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The “Big Freeze”: recent Senior Management proposals at RHUL are unacceptable

The College recently circulated a letter to all staff about College finances and announced an intention to impose changes to our employment conditions. The RHUL-UCU Committee would like to respond formally to this letter and make clear our disagreement with the proposals.

Senior Management claimed that they wish to be “measured and balanced” in their actions. Yet the letter ignores the serious consequences of a pay and promotion freeze on individual staff, on the research and teaching mission of the College, and on equalities outcomes. Further, the letter attempts to misuse information from the recent joint trade union staff survey to validate some of its announcements.

Senior Management at the College have, over a very long period, failed to address a culture of overwork. Now, as a result of the pandemic, they propose we accept  further cuts in living standards and cuts to career opportunities at a time when workloads have never been greater. Staff throughout the College are reporting unprecedented levels of stress.

Those Branch representatives who were informed about these managerial decisions prior to the publication of this letter expressed their concerns, and sought assurances about any future managerial plans that might be even more draconian. There needs to be full consultation and negotiation, as is required by UK employment law and the local recognition agreement, before any measures are adopted. To be clear, ACAS, the UK’s government-funded advisory, conciliation and arbitration service for employment matters,  makes clear that consultation is  based upon dialogue between union reps and the employer, with the aim of exchanging views and seeking to incorporate the contributions of employees in decision-making. ACAS warn that “making a pretence of consulting on issues that have already been decided is unproductive and engenders suspicion and mistrust about the process amongst staff” (ACAS website, accessed 20 November 2020). Perhaps this will be a helpful reminder of what is expected. 

Pay gaps = inequality

On gender pay, RHUL has an embarrassing history: women’s pay inequality was the fifth worst of British universities in 2018. The reported “improvement” in 2019 saw the median gender pay gap drop from about 1/3 to just under ¼. Slow progress on gender and racial equality has been made with more equal appointments of new staff, and promotions among existing staff. Note: there is no readily-available, detailed, longitudinal data on RHUL’s race and disability pay gaps. Freezing promotions will have the direct effect of shutting off this path for greater equality.  It also fails to reward and encourage the extraordinary effort of the College’s academic and professional staff. Such proposals cannot help staff retention and recruitment.

Freezing pay

Staff have seen their real salaries eroded by 20% over the last 10 years. UCU has campaigned nationally to reverse this decline in living standards and professional status. UCU nationally remains in dispute with university employers over the last pay round. Senior Management at Royal Holloway, along with their UCEA (Universities and Colleges Employers Association) colleagues, should be discussing in national negotiations how to restore the attractiveness of university careers for new entrants.

Management should not be seeking to impose a 0% pay rise at the local level, when this is a matter for national negotiations. In their letter, Senior Management argue that feedback from our joint trade union survey in May supports their “decision” to freeze the pay of those colleagues on grade 10 and above. In our survey, some grade 10 staff did indicate a willingness to consider salary sacrifice to be used to save the jobs of our casual colleagues. Most of those precariously employed colleagues are no longer at the College, and Management has not indicated that salary savings will be used to rehire these valued and valuable staff.

The impact of extra work

National UCU surveys have shown that, prior to the effects of the pandemic, members were already working two days a week unpaid on average. Action to reduce unsustainable workloads was part of 2019/20 pay claim. Whilst all staff will be delighted to hear that student academic reps at RHUL have told senior management that they feel “very positive about the experience they are receiving during the current circumstances”, that positive assessment is the direct result of the intense and ongoing hard work of colleagues at the College. The initial RHUL joint trade union survey in May, and the recent UCU short surveys of staff, report a significant increase in working hours. Even before the mass layoff of our precarious colleagues this summer, RHUL was cited as one of the biggest users of insecure contracts in Higher Education. As so many colleagues were “let go”, it will come as no surprise to you that the proportion indicating in the May survey that working hours had increased in (43%) rose to 86% and 48% in the November survey, for academic and professional service staff respectively. Many respondents stated that these workload increases were substantial.

Restructuring and Redundancies

Upon hearing Senior Management’s proposals for real pay cuts and the postponement of merited promotions, RHUL-UCU wanted assurances that compulsory redundancies would not emerge as the next stage of current plans. It is worrying that the  letter hints at the possibility of staff cuts. That such an option is being considered is an insult to staff that have so obviously demonstrated their commitment, flexibility and value.  It jars uncomfortably with all the recent talk of community, and managerial expressions of gratitude.

College management has drawn up a 3 year post-pandemic strategy with derisory  consultation with staff. Much of this, such as the re-commitment to the research-led teaching of the College and our traditional values of international-level teaching and research, is to be commended. But those objectives (and proposed further expansion of the College in Egham, in London, internationally and through on-line programmes) will be undermined by pay and staff cuts, freezing of promotions and pay, and a lack of recognition for the efforts of staff during the pandemic period.

