be handled with care, so that staff safety and wellbeing do not fall by the wayside. 

We note that in the SUSSED blogpost dated 29th March the University accepts there is still a lack of clarity over what the recommended procedures will be for 12th April . This lack of clarity creates a number of serious problems.  

1.      It is not possible for colleagues to engage meaningfully with risk assessments before going on leave, as the only generic teaching and learning risk assessment currently available on the HS&R Sharepoint is the one that applies before Easter. Trades unions on campus have been asking for colleagues to be provided with the post-Easter information for a number of weeks. As we are entering a period of closure days, common annual leave and school holidays this timescale also precludes a meaningful process of statutory consultation with trade union H&S reps before the likely resumption of further in-person teaching. 

2.      Also relating to the upcoming Easter break, there will not be time for many staff to read and meaningfully engage with whichever risk assessment regime will be in place come 12th April – a process that will be vital to ensure assessments are adequately localised. Alternatively, it will require staff to undertake this important work outside of work hours. Both of these outcomes are detrimental to staff safety and wellbeing. 

3.      The University communications lean heavily on both forthcoming Government advice and the relative success of the UK vaccination programme. We note UK official guidance has to date been riddled with miscalculations and poor advice that have resulted in measurably worse outcomes in terms of health and safety. Further, any impact of national vaccination rates on COVID transmission on campus may be limited; the ONS estimates that only 15% of 16-24 year-olds have received even the first vaccine dose. Students thus constitute a largely-unvaccinated but proximate population ready to encounter the more transmissible and more dangerous B1.1.17 variant. We do not see adequate consideration of this fact. 

 SUCU has previously asked senior management to consider a short delay to return to teaching plans, until 19th April. This has been refused but management could still give clarity and reassurance to staff about post-Easter arrangements by proposing that the first week post-Easter continues on the pre-Easter model, so that staff (and H&S reps) have time to consider and plan for whatever return to blended learning was then proposed the week after. This would not only support staff safety and wellbeing over the break, but help ensure that the return to campus is considered and durable—something that we all have an interest in.  

 We hope you will give this matter your urgent attention and look forward to receiving a prompt response.

Southampton UCU Executive Committee

General Meeting Motion – Support for Funded Extensions for PGRs

The motion below was passed by a quorate General Meeting of Southampton UCU members, held on Wednesday 17th March 2021.

Motion: Branch support for funded extensions for postgraduate researchers  

This branch notes that: 

  • Since the Covid-19 pandemic began, PGRs have been campaigning for funded extensions and have been supported by many UCU members and branches
  • The UKRI phase 2 funding scheme will make available up to 3 months of funding for less than half of all UKRI funded students, despite UKRI’s own research finding that 77% of funded PGRs required an extension averaging 5 months.   
  • The UKRI phase 2 scheme is the benchmark for other funders, including the University of Southampton (UoS) scheme which launched on 3/2/21 and applies to both UKRI and UoS funded students. 
  • Criticisms have been levelled against the UoS phase 2 scheme including its potential to discriminate against PGRs with protected characteristics.  
  • Central government has not released any additional funds for PGRs. A recent FOI revealed the regulator, The Office for Students, has not discussed PGRs at any meetings since before August 2020.   
  • UCU is running a national campaign for PGRs to be treated as staff in order to improve conditions for PGRs who often have an ambiguous status within UK universities.  

This branch believes that: 

  • As a union with PGR members, it is right for our branch to take a campaigning stance on this issue. 
  • UKRI have not released adequate funds necessary to meet the real need of PGRs through the Covid-19 pandemic, and the funding support offered falls short of what is needed to ensure PGRs can complete their research.  
  • The current University of Southampton application system is flawed, discriminates against PGRs with protected characteristics and needs an overhaul. 
  • All PGRs studying during the pandemic should be entitled to access 6 months of funding, with further extensions available based on need.
  • The UCU national campaign for PGRs to be recognised as employees would resolve many of the issues experienced by PGRs due to their ambiguous role as both staff and students.   

