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.


UCU Caseworker Meeting

The branch will be hosting a caseworker meeting for all existing case-workers on Tuesday 18th September, to review the current state of play concerning the branch caseloads and to look at what might be coming up in the year ahead. We also invite any new caseworkers and those thinking of taking on casework to attend.

Please register your attendance via Eventbrite; you will need to request an invitation from Penelope Smith, our branch administrator. We look forward to seeing you there!

The Annual Hazards Conference and the UCU workload campaign

The Hazards Campaign is a UK network of resource centres and campaigners which runs the annual Hazards Conference, the UK’s biggest educational and organising event for trade union safety representatives and activists. It is associated with Hazards, the health and safety magazine for workers, and has international links with campaigners in the areas of occupational health, safety and welfare. They recently held their annual conference in Stoke-on-Trent, with the overarching theme of forty years of statutory creation of worker safety representatives, and there was a particularly pertinent emphasis on workplace stress and workload pressures. As the former main RHUL-UCU Health and Safety Rep and Chair of the new Branch sub-committee on workloads, I was dispatched (back) northwards with a mission to gather information and tactics to help us achieve manageable workloads at our institution.

Now many of us enjoy our roles in HE and feel a degree of autonomy about what we do and how we do it. But, whilst many of us might not have quantified just how our workload has changed over time, the UCU undertook a national survey on this issue in 2016. They found academic staff worked an average of 50.9 hours per week, with 28.5% of academic staff putting in more than 55 hours per week. In a sector facing external pressures from REF and TEF and with a number of institutions crying poverty, which has lead to student numbers rising much faster than staff, it is easy to see why total workloads have risen. But this survey showed that unpaid additional work done by staff in HE amounted to around £374 million per year. We must all recognise that rising individual workloads have implications for productivity – quality may suffer, as well as the student experience and the physical and mental health of university employees. This level of overwork is clearly not sustainable, for individuals or institutions. Therefore this year’s annual pay claim incorporates a demand for university bosses to recognise and respond to the significant increase in workload, which has required staff to work long UNPAID hours and has caused an increase in work-related stress.

Linking the need to work such long, unpaid hours with work-related stress and diagnosable health conditions might seem a stretch, but there is significant evidence that individuals experiencing undue pressure at work are more likely to feel exhausted, have a compromised immune system, suffer heart attacks, cancer and strokes (see WorkStress handbook, 2017, and Batty et al, in the BMJ, 2017). Workers’ mental health is also significantly affected by excessive hours, with rates of anxiety, depression and burnout. Identifying which aspects of the job are leading to this rise in workers’ stress, a first step in alleviating the problem, may seem insurmountable but the UK’s Health and Safety Executive developed six Management Standards to enable employers to risk assess the welfare of employees. The Management Standards suggest employers examine: the demands of the job; how much control employees have over how they do their job; what support is given to staff; whether there are positive workplace relationships; the clarity of employees’ roles; and the management of change. Once the organisation has assessed the responses of staff to questions in these six broad areas, it can develop an action plan with local trade unions to improve the experience of employees and therefore cut their work-related stress levels.

Continue reading “The Annual Hazards Conference and the UCU workload campaign”

London Weighting – ballot opening soon

Do you ever notice the minimal element of your pay slip designated “London Allowance”? Our London Weighting has not increased in many years, although other London area universities have chosen to increase this element of pay in recognition of ever escalating costs of living. When thinking about London Weighting we need to remember that increases in London weighting are progressive in that they can have a significant impact on the income of lower paid colleagues, whether that is administrators, security staff or hourly paid lecturers. So, this is surely an increase we can all get behind.

You may well recall that the three RHUL campus unions submitted a London Weighting claim last year. You may also remember that the College turned this down. It was our collective intention to follow this with a RHUL-based campaign working towards a formal dispute in pursuit of our claim. UCU work on this was, initially, delayed by the USS Pension strike action. Although the first stage of the pension action could (in certain circles) be considered successful, it is clear that the College, along with all USS employers is going to have to find additional financial resource to pay increased USS contributions, at least until the Joint expert Panel comes up with a miracle solution. Subsequently, the UCU, together with other main campus unions, made a 7.5% annual pay claim against the employers’ offer of 2%. This pay claim also includes improvements to casualised employment patterns, the gender pay gap and workloads. These are all areas we will be campaigning on locally next academic year. We are now entering a formal ballot period for this claim. We will need to reach the threshold of 50% of local members to be able to join the national action over pay, so we will encourage you over the summer to respond to email invitations to vote.