Industrial Relations at RHUL

Branch Officers have repeatedly raised  safety matters arising from the pandemic with Management. A number of risk assessments begged serious questions, and UCU members have repeatedly expressed concerns about virus transmission in teaching spaces. RHUL-UCU raised these concerns with management, only to be told that “there is no evidence of transmission in teaching spaces on campus”. But if you do not look for the evidence of transmission, you will not find it.

A full return to consultation and negotiation on employment matters at the College is now required. We need the urgent reestablishment of the Management-Union working group to reduce casualisation and meaningful dialogue on equalities issues. Greater collaboration on workplace safety, such as examining how to increase remote teaching in the Spring term, would help to alleviate the extreme anxiety reported by our members. Some 65% of academic staff call for less face-to-face teaching in our latest survey, while just 17% reject the idea. Management regularly quote that students, on our campus university, want face-to-face teaching. So do lecturers, once it is prudent for the safety of both students and staff.

Posted on behalf of the RHUL-UCU Branch Committee

Letter to UKRI about PhD funding extensions

Last Wednesday, UKRI announced that following the results of a July survey investigating the impact of COVID-19 on PhD students, there will be no guaranteed funded extensions for students whose research has been disrupted

Many members of Peer Review Colleges or Advisory Councils of UKRI research councils, staff responsible for PhD programmes, and supervisors of UKRI-funded research projects have already expressed their concern at this decision made by UKRI by signing and sharing this open letter.

It would be encouraging to see academic colleagues across Royal Holloway showing their support by signing and sharing this letter. As of 10am yesterday morning, 773 PhD supervisors, UKRI Peer Review College members, and directors of PhD programmes have signed their names. 

Additional funding is being made available on a very limited case by case basis that will prioritise students with a PhD submission date before September 2021, as well as students with additional needs (e.g. those with disabilities or care duties), though this funding is not guaranteed. This will leave thousands of PhD researchers, including many at Royal Holloway, with no additional support to mitigate against the disruption caused to research by COVID-19. 

This decision was made despite a review published by UKRI showing that 77% of non-final year PhD students stated that they will require an average of 5.1 months additional time to mitigate against the disruption caused by the pandemic (including laboratory closures, cancellation of fieldwork, and reduced access to many other specialist resources). The formal advice we have now been given is to speak to our supervisors and redesign our research projects.

Over the past 8 months, with the aid of their supervisors, PhD students have already made significant adaptations to address this issue as best they can. But there will inevitably be students whose adaptations will be insufficient to let them complete in the given timescale. If postgraduate researchers are unable to complete our research projects in the allotted time without a funded extension, many of us will be faced with trying to complete projects unfunded whilst seeking employment. This will be damaging to all PhD students but will disproportionately impact students from poorer backgrounds, students with disabilities, and students with care duties. 

This decision will also significantly harm staff responsible for supervising UKRI-funded doctoral candidates. It places the burden on these colleagues to create individualised adjustments to each research project in order to mitigate against the significant disruption and loss of time experienced by PhD students.

Many thanks,

A concerned NERC-funded Royal Holloway PhD student

Comms adds: many institutions are using the UKRI guidance as the benchmark for how to treat their own internally-funded PhD students, so the UKRI decision may also have significant implications for students they do not fund.

Coronavirus and communication

This post, written by a concerned branch member, was scheduled for publication today before the government’s announcement of a second lockdown in England at the weekend. We have decided to publish it in its original form. – Comms

Given what has happened over the last few months, we always knew that this term was going to be especially challenging. This week, on only the second day of the teaching term, my students were buzzing with rumours about the virus: who had it, who was isolating, and where on campus they needed to avoid.

Much of this I had not been told through official channels, and so I took the rumours as exactly that. Surely, I thought, surely academic and professional services staff would be kept up to date if students were being asked by the college to isolate with suspected symptoms, or – more crucially – if students tested positive for the virus. 

While many members of academic staff who are vulnerable to the virus have secured arrangements to only teach online this term, there are plenty of others for whom avoiding infection is crucial: those with more mild but still significant pre-existing conditions, for example, or those who need to continue interacting with dependents or non-household family members. Professional services staff have been working on campus throughout the summer, and continue to offer in-person support to the College community. Given we still know so little about the virus and its long-term impact – even on those who are supposedly fit and healthy – I am sure there are very few members of staff who want to risk catching it. Students and staff need to be kept informed about the situation on campus in order to manage their risk, and the College should be as responsible as possible.

Unfortunately, as the week went on, it became clear that there was a significant discrepancy between the official line and what students and colleagues were saying on campus – a discrepancy sizeable enough to suggest that not every report could be dismissed as rumour.

