As we’re now at the end of what has been one of the most challenging semesters on record, we want to thank all of you for your input over the last few months. This has been an incredibly busy period for the branch, and the fact that so many of us continue to turn out to regular meetings, emergency and extraordinary meetings, and campaigning events and action groups is testament to the commitment and energy of the branch membership. Thank you.
Below is a brief round up of news from the last month and looking ahead to the New Year. We don’t anticipate that things will become much easier as we head into semester two.
At the General Meeting on 24th November we gave an update on the current stage of the grievance that we launched with Unite and GMB over our ongoing health and safety concerns. Since the grievance was submitted, in mid-October, the picture has substantially changed and we are hoping that we can work towards a joint statement with the University that will bring an end to the process.
We have been pleased with the University’s response to some items in the grievance, including the end of face to face teaching in line with government guidelines in early December, our health and safety reps being given access to a directory of all risk assessments across the institution, and a commitment to joint working on plans for semester two.
All of the recognised trade unions have been asked for input into the planning for the spring semester, and we are interested to hear your thoughts. Please get in touch if you have them, and come along to the General Meeting in January (save the date reminders are at the bottom of this email).
We also met the Vice Chancellor recently and raised our concerns with him directly for the first time since the meeting where we were notified of the launch of the s188 consultation in the summer. The Vice Chancellor expressed his view that the consultation was necessary. We disagree, and encourage as many of you as possible to share your views on this and any other matters to the VC.
As ever we encourage all members with health and safety concerns to contact us on firstname.lastname@example.org and any member who would like to negotiate around face to face working of any kind to make use of the template letters produced by UCU, available here.
Health and safety update
More broadly on health and safety, we have discussed the testing programme in some detail with the University. It’s been an enormous logistical undertaking for those institutions participating and the outcomes of both the Winter Covid Plan and Christmas-specific easing of restrictions remain to be seen.
We encourage members to familiarise themselves with information available in the public domain about the testing programme using lateral flow tests, much of which is summarised in the briefing note here.
We continue to raise staff stress and wellbeing (including but not limited to workload) as an urgent concern and encourage those of you who are finding workloads are significantly unmanageable to work with your line manager/Head of Department and other colleagues to ensure that concerns are heard at all levels of the University.
National UCU update
You may remember that an interim online Congress was due to be held in mid-October and was postponed due to technical difficulties. The Higher Education Conference that forms part of this meeting has been rescheduled to 15th December. You can view the motions that were voted on and the results here and we will update and discuss further in January.
There will shortly be elections for UCU’s National Executive Committee. As ever, we strongly encourage members to vote in these elections since the NEC plays a very important role in determining UCU’s actions and strategies. There are a large number of candidates standing this year which is a very positive sign for lay member involvement in UCU’s democratic structures.
You will have seen in updates from UCU HQ that there are now multiple branches across the sector balloting for industrial action over current conditions or otherwise in dispute. Please offer your support as you can.
The programme of events that we put on for Disability History Month were very well-supported, many thanks to those who attended. You might also like to view our new leaflet on reasonable adjustments and rights for disabled staff at work.
You may have seen recently that the University has launched a listening exercise on issues of exclusion and inclusion. This consultation, headed up by the Chaplaincy, has been developed as a first step towards improving University policies dealing with antisemitism and all forms of racism. Reps from the branch committee have been involved in discussions around formulating this exercise and we encourage all of you to take part in the initial survey. . There’s more information including contact details for the project leads here. The branch committee views the listening exercise as a productive means of addressing issues of exclusion at the university, and made clear its view that the University should not bypass proper consultation and rush into an implementation of the problematic IHRA definition of antisemitism which both this branch and UCU nationally have rejected insofar as it conflates the very real problem of antisemitism with legitimate criticism of Israel.
We were deeply frustrated to learn this week that Council did agree to adopt the IHRA definition.
We are also aware that there is work ongoing on experiences of parental leave at the University with a view to reviewing and improving existing provision and support, and we encourage all members who this affects to complete the survey here.
We continue to build our network of anti-casualisation representatives in departments. We are planning a series of training sessions in the new year. If you’re interested in getting involved please get in touch with Steffan Blayney: email@example.com
In September UCU’s special sector conference passed a motion to acknowledge PGR original research as labour and to campaign for the recognition of PGRs as members of staff in order to combat casualisation from the bottom up. A first campaign-launch discussion took place in November. We will continue the discussions locally and UK-wide.If you want to get involved, please get in touch with Elena Simon: firstname.lastname@example.org
Finally we want to express our severe reservations against the UKRI decision to ignore its own research on the effect of the pandemic on PGR colleagues and to not provide extensions for PGRs finishing after 30 March 2021. Please support PGR colleagues in their struggle for crisis mitigation such as funded extensions for all, hardship funds, and fee waivers for self-funded PGRs by raising these issues in your department and faculty and making PGR colleagues aware of campaigns around the issue.
