Axing Staff Voices in a Time of Crisis: An Update On Proposed Governance Reforms

It was very encouraging to see so many members at the UCU open meeting on 10th June, and, further to the governance discussion at that meeting, we felt we should restate why currently there is a real risk that in the autumn there will be only one academic member of Council. This risk is arising at a time when, at Royal Holloway, as at many HE institutions, financial models are being produced which propose significant numbers of staff being made redundant. Any redundancy proposals will need to be signed off by Council as the governing body.

The problem over council membership will arise because one elected member, Liz Schafer, is coming to the end of her period of office, having served two consecutive terms of 3 years. Another elected member, Bob Fitzgerald, is coming to the end of his first term of office of 3 years. He may not be able to stand for election again because the current governance proposals seek to abolish elections. However, unless an election is held, it does not seem possible for a new academic member to join Council in time for potential redundancy discussions in the autumn, simply because there is not time to work through the proper procedures for changing the statutes. Will, therefore, staff elections to Council be guaranteed this summer, and for the full term as clearly set out in College statutes?

The new Chair of Council, Dame Margaret Hodge MP, has stated that she is uncomfortable with staff electing members of the College’s governing body, and wishes to end a right that has existed since Royal Holloway’s founding.

The procedures

While there is plenty to be positive about in the governance reform proposals, the proposed changes in Council membership pose serious questions with as yet no convincing answers, and they require an alteration to the College statutes. The first step in this alteration process would be two meetings of Council where a vote on a special resolution to change the statutes would be made (see article 7 of the RHUL founding Act). The next step – submission to Privy Council – also requires evidence of consultation with stakeholders. Currently, there is scant evidence of any consultation.

With no open discussion so far, significant changes are being proposed regarding the stake staff have in the College, at a time when all of us are being asked to deliver more. Royal Holloway’s Council risks becoming one of the least representative of leading UK universities. Is that the type of institution we should aspire to be?

What has happened since the 1 June blog written by concerned Academic Board members

On 3 June, the governance proposals were discussed at the end of a meeting of Academic Board (AB). Considerable opposition was expressed both to the reduction in academic members of staff and to the proposed change that RHUL will move from electing academic and professional service members of Council to a system of appointment after interview (by two lay members of Council, plus the Deputy Principal who acts as College Secretary). Despite AB’s opposition – no one spoke in favour of the proposals and the Teams chat board indicates a wide range of opposition – this was not reported to Council which met on 4 June. At the end of this long meeting, Liz Schafer asked for the opposition to be acknowledged; the Principal downplayed this opposition stating that a ‘vocal minority’ only had expressed dissent.

Last time statutes were changed, a whole range of stakeholders were consulted, including the three campus trades unions. Moreover, in the interests of transparency and due process, a Steering Group published its minutes and papers. In our view, completely ignoring the opposition expressed at AB does not constitute ‘consultation’.

What can you do?

As we are unlikely to be attending AB in future (as we may no longer be elected members of Council who sit on AB), we are asking members to consider writing to the Principal, their Heads of Department, and/or to Chair of College Council (via secretariat at rhul.ac.uk) expressing views on the possibility of there being only one academic member of Council in the autumn; to request meaningful consultation on ending the right of academic staff to elect representatives to Council, their governing body and employer; and to discuss this situation with non-UCU colleagues so that they too are aware of what is at stake.

Liz Schafer
Bob Fitzgerald

Unannounced proposal to radically change staff membership of RHUL College Council

Proposals for radical change were sent to Academic Board members at the last minute.

On the Friday before the next Academic Board, members received some late papers to add to the (approximately) 500 pages already received. So it would have been easy to miss the fact that one of them was titled “governance”.

From this paper, we learned that the recent Council Effectiveness Review included the proposal that the number and process of appointment of staff members to Council be altered. As members of Academic Board we have approached the local branch of UCU to ask that it publicise this proposal on its blog, as we feel there may be many members of staff who are dismayed by such a proposal.

Given this proposal had already been discussed at Council, it can’t have taken a huge amount of work to prepare the documentation. So we can only wonder why it was given such a low priority.

What do the College Statues say?

