Members of Academic Board (AB) were alerted to the possibility of “something unpleasant this way” coming when an emergency AB was called for 29th June, just two days before a Council meeting. Despite numerous requests for any further information from both members of AB and local UCU representatives, Senior Management only revealed their hand to staff on Monday 21st June. Staff in departments targeted for job cuts, contractual changes and higher workloads were given a few minutes’ notice before their colleagues received the same briefings. The proposals and the context have been partially deconstructed in Blogs over the last week. Today at AB there was partial, or perhaps temporary, withdrawal of the “realignment proposal”, but threats to colleagues remain. Crucially, the last minute pulling of the plan prevented AB members from holding a robust discussion and offering a critique of Senior Management’s “realignment proposals”.
What happened at AB today?
The “realignment proposal” bundle given to AB members held significantly more detail than was given to staff, perhaps even more detail than was shared with students on the College intranet. Proposals gave information beyond desired job cuts, and included plans to move additional colleagues from research and teaching contracts and from open-ended posts on to teaching-only and fixed-term contracts.
Senior Management announced that they had decided to pull the “realignment proposal” in its current form at the start of the meeting. They then presented some slides to articulate what had changed without circulating the material in advance, despite the documented equalities needs of some AB members. It appeared the deciding factor for pulling the proposal today was that some staff had chosen, or were potentially coerced, to exit voluntarily. This left only the Department of Social Work, who had not been offered the courtesy of a meeting with Senior Management to discuss alternatives, as an intractable Department. Formal consideration by AB of the “realignment proposals” is thus postponed until AB October 2021, which would be followed by Council decision in November. It was argued that this would allow Social Work time to come up with plans to realign comparable to the other affected Departments, and for the other affected Departments to persuade colleagues to move from Teaching and Research to teaching-only contracts and/or from open-ended to fixed-term status.
In the face of these alarming and surprising proposals, colleagues in the affected departments have rallied to develop alternative strategies and to elicit the public support of their alumni and external stakeholders. That they were able to develop exciting and innovative alternatives in so short a time, under such hideous pressure, speaks to the flawed approach of Senior Management. Pursuing voluntary reductions for months in secret and failing to engage with colleagues has put the whole institution through an emotional wringer, with inevitable reputational damage.
What are the implications of this?
It was gratifying to find that almost every Head of Department who spoke at the meeting expressed dismay at the manner in which the “realignment proposals” had been put forward. It was clear that speakers believed Senior Management had missed an opportunity to reconfigure the College with the creative input of colleagues, thereby retaining our strong sense of collegiality and without wrecking staff morale. Head of Departments for the ostensible “winners” from this exercise expressed disquiet and a desire to continue to work in a multi-disciplinary and solidaristic College. And yet, whilst we may have left that meeting with a sense of relief, there remains a huge and critical problem with the “realignment proposal”. The plan has not now been subject to adequate scrutiny, and we have allowed AB to be misused.
The “Realignment Proposal” has not been adequately challenged
The rationale for the proposal has been that student-to-staff ratios (SSRs) are out of kilter across the College. Yet, without definitions and shared data, it is hard to be confident that this analysis is accurate. Apparently, some Departments have this week provided counter evidence, which is significantly different from the data used in the proposal. Without access to vital information on the construction of SSRs, College budgets, marketing plans and the equality impact assessment, there is no opportunity to scrutinise proposals adequately and in the manner which academics expect as part of their normal duties. Still, knowing that we will be reviewing “realignment proposals” in October gives the College time to get its house in order and provide UCU and affected staff with all of the information they need.
This would be a welcome departure from recent practice. We have informed members already this year of the refusal of Senior Management at the College to provide UCU with data and information which is pertinent to collective bargaining – data to which we are entitled under ACAS guidelines and our Recognition Agreement, signed by the employer. Senior Management is increasingly trying to divide union representatives and to distance the Committee from members by saying “UCU has been consulted”, when in fact this is not the case. A cascade of verbal information or inviting one rep to see something while embargoing that information from the Committee is not consultation.
It is suggested that the reduction of staff in certain Departments will alleviate the workload of staff in other Departments. Of course, staff who remain in Departments subject to staffing cuts and demands to revalidate their programmes are by necessity facing higher workloads. At this point it is useful to remind ourselves of the scale of the workload crisis. In a Joint Trade Union Survey of RHUL staff in May 2020 43% reported working hours had increased, which rose to 86% and 48% in the November UCU follow-up survey, for academic and professional service staff respectively. Were evidence beyond these trade union surveys required, the College’s own Pulse survey of staff produced similarly worrying results. The Pulse survey found 84% reported an increased workload; stress had increased for 78% and wellbeing was worse for 71%. These are not figures which can be brushed aside; these figures suggest a workload crisis, a crisis hardly alleviated by moving twenty-four seats on the Titanic.
The misuse of Academic Board
Senior Management today argued that Academic Board’s role was merely to consider these “realignment proposals” as redundancies are a Statute 9 issue, by which they refer to protection for academics written into College Statues. Further analysis of the Statues shows that the College operates an Academic Board (AB) of academic staff which “shall be responsible for the academic work of the College in teaching and examining and in research” (Statute 5). In addition to its responsibility for the academic work of the College, AB Standing Orders (point 6) state that “it may also advise the Council on the general management of the College”.
This suggests it is legitimate, and in fact essential, for AB to take a much broader role in guiding academic decision making than merely commenting on redundancies.
The relationship between AB and Council functions if the Chair, Secretary and other members of both AB and Council proffer clear and accurate information. To this end the College Council Standing Orders state: “In the case of a division on any matter on which the Academic Board makes representations or recommendations to Council, the report to Council shall record the substance of all motions considered by the Board and the numbers who voted for and against or who abstained from voting on each motion” (point 98). This duty is also recorded in AB Standing Orders, (points 28-29).
We fear, for whatever reasons, that accurate reporting may not always be observed. Today an elected member requested that a short summary of today’s discussion be prepared for Council members, that they could see our sense of distress at how the “realignment proposals” had been handled, alongside the willingness of staff to work collaboratively, at speed, to strengthen the College. We were denied this opportunity for clear communication between AB and Council.
Branch EGM tomorrow
Be in no doubt, colleagues – this issue is not resolved.
The Branch is holding an EGM tomorrow, 1-2pm, to discuss the realignment in the context of the College’s “People Strategy” and its “3-year strategy”. We will be proposing a motion of no confidence in senior management’s handling of the “realignment proposals” and the misuse of Academic Board.
Posted on behalf of the RHUL-UCU Branch Committee