This branch resolves to: 

  • Issue a statement in support of 6 month funded extensions to be offered to all PGRs studying during the Covid-19 pandemic, regardless of funding source. 
  • Call upon both UKRI and the UK government to make more money available to support research/ers affected by the pandemic, including PGRs.  
  • Call upon UoS to collate and publish the outcomes of the Phase II extension applications including the number of successful and rejected applications.
  • Continue to work collaboratively with the Southampton University student’s union (SUSU) to campaign for fair and equitable treatment of PGRs throughout the Covid-19 pandemic and beyond. 
  • Support PGRs campaign to pressure UoS to immediately overhaul the current Phase II extension application system, including:
    • Allowing PGRs to apply more than once for an extension if their first application is unsuccessful. 
    • A specific and measurable plan for how UoS will ensure fairness across application rounds, marginalised groups, and research areas. 
    • To reduce the unnecessary burden of proof put upon PGRs to disclose trauma experienced during the pandemic by requesting the only the minimum evidence necessary.   
  • Support the UCU national campaign to have PGRs recognised as workers, recognising the additional protections this status brings

 

Proposer: Bea Gardner.  Seconder: Alex Nicol- Harper 

Motion passed.

UCU Interim Congress – Feedback

The delayed interim Congress took place online over two days and the branch had 2 delegates in attendance on each day.

Congress was chaired by Justine Mercer on Day 1 and Vicky Blake and Janet Farrar on Day 2. The standing orders for online Congress have significantly altered the way that discussions take place; members have to request in advance if they wish to speak and there is no hand up option or chat available. While this is understandable given the amount of people attending and the need to ensure a balanced debate, there is no free-flowing discussion and it can feel as though some motions are not properly debated. The strict time limits imposed on speakers mean that it is difficult for those who speak more slowly to get their points across, and doubtless harder for people who find it more challenging to articulate their thoughts in high pressure situations. Nevertheless, the chairing on both days was excellent and, where time allowed, chairs tried to accommodate more people who had signalled that they wanted to contribute. Some flexibility was allowed and we felt that the elected officers were doing their very best to facilitate discussion while keeping the business moving.

The branch would like to extend our gratitude to all the UCU staff who must have worked incredibly hard to make Congress happen.

You can find all the motions which were moved and debated on the UCU site, at this link

 

Update from Saturday 13th Feb

Your branch delegates voted yes to all motions except:

Motion 1 – Civility and kindness: democracy, equality, diversity, and inclusion: While we agreed with the principle of the motion, an argument was put forward over whether ‘civility’ was a privileged position and might unintentionally be used to police the speech of those who struggle to be heard, women and people of colour in particular. We were split on this motion and felt that the branch membership would be as well and so we voted Yes + Abstain.

L2 – Using the law to maintain our safety: Congress went into closed session on this to receive legal advice. The legal advice from central UCU took issue with the word ‘instruct’ in the motion. The view presented was that the union instructing people to use section 44 amounts to illegal industrial action, which could potentially lead to action being taken against unions calling for this, including sequestration of funds. There was some disagreement from attendees about the length of time the legal advice took, and there was some disagreement with it, received via email afterwards. We generally support the spirit of the motion and feel UCU could do more within the spirit of the law, however we take the point about the wording ‘instruction’ and therefore decided to abstain.

L9 – Opposing the new DFE curriculum guidance: There were issues with the accuracy of the phrasing raised in discussion, so it was suggested that this motion was remitted. We agreed with this.

Motion 16 – Trans solidarity: It was raised in discussion that the factual points in this motion are now out of date: the government has now responded to the WEC saying that reform of the GRA is not a priority, meaning that a response is now needed to that response. The suggestion was made to remit the motion for updating in the light of recent developments. On balance, we agreed with this suggestion.

​Update from Tuesday 16th February

We voted yes to all motions except:

Motion 24 – The life of the democracy commission: The setting up of a Democracy Commission was controversial at the time. Many branch members were against it and did not agree with the recommendations that were made. On balance, our view was that the Democracy Commission had carried out its remit and did not need to be extended. If another one were to be set up in the future, we could discuss the merits of that, but we decided to vote no to extending the life of the current one.

Motion 25 – Case work: We voted no for confidentiality reasons as we felt it would be difficult to maintain anonymity if we had to ‘publish the type of cases/complaints’ that members of the branch needed support with.

Motion 28 – ‘People before profit’ programme: While we fully support the principles included in this motion, we were reluctant to vote for something which implied support for a group (SWP) which does not enjoy the backing of our members. We decided to vote no.

Motion 32 – Commission for sustainability, professional development and job security: We support the general principles of this motion but were not convinced that the actions proposed would help, so we decided to abstain.