In light of the above, the Branch Committee discussed the efficacy of continuing with our London weighting claim at this point. Whilst we all believe that the value of London weighting at RHUL should be restored in the medium term, there were different opinions as to whether it was feasible to pursue this at the same time as employers face an increase in pension costs and when we are making a significant national pay demand. We put this dilemma to the AGM which, narrowly voted to ‘soft pedal’ on the London Weighting demand for the immediate future. We are, however, acutely aware that, with many hundreds of members, the AGM is not, necessarily, representative of the whole Branch. We promised, therefore, to put the vote to the whole Branch and would welcome your individual views. Please be assured that any postponement in pursuing this issue will be motivated by our desire to pursue our other objectives with what is very limited trade union Facility Time – but it will only be a postponement. As the College advertisement for a “HR Change Leader” closed recently we look forward with working with a new colleague to make this once again a decent place to work and study.

Please look out for an e-mail to your RHUL contact address, which will include a link to cast your vote in relation to the proposed London weighting campaign. We value your time in responding to these questions. We need your input so we can be sure that we are representing the will of our members.

Posted on behalf of the RHUL UCU Branch Committee

Confused About Changes to USS Pension Contributions?

Recently members of the University Superannuation Scheme (USS) were sent emails outlining the planned phased increase in staff contributions which will start in April 2019. The industrial dispute earlier this year, when UCU members took unprecedented and extensive strike action in order to prevent pre-1992 university employers unilaterally culling our defined benefit pensions, seems a life time ago. So it is timely to review what led to the strike, what was achieved and what we in UCU are “expecting” to happen next.

The 2017 triennial review of USS showed an apparent deficit in terms of the ability of the scheme to grow fast enough to guarantee future payments to scheme members. Back in January of this year UUK and the majority of the scheme trustees decided the only possible response to this was to close the defined benefit scheme and to transfer all the risk to employees, via a defined contribution pension. Employers were surprised that their decision led to an overwhelming vote for a strike, shocked that UCU membership rose when the action was announced, and horrified to discover we were prepared to walk out and stand on our picket lines – even in the snow. Even more disturbing for them was the widespread support for our resistance, notably from our students, which was instrumental in the establishment of an independent Joint Expert Panel (JEP) to examine aspects of USS management and prospects for our future pensions.

Continue reading “Confused About Changes to USS Pension Contributions?”

Royal Holloway’s Future

The recent message sent to all staff members by Royal Holloway’s Chief Financial Officer followed quickly on from a presentation by another member of senior management. Both have blamed the College’s growing financial problems on staff ‘costs’, and are suggesting that these should be cut. This is ironic because our salaries (except those of senior management) have fallen sharply in real terms in the last ten years.

The truth is that, to maintain its building programme, Royal Holloway has become one of the most indebted of UK’s universities. As witnessed during this year’s strike, investment in staff and what happens inside our classrooms and buildings have very low strategic priority, as does providing first class teaching space.

The Financial Officer’s message is a clear warning that terms and conditions at Royal Holloway will continue to deteriorate. That means that the number and nature of jobs in both professional services and academic departments are under threat.

For the last two years, the local branch has fought against the casualization of the workforce and the efforts to increase ‘performance management’. As you read this blog, Human Resources (HR) is trying to impose new annual review documents that will be part of a heightened ‘performance management’ approach. The confidentiality of the appraisal process will be lost and these documents might be used – if HR gets their way – in capability actions against selected staff.

University staff work as teams within their departments. Performance management by HR working in conjunction with top-down management is bound to fail. It simply shows a lack of understanding of how a top academic institution operates, much less one with the distinctive characteristics of this College.

With its recent failings exposed, HR dislikes criticism. Suggestions that staff ‘costs’ will be squeezed (that is, increased workloads, imposed redundancies, or both) helps to explain its attempts to weaken the local UCU and its decision to suspend its Equalities Officer, Jeff Frank. HR is engaged in effect on an undeclared strategy of de-recognition, and trying to make RHUL-UCU as the staff’s representatives irrelevant.

