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

March of the Schaculties

An earlier version of this blog referred to a specific School. We have removed these references in order not to single out one School.
The new Schaculties are up and running and the new Heads of School are starting to issue their schrategy documents. Meanwhile, Professor Badcock has invited external speakers in to “help” everyone to start thinking about the College’s next strategic plan.
Sometimes we forget how privileged we are to be working at Royal Holloway. As recently as 2011, we were ranked 88th in the world in the Times Higher rankings. The College operated on a system of consensus. While that meant that change might be slowed down, it also meant that everyone was on board. Strategies of prudence meant that the College was in fine financial fettle.
The change in national higher education strategy under the coalition government involved HEU fees rising from £3000 to £9000 in one fell swoop, with uncapped student numbers following shortly thereafter. The unit of resource per student effectively went up by 50% and we could admit more of these highly profitable students. While uncapped numbers meant greater competition (notably from the Russell Group) for top students, standing still in student numbers would have meant a large increase in our income that could be spent on appropriate buildings and, crucially, deepening the academic structure with new hires of talented lecturers, while tough student recruitment standards would have further raised our standing in league tables as well as the quality of education.
Be that as it may, there is a vital REF occurring next year. While senior scholars cast scorn on the NSS and the TEF, and leading experts in equalities view ‘tick box’ schemes as at best a diversion, the REF remains largely respected in the sector, and is noted internationally. The College did well in the 2014 REF with an overall GPA ranking of 26th in the country (modestly down from 24th in the 2008 REF). Ultimately, each Schaculty will be judged on how it does in the upcoming REF. As resources in the sector are frozen or declining (whether or not the Augar recommendations on lowering fees are adopted), the College as a whole vitally depends on each Schaculty succeeding in the REF as well as the College’s overall REF outcome.

Continue reading “March of the Schaculties”

Schaculties, Scmaculties

As the new academic year looms, for the sake of our students, we hope the new School structures work out well. But it is always good to have clear measures of success and risk, and have contingency plans in case things don’t run to plan.

We’re not sure that anyone has been clear on these measures. We certainly don’t want to be seen as ‘doubters, gloomsters and doomsters’. So let us try to provide these features.

First off, naming something as a ‘School’ rather than a ‘Faculty’ is not of any obvious import. What is meaningful is that different combinations of subjects are now envisaged. Having 6 of these things rather than 3 means that, on average, the number of subjects in each Schaculty has gone down. This in principle allows for closer work across cognate subjects. So one measure of success could be growth in new interdisciplinary programmes, research projects and centres.

Of course, interdisciplinarity is something that is more often favoured in the generality than in the specifics. All funding agencies laud interdisciplinary work, and then downgrade interdisciplinary grant applications because the referees in subject A don’t like the research proposed in subject B, and the referees in subject B don’t like the research proposed in subject A. And the applicants go back to their single discipline grant applications, but with an early paragraph lauding interdisciplinary work.

But where is the new money for these programmes, centres and projects? Where are the new posts that integrate the subjects in the new Schools? Can all this be done in time for the REF next year?

In the old days, moving from 3 to 6 Schaculties would just involve additional stationery costs. If we still had engraved letterheads, we would now need 6 versions rather than 3. No big deal, one way or the other. Of course, it’s hard to know what it means for the size and cost of the senior management team – we have public statements that this has been “trimmed”, to save £400k, but there are still an awful lot of people in the SMT.

But the real thing that could affect our students is the consolidation in administration away from Departments and to the Schaculty level. This is intended to encourage greater conformity across subjects. But whoever said that that was a good thing? We have subject criteria in academic promotions, so why shouldn’t we have subject criteria in the way we educate?

But if the potential gain is unclear, the potential risk is massive. Sometimes the conventional wisdom is right, and the conventional wisdom is that students and lecturers need administrators at the coalface where the loyalty is to the subject and where the administrators are readily accessible by students and staff. The empirical evidence from recent experiments in creating Schools at other universities supports the conventional wisdom.

We suggest that there be a contingency plan, if there is not one already, to start moving the administrators back into departments if the conventional wisdom proves correct. And to do this with urgency and even (due, not undue) haste.

So far scare stories from administrative and professional service staff who have been restructured are worrying; higher workloads, stressed line managers, reconfigured job descriptions, and increasingly bizarre demands of academic staff – why not submit your spring term course’s summer exam by 1st November to allow overworked administrative staff time to process it! And this is before our new and returning intake has even arrived!

But we don’t want to be ‘doubters, gloomsters and doomsters’, to be such is not in vogue in the UK at the moment (at least at Number 10). And it is rather boring to continue to believe in the conventional wisdom, even if it is backed up by 100 years of tradition. So let’s look gloriously forward to a great future, whilst making sure to report any snagging issues to the Deputy Principal (Operations), Dr Ashton (david.ashton at rhul.ac.uk) and copying them to us at the local branch (rhulucu2018 at gmail.com).

