Branch General Meeting: Wednesday 24th October

Whatever you’ve got on this week, make time to come along to the next RHUL UCU branch General Meeting – Wednesday 24th October, Queens Building 170, at 1pm-3pm.

There will be updates on the appraisal process; the pay and equality ballot; the branch’s relationship with HR; our new working groups; and plenty more of interest to members. The agenda and other relevant paperwork has been circulated by e-mail.

We hope to see you there!

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Troublesome employees and UCU activists: Jeff Frank to face disciplinary panel

Most of us are familiar with the scene in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey where the computer, HAL 9000, explains to the human:

‘This mission is too important for me to allow you to jeopardise it.’

In the same way, the new Human Resources (HR) directorate seems to be frustrated with staff at the College, taking the position that its academics can no longer to allowed to ‘jeopardise the mission’. Although it can be unclear what that mission is, staff just seem to get in the way.

Uncomfortable with ‘troublesome’ employees and UCU activists, HR came up with a number of charges against Jeff Frank. As reported in a previous blog, these charges quickly proved flimsy, and so HR devised something new at RHUL and possibly for the university sector. After 24 years of service, Jeff was accused of showing a ‘lack of fidelity’.

Members will recall a recent parallel. Preparing for the principal’s ‘open’ meeting during the recent pension strike, a senior member of the communications team asked for ‘trusted’ staff to come forward with questions that could counter questions from untrustworthy strikers and UCU types. Dividing staff between the ‘trusted’ and the untrustworthy (or, that is, those ‘lacking fidelity’) is divisive. We believe it is, ultimately, self-defeating.

The conclusions of the joint working party on the USS suggest that those who went on strike to maintain a decent retirement deserve one big apology. They indicate that our pensions can be maintained in full for the current review period. But, instead of absorbing the lessons of the strike, HR has abandoned established local collective negotiation and resolution. It has opted to attack RHUL-UCU’s Equalities Officer for his efforts and case-work on behalf of colleagues. Case-work and presumably other trades union activities equate to ‘lack of fidelity’.

Jeff is up before a disciplinary panel this week, after which he could be dismissed from the College.

RHUL-UCU has written to the principal to express concern over the misapplication of the disciplinary policy, and to initiate the first stage of a local industrial dispute. The charge of ‘lack of fidelity’ raises fundamental principles that should concern any university. It is vague, catch-all, and subjective. It can lead all too easily towards the victimization of individuals, and its use must be suspect, especially if, as in Jeff’s case, the accusers also hide behind anonymity.

Furthermore, the charge of ‘lack of fidelity’ is a direct assault on the principle of academic freedom, and on the duties of staff and academic staff in particular to challenge and question, as clearly described in the College statutes. RHUL-UCU is concerned that the use of this charge is damaging the reputation of the College.

‘Lack of fidelity’ at a university is both serious and risible.

We will discuss this deteriorating series of events at the forthcoming General Meeting, on the 24th October, and we would urge you therefore to attend. If RHUL-UCU is unable to gain the assurances it needs from HR, local members will be asked to consider a ballot for industrial action.

Why has HR with the acquiescence of senior management bizarrely courted its low national reputation as an employer? We are left to speculate. As we enter a period of financial stringency, are they getting us ready for restructuring and redundancies?

The Report of the Joint Expert Panel (JEP) on Pensions

Members will be all too aware that we were forced into industrial action earlier this year, at great cost to students and staff.  We had no choice, since UUK (the employers’ body, Universities UK) was proposing the ending of the defined benefit pension scheme.  Given that our incomes had been frozen for years under the public sector pay cap, and tuition fees had tripled, it was simply not credible that universities could not afford any necessary increase in the employer contribution.  Instead, Vice Chancellors wanted us as individuals to take all the risk of stock market investments with a defined contribution scheme, rather than efficiently spreading out the risk across generations and retirement years.

As a result of the hugely successful strike, a Joint Expert Panel (with nominees of both UUK and UCU) was appointed to look at valuation issues for the pension, the risk level and what was affordable going forward.

Without wishing to utter the words ‘we told you so’, the JEP report is to be welcomed since it unanimously – with both UUK and UCU representatives – shows that sensible approaches to valuation mean that current defined benefits (with the exception of the 1% match) can be preserved in full.  In other words, the UCU position before, during and after the strike.