Motion 34 – Indexation of pensions and benefits: We did not feel that there was enough detail in this motion for us to have a consensus. We abstained.

 

All motions were carried except Motion 24 (Democracy Commission – Lost) and Motion 9 (Opposing the new DFE curriculum guidance – remitted).

 

 

 

 

Victimisation of trade union representatives – motion passed at EGM 26 February 2021

The following motion was discussed at an emergency general meeting held on 26 February.  The meeting voted overwhelmingly to support the motion and to withdraw from the Partnership Charter with immediate effect.

Victimisation of TU representatives

UK employment law provides a robust framework of protection for trade union membership, duties and activities.  This includes:

  • Legal protection for taking part in strike action or action short of strike action if all statutory requirements are fulfilled (for example a ballot, notice to the employer)
  • Victimisation from an employer on the basis of trade union duties and activities
  • Dismissal on the grounds of trade union membership

The University notified UCU of a disciplinary investigation against one of our reps in May 2020 and in November 2020 wrote to state that they would be brought to a disciplinary hearing for what amounts to participating in lawful ASOS as part of industrial action.  These allegations have been reviewed by UCU National and Regional Officials, including the national UCU legal team, and all are in full agreement that the University action against our member is unlawful on the basis that it constitutes victimisation.

The first disciplinary case against our representative has concluded with no further action being taken, not because the University accepted that they acted unlawfully, but because of their failure to follow proper procedure. It should be of concern to members that the University was prepared to seek to dismiss a long-serving employee without following the procedures, regardless of the subject matter of the allegations.  To be subjected to an investigation for so long, with such grave potential consequences, has understandably cast a long and stressful shadow over the working life of the victimized rep.

Following the failure to discipline our member due to procedural irregularities, University of Southampton management have chosen to continue with a second disciplinary against the same rep for activities which relate clearly and directly to their union Health and Safety brief. Again, UCU Officials are of a view that this is unlawful.  This second investigation is being carried out by an external investigator—presumably at some cost—which is outside of the procedures negotiated by UCU, and raises serious concerns about fairness and transparency.

SUCU condemns the victimisation of our rep in the strongest terms and has sought to resolve the issue through negotiations with the University over the past 9 months, but to no avail.

This branch calls on The University of Southampton to:

  1. Immediately cease the disciplinary action and investigation against our representative.
  2. Give assurance that University of Southampton will comply with the procedures agreed for disciplinary matters, which does not include the engagement of external parties to conduct investigations.
  3. Make a meaningful statement to all three campus trade unions that the university understands the seriousness of trade union representative victimization and provide assurances that it will not victimise trade union members or representatives.
  4. Apologise to our representative who has been subject to this victimisation.

Following the EGM on 26/2/21, this branch resolves to immediately:

  • Issue a public condemnation of the University of Southampton’s victimisation of our representative
  • Withdraw from the Partnership Agreement, originally ratified in September 2019: https://www.southampton.ac.uk/hr/services/tus/index.page
  • Call for an Emergency JJNC to discuss the case and its negative effects with regards to the lawful exercise of workplace rights by union members
  • Write to the General Secretary and President of UCU, notifying them of this victimisation case, and formally seeking national UCU support

If the University of Southampton does not carry out the actions set out in 1-4 above by  3rd April or they move to dismiss our rep, the branch executive will call a further EGM to discuss next steps, which could include the following proposals:

  • Make a public media statement about victimisation at the University
  • Write to elected representatives, such as local MP and City Councillors, to ask for their public support.
  • Enter a trade dispute with University of Southampton
  • Consider escalating collective action

Proposer Lucy Watson                  Seconder Claire Le Foll

Motion passed overwhelmingly.

Motion result:

Yes: 81%

No: 5%

Abstain: 13%

UCU’s concerns about equality during the current (3rd) lockdown – response from management

Further to UCU’s meeting with Richard Middleton and Mark Spearing on 26 January to discuss our equality concerns about the impact of home working during this third lockdown, we have received the following response from the University.  We are pleased to note the commitment of management to address the valid concerns of our members.

“We recognise that some staff are in situations of real difficulty, in respect of their caring responsibilities in particular, which makes “attending” work problematic at some times of the day, on some days it can be difficult to attend work at all.  We also recognise that staff will want to  “be there” fully attentive for their children home-schooling, or for others for whom they are the carer.