The current membership of Council is laid out on the College statutes:

Statute 3:3

The Council shall consist of twenty-five individuals who shall be the charity trustees of the College as follows:

3.1 Sixteen Independent Members who shall be appointed by the Council in accordance with the procedures prescribed in the Standing Orders. The Independent Members shall always form the majority of the membership of the Council;
3.2 Three Members of Academic Staff who shall be elected in accordance with the procedures prescribed in the Standing Orders;
3.3 Three Members of Non-Academic Staff who shall be elected in accordance with the procedures prescribed in the Standing Orders;

The Statutes also stipulate that a staff member of Council, academic or non-academic, must be elected to the position. It is an honour to be elected to Council by one’s peers, and the list of elected Council members includes many long standing and committed colleagues. Changing the Statutes to reduce staff representation and/or to change the method of selection would require the agreement of Privy Council, a process which will require money that could be better spent at this time.

The proposal put to Academic Board

The current number of academic staff seats on Council is three, as is the number of seats for non-academic staff members. The proposal argues that the membership of Council is too large and that we should reduce the academic and non-academic elected members from three per category to two per category. The proposal also argues that as independent members are appointed following an interview process, the same appointment process should be used for staff representatives.

It also suggests that moving to a process of appointment, “the candidate pool will widen, and Council will also be able to appoint members with skills which are required on Council”.

The concerns of some members of Academic Board

Retaining a robust representation of staff who provide education, engage in research, interact with students and conduct the core professional functions of the College is of fundamental importance to the effective consideration of the current and future success of this College. It is of vital importance that the student and staff experiences at RHUL be brought to forefront of the productive scrutiny of the governance of College. This is particularly key given the evolving COVID-19 context, with its challenging economic and welfare implications for current and future students and staff at Royal Holloway.

As members of Academic Board, we are particularly concerned that whilst focusing on maintaining financial viability, the University maintains high academic standards and matches them with prioritising the welfare of students and staff. Members of the Senior Management Team have, by definition, less contact with students and staff (except in a managerial role). Independent members of Council have many strengths, but they lack contact with key stakeholders of the College other than Senior Management.

The members of Council are collectively the charity trustees of the College, responsible for the good governance and management of the College; it is through Council that the powers of the College are executed and delegated. These include:

1.3 apply the principles of justice and fairness to employment policies and procedures;
1.4 promote equality of opportunity, diversity, dignity at work and good working relations.

Moreover the Council retains ultimate responsibility for all matters affecting the appointment, employment, remuneration, superannuation, and conditions of service of members of academic staff.

Changing the make-up of the Council and removing any elected staff element is a substantial change in our terms and conditions of employment. It is also a transformation in our relationship with the institution. All elements of the longstanding vision of staff, students and the Council as partners in a joint enterprise could thus be replaced by a narrow system of appointment.

We believe that the idea of moving from elected staff members to selective appointments is profoundly undemocratic. This change, and the reduction in the number of staff members on Council from 6 to 4, is likely to make the institution weaker rather than stronger, and render it less effective in serving the interests of its students and staff. Given that it was not long ago that the College was looking for “trusted staff” to ask questions in open staff meetings, we believe this strikes a worrying tone. If we truly want a harmonious appointment process for Council, it would be far better to consider the election of all independent members by staff and students. This would allow us to diversify our independent members.

What can you do if you are concerned about this proposal?

There is so little time before the Academic Board of 3 June 2020 that staff have only a very limited opportunity to discuss the proposal with colleagues on Academic Board. We are also clearly hampered as remote working means we no longer bump into colleagues on campus, which would normally allow for a more “natural” discussion of this proposal. Any colleagues with concerns on this matter may wish to email the Principal at Paul.Layzell at rhul.ac.uk so he is made aware of their reservations.

This article was submitted to RHUL-UCU for publication by concerned members of Academic Board.

Greylisting and anti-union activities

‘Greylisting’ is the most serious sanction UCU can impose on a university. Only its Higher Education Committee, in consultation with the local branch, can impose an international academic boycott. It is used as a final resort against those institutions that breach academic freedom, undermine union representation, or engage in the worst employment and procedural malpractice.

A boycott would include but not be limited to applying for any advertised jobs at the boycotted institution, speaking at or organising academic or other conferences, giving visiting lectures, accepting positions as visiting professors or researchers, writing for any academic journal which is edited at or produced at the institution in question, and accepting new contracts as external examiners for taught courses.

At RHUL, Human Resources (HR) with the support of senior management decided to suspend Jeff Frank, the local UCU’s Equality and Diversity Officer, for carrying out his duties as a union officer, acting on behalf of individual members, and, under academic freedom, expressing his opinions. Because we are obliged to follow the College’s internal procedures as a first resort, the exact details remain confidential, although Jeff has declared himself fully in favour of transparency and open debate now.