In order to arbitrarily shut down our defined-benefit pensions, UUK adopted the worst possible interpretation of the scheme’s finances.  Strangely, this new-found love of austerity did not apply to VC salaries and massive building programmes throughout the sector.  It is also not well known that – when the Government changed the pension tax laws – Vice Chancellors (including our own) typically received a large salary increase specifically justified to make up for their personal tax loss.  The new VC appointed at Bath receives a more realistic remuneration package than the well-publicised excesses of his predecessor but it can be seen that he receives an ‘Enhanced-Opt Out of USS’ of £37,000.

It is true that some universities have greatly overstretched their balance sheets, with debts of 70% or more of annual income.  Royal Holloway is one of the most overstretched.  That may be why, initially, Senior Management and HR adopted a hugely aggressive approach to both students and staff, totally out of line with the consensus tradition at the College.  Even with a freedom of information request from the local branch, Senior Management at Royal Holloway has refused to reveal what position they took (on behalf of the College) when surveyed by UUK about the pensions issues.

Continue reading “The Report of the Joint Expert Panel (JEP) on Pensions”

An update on the appraisal process

We have an update for you on the College’s proposed changes to the annual appraisal (personal development review) process.

As we explained in July, the College had attempted to impose changes to this process without the approval of campus trade unions. This breaks the Recognition Agreement between the College and UCU, which requires the employer to negotiate substantive changes to terms and conditions and to offer meaningful consultation on other, less substantive, employment issues.

We were eager to resolve this issue and so over the summer we asked the College several times for an emergency meeting of the campus Joint Negotiating and Consultative Committee (JNCC), which is the procedure for such impasses as laid out in our Recognition Agreement. Our requests were rebuffed. We are happy to tell you that the Senior Management Team (SMT) have now agreed to extend our scheduled meeting of JNCC on the 23rd October to allow us to discuss this issue in full.

In our initial advice to members we suggested that you those of you arranging an appraisal should use the performance appraisal form agreed n 2015. This remains our position.

However, there may be some staff who wish to complete their appraisal using a new, UCU-approved, process. Therefore, the Senior Management Team have extended the annual appraisal deadline until October 31st in the anticipation that we will agree a new appraisal process at our meeting on October 23rd.

We will relay the outcome of the discussions on appraisal at that meeting to you as quickly as we can.

Posted on behalf of members of the UCU branch committee.

Does lack of ‘fidelity’ justify suspending an academic?

Orbital, the College’s online student magazine, has just published an article on the drawn-out and continued suspension of Professor Jeff Frank, the local UCU’s Equalities and Diversity Officer, and founding head of the internationally well-regarded Economics Department at Royal Holloway.

The article lists the charges that were leveled against Jeff in order to ‘justify’ his suspension on 11th April 2018, or, we have to remind ourselves, over five months ago. Perhaps investigative reporting by student journalists will mark the moment when genuine open scrutiny of all the issues at stake by the College can begin?

Jeff has made it clear from the outset that he would like all charges to be publicly stated and debated. Yet, so far, the Human Resources (HR) department and senior management have preferred secrecy and anonymity.

Orbital says that Jeff was charged on April 11th for ‘leaking confidential and sensitive information’, violating data protection laws, and contravening the ‘College Grievance Policy’. HR wanted to make the charges sound serious, but, in the view of many, none could justify extended suspension. Isn’t some official clarification or justification necessary?

Violating the Data Protection Act, for example, would have been serious. But it is understood that the much delayed investigation has already said there is no case to answer. Further, if Jeff did refer to confidential information related to union case work, he did so with the permission of the individuals concerned, and only after HR had circulated the same information (presumably without permission?).

On contravening the College’s Grievance Policy, it seems that this, in clearer language, means writing directly to an officially-appointed panel instead of relaying statements or evidence through the HR department. Although this may have offended the sensibilities of the HR directorate, no reasonable person could consider this act to be gross misconduct, or a contributory factor in five months of suspension. Moreover, there is nothing in the Grievance Policy stating that all such paperwork must be sent only to HR.

A few quick enquiries would have cleared up any legitimate misunderstandings back sometime last April. HR appear set instead on a mission of automatic lengthy suspension, disciplinary proceedings, and dismissal from employment.

Since specific charges can be challenged, it is interesting that staff are now asking why Jeff is facing vague catch-all charges of failing to show ‘fidelity’ to an employer. It has raised apprehension because it is so obviously contrary to the traditions of Royal Holloway and the principles of academic freedom. If HR is fishing for further charges of this type, then the case against Jeff must have quickly begun to look very flimsy indeed.