We are working hard to find ways to communicate to all managers the University’s expectation that they will find ways to be flexible in their response to members of their team(s), whilst overall managing workload and delivery expectations and standards.

In 2020 during the first lock down we kept track of the use of the additional leave available for carers, and only 10% of the approximately 300 employees that used this form of leave used the full 10 days (or pro-rata) available to them. Generally the additional carers’ leave taken was well below that total.  We will on this occasion also monitor closely the use of this leave and respond accordingly, which could include reviewing and revising the total amount of additional carers’ leave available while schools are closed and parents are home-schooling, in particular.

We confirmed that if a person takes additional UNPAID leave then the saving from their salary not being paid is retained within the budget of their unit [i.e the most immediate organisational unit with devolved budgetary responsibility).  The key concern which can be clearly addressed is that the salary saving is NOT returned to a central University account.

We are committed to working with UCU, and have begun discussions, on our plans for ensuring that the impacts of Covid-19 are actively considered in all aspects of the promotion process, when it resumes, and in the years ahead”.

Richard Middleton

Chief Operating Officer

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.

Correspondence with senior management regarding return of students in 2021

Response received from Alex Neill and Richard Middleton on Monday 21/12/2020 to concerns raised by UCU (original email also included below).

Dear Southampton UCU executive committee,

Thank you for the message below.  We believe that our plans for the return of students to campus after the winter break are indeed aligned with Government guidance, as it was when you wrote your email.  Events, information and Government responses have been changing since.  We therefore remain prepared for changes in guidance and in our plans.  The aim of the guidance you referred to was to limit the numbers of students travelling at the same time in January by staggering the points at which they will need to be back on campus.  Our plans will help to achieve this.

With regard to testing, we are strongly encouraging all our students to participate in our testing programme.   We have plans to further reinforce that message and the importance of testing.  We will continue to do all that we can to encourage and assist students to behave as responsible members of our (University and wider) community.

As we discussed at our meeting on Wednesday 16th December, when the University reopens after Christmas we will be happy to share with you details of our arrangements for students moving back into halls of residence, and our analysis of student movements on campus given our plans for their return to their studies.

With all best wishes for a peaceful and restorative break,

Alex and Richard

Professor Alex Neill
Vice-President

Richard Middleton

Chief Operating Officer

 

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We continue to remain concerned at the University’s stance on the return of students to campus after the Christmas break.  We have today (14/12/20) written to the Chief Operating Officer, Richard Middleton, and Alex Neill.  Cc’d to the Vice-Chancellor, Mark Spearing and Roberta Head

 

Dear Richard and Alex

We write to express our concerns about the University’s response to the latest government guidance regarding the return of students after the Christmas break.

To date, senior management have regarded government guidance as binding, over-riding the relative autonomy of the University—even when guidance has been open to interpretation and where other universities have made different decisions around teaching and learning. However, it seems that this latest coronavirus guidance is open to interpretation by University management and will not be strictly followed.

In the latest guidance, a staggered return of students to campus is recommended. A comprehensive list is given of the courses which should be prioritised, including ‘work, clinical or practical placements, courses requiring practical teaching or learning’, and ‘courses requiring access to specialist or technical equipment’. In addition, the guidance states that ‘HE providers do not have to allow all courses that fall within this list to return during this time and should consider whether any courses may be better delivered online at the beginning of term. For courses that meet these criteria, but that providers deem not to have practical elements, the return of students should take place from 25 January 2021’. The guidance clearly states that ‘the remaining courses should be offered online from the beginning of term so that students can continue their studies from home’. Moreover, while it is accepted that some students may need to return to campus earlier for a variety of reasons, the guidance states that ‘their courses should not resume face-to-face teaching, unless they study one of the practical courses defined above’.

Yet, the latest email from Alex Neill to all students says that ‘Students who have on-campus teaching sessions timetabled from week commencing 4 January are advised to return to campuses in time to allow them to participate in those sessions’ (09/12/20). There is no attempt to discriminate between those courses which have a practical element and those which do not. In fact, as the UEB blog says, the staggered return of students is expected to be achieved through a ‘natural phasing’ due to the differences in students’ timetables across the University (07/12/20). It is extremely disappointing that the University is making no attempt to exercise any control over the movement of students on campus when the government guidance asks them specifically to do so.