We’re really pleased that branch membership is looking very healthy at more than 2000 members. We are also very glad that our coverage of departmental reps and contacts is now approaching nearly all of our academic departments. If you work in a central professional services team that doesn’t have a UCU rep and you’re interested in hearing more or becoming a rep, please contact us. There are also some academic departments, particularly in MDH, who don’t yet have a rep. The time commitment is low (1 - 2 hours per month) but these roles are crucial to the functioning of the branch. We’re here to support you and there’s no need for prior knowledge or experience, just a commitment to building the union within your department or work area.
If you’re interested in learning more, please contact Membership Officer Katy Fox-Hodess on email@example.com
Please hold these dates for upcoming meetings in the New Year, when registration links will be sent out
Departmental reps and contacts meeting Thursday 14th January 1.00 - 2.00pm
General Meeting Thursday 21st January 1.00 - 2.00pm
Nablus twinning initiative meeting Tuesday 12th January 7pm
SUCU Climate Emergency Action Group, in cooperation with SustCom, Tues 12 January, 1-2pm, join here ; join googlegroup here
As we move ever closer to the end of semester, we’ll be looking forward to taking some well earned time off and treating ourselves, whatever the festive period may look like. Please make sure you take the Christmas closure period to switch off from work and relax. Remember too a motion we passed about making sure we remember to take all our annual leave, so if the conditions are right to extend the Christmas break, do so.
As we take the time to step back, it is important to remind ourselves of how much we have achieved collectively in spite of what this year has thrown at us. We went from sustained strike action to global crisis. We have all gone above and beyond to adapt and change in the face of the pandemic. Not only have we all shown immense resilience, strength and solidarity but we’ve also won significant concessions from University management. Some of the highlights include the agreed “do what you can” working over lockdown in early spring, the withdrawal of the ‘fire and rehire’ consultation under s188, 100% pay for staff on furlough, and the extension of a good proportion of fixed-term contracts that were due to end earlier this year. As ever, there remains much to do.
We’ll be back in the New Year and look forward to discussing our next steps as a branch collectively, including ensuring that the ‘new normal’ doesn’t mean any erosion of our rights at work.
Since the beginning of the semester we have had one of the busiest periods in the branch’s history. In early September we sent a detailed email to members with an update on health and safety, and launched a survey to hear your views. We have held a series of meetings throughout the semester to discuss issues raised by members around the current approach to learning and teaching.
We wrote to University management just prior to the start of the semester outlining five principles that we considered essential for a safe return to teaching on campus. In early October we held an EGM to discuss the branch response to the start of the semester, and at that meeting determined that we would submit a collective grievance along with other campus unions over what remain significant concerns over health and safety on campus. On 10th October that grievance was formally submitted (you can view the text here). The half-term holiday has delayed the process somewhat, but we meet representatives from University management again on Thursday 5th November to seek to resolve the grievance.
On 15th October at our General Meeting, we updated members on the progress of the grievance and presented a motion of no confidence in UEB, which passed overwhelmingly. Turnout at the meeting was higher than we have seen in some years, with more than 300 of you present to hear the discussion. Following the branch vote of no confidence, and requests from numerous members who were unable to attend the meeting, we have made an open letter version of the statement available for any member of the university community who wishes to sign it. Please note that you need to be signed in to your Sheffield address in order to sign. You can find a link to further contextual information here.
We were disappointed to learn on 4th November that there is no intention on the part of University management to alter our provision further. At our next branch meeting we will report back on the progress of the grievance and discuss and determine our next steps.
We want to ensure that all members are aware that we continue to meet the University every week to discuss ongoing issues thrown up both by the Covid situation generally and in terms of health and safety in particular. If you have concerns or questions that have not been covered in our meetings or discussions recently, please get in touch.
National UCU news
At the end of September a Higher Education Sector Conference was held. You can view the motions that were passed at that meeting here.
UCU was due to hold an interim online Congress at the end October. Unfortunately due to technical challenges the event had to be postponed. We will update the branch as soon as we can on arrangements for the rescheduled event.
