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

Helping UCU Members Navigate Their Workloads in 2020

The COVID-19 crisis represents a huge challenge for RHUL, a challenge for which the Senior Management Team (SMT) have developed a response. The response is based upon revising our degree programmes at speed, so that the College can offer on-line learning with face-to-face elements if and when these are “feasible”. This feasibility is very unclear, not just because of the nature of a pandemic; it is unclear because the SMT are not sharing the details of their proposals with staff.

Cancelling sabbatical leave generates greater teaching capacity but not enough to compensate for the number of fixed-term, visiting and hourly paid staff who are imminently leaving this institution. Precarious staff, on whatever type of contract, make a huge contribution to the student experience and our research portfolio. They are often young and committed staff, and are disproportionately Black and female. This shows inconsistency between the SMT’s pronouncements about the Black Lives Matter movement and statements about our history as a women’s university. In 2015 McKinsey published a report which demonstrated that diversity and performance were positively correlated in organisations across the globe. Retaining our casuals is the right thing to do and will benefit organisational performance. The College has made no statement about losing these staff. They have also not communicated with these staff; many have told UCU they are isolated and frightened for their future.

So, for 2020 we are reconfiguring our programmes to a College template; the template requires a huge amount of staff involvement to “lead students through their journey,” and the VP for Education tells us they may well have higher contact time than previously. This work on redesign, this incorporation of technology, this extra amount of contact time, all needs a huge amount of staff resource. As our valued casual colleagues are let go, this resource is going to come from permanent staff. This demands far more time than is covered by squeezing research hours and cancelling 90 sabbaticals.

UCU surveys regularly report that education workers work the longest hours of any industry. As far back as 2011/12 the Labour Force Survey found education workers in the UK took the highest number of days off work due to stress-related illness. UCU surveys have consistently shown that university workers’ working hours included roughly two days’ unpaid overtime a week (UCU website, 11/6/2020). In 2016 85% respondents from RHUL reported that their workload had increased over the last three years. Reducing workloads was one of the issues underpinning the Four Fights claim and industrial dispute of 2020, a dispute which is unresolved. The proposals of the SMT implicitly demand that permanent staff increase their hours.

Whilst Professional Services staff may not have the competing demands of teaching and research to contend with, unmanageable workloads are nevertheless common. Many Professional Services staff will be expected to support the proposed changes to teaching, which will inevitably cause heavier workloads. It is also common that when members of staff leave Professional Services they are not replaced; this happened even before COVID-19, as it is assumed that workloads will be ‘absorbed.’ In practice, this means that colleagues who are already overstretched are left to try to cover work which isn’t in their remit or job description, and for which they were given no official handover.

Staff have demonstrated how ready and willing they are to work longer and harder at times of need, but this effort cannot be sustained over an indefinite period and it MUST be voluntary effort. It will have a particularly damaging effect on staff with other commitments, for example those caring for relatives, and it may be particularly bad for junior staff developing their research profile. RHUL-UCU is available to discuss this response with the SMT. But so far we have merely received information, and we have not been invited to discussions and/or negotiations.

Following a request from members at the open meeting of 10th June 2020, the UCU branch at Royal Holloway has put together some basic information for members should they find themselves discussing workload with their line managers and colleagues. The first thing to consider is whether you have a copy of your contract. The fact sheet for members is based upon a standard academic contract at RHUL (as shown on the College intranet in June 2020). There is also a section included for Professional Service Staff. You may also want to share this information with your students, who are often dismayed to hear how long and how hard university workers toil for what are (usually) modest salaries.

You can download the RHUL UCU Reasonable Workload Fact Sheet here. Every member will receive this fact sheet by email.

Why Are We Highlighting Occupational Stress?

Many of the concerns we are raising reflect our concerns about existing levels of occupational stress borne by university workers. We believe these proposals will seriously exacerbate occupational stress. Stress at work is a serious issue throughout the UK. Work-related stress has been the subject of a great deal of research and activity by the Health and Safety Executive, the non-governmental body which provides advice on safety at work, inspects workplaces and monitors occupational accidents and ill health.