Importantly, the guidance also says that students who do return ‘should be tested as soon as they start accessing university facilities’ but with no controls in place around who is coming back and when, how can the University be sure that students are being tested before they access the facilities? This seems to be a significant flaw in the University’s claim to be maintaining a ‘covid-secure’ environment. Staff will, moreover, certainly have to deal with more emails from students unsure whether they should return or not given the contradiction between the widely-publicised government guidance and the University’s statement.

UCU believes that this latest guidance should be followed for clear public health reasons. The University seems worryingly complacent as a result of its good fortune in not experiencing major outbreaks in the Autumn. However, conditions in January are significantly different to those in September. Overall case numbers in the communities from which our students will be returning are higher, and students will be returning to University following free social mixing with up to three other households over the Christmas period. The decision to allow students return to accommodation and teaching on 4 January therefore risks a large outbreak on campus, in residential accommodation and, because of the shared use of community resources such as buses and shops, in the wider Southampton community.  If the University is expecting to manage this risk through its testing programme, it first owes both its staff and student unions a detailed explanation of its plan as to how all returning students will be tested before returning to accommodation in the weekend of 2-3 January, and to teaching in the week of the 4 January.

We urge the University to re-think its decision for the sake of the health and safety of its staff, students, and the wider Southampton community. We also note that the reputation of the individual institutions and UK HE sector as a whole has been seriously damaged domestically and internationally by the behaviour of some institutions during this pandemic. A serious January outbreak attributable to the University’s failure to follow government guidelines could be catastrophic for the University’s reputation as a safe institution at which to study and work.

To ensure that the branch’s communication with management remains transparent, we will be sharing this correspondence with our members. We look forward to your earliest response.

Southampton UCU executive committee

 

 

Results of Southampton UCU survey of PGR and Hourly Paid staff

Southampton UCU surveyed PGR and hourly paid members from 26th October to 12 November 2020. In total, 38 postgraduate researchers (PGR) or hourly paid members responded to the survey. The purpose was to gather information on how our most precariously employed members have been affected by the pandemic and return to campus activities. We will use these responses in our negotiating meetings with management and to inform local UCU strategy moving forward.  The following document comprises a summary of the main findings and includes strong statements of dissatisfaction by casualised workers at the University of Southampton about their treatment during this time, summarised in the statement below.

“The University attitude towards PGRs has been cynical and reckless in this situation. We are taking much of the risk, and we’re even getting lower pay in real terms (before, 45-minute time slots, now 60-minute time slots for the same nominal hourly pay)”
Southampton PGR.

Effect of COVID-19 on work offered

We wanted to know how casualised members’ work allocation has been affected this year. In total, 74.36% of survey respondents have been offered work this semester. Of those offered work, all of the survey respondents accepted the work offered. When asked to explain the reasons behind this decision, the vast majority noted the need for money, to pay bills or secure their income during a period of uncertainty. Members also reported:

  • Needing the experience of teaching
  • Wanting to help out staff and students in their department
  • Feeling able to accept the work as it was mostly remote or virtual but wouldn’t have done so if it was in-person.

Two reported having to do teaching as part of studentship conditions. Of these, they were both undertaking in-person teaching, which raises further questions about the exploitative nature of these studentship contracts.

Question six focused on how the offer of work has been affected by the COVID-19 response. As the bar chart below shows, our members report a mixed impact.

 

In total, 38.24% have had less work offered than expected this year but 20.59% have had more work offered, meanwhile 41.18% have the same amount of work. Of those who had less work offered, the majority came from the Faculty of Arts and Humanities, but at least one respondent from each of the five faculties reported having less work. Meanwhile, of those offered more work these were almost entirely in the Faculty of Engineering and Physical sciences.

Of those who have had the same work offered, members reported being offered work very late. For example, one member wrote “I had originally been told that there was no teaching budget this year. It was only with a week’s notice that I was asked if I could teach on the module.”

Nature of work

We wanted to know whether PGRs and hourly paid staff are doing a disproportionate amount of in person teaching relative to their permanent counterparts. We also wanted to know how safe members felt doing in person teaching and whether their status as hourly paid workers affected this.