We finally have the outcome of the new valuation methodology employed by USS, and the results are obscene. In what appears to be an attempt to blackmail employers into allowing the scheme significant influence over institutions’ financial decision-making, USS are threatening total contributions of 68% (compared to just 26% in 2017)! USS claim that they’ve followed the JEP recommendations, but by coupling the JEP-proposed dual-discount rate with a rebadged Test 1 (now referred to as ‘Metric A’) they have engineered massive deficits and sent costs spiralling. It goes without saying that this cannot stand. Our scheme has been hijacked, and all efforts now must be put into getting it back.
Mercifully, University of Birmingham VC David Eastwood stepped down as chair of the scheme last month (shortly after finalising the valuation) and has been replaced by incoming independent director Kate Barker. With two new additions to the board from UCU (Andrew Brown and Helen Shay) and one from UUK (Paul Curran), there is potential for a culture change within USS, though its hugely divisive CEO Bill Galvin remains. Meanwhile, please don’t forget about Jane Hutton - fired from the board last year, and in the process of taking USS to court for unfair dismissal. We hope that justice prevails and anybody responsible for wrong-doing is properly held to account.
We have had a number of productive negotiation meetings with HR on casualisation.
We have made progress on eliminating term time only teaching contracts with a paper based on our proposed changes being submitted to UEB. As a result of successful meetings with management, we are working on establishing a university wide best practice guide for employing GTAs. HR has also agreed with us on the principle that all members of staff need to be included in all staff communications. We are currently working on establishing a set of guiding principles for employing Associate Tutors, Contracted Teaching Assistants and University Teachers including contract length and adequate research time. If you’d like to share your thoughts on this, please email firstname.lastname@example.org
A meeting of fixed-term contract research staff took place in early September, and an open and informal mailing list was set up to discuss issues specifically related to casualised researchers. You can sign up here if you want to be added to the list. One particular concern, is people on fixed term contracts with more than four years of service not being moved onto open ended contracts.
If you have been on a Fixed Term Contract for more than 4 years and have not been moved onto an Open Ended Contract, please get in touch.
Finally, we are still looking for reps to join our departmental casualised rep network. If you want to get involved with issues around fixed-term research and teaching contracts, GTA contracts, TTO contracts, and fractional contracts, sign up here.
Many thanks to those of you who attended the anti-racism workshop hosted by San Gopalakrishnan of the BAME staff network. The session is available to view here - please have a look if you couldn’t attend. If you attended the event, please complete the feedback form available here.
An anti-racism action group was held in early October and further updates on this work will be sent shortly.
Meeting for PS members, 11th November at 1.00pm
Departmental reps and contacts meeting, 17th November at 1pm
General meeting for all members, 24th November at 1pm
July branch news
Welcome to the July edition of branch news. This is a very busy time for the branch and more than ever it’s important for members to keep up to date with the work we’re doing. If you have any questions, comments or concerns about any of the items here, please get in touch and we will do our very best to get back to you as soon as we can.
Get involved: are you interested in doing more with the branch? Sign up here.
Come to the next all-union meeting: Thursday 30th July at 1pm. Sign up here.
Formal consultation process
On 9th July the campus trade unions were served a letter under section 188 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992. On the same day, the Vice Chancellor emailed all staff (‘Important update on measures to protect University finances’) outlining some of the possible actions the University is considering in terms of changes to our pay and conditions.
We strongly encourage all members to read the information outlined on this page under ‘Measures to protect University finances’, and in particular the section ‘What happens if the trade unions do not agree following consultation’. This outlines that the University is proposing to unilaterally alter our contracts where agreement cannot be reached via a process called ‘dismissal and re-engagement’ - that is, sacking and re-hiring all of us on worse terms and conditions.
You may have seen local press coverage of this plan, in particular this article in the Yorkshire Post (‘University of Sheffield denies plan to sack 8,000 staff and rehire them on lower pay’, 16th July 2020), and many of you attended the meetings we held in that week, both for UCU members alone and with the other campus unions.
In our meetings that week and in our town hall meeting last week, one theme emerged loud and clear from many of you - that you consider it entirely unacceptable that staff on lower pay should bear the brunt of any cost-cutting measures in a context where University executives enjoy vast salaries.
We expect to hold many more meetings over the course of the consultation process. Please get involved and share your views. UCU, UNISON, Unite and GMB are working closely together on this process with the support of our regional officials and we will do everything we can to challenge the University’s assertion that cuts to staff salaries is the best solution to the current situation.
Now, more than ever, it is critical that we have UCU reps and contacts in every department across the university keeping an eye out for emerging issues and ensuring that all members are informed and engaged. Becoming a rep or contact is a low time commitment -- approximately one hour a month -- but makes all the difference for our strength as a union. If you are interested in becoming a rep or contact and would like to learn more, please contact Membership Officer Katy Fox-Hodess at email@example.com.