Work-related stress can be measured by asking questions about the following aspects of a job: control, demands, role, relationships, support and change. When members of staff become stressed or more stressed they should discuss this with their line manager. If this is not possible or does not lead to a change in their circumstances at work, then the stress can manifest in the form of a deterioration of their physical or mental health. Physical symptoms might include stomach problems, headaches, raised blood pressure, fatigue or insomnia; mental health symptoms could include depression, anxiety or irritability. The College has a policy of taking mental health problems as seriously as physical health conditions, so do not be embarrassed to tell your line manager you are stressed.

The proposals that have been shared by the SMT suggest staff will experience significant change, less control, a heavier load, no additional support, broken relationships as colleagues leave, and a change in role for those who must pause their research.

Senior management plans do not account for stress-related leave.

Staff who need to take time off due to stress will often ask their GP to focus on physical ailments rather than stress, as stigma remains attached to mental health ailments including stress. If we observe a rise in occupational sick leave, then the work of absent staff will fall to those staff still at work. This will increase workloads further.

Posted on behalf of members of the RHUL-UCU Branch Committee

UCU, Unite & GMB Launch A Remote Working/Partial Shutdown Survey For RHUL

The COVID-19 crisis has led to great change in the working conditions for staff at RHUL. While some of our colleagues are providing vital services on campus and some have been furloughed, the majority of us are working remotely. All of us are trying to do the best job possible at a time of great uncertainty, but we are yet to be consulted about how feasible it is to “work as normal”, or asked what support would help us to do our very best.

The three campus trade unions have come together to design a survey which will help us to understand the working conditions and concerns of all staff at the College in the aftermath of the partial shutdown and increase in remote working. We are pleased to have received comment on and support for the survey from the College’s Senior Management Team. But this survey is a project designed and led by your trade unions, to help us to help you.

We are concerned about the health and safety implications of those on campus now and in the future; we are concerned about the apparent willingness to let our valued causal colleagues go despite their importance to our student experience and research profile; and we are worried about the equalities implications of the array of changes to our terms and conditions which are being announced. All individual responses to the survey will be confidential and we will ensure that any identifying information is removed. We will share the anonymised findings for the survey with the College’s SMT and use the information to inform our negotiations and consultations with them.

You can access the survey here. 

We think it should take about 20 minutes to complete the survey.

Trade unions do not just represent their members’ interests; they have a legal duty to defend the health and safety of all employees. So we welcome responses from all staff at the College. A full range of responses will help us to identify the challenges now and in the months ahead. It is our intention to work with Senior Management to find the best solution for all current members of staff.

UCU, Unite & GMB at Royal Holloway, University of London

If you have any questions or concerns, you can contact UCU via our branch email account, rhulucu2018 at gmail.com. If you want to join UCU, you can do so here.

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COVID-19, anti-casualisation and Royal Holloway

If the COVID-19 crisis has thrown anything into sharp relief at universities, it has been the rough treatment given to casual staff. Members already knew this, of course, especially after our 2019 and 2020 ‘Four Fights’ strike action. Over the last six weeks, however, we have seen multiple news stories of shockingly poor treatment of vulnerable staff in fixed-term and zero-hours contracts.

At the Royal Holloway UCU branch, we have been working as hard as we can to protect casual colleagues. Senior management initially provided guarantees to cover casual staff’s pay up until the end of April (now extended up to June); the most recent update suggests that they will look into use of the government furlough scheme in some cases.

Sadly, this is not enough, as many of our members attest (see our recent guest blog post). Members of teaching staff with contracts expiring at the end of April have essentially been let go and released into a job market that is almost non-existent. More worrying still, those colleagues with work permits sponsored by the university may face deportation. The outlook for next academic year and the possibility of contract extensions looks bleak, in light of the college’s recent letter to academic staff. The practices already seen across departments and schools differ drastically, from one department keeping positions for all their casual staff, to another stating that they will employ almost no visiting lecturers or teaching assistants next year. Members have expressed concerns that sabbatical postponements are acting as a cover to justify cancelling teaching for PhD students, affecting their well-being as well as denying them the experience of teaching which is important for their employability. Casual staff are not alone in being disadvantaged if their contracts are terminated. Established staff, who already have excessive workloads, will find those workloads increased to levels which are not sustainable without serious damage to their own well-being, that of their students and of their families, as well as damage to their teaching quality and research. The situation for professional services and research staff remains unclear, and the UCU RHUL branch committee is monitoring the situation as it develops.