Overall, 81.4% reported their teaching was mostly online and only 3 respondents (11.11% of survey sample) had mostly in-person teaching.  On the whole, respondents reported they did feel safe to do in person teaching, though there were only 12 responses for this question as it was intended for those undertaking in-person work and not all respondents are.  Those who didn’t feel safe reported:

“There was no H&S Consultation with staff, we were not asked if we or our families belong to vulnerable groups, both hand sanitizers in the main corridor on Avenue campus are empty (the were there before Covid and they were also empty then),”

“The workshop doesn’t need to be delivered in person, and is supposed to be delivered in groups. But I will have to keep the students apart realistically. Would be easier to facilitate this on Teams given the current situation.”

One member who voted they did feel safe, commented “Perhaps safe is too much, but I cannot say I feel unsafe. I acknowledge the university has made an effort”. This captured the written responses, with members who reported feeling safe listing some of the measures taken by the university in connection with the specifics of the members teaching obligations. Reasons included:

  • The small number of students in the class
  • That the member was only teaching a limited number of seminars (2 in total)
  • The screen arrangements and wearing of facemasks
  • Good supply of PPE in a clinical environment

In response to question 12, 63.16% felt that in-person teaching has not been equally distributed across staff profiles at the university.

When asked to explain their answer, there was a mixed response. Members reported no consistency within the health and safety strategy of the university. Several members expressed frustration that PGRs are being asked to do the majority of in person teaching. One member stated pressure of PGRs to do the work and another stated:

“Absolutely not, at least in my faculty. A big part of the in-person teaching has been left to PGRs. Most academics have been comfortably teaching from home or even releasing pre-recorded stuff.”

However, a significant number of respondents said this didn’t know and an error of this question was not to include a “not sure” option. Additionally, some members interpreted this question as asking whether work as a whole had been allocated equally and expanded on question 6, discussing how casual workers have lost work during the pandemic and the disproportionate impact the pandemic has had on them.

Health and safety

In total, 66.67% of respondents have registered for the Southampton COVID-19 testing program. Two members (9.52% respondents) were not aware of the scheme and five have not enrolled for another reason that was not specified. The majority report being registered under their student not staff status and 61.54% answered they did not feel the inclusion criteria adequately includes colleagues needing to be on campus.

When asked about the level of health and safety guidance hourly paid workers had received 57.14% reported they do not feel that have been offered the same level of health and safety guidance as permanent colleagues.

 

The reasons members gave for answering no to this question ranged from having no guidance at all sent on in-person teaching, to only receiving guidance via the graduate school after in-person teaching had already started. One member reports having to ask for information about in person teaching and when it was sent there was no training or guidance, just a generic risk assessment sent. Furthermore, unlike permanent colleagues who have had individual risk assessments, hourly paid members report not being asked if they have any health concerns or if they care for a vulnerable person. Consequently, hourly paid staff describe taking on a higher share of the risk than permanent colleagues. This is exacerbated by the lack of sick pay for casual workers, something we expand on below.

Concerns regarding health and safety guidance was not limited to in-person activities but also arrangements for working from home. Members report inadequate information on home working and no eligibility for equipment to support home working.

An error in the wording of this question was omitting an unsure or N/A option. Those who skipped this question report not being sure or not having enough information on what permanent staff have been told to make a judgement.

Finally, we asked members if they can self-isolate if required and asked members to explain their answer. 96.88% of respondents said they were able to and only one respondent said they weren’t. In their explanations members focused on the practical aspects of self-isolation such as whether they had friends who could deliver food. While it is positive the majority said they can self-isolate, we are still unsure whether the lack of sick pay means hourly paid workers will self-isolated if required to.

As one member said “If I become sick, I face financial hardship – there is no support scheme that I am aware of and I cannot claim sick pay”.

The issue of sick pay was discussed in our final question on what our members want UCU to fight for on their behalf. The majority of respondents want SUCU to fight for guaranteed sick pay for hourly paid workers.

Pay and workload concerns

We asked if members had anything else to add regarding COVID-19 and the University of Southampton. Members raised a number of significant issues regarding pay and workload as a result of the University of Southampton covid-19 response, which we discuss below.

On pay, respondents expressed multiple issues with pay which have been exacerbated by covid-19. The change in allocated teaching from 45 minutes to 1 hour has increased the amount of teaching time worked and preparation time needed with no increase in pay or hours of work claimable to reflect this change. Additionally, members report that online teaching takes longer to prepare, which has not been considered in the calculation for claimable preparation time. Some departments continue not to allocate preparation time for PGR demonstrators at all.

