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

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

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.

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