Four Fights ballot
You should have received a ballot - closing on 29 July - via email on the offer from UCEA over the Four Fights dispute (email from Civica Election Services, subject line 'UCU consultative ballot'), following several updates over the last few weeks from Jo Grady, the General Secretary, and Paul Bridge, UCU’s head of Higher Education.
The negotiators, UCU’s Higher Education Committee and the branch committee are united in urging you to vote no to reject this offer. Voting no on the offer does not commit us to further industrial action at this stage.
You might find this article interesting on the argument for voting reject, written by the Corona Contract campaign who have worked tirelessly to defend casualised jobs in the sector over the last few months. This branch also voted to reject the offer at a meeting held in late May ahead of consultative meetings held with branch delegates from across the sector the following week.
We continue to meet the University on a weekly basis to discuss and negotiate the ongoing impact of Covid-19 on our working conditions and the health, safety and wellbeing of all staff. On Friday 17th July we had a meeting specifically to discuss learning and teaching in the next academic year - we are very conscious that many of our members have concerns about timetabling, face to face teaching, and the shift to blended and online delivery of our programmes. The University is exploring, in discussion with us, changes to flexible working that would see teaching stretch into non-standard hours, and we are aware that consultation has begun in some departments on this already. We understand that the University is expecting these changes to be on a voluntary basis but has not yet committed to it being only carried out on this basis. We encourage all of you to respond to the consultation frankly, and the branch is aware that for many of our members teaching at non-standard hours is neither possible nor desirable.
We are also keen to hear from those of you who have concerns about the return to face to face teaching, or about the University’s plans to ensure the safety of new students when they arrive in Sheffield in September. The current return to campus risk assessment correctly notes that the priority is to eliminate risk where possible, which means that all work that can be carried out remotely should be. We are aware that the research on the impact of Covid-19 is ongoing and changes frequently (see, for example, this recent study in Nature) and we are doing all we can to ensure that risk assessments and equality impact assessments reflect this. Please do contact us about this if you have information or thoughts about this.
Please note the announcement made in last week’s internal staff communications bulletin that staff can request up 10 days of annual leave be carried over into the next leave year.
Early career members update
In light of the requirement to make 15% cuts in department budgets, there has been a blanket ban on the hiring of GTAs in the Faculty of Social Sciences for next academic year. We are also beginning to hear about cuts to GTAs in other faculties and departments. At the moment, these cuts are being made at the Departmental and Faculty levels and are not University wide. If your department announces cuts to GTAs, please get in touch.
Over the past few weeks, we’ve been working hard to build a campaign around this. We held an emergency general meeting on GTA issues and prepared a campaign toolkit that people can use to help the fightback.
We have had some key wins in support for PGRs including the creation of a Covid-19 hardship fund and securing funded extensions for third year PGRs on University of Sheffield scholarships. There is still a lot of work to be done, however and we remain concerned about the adequacy of support for PGRs not in their final year, funding, extensions and the treatment of international and disabled PGRs.
Find out more about the work we’ve been doing in this area here.
Researchers on fixed-term contracts are facing particular issues due to uncertainties regarding job security (lack of contract renewal and employment prospects), fieldwork (lack of funding opportunities) and grant applications. If you want to join a group of ECRs organising across the university, please fill out this form (if you haven’t done so already) and you will be added to an ECR mailing list. Please also note that a meeting open to all ECRs across the university will be held on 8 September 1-2pm. More information and a link to the meeting will be sent in due course.
Researchers on fixed term contracts may not be aware that they are eligible to apply for extended electronic access to University of Sheffield resources at the end of their contact - please see here for details.
Black Lives Matter update
Following the death of George Floyd on 25th May at the hands of the United States’ police, which sparked worldwide protests and movements of solidarity with Black people being disproportionately affected by police violence and institutional racism, we held an EGM on 11th June in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and to work towards racial justice. Abdullah Mohamed and San Gopalakrishnan gave updates on the work they are doing as part of BLM Sheffield and the University’s BAME Staff Network, respectively. The EGM was attended by about 75 members, who approved two branch donations, each of £250, to Black Lives Matter UK and Lesbian Asylum Support Sheffield.
Our branch and our members are concerned about police violence and institutional racism, and it is clear we have not done enough to combat racism at the University of Sheffield. As part of this commitment to do more, and to hear from members about how we can do so, we are organising a second EGM in solidarity with BLM movements. San Gopalakrishnan of the BAME Staff Network will deliver a session aimed to explore racism in society with a particular focus on recent issues, and more specifically racism within Higher Education. There will also be a discussion on helping members tackle difficult conversations as well as practical intervention tips. We will send more information closer to the date, but do keep the date of Thursday 3rd September (1-2pm) in your diary!