Suspension under College procedures does not imply guilt or even a disciplinary procedure. But it cannot be a knee-jerk reaction. Further, a simple claim that an investigation is occurring is not sufficient to warrant suspension under ACAS Guidelines. The principal has oversight of all academic suspensions, and Senior Management needs to establish why specifically prohibiting an individual’s presence on campus, access to e-mails, use of the library, or any other limitation is necessary to allow fair investigation to occur. This has not happened in Jeff’s case.

Suspension is a serious step against a university employee and academic, and should be an act of last, not first resort. Yet Jeff’s suspension is now entering its third month. This indefensible situation is a reminder of HR’s failings and its increasingly anti-union policies. Troublingly for academics, students and the public alike, it illustrates a lack of concern for academic freedom.

We have not reached the point of officially seeking greylisting, but we must now begin to plan for this sanction. Whatever stage a dispute has reached, UCU is open to negotiation and resolution, but so far management has simply ignored the obligations of its union recognition agreement and the values expressed in College statutes.

While we cannot comment on the ‘charges’ against Jeff due to HR’s insistence on ‘confidentiality’, here is a link to a video where Jeff describes his approach to casework:

You can judge, in this one instance, if Jeff’s views would be likely to violate any legitimate rules that HR might have in mind.

Feel free, furthermore, to make a contribution to Education Support Partnership, the excellent charity highlighted in the video. The charity was founded to help teachers facing stress, and the expansion of its activities to Higher Education is a powerful indicator of the growing stress and anxiety in our workplaces.

Posted on behalf of members of RHUL-UCU committee.

Royal Holloway: Who is in Charge?

The hard-line approach of Royal Holloway during the recent industrial dispute was unprecedented. Management decided that strike deducted pay would, for the first time, not be donated to the student hardship fund, and they rejected the principle of a guaranteed retirement income. Under pressure from staff and students, both decisions were, thankfully, reversed. In previous years, management made gestures of goodwill by offering to pay employer pension contributions lost during a dispute; last time, with USS being under threat, that goodwill was not, somewhat ironically, forthcoming.

Management also hoped to break the strike at Royal Holloway by threatening a 100% salary deduction for anyone working to contract and refusing to carry out voluntary activities. Management thought that staff should just be ordered to go beyond their contractual obligations. Staff goodwill has to be nurtured and is a fundamental component of a successful or ambitious university.

What the pensions dispute highlighted was a failure in governance and management at Royal Holloway. Rather than lessons being learnt, the suspension of Jeff Frank clearly shows that this failure continues.

Unless they are unavailable, the principal or a senior academic manager must take the decision and responsibility to suspend a member of academic staff, but this did not happen in the case of Jeff. Why, officially, have they been unavailable? Suspending an academic is an extremely serious matter, given the academic freedom implications, and requires academic judgement.

The responsibility was, oddly, and unfairly, transferred to professional service staff. With inevitably more limited experience of academic departments, or, indeed, relevant employment cases, they are reliant on the advice of the Human Resource managers who, in our opinion, want to make an example of Jeff. It is not an appropriate way to treat either academics or members of professional services. An unnecessary and drawn-out suspension shows a disregard for students who were sitting examinations and seeking job or postgraduate references, the life of the Economics Department, and research output. Royal Holloway’s academic mission is secondary, or worse.

The future of the USS and the industrial dispute raised questions about the purpose and character of universities. It asked why university managers have become so detached from their staff. Throughout the sector, the next building project had priority over the staff who are needed for the core activities of teaching and research. Governance and management trends at Royal Holloway illustrate a lack of academic leadership and oversight.

The UCU believes that the case against Jeff has no substance. Further, there is no good explanation of how his being at work or accessing emails could prevent any investigation of the ‘case’ against him. Jeff would prefer full transparency over the details and the handling of his suspension so that all staff can make their own judgements. Jeff remains, however, bound by confidentiality imposed on him.

The suspension breaches the wording and spirit of College statutes, which supports the right of staff to state opinions and concerns, but those taking the decisions at Royal Holloway seem wholly unconcerned. A top university should be able to cope with questioning and even dissent. Who decided that Royal Holloway would be different?

Posted on behalf of members of RHUL-UCU committee.