We understand that Jeff will have to face a disciplinary panel in October.

There is an additional concern being expressed that HR officers or senior managers already involved in making the case against Jeff will oversee the conduct of the panel or, incredibly, actually sit as panel members making judgements on the case. If so, that would constitute a serious collapse in governance and bring great discredit to the College. Hopefully, this concern is unfounded, but past events are not encouraging.

The local union branch can’t help but come back to the same point: the suspension of Jeff Frank relates solely to activities undertaken on behalf of colleagues as a union case-worker asked to deal with extremely difficult equalities issues. The College’s equalities record is poor, and Royal Holloway is near bottom in the league table of gender pay equality.

For HR at Royal Holloway to seek control over union case-work or even to be seen to be doing so raises very fundamental questions. Past common practice would be for the HR director to raise any perceived problems with the local branch or a union regional officer. The recently appointed HR directorate have instead adopted a hard-line policy to industrial relations, as most clearly demonstrated in its failed attempt to break the pensions strike this year. They are now seeking to blame one UCU officer who was trying to deal with some difficult equalities cases for their own failings.

RHUL-UCU has, regrettably, concluded that Jeff’s suspension is a means of curtailing the activities of UCU at Royal Holloway. Management’s recent and disproportionate focus on ‘staff costs’ is ominous. Leicester University are imposing academic redundancies. RHUL-UCU, however, believes that the College cannot achieve its ambitious goals in teaching and research without the support and commitment of its staff, and without someone in authority reviewing apparent priorities and policies. We remain wedded, despite everything that has happened, to the principles of cooperation and genuine negotiation. There is no indication at this time that HR or management are seriously interested in resolving issues which are damaging the effective working and the image of Royal Holloway.

Posted on behalf of members of the RHUL UCU committee.

Editor’s note: while Leicester University were planning to impose redundancies, yesterday it was announced that management changed their minds after the local union threatened strike action in response. Worth bearing in mind… 

Using your vote in the current UCU pay ballot

Many of you may be returning to campus, to full mail slots and a backlog of administrative messages. Amongst this volume of correspondence is the very important ballot paper on the issue of this year’s pay negotiations between UCU and our employers, led by UCEA.

Earlier this year all HE trade unions submitted a joint claim which had a “keep up and catch up element” asked for a 7.5% raise or an additional £1,500 if that was greater, for those of our colleagues on lower salaries. The claim also raised many less of the less attractive aspects of work in HE: as we saw recently from the government’s reporting requirement, the gender pay gap remains a significant problem; casualisation is a growing issue which may damage the next generations of academic and professional service staff, with increasing numbers of staff only offered fixed-term and even zero hours contracts; and workloads continue to increase, with a 2016 UCU survey finding the average working week was 50.7 hours (FTE). Given contracts at RHUL stipulate a 35 hour working week, that’s more than two days of work we are producing for free. So, UCU and its partner trade unions called for national frameworks to alleviate these problems.

The full claim, and the arguments offered in support by HE trade unions, can be viewed here.

Employers offered only 2% rise after months of negotiations, with no specific responses on the other issues. Now we often console ourselves in the face of disappointing pay offers by reminding ourselves that we didn’t begin this career for the salary, BUT it’s time to get angry about this. Vice Chancellors, Principals and other senior university managers have enjoyed good rises relative to the rest of us. And, UCU estimates that we have borne, on average, a 21% loss in real terms since 2010.

Much of the literature and message from us around ballots keeps mentioning a “50% threshold”, but many of you may be unaware what this means and why it is relevant. Those of you with an interest in trade union law and or labour history (loads of us I am sure!) will know that since 1980 there have been many legislative assaults on the ability of trade unions to undertake their primary function –defending their members’ interests. In 2017 the latest piece of legislation in this area required that any ballot must attract the participation of at least 50% of eligible voters to be valid. So, during the recent pension dispute a handful of universities – including LSE and Birmingham – had to be re-balloted as they failed to encourage 50% of members to use their vote.

The ballot explores whether members wish to accept the offer and if not, asks about their willingness to take strike action and action short of a strike in pursuit of a better deal. Your responses to each of these elements are vital, both in determining nationally what will happen next in our pay negotiations but also so that your Branch understands where our members stand.