Posted on behalf of members of the RHUL UCU branch committee.

RHUL UCU request suspension of CeDAS restructuring

RHUL UCU have written to the Principal of the college to ask that the current restructuring of CeDAS be suspended. The branch has requested a special joint negotiating committee meeting to discuss its concerns; this meeting will be held on 25th June.  We are particularly concerned about the counter-productive impact of stress on the Grade 7 staff required to go through the restructuring process.

The branch does not feel that full and proper consultation has occurred in advance of the restructuring, as required by the union recognition agreement. The refusal of line managers responsible for affected programmes to meet with us is clearly in contradiction of the requirements of full and proper consultation.

The rationale for introducing restructuring is the withdrawal of the Pre-Masters diploma. However, the only member of staff assigned to the diploma is a Grade 8 member of staff, not the Grade 7 member of staff who has been targeted for restructuring. We do not know the specific details of the new HEU Foundation year programme which is being introduced, which is one reason for wanting to meet with the appropriate line managers to understand the impact better. It seems a full-time post will be associated with this new programme, for a one year term in the first instance – which suggests that there is no need for any redundancy at all for the upcoming academic year. If the Foundation year programme does not continue after that year, redundancy may be needed, but it makes no sense to impose a redundancy now.

Existing staff are developing material for the Foundation year, which is already validated apart from minor revisions (or so we understand, not yet having been able to meet with the appropriate line managers). Applications have been solicited and students have been accepted for 2019-20. The same staff will teach on this programme. This indicates that staff currently in post are fully transferrable to the Foundation programme.

It has been suggested that the Foundation year will largely be taught by casual staff or by adding to the workload of existing academic staff in departments. Both of these options create problems for us as a trade union and as academics working in the College. The College already has 62% of staff on casual contracts (HR figures autumn 2019), putting us in the worst 20% of UK universities for relying on casual staff. Staffing the Foundation year with an enlarged casualised workforce perpetuates insecurity for staff and is less likely to give a positive experience for students. Staff in some academic departments have been told that they will need to absorb some of this Foundation teaching; it is unclear how staff will be able to do this without sacrificing their current students or their research output. In any case, this deleterious impact on terms and conditions needs to be discussed with us under the recognition agreement.

The process of restructuring raises further concerns. We are not convinced that the process for determining any needed redundancy is fair and well thought-out. At the start of the restructuring process, HR and the line manager asked staff how they would like to be evaluated. This suggests that there is no clear motivation or rationale for selecting an individual or individuals. The criteria used in the supporting documentation for the restructure are not applicable to grade 7 staff, and the inconsistency within the document of the weightings attached to the criteria suggests the mechanism for evaluating “at risk” staff has been, at best, hastily devised.

Affected staff report that they feel very isolated and no support has been offered, beyond directing them to the Employee Assistance Programme. For unclear reasons – in contravention of UK employment law – staff were advised they could not use working time to complete the complex evaluation matrix.

As we all observed during the recent administrative restructuring process, meaningful consultation can lead to an improved outcome for the organisation and the staff concerned. RHUL-UCU has raised concerns about this restructure as they emerged but we have had unsatisfactory responses. This process has left the staff at risk in a state of distress, a regrettable outcome which may affect the performance of this unit in the long term. Pausing this procedure to allow for reflection and detailed discussion will be of benefit to both the College and the affected staff.

The RHUL Restructuring Bulldozer Rolls On

The College recently undertook a wholesale restructuring of its administrative staff in academic departments, to “map” support staff to the new School structure. Whilst the three trade unions (UCU, Unite and GMB) did not have the power to halt the proposals, they worked hard to shape the changes and to encourage the engagement of all staff with the consultation period. We have previously highlighted the breadth of concern and the willingness across staff and students to make constructive suggestions. Although we remain engaged in individual case work supporting affected staff, we feel that our involvement did limit the negative outcomes for some colleagues. Unfortunately, some colleagues and some departments remain extremely unhappy. The relevant academic, finance and HR scholarship makes clear that restructurings, containing the potential threat of downgrading and redundancy, leave a bitter taste for some time, eroding productivity. The higher education literature also makes clear the importance of coalface administrative staffing to support students and academic staff.

This restructuring was presented as a ‘one-off’ required by the move to Schools. Sadly, it seems instead to have been a precursor to a new style of operation that potentially involves regular restructurings – with the threat of redundancy – throughout the College. While we accept that over-spending in some areas has left the College in a financially awkward situation, restructurings are usually counter-productive. During their visits to Departments, Senior Management has expressed support for creating a surplus of up to £12 million by increasing student numbers without increasing staff. Given the lack of investment in academic staffing, it is unclear how this can be done.

Currently staff in the IT and CeDAS teams are subject to the insecurity which comes with restructuring proposals which contain the threat of redundancy. It would be a major mistake – from every perspective – were this to become the standard operating procedure by HR and Senior Management at the College.

Continue reading “The RHUL Restructuring Bulldozer Rolls On”