Besides maintaining a supportive and ongoing dialogue with the BAME staff network, we are currently working on two further initiatives. First, we would like to organise workshops with educators specialised in anti-racism work. Second, together with members who volunteered to help out, we are developing a list of resources about how racism works (and how to resist and dismantle it) specifically in unions and in higher education. As Zahra Bei mentions, reading up on racism isn’t enough - but as a starting point we recommend the book ‘Ethnicity, Race and Inequality in the UK’ (open access) by Bridget Byrne, Claire Alexander, Omar Khan, James Nazroo and William Shankley, as well as this curated list of resources put together by the University library, based on suggestions from people across the University (here is the recommendation form). We also encourage members to suggest their own motions and statements on challenging racism in the workplace, which would help inform our branch position on this. If you’d like to get involved or feedback on any of this, please do get in touch with us.
If you have participated in the Sheffield BLM event on 6 June, or more generally would like to be kept updated by the recently created Sheffield BLM group, please fill out this form.
As we know, racism in the UK can at times overlap with the Hostile Environment faced by migrants. As such we are also seeking to support members employed on a student or work visa who may face particular difficulties in the present time. If you are an international member of staff or student and haven’t filled out this survey, please do so now, and share with your networks.
Disabled Members Forum update
With our fellow campus trade unions, Unite and UNISON, we hosted a joint forum for disabled members via Zoom on 9 July with a good turnout. This was a confidential space created for individuals to share their experiences as a disabled worker at the University of Sheffield, particularly in these unprecedented times and to provide specific updates to members about current disability work that’s taking place.
The Vice Chair of UCU”s national disabled members standing committee shared an update with members about some of the issues and concerns that have been raised nationally, such as individual experiences and perceptions around reasonable adjustments; fear of disclosure; and the intersectionality of disability with other protected characteristics. Members discussed various issues affecting them, including concerns around returning to working on-site; securing reasonable adjustments at work and through the promotions process; and redundancy-related concerns. We also discussed the ongoing work to create an institutional Disability Action Plan - formal consultation on that will begin shortly.
UCU’s national Disabled Members Standing Committee also hosts an open Tuesday ‘Tea Break’ meeting, held fortnightly from 3-4pm. This is now held on Microsoft Teams and disabled UCU members are welcome to join by getting in touch with Elane Heffernan (Chair of the DMSC) - firstname.lastname@example.org. The Disabled Members Network also recently put out a statement - ‘No Return to Discrimination’. Please do share this information as a means for Disabled members to connect and organise.
Nablus twinning update
On 6th July 2020 a meeting was held between members of Sheffield UCU and our colleagues from SHU UCU to discuss the Nablus twinning initiative. Sheffield TUC has officially joined as well, and discussions are ongoing with TU members across Sheffield. Several local elected representatives were also there, including Councilors Neale Gibson and Adam Hurst, Lord Mayor Tony Downing and staff from Louise Haigh's office. Also on the call were representatives from civil society organisations in Nablus and Sheffield.
There is a lot of enthusiasm about the idea of creating relationships between Sheffield and Nablus universities through the trade unions. SUCU will follow up this meeting with further discussions among interested parties - if you are interested in getting involved in the branch’s Palestine work, please contact us on email@example.com.
May-June Branch Newsletter
Welcome to the May/ June edition of SUCU branch news, which is another bumper edition. We don’t have any ordinary general meetings planned for July and August, in line with our usual meeting schedule, but given how busy the branch is with work relating to the ongoing impact of Covid-19, we do expect to be calling more Extraordinary General Meetings soon. Please do keep an eye out for those if you are not on annual leave, and if you have any questions or comments on any of the items here, please get in touch.
Covid-19 updates: job losses and cuts
We continue to meet with the University on a weekly basis, alongside UNISON and Unite, to discuss the changes that we’re all experiencing as a result of Covid-19. We have significant concerns about the scale and pace of the decisions being made in response to outcomes that are not yet known.
On 10th June the University opened another Voluntary Severance Scheme (VSS), the third such scheme since 2009. The campus unions were given just 24 hours’ notice of the scheme opening and we were not consulted on its terms. Long-time members who remember previous schemes will be aware that the terms are less generous than they have been at some points in the past, and we advise anyone considering applying to the scheme to consider their options very carefully.