Colleges like ours undoubtedly have to compete with the expanding Russell Group and the marketing efforts of the less research intensive, post-1992 universities. Royal Holloway has in the past successfully emphasized nation-leading strengths and distinctiveness. Despite our size, we had top departments in the country in a number of areas. We need to maintain the high standards in research and teaching that have made students want to come to Royal Holloway, meeting their needs and interests. Departments, and not HR, are best placed to know how to achieve that success.

A better targeted and more prudent building programme, especially one more concerned with teaching accommodation, would have been money well spent. But, even then, it couldn’t and shouldn’t be done at the expense of the staff who – along with the students – are the College. Investing in staff is vital for our teaching, research and reputation, and the biggest factor in the student experience. Student support for staff during the recent pension strike shows that students understand this reality very well. The current HR team seem to believe that the College can achieve its strategic goals without the support of staff, controlling them through performance management, and cutting a troublesome ‘cost’.

Ironically, while making all sorts of calls for prudent financial management going forward, HR and senior management seem to be willing to throw away money in changing staff around. Moreover, after four months, Jeff Frank’s unnecessary suspension has now reached well over the cost of four students’ annual fees. Would these four hypothetical students be impressed?

Posted on behalf of members of the UCU committee.

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An update on this year’s proposed appraisal process

Such is the importance of proposed changes to appraisal that we contacted members by email and posted an article on the blog on 28th June to draw attention to Senior Management’s attempt to introduce a new appraisal process, known now as “Performance Development Review”, without engaging in the required negotiation and consultation with the local branch of UCU. Whilst the College may have laudable aims in amending this process, if an annual appraisal is a condition of employment then any proposal to change the format must be negotiated with the trade union representing the affected staff. This requirement to negotiate with UCU before a term and condition of our employment can be amended is clearly laid out in the recognition agreement, signed by both the local UCU and representatives of Senior Management.

The Branch is more than willing to meet with Senior Management Team (SMT) to pursue a mutually acceptable solution. We wish to share with SMT our concerns, notably the following: that the guidance to appraisers suggests they engage in “informal chats” about the performance of the colleagues they are reviewing;* that there is no specific guarantee that an appraisal will not be used as the sole trigger for capability proceedings;** and that, despite an undertaking to do so, HR has not yet shown the UCU an equality impact audit of the likely effect of the changes to the appraisal/PDR process.

On the 4th of July the Branch Committee met and unanimously passed a motion regarding College’s attempt to unilaterally impose changes on the appraisal process. Following this, on the 11th of July, the Chair of the local UCU wrote to the Senior Management Team calling for a special meeting of the Joint Negotiating and Consultative Committee to focus purely on this issue. So far SMT have not offered us any dates for such a meeting. For the avoidance of doubt, if the SMT refuse to meet us or if they meet with us but refuse to negotiate this proposal we will register a local dispute, as laid out under the appendix of our Recognition Agreement. In the meantime we have requested they acknowledge that the previously agreed appraisal form must be used.

The original Blog post made a number of recommendations to staff, the most important of which is that if they prepare for appraisal they use the agreed appraisal form, approved in 2015. Alternatively, as the window for PDRs is until late September, you may wish to delay your annual appraisal to allow SMT time to come back to the negotiating table.

Posted on behalf of the RHUL-UCU Branch Committee.



* On July 19th, HR wrote to the UCU to tell us that the wording had changed. Nonetheless, a check made at 13.00 on Wednesday July 25th continues to show the offending wording: “It is useful also to ask the views of others who may have worked with the reviewee during the period.”, on Page 2 of the Performance Development Review Guidance for Reviewers (Academics), last updated on 13th July 2018. The same wording appears on page 2 of the Professional Services guidance for reviewers.

** Again, in an e-mail sent on July 9th 2018, HR have said: “As regards appraisals being the sole trigger for capability processes this is, of course, not the case.” But, as yet, HR have not agreed to reinstate the wording which appeared on page 4 of the 2015, negotiated, appraisal form: “Please note that this page is not confidential and may be referred to in relation to Performance Awards, Promotion, or in capability proceedings; however, it may not be used as the sole trigger for capability proceedings.