As of the afternoon of Sunday 4 October, as I write this post, I have received official confirmation – from either my department or the college – of only one confirmed case of the virus in our community, and that there are students being asked to isolate in undisclosed locations. Unofficially, people talk of others. Rumours take hold because of the gap in communication; students and staff do not believe they are being fully informed by their College and their employer. I have not been told which parts of campus are affected, despite the fact that I have to teach and work in several spaces that adjoin halls of residence.

I have worn a mask, used my own hand sanitiser, and I have made use of the sanitiser dispensers that have been installed by college, but of course I cannot say the same for everyone. 

Founder’s is a major location on campus and, as a colleague who works there pointed out to me in a very concerned email, they witnessed both students and staff walking around without masks or in close proximity to one another. We have at least one case on campus, and increasing numbers of students are reporting to me that they are self-isolating; we need to be more careful.

If it weren’t for the thoughtfulness of the students and staff getting in touch with me, I would have no clue that people I regularly come into contact with are self-isolating. No one has emailed me, or any of my colleagues, as far as I know, to warn us to be extra cautious because there are potential cases in the buildings in which we work. No one from the College has told me I have students in my classes who are self-isolating. 

If staff aren’t kept in the loop about the situation on campus, this could prove disastrous for both individuals and for the college community.

Perhaps the college is aiming for a policy of ‘ignorance is bliss’ – but this needs to change. Everyone at Royal Holloway has a right to make informed choices about their risk management. I very much hope that colleagues in other departments have had a better experience of the first week of teaching. I hope that my concerns are premature, and that college will announce a more open policy of communication in the next few days. But I fear not. 

There is a rumour mill on campus, which is causing anxiety and fear. The best way to stop these rumours is by communicating more clearly. If the college is going to empower us all to discern fact from fake news, they need to drastically and immediately improve the frankness of their communication.

***

Our member makes the following suggestions:

* The college should make public a full list of locations on campus in which there are students they have asked to self-isolate. This could be done sensitively – ‘three corridors in Founders are being asked to self-isolate’; ‘one block of Wedderburn is being asked to self-isolate’ – to maintain a balance between privacy and clear communication.
* The list should be circulated daily to at least all staff, along with any other important virus-related updates.
* Anyone who teaches or has an office in a building that also contains self-isolating students should be informed directly by email.
* Crucially, staff should be contacted directly if a student in their class has been told to self-isolate – the burden should not be on students to do this themselves.

The Branch would be very interested in hearing your thoughts on these issues, particularly in light of the approach of a second lockdown; please e-mail as rhulucu2018 at gmail.com

Working Wounded: More Demands and Less Resource

Staff across the Higher Education sector have been asked to do more with less, even before the impact of COVID-19. We are often reminded that recruitment of students is increasingly competitive; that fees haven’t increased with inflation (although they tripled in 2012 and then rose with inflation until 2017); and, less often, the context of consecutive government funding cuts might emerge as the real cause of our financial difficulties. It is true that the pool of 18 year olds declined up until 2019, but it is now increasing again. While demands and workloads continue to increase, pay rises and promotions are in jeopardy, and budget cuts and recruitment freezes threaten to become the norm.

This brief summary is reminiscent of one definition of stress as a situation that overwhelms our resources.* The antidote to feelings of isolation and overwhelm is safety, connection to others, the ability to emotionally self-regulate through regaining a sense of mastery, and a wider perspective. Conversely, the austerity narrative, which tries to justify cuts to public spending, is founded on the notion of individualism: the illusion that we are worker robots who labour and consume without the need for community, a sense of collective identity, belonging, meaning or purpose. To the extent that we have all internalised the story used to justify this economic model, we are susceptible to self-blame, and/or criticise others, for our inevitable responses to being overworked.

Job demands, control and change are all central aspects of the Health and Safety Executive’s stress management tool. We asked the College’s new Health and Safety Director to work with us some months ago to use this tool to relieve the stress our colleagues endure at RHUL. 

The impact of the current crisis on the mental health of academic colleagues is explored in an article published by the Chronicle for Higher Education. The article argues that the sane response to turbulence of this magnitude is not increased productivity. The author maintains that establishing safety and security are necessary before the mental shift needed to continue to work can occur. If you would like to join a group to look at the opportunities to work together for the best interests, health and well-being of all of us as part of the Workloads and Stress Working Group, please do get in touch via the branch e-mail (rhulucu2018 at gmail.com).

Posted on behalf of the RHUL-UCU Workloads and Stress Working Group.

* Professor Jon Kabat-Zinn explores the development of our understanding of stress since the term was first coined, and points to ways to manage it, in Full Catastrophe Living