Archaeology and School of Languages and Cultures dispute
Information about the University's proposed changes to Archaeology and the School of Languages and Cultures, and what action we are taking in response to this
- Dispute and Industrial Action ballot
- Post-ballot developments
- Assurances provided by University management
- Committee and branch views
- Final comments
- In the summer of 2021, the University of Sheffield announced that it would close its iconic Archaeology department, with a view to moving some of its activities to other existing departments.
- At the same time, an unpopular restructure of the School of Languages and Cultures (SLC) was underway (the “Future of Languages” programme).
- In July 2021, the campus trade unions lodged a collective dispute with the University with several demands, but these were dismissed.
- As a result, Sheffield UCU members balloted for industrial action and action short of strike. A mandate was received for both of these.
- In April 2022, Sheffield UCU received assurance that the majority of fixed term contracts in Archaeology were being extended until September 2024.
- In SLC, Sheffield UCU received assurance that phase 3 of the proposed project would not go ahead, and phase 4 would only commence once previous phases are complete.
- The industrial action mandate expired in May. However, this does not mean that the wider issues have been resolved.
In the summer of 2021, the University of Sheffield announced that it would close its iconic Archaeology department, with a view to moving some of its activities to other existing departments. It was a major blow to the University community that such a successful and world-renowned department was seen by University management as fit only for closure. Meanwhile, the processes that led to the decision created huge amounts of anger, with significant questions raised over ethics, governance and transparency.
At the same time, an unpopular restructure of the School of Languages and Cultures (SLC) was underway (the “Future of Languages” programme), with staff concerned about the pedagogical impact of the restructure as well as the future of their jobs, and frustrated by similar opaque decision-making and lack of consultation. The first phase of that programme – Phase 1 – had already seen teaching staff restructured into the Modern Languages Teaching Centre (MLTC), against significant opposition from within the department.
In solidarity with staff within Archaeology and SLC, the Sheffield UCU membership decided not to take this lying down, and to enter into dispute with the University over the closure of Archaeology and the ongoing restructure of SLC.
In July 2021, the campus trade unions lodged a collective dispute with the University, demanding that the University should:
- Commit to developing an action plan with all members of the department and trade union representatives for meaningful investment in the future of archaeology as a coherent discipline and department at Sheffield;
- Pause the Future of Languages programme and restart meaningful consultation with all staff, including the School of East Asian Studies and all 12 dual and single honours partners with the School of Languages and Culture. Options for consultation must include the reversal of Phase One;
- Initiate a full review of University governance and leadership structures, with scope to consider, among other things, the remit of decision making bodies, the mechanisms of selection for University leadership roles, and decision making structures related to remuneration and financial investments. The governance review group membership will have a balanced representation of staff from all pay grades, as well as TU representation for each campus Trade Union.
University management considered these demands in two meetings aimed at finding a resolution in early August, but dismissed them. As a result, Sheffield UCU members decided to ballot for industrial action.
Terms of ballot
Due to the need to comply with restrictive Trade Union legislation, the ballot focused on the issues of potential redundancies in the two departments, with governance and other matters to remain part of wider campaigning. Specifically, the ballot was over “the failure to provide a guarantee of no compulsory redundancies related to the decision to close the Archaeology department and the restructure of the School of Languages and Cultures, the School of South East Asian Studies, and the 12 dual and single honours partners impacted”.
The ballot was successful and sent a clear message to University management that our members would stand with those in Archaeology and SLC, with 73% (684) in favour of industrial action and 83% (779) in favour of action short of strike, on a response rate of 56% (937 responses out of 1,669 ballots cast).
At a branch meeting on 23 November 2021, members voted that the branch should “attempt to meet with management to negotiate a resolution to the dispute around Archaeology and Languages ensuring no compulsory redundancies”, but that “if a resolution can not be reached through negotiation, the branch will initiate industrial action above and beyond the UK-wide action, with a view to extending our mandate for a summer marking and assessment boycott by means of a strategically-timed reballot as necessary”.
Shortly before the Christmas break, the report from UEB’s ‘Implementation Group’, who were tasked with implementing the detail behind the decision to close the Archaeology department, was released to staff in the department. The Implementation Group’s recommendations were for the closure of the department to take place at the end of the 2023-24 academic year, and a commitment for all open-ended academic staff to be moved to either History or Biosciences at that point.
In response to the ballot and motion passed by members in November, senior members of the University’s executive board agreed to meet to discuss the situation. At the meeting in early January, UCU’s negotiators sought assurances that there would be no compulsory redundancies in either department as a result of the proposed change, outlining why staff were so angry about what had happened. University management were unable to provide strong enough assurances on these matters, but agreed that a further meeting would take place to look at the staff groups in more detail.
A follow-up meeting took place in February where the impacts of the proposals on the various staff groups in Archaeology were considered closely. While the University was still unable to provide a blanket commitment to no compulsory redundancies, there were useful discussions over how each group of staff within Archaeology could be provided with greater job security. Likewise, we sought the strongest assurances that management could provide for staff in SLC. We set management the challenge of convincing us that staff in these two departments would have job security equal to staff in any other department.
In late April, University management sent to the UCU committee an email containing the best assurances it could provide over job security for staff in Archaeology and SLC.
On Archaeology, they told us that the majority of fixed term contracts in Archaeology were being extended until September 2024. While they could not specify the exact teaching, technical and professional services roles that they proposed would transition to Biosciences or History, they told us that they would provide this information as the transition period progressed. They promised to keep departmental staff updated throughout the process.
On SLC, they told us that Phase 2 of the project (strategic way forward for SLC with respect to education and research) was underway, based on a framework from the Faculty which was approved by UEB in October 2021, and that the presented framework did not include any plans for reducing staffing in the school. They had decided not to pursue Phase 3 of the project (exploring the development of a federal structure, and a collaboration between SLC, MLTC and SEAS) following feedback from staff, and stated that Phase 4 (review of professional services) would only commence once previous phases are complete.
While the outcome of the dispute is short of what Sheffield UCU would have wanted (as articulated in the July dispute lodged with the University), it is notable that the position on the future of Archaeology shifted significantly after members showed their willingness to take action, with significantly better assurances over job security than had been implied in the early stages. Likewise, there has been a slow-down in the Future of Languages programme in SLC and the side-lining of one of its phases, showing some acknowledgement of the anger that this was causing.
While we haven’t been able to obtain cast-iron assurances over compulsory redundancies, it is not immediately clear what further assurances we could obtain through industrial action. For that reason, the view of the negotiators, the Dispute Committee formed to guide the dispute, and the branch committee was that there was nothing to be gained by escalating the dispute at that stage, and the best approach was to stay vigilant for developments and react accordingly. Branch meetings were updated on this plan of action.
The industrial action mandate expired in May. However, this does not mean that the wider issues have been resolved. The closure of Archaeology and restructuring of SLC are seen by many staff in those respective areas as being catastrophic failures, with real and irreparable harm done to these disciplines at The University of Sheffield. There is still concern over the way that such damaging decisions are made behind closed doors, with little to no oversight and zero accountability.
The future of Archaeology is currently in the hands of an Implementation Group which regularly reports only to UEB and not, for example, to Senate. We believe it is essential that Senate be given adequate space and time for consultation on this substantial matter. Meetings are now ongoing which will develop the proposals for which parts of the Archaeology curriculum and collections will be kept, and which will disappear from our university. We are awaiting updates on the current position with regards to SLC, particularly with regards Phases 2 and 4. It will be important that the branch is able to keep sight on what is happening as much as possible, and that, if needed, we are prepared to fight to protect our members there and the future of these important parts of the University’s activities.