Members are also incurring additional costs as part of the move to online teaching, which they report being unable to claim back. For example, one member stated “I got myself an ethernet cable to help with connectivity, that cost an hour of my pay”. Finally, members reported having increasing pastoral and welfare roles with undergraduate students this year and they do not feel supported in this or paid for this additional workload. All this is compounded by the continued lack of paid training for PGRs and limited training opportunities for hourly paid staff. Those seeking to provide quality education in an online environment are spending a significant amount of unpaid labour hours learning and preparing for classes. Combined, this leaves PGR and hourly paid staff unsupported and undervalued as summarised by the comments below:

“We are all are highly educated and highly skilled workers, what we get is a third world hourly rate. It shows how little the Uni value us, although without us the whole system would collapse in a blink of a eye…”

“casual staff are the lowest of the low. So, I don’t expect the university, as an organisation, to do anything for me. The university only respects its permanent staff”.

“Overall it feels like the university management doesn’t care about us but neither does it care about the undergrads- surely everyone can see that being taught by a PGR with very little training, less than a weeks notice and who isn’t getting paid sufficient to cover all the prep time is not a good educational experience?”

 

Hourly paid members and PGRs also report feeling generally uninformed about critical departmental policies and decisions. This is hard when students ask questions and tutors have no idea on what to say. As one member commented:

“We feel really out of the loop. I have no real idea what is going on in the wider course or department decisions, the students come to us with questions and I have absolutely no idea because we are as much in the dark as them”.

All of the issues discussed in this report exacerbate feelings of anxiety and stress and poor communication from the university was discussed by respondents as a contributing factor to this.

Members expressed “I feel communication has been poor and we are expected to just “carry on as normal”.

“While the financial caution of the university is understandable, the response of freezing new hiring and the uncertainty around the number of students for deferred international programs makes it very difficult to feel secure about the fact that there will be work available at all. It does not feel that the university takes into account the stress that these circumstances cause for casual staff especially, or how difficult it is to plan your life around such circumstances”.

What hourly paid & PGRs want from their UCU branch

We asked members to tick which actions they want the Southampton UCU branch to prioritise out of five options. Of these:

  • 88% of respondents want SUCU to campaign for guaranteed sick pay for any isolating member of staff, casual or otherwise
  • 82% want all information on health and safety to go to casual workers, including PGRs (whether they teach or not).
  • 64% want SUCU to campaign for paid training for casual workers
  • 42% want SUCU to campaign for a review of workload for hourly paid staff considering the new timetable.
  • 33% want SUCU to set up regular meetings between PGRs and management

Other priorities identified by members include:

  • SUCU should campaign for more marking to be given to PGRS to make up for lost teaching time and pay which will also benefit permanent colleagues by alleviating workload.
  • In line with the decision of our Higher Education Sector conference, one member commented that “UCU must fight for PGRs to be classified as workers. This is the first and only priority. Once this is obtained, the rest comes almost automatically”.
  • Members also want us to review the workload for online teaching and marking, alongside the review of an extra 15 minutes of teaching time per class.  As one member wrote “this takes significantly more time to prepare and conduct than face-to-face teaching, however this is not at all acknowledged in the hours that are offered”.

What SUCU will ask from managers

  • UCU would like assurances that vulnerable staff, including PGRS and those on hourly paid contracts, are able to have individual risk assessments put in place, regardless of contract type.
  • UCU would like management to ensure that PGRs and hourly paid staff have the appropriate and necessary equipment to carry out their teaching. These essential staff members are some of the lowest paid on our campuses and should not be expected to finance this themselves.
  • UCU would like assurances that studentships are not being used to require some students to undertake in-person activity disproportionately, and that they are not being pressured into taking on teaching they would not do otherwise.
  • UCU asks that management commits to ensuring any hourly paid workers unable to teach in person or online due to sickness is guaranteed sick pay, for the protection of all and the financial security of our members.
  • UCU asks that management implement a workload review based on the substantial extra preparation time required for online teaching and the decision to increase teaching slots from 45 minutes to 1 hour.
  • UCU asks for recognition by senior management of the contribution hourly paid staff and PGRs make to the delivery of teaching and learning in the institution and a commitment to improving their terms and conditions of work.