We are extremely concerned about the non-renewal of fixed term contracts and the potential impact on GTA roles as a result of the financial planning for next year currently being undertaken. Please see below for further details on how to support casualised colleagues in your work area. This forms part of a wider cost-cutting exercise in which budgets are being slashed across the institution and we fully appreciate that these are very anxious and uncertain times.
The University is required to do everything it can to make savings before it pursues compulsory redundancies and we will be scrutinising those efforts as closely as possible. We recently made a formal request for the financial information that we need in order to do that properly, and to which we are entitled under our recognition agreements.
As we move towards a planned return to some face-to-face teaching in September, we are conscious that members may have concerns relating to their health, workloads, childcare or other factors. We are working closely with the University on all aspects of health and safety arising from the return to work and we want to accurately represent the concerns you might have in those areas, so please do get in touch with us about this.
Casual and fixed-term contract organising updates
Members in departments across at least two Faculties are beginning to hear either that their fixed-term teaching contracts will not be renewed or that casual work they might have expected to undertake as GTAs is unlikely to be available next year. Thank you to all of you who have drawn attention to this on social media, solicited support from your students, and worked with the branch on developing a toolkit for resisting these changes. You can follow #PrecarityStories on twitter for personal testimony from affected members, much of which is harrowing reading. Please do everything possible to support casualised colleagues if you are on an open-ended contract.
Research-focused staff on fixed-term contracts are coming up against specific challenges in the face of drastic cuts and changes being implemented by the university - in particular grant and visa issues. A group of ECRs in the Interdisciplinary Centre of Social Sciences (ICOSS) has been discussing ways of responding to these challenges, and would like to reach out to other fixed-term researchers in similar positions across the university. To do this we are creating a mailing list, so if this is relevant to you please fill out this google form. (Please note: the date of 2020 that appears on the form can be modified as needed!). Data submitted on this form will only be used for the purposes of creating the mailing list and for better understanding the problems that are faced by fixed term researchers. All processing of data will be in line with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).
You may have seen recent coverage in the local press of both these job losses and the voluntary severance scheme. The University is one of the largest employers in the city and job losses here have a knock on impact elsewhere. We were pleased to see that local MPs have written to Gavin Williamson recently to demand that the government do more to financially support the sector, and we’d urge you to make as much noise as you can about the likely impact of these losses: not just on our colleagues and friends, but on our students, and on the wider community.
Please have a look here at our toolkit for organising against the loss of casualised contracts and please get in touch with us if you have any questions or would like support from the branch committee on this.
On a national level, Corona Contract are working to solidify support for casualised jobs across branches and you can see more about the campaign on their website or follow on twitter. Please do support it: the loss of work for thousands of people in the early stage of their careers will be devastating for the sector.
Support for international PGR students
Please have a look at a letter written here by international PGR students and consider supporting.
Report back from branch Annual General Meeting (AGM)
On 4th June we held our AGM, which heard reports from the outgoing branch officers and the election of the new branch committee. Many grateful thanks to outgoing committee members who have put in a huge effort supporting the work of the branch over the years: Gill Brown, Miriam Miller, Lauren Selfe, Rob Stanton, Emma Nagouse and Grace Whitfield, and a warm welcome to members elected at the AGM or co-opted since the last one, Elena Simon, Caroline Metz, Andrea Genovese, Tim Herrick and Lisa Stampnitzsky.
We also discussed and passed a motion of support for a citywide initiative twinning with Nablus in the West Bank.
We need to alert you to a change to the subscription rates that wasn’t mentioned in the treasurer’s report at the AGM: the fourth subs band break has been raised from £20k to £22k, which means that members earning between £20k and £21,999 will see their subs reduce from £20.49 (£20.32 excluding the political fund) to £13.12 (£13.02), including the local subs. If you know anyone in this salary range who might be tempted to join at this news, please let them know.
Professional Services (PS) staff meetings
We continue to hold meetings for all PS members on a monthly basis and held the most recent one on Wednesday 24th June. The next dates are scheduled for 31st July and 27th August, both 1 - 2pm, and PS members will receive invitations and reminders nearer the time.
These meetings provide a forum for PS colleagues to get together and share concerns and discuss upcoming issues. Please go along to one if you haven’t yet, or tell other colleagues in your work area about them if you’re already a regular. We often hear that PS colleagues don’t feel fully represented by UCU and this is our main forum locally for rectifying that.
We are very keen to hear from any PS colleagues interested in being co-opted on to the branch committee, since for the first time in many years PS members are currently under-represented. Please get in touch with firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com if you’d like to get involved.