We understand that the Government furlough scheme does not apply to publicly funded individuals including academic staff and research staff employed on UKRI grants. Many of these individuals will have caring responsibilities that interfere with their capacity to work and, for some, any academic work will be impossible. The Senior Management Team have assured us that even though the Government furlough scheme is not available, the College will be able to make its own equivalent arrangements where needed.

The situation is not all doom and gloom; we have seen extraordinary measures taken at other UK institutions, including guaranteeing positions for all casual staff, and even some senior management teams taking a voluntary pay sacrifice to support vulnerable staff members. For this reason, we have written to the College Principal outlining the very real risks posed to casual members of staff and pointing to the good practices seen across UK institutions, asking that he consider adopting positive solutions and providing sector leadership here at Royal Holloway.

Much remains uncertain, but we want to assure members that we are doing everything we can to work with management to secure and protect our colleagues on casual contracts as well as those with more established contracts. We hope that you all keep safe and well, and we encourage permanent staff to check in with their precariously employed colleagues.

Posted on behalf of the RHUL UCU Anti-casualisation team

A Member Writes – I Am Incredulous

This blog post represents the personal views of the author and is not the official position of the branch. 

So at last, some forward planning from our Senior Management Team. Other universities have taken a proactive approach, protecting their insecure staff as at Sheffield, Exeter, Kings College, and others have shown gratitude to their staff for their efforts in moving to remote working and on-line student support at speed – extra holidays at many (Kent, Durham, Exeter, Strathclyde, Glasgow Caledonian, Aberdeen and Sussex). Some institutions even offer monthly allowances for the costs we incur while working from home – to mention the rise in back problems from using inappropriate set ups for work. What does RHUL propose? Even more work, over the summer and next year!

Action Short of a Strike (ASoS) was called late last year, as part of our fight on equalities and to save our pension. For the avoidance of doubt, this action runs until next Tuesday. This demonstrated to many of us just how much work we are doing unpaid – a lot. In fact, UCU surveys have shown this to be an average of two days per week. Personally, I find when I have a heavy teaching load I do 100% plus more work – I must be stupid. Despite ASoS, many teaching staff rushed to move our teaching on line in March, rapid moves which also affected professional service staff and researchers. ASoS has given me a new appreciation of the penalty I and my loved ones pay for my regular overwork and identified the hit that creativity and productivity take when one is permanently exhausted.

Yesterday we heard about plans from senior management, and then many of us had a follow-up email from our Head of Department- at least those who have not been too overloaded to respond. “We want more work, and quickly”! The idea that I will now, with a backdrop of global crisis, rouse myself to work even harder to reconfigure my teaching is laughable. How can I physically do this on top of current duties whilst paying attention to pedagogical literature?  My HoD tells me not only to expect more work next academic year, but to expect extra work this summer. So when I do any research? When do I take my “generous holiday entitlement”?

If there is extra work to do, then it should be shared across our entire current staff, even in the face of expected lower student recruitment. Institutions like Sheffield are busting a gut to save fixed term and hourly paid staff. All RHUL have said is “we will pay until the end of June”. THAT IS NOT GOOD ENOUGH. Are we really proposing to let our valued colleagues on insecure contracts go in the next few months? What does that say about equalities? What does that say about our concern for research capacity and the student experience? Where are they going to get on their bike and ride to?

If other institutions can work with their staff and trade unions to find a way forward, why not RHUL? We must save as many jobs as possible and not expect to displace the additional work on to already stretched staff. Why can we at RHUL not expect the leadership seen at Imperial, Harvard and Stanford – senior management leading the way with pay sacrifices to save jobs? I expect many of us would join such a programme to protect our colleagues.

Submitted by a frustrated, alarmed and very anxious branch member