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

RHUL UCU write to the Principal about cancelling salary deductions

Last week, the RHUL UCU Branch Committee wrote to the Principal to request that salary reductions for strike action be cancelled in recognition of the extraordinary effort our members have made in adjusting to our current unprecedented circumstances. We have yet to receive a reply. We also note that the senior management team have cancelled scheduled meetings on both anti-casualisation and the gender pay gap, and have not responded to requests to reschedule. We publish our letter to the Principal below for our members’ information.

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Dear Principal,

Re: cancellation of salary deductions for recent UCU industrial action

All stakeholders of this College are working together as never before to deliver a good experience for our students and to ensure the health of our institution at a time of global crisis.

Who could have foreseen how fast our colleagues would make the switch to new ways of working; it is a testament to their dedication to students, colleagues and this College. But, we must recognise that these changes bring challenges and have required herculean efforts. That our staff have risen to this challenge whilst dealing with their own private concerns and responsibilities is magnificent, it reminds us that the greatest asset of any organisation is its staff.

Many universities and colleges have responded to the crisis with a new spirit of co-operation. At Royal Holloway the local branch of UCU cancelled the last two strike dates at short notice to allow staff to focus on their students, a gesture which was mirrored elsewhere. Our Chair and Secretary have made themselves available for regular crisis meetings with the Senior Management Team (SMT). For the employers’ part, we know that many universities are choosing to cancel salary deductions for industrial action in February and March. This recognises the huge effort required to adapt to new modes of working and provides greater income for their staff at a time of crisis. So far Southampton, St Andrews and Ulster universities and Birkbeck and Kings College have done so. We are confident this list will grow and we would like to see Royal Holloway join this list of supportive employers.

In particular Kings College made their offer as part of a gesture to staff, enabling them to work together on at speed mitigating the impact of both the dispute and Covid19 on students’ exams. Their position is illustrated here.

Royal Holloway made a commitment to pay its casual staff, those with a regular pattern of work, their expected salaries until the end of April. This was an important guarantee when the crisis first hit us but it is now time to consider how we can support these staff beyond that date. And, there may be other staff not covered by this initial protective measure whose commitment we wish to retain. We must also think about those fixed-term staff whose contracts will shortly elapse, and for whom job search will be impossible. The RHUL-UCU anti—casualisation working group has already begun work with SMT to identify how we can provide greater employment security to our colleagues, using the School of Humanities as our case study. We stand ready to work with you on finding additional ways to protect these valued staff.

Principal, will you consider cancelling salary deductions for the recent UCU strike?

RHUL-UCU Branch Committee

Equalities, the gender pay gap and professorial banding

Professor Clare Bradley, branch committee member with an equalities focus, writes, including advice for professors applying for professorial banding.

The next round of professorial banding has been launched with significant changes to the process. The form requires that all core criteria be met and enhances the role of the Deans, who contrary to good practice, are already involved in two or more stages of the process. Once again, changes have been made by HR without consultation with the union and to the detriment of staff at the College.

The equalities subcommittee of UCU-RHUL was set up in 2016 to support the work of the UCU equalities officer in highlighting and tackling the challenges faced by staff with protected characteristics. The difficulties facing all staff were becoming more pronounced at the College and this affected women, BME, LGBTQ and disabled staff even more than others.

Royal Holloway has a worsening record for the gender pay gap. In the most recent league tables published in the Times Higher Education (THE), Royal Holloway was the fifth worst university in the country for the gender pay gap for all staff.

At the last Principal’s Open Meeting on the 4th June (available via RePlay to those with RHUL Moodle access), Professor Laura Spence proposed a working group be set up on the gender pay gap. After the meeting, I wrote to Laura that Jeff Frank, the UCU equalities officer, and I met with the Principal, Paul Layzell, and Senior Vice Principal, Katie Normington, back in March at their request. HR was not present at the meeting. We made a number of concrete proposals on promotions and professorial banding, outlined below. The Principal never got back to us on our proposals, and he referred my question on the 4th June, asking what changes had been made before launching the latest round of professorial banding, to Gill Hemus, the Director of HR, who replied only that they had made some changes.

They have made changes, but not the ones we proposed!

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