Black Lives Matter and anti-racist organising
On 11th June we held an EGM to discuss Black Lives Matter and antiracism work at the University and within UCU. The meeting heard from speakers from the BAME staff network here at the University and from Sheffield BLM, before discussing the various ways that UCU members can support antiracism work at Sheffield. A range of actions and outcomes were agreed and committee members will take those forward. Do get in touch with us if you would like to help with work on this.
We will be hosting a workshop led by members of the BAME staff network - watch this space for more details and further information soon.
You may be interested in following the Sheffield BLM Facebook page.
TUC survey on BME workers and coronavirus
The massive and disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on black and minority ethnic workers has become clear in recent weeks. The TUC need your support to enable BME workers to share their experiences of unfair treatment and racism at work during this crisis. Please complete this survey and share with other BME colleagues.
Dispute updates and fighting fund levy
At the AGM, we also reported on the current status of the disputes with Universities UK and UCEA that have been ongoing throughout this academic year. UCU’s National Executive Committee met on the 8th June to decide the next steps in the dispute, which have been laid out in an email to all members from the General Secretary dated 11th June. We will be sending further updates ahead of the expected ballot on the Four Fights offer and the Sector Conference to determine the future of the USS dispute.
You will also have seen the recent emails from the General Secretary about the fighting fund levy. We intend to bring this to our next branch meeting to discuss a collective response to the announcement there, in the hope of seeking to avoid lower-paid and casualised colleagues being disadvantaged by it.
Disabled Members Forum - Thursday, 9 July, 2pm to 4pm
The three main campus trade unions, Unison, Unite and UCU, have been concerned for some time about significant issues disabled staff face at the university. These range from a general lack of awareness of disability by line managers, inconsistencies in access to and timeliness of reasonable adjustments, and more. Covid-19 has exacerbated these long term issues. We are engaged in current plans to create an institutional disability action plan, however we recognise that this needs to address the issues our disabled members face. Before formal consultation begins shortly, we have jointly called a cross trade union meeting to discuss the development of the action plan, Covid-19 and any other issues disabled staff at the university are facing. This meeting will be held via Zoom. Please register here, including any specific adjustments you need to facilitate your participation. We also encourage you to circulate this information to fellow disabled colleagues.
April Branch Newsletter
Dear fellow members,
The branch has been exceptionally busy over the past month responding to the COVID-19 crisis, with on-going meetings twice a week with management. For the latest summary of what we have negotiated thus far locally, please see the update sent out last week. As always, we will send along further updates as they become available.
We are aware that staff across the university have been facing myriad issues with their work as a result of the COVID-19 crisis. We encourage members to contact the branch office with any questions or concerns. If you have not yet done so, please change your personal contact information with the union to your home address and phone number from your office address and phone number so as it will enable us to be in touch with you during the crisis. To change your contact information, please visit: https://www.ucu.org.uk/members. If you know of colleagues who are not members of the union but are currently facing difficulties in their work, please do encourage them to join the union.
Many thanks to those of you who have taken part in our virtual EGMs via Zoom which we plan to continue until such a time as we are able to meet again in person. We have a number of upcoming Zoom meetings in the branch.
On Thursday, April 23 from 1-2 pm, we will be holding our next departmental reps meeting. If you have any immediate concerns that you would like to feed back to the branch, please contact your departmental rep ahead of the meeting.
The following week, on Thursday, April 30 from 1-2 pm, is our next scheduled general meeting. We will send out information to register and join by Zoom ahead of time so please keep an eye out for an email.
Finally, please hold the date for our annual general meeting, Thursday, June 4 from 1-2 pm. If you're interested in being on the branch committee, holding an officer position, or otherwise getting more involved in the branch, please get in touch. The current members of committee are happy to answer any questions you may have, and we are very keen to have more members be involved! There are 6 ordinary member positions on branch committee, which provide an excellent opportunity to learn more about the workings of UCU on a local and national level. You can find a complete list of branch committee positions here. If you do decide to run for a position on the branch committee, please submit this form by 7 May.
Bargaining and USS Valuation Updates
Negotiations in the Four Fights dispute have been halted due to illness but discussions are going to begin again after the Easter break, with a planned meeting between UCEA and the UCU pay negotiation team. We will update you when we know more.
In our USS dispute, UCU's negotiators met with UUK again the week before last to explore whether there is a way to reach a resolution, and are due to meet again soon. We understand that the Employers Pension Forum (the committee which steers pensions policy for UUK) met last Tuesday and that the dispute was likely to be on the agenda.
Recruitment for UCU trustees on the USS board has been delayed by the crisis but is ongoing. UCU currently has just one of its three spots filled since the dismissal of Jane Hutton in the autumn and the sad death of Dave Guppy in December. We will update you when we know more.