This ballot closes next month, so please don’t forget to use your vote. If you cannot find your voting papers, here is how to request replacements.

Whilst we have your attention, can we just remind you that next Tuesday (18th) we are running a training session on union case work on the RHUL campus, from 10-2. This is an introductory session, during which some of our existing case workers will outline how they help colleagues to defend themselves, when faced by redundancy, questionable promotion decisions or other manifestations of unfairness. Details are available on our blog  along with an article by Doug Cowie, who recently undertook a more intensive version of this training. We still have a few places left, so sign up soon if you’d like to learn more.

Posted on behalf of members of the RHUL–UCU Committee

Four Months of Secrecy And Counting…

It has been nearly 19 weeks since 11th April 2018. That’s the date Human Resources (HR) personnel – with all the senior academic managers at Royal Holloway avoiding their official responsibilities – moved to suspend Professor Jeff Frank.

Their justification – as stated in the suspension letter, that Jeff’s presence would inhibit a disciplinary investigation – was never convincing. Asked exactly how an investigation might be inhibited, they referred time and time again to the suspension letter, where their ‘reasoning’ never in fact appears (!). Neither Jeff’s teaching nor his administrative duties are in any way related to the claims of ‘gross misconduct’ being investigated. The suspension solely concerned his activities as a case-worker on behalf of UCU colleagues.

Under RHUL’s disciplinary policy, suspension ‘must be for as short a period as possible’. Does HR really believe that ‘as short a period as possible’ means 19 weeks and counting? Suspension is, furthermore, only allowed where ‘no other solution is deemed possible’. HR just skipped past that clause and ignored the clear duty it implies to act fairly and reasonably. Moreover, for academic staff, the authority to suspend rests with the Principal, who has, for wholly unexplained reasons, exercised the option to appoint twice a ‘delegated nominee’, despite their lacking the necessary seniority or experience.

After 19 weeks of suspension, and with the ‘investigatory report’ now written, HR’s threadbare reasoning is now open to ridicule. With each day, it becomes more obvious that suspension is used at RHUL as a punishment: criticizing HR, questioning breaches of procedures, and undertaking union activities are being classified as ‘gross misconduct’.

Punishment by suspension is automatic, extended, done in secret by HR staff, and wholly unaccountable. What does this say about RHUL’s governance?

Someone (anonymous, of course) hired at considerable expense an HR Consultant to investigate the ‘charges’ against Jeff. After four months, we believe that the HR Consultant filed their report last week with HR (no-one seems to know for certain).

UCU has asked on numerous occasions who will be receiving the report and making any related disciplinary decisions. The identity of the person responsible for this important decision is a secret.

To date, there have been five HR and professional services staff poorly managing the case. Senior academic managers – 1 Principal, 1 Senior Vice Principal, and 4 or more Vice Principals – have been silent. When Margaret Thatcher eliminated tenure, universities reassured staff that academic freedom would be protected. It is the job of senior managers, as the front line, to protect academic freedom and the right of staff to criticize and question. Where are they?

RHUL – through an over-ambitious building programme – is now among the most indebted in England, since its loans have reached some 70% of income. The Finance Director has warned that the financial situation is heading downwards. RHUL’s immediate prospects may explain senior management’s tacit support for a blatantly anti-union HR department. Senior management are blaming staff and staff costs for their own failures, and HR will in all probability be secretly planning where redundancies will fall.

Traditionally, when an employment-related investigation report is prepared, it is given to both sides to check for factual errors and comments. The final version is then released to both sides. We suspect (based on recent history) that due process and natural justice will not be followed in this case. Lengthy punishing suspensions are a tool to undermine professional reputations, and accountability is at a new low.

UCU has been careful not to release details of the ‘charges’ against Jeff (except to comment that they are entirely related to his union casework) and careful not to report on the conduct of the investigation (except to say it is unnecessary and inordinately long). We have done nothing to undermine the investigation, and done nothing that may even be seen to be undermining that investigation. Jeff’s view from the outset has been that full disclosure is necessary for RHUL and, in addition, in his own interest. HR prefer to hide behind secrecy.

It is time for the (spurious) reasons for Jeff’s suspension and the investigator’s report be made public.

In the meantime, we continue to urge all UCU members, at RHUL and nationwide, and all those interested in maintaining the principle of academic freedom to keep publicizing Jeff’s case and its serious implications.