The USS board has confirmed it is proceeding with the 2020 valuation using market data as of 31 March at a time when most other processes are pausing and the sector's attention is elsewhere. It will be the job of both UCU and UUK's representatives to hold USS to account and ensure that there's no exploitation of the situation. There are important discussions currently underway at the Valuation Methodology Discussion Forum, a working group formed of UCU, UUK and USS representatives. The Pensions Regulator are invited but have not attended. In a major change from all other recent valuations, UCU and UUK are working together very closely and well on valuation approaches. This is hugely important and long overdue and likely to be explained in part by the resolve shown by members in both disputes.
A 'discussion document' on the proposed valuation methodology was released to employers in early March. We are still awaiting a clarificatory note from USS as to the misleading presentation of some of the information in the document, though UUK's actuaries, Aon, did pick up on some of it in their paper to employers found at this link (see also Sam Marsh’s twitter thread). Unfortunately, USS have been reluctant to admit any problems with the document. This is not good at a time when there has been a clear need identified (and agreed by all parties) for a rebuilding of trust. We only hope that the incoming USS chair, Kate Barker, sees the need for a major shift in culture within our pension scheme.
Sheffield TUC Council of Action
The Sheffield Trade Union Council has convened a ‘Council of Action’ to respond to the COVID-19 crisis. The Council of Action is an alliance of Sheffield trade unions, faith organisations and Community campaign groups whose aim is to bring together existing groups and networks in order to coordinate political and practical demands for residents of the city. The Council of Action will defend the livelihoods and health of workers and the community through the COVID-19 crisis. If we use our collective might and campaign around urgent issues affecting the many, not the few, we can make real significant gains.
The Council of Action will be meeting every week at 7pm on Tuesdays via Zoom to hear stories from frontline workers, discuss the challenges facing our NHS and advance policies for safeguarding workers and supporting our communities. For further information on how to participate, please visit:
City of Sanctuary is the umbrella organisation for third sector asylum seeker and refugee services in Sheffield. As a result of the COVID-19 crisis, all in-person services are currently closed but the organisation is working hard to ensure that isolated asylum seekers and refugees are able to access food, vital services and other necessities during the lockdown. The branch committee has voted to approve a 250 pound donation on behalf of the branch but individual donations are greatly appreciated as well. Donations can be made through bank transfer. Info below:
Name on Account – City of Sanctuary Sheffield
Bank Name – Unity Trust Bank PLC
Bank Account Number - 20382559
Sort Code – 60-83-01
UCU Climate Emergency Network
Just before Easter, a group of UCU Green Reps came together and formed the UCU Climate Emergency Network. As an initial step, the network will establish a database for Green Reps across UCU to inform local and national initiatives on the climate emergency and UCU's role in a just transition. We are seeking to form a committee to bring motions to congress and shape the environmental policies in the union, on campus and beyond. Updates to follow. If you want to get involved, please contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Strike Solidarity Visit to University of Paris 8
By: Amna Kaleem, Doctoral Student, Department of Politics and International Relations
Before universities and life in general came to a standstill, I, along with a couple of UCU members, went on a strike solidarity visit to Université Paris 8, Vincennes-Saint-Denis. The university is currently on strike to fight for an increase in permanent positions and research funding and to protest moves towards a managerial model of education. We were told the French government is looking at the British HE sector for inspiration, so our comrades across the Channel invited us to share our insights from the picket lines. Griejte Baars from University of East London, Kyran Joughin from University of Arts London, and I were invited to speak to striking staff and students at a teach-out on "Experiences, strategies and stakes of social mobilisations in UK HE".
Our trip gave us the opportunity to witness first-hand the Paris 8’s rich history of activism and radical action. We talked about our experiences to a packed lecture theatre followed up by Q&A session which went on for over an hour. We discussed everything from balloting for the strike action, to mobilising support, to striking as a casual worker, to dogs on the picket line. The last one was particularly popular!
Following the session, we visited an occupation of a lecture theatre against sexual harassment on campus and talked to students about their involvement in the strike. It was inspiring to see the student body so engaged in the struggle and taking ownership of this fight. This was also on wonderful display throughout the campus with posters, buntings, information stalls, and graffiti on lecture theatre walls. Our generous hosts also did a collection for the UCU strike fund.
The next day we attended a round-table on "The Neoliberalisation of Academia: Franco-British Perspectives" at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique. This event allowed us to have a more focused discussion with colleagues on building alliances and developing a united front for the fight ahead. We talked about opening up spaces in the established platforms where problems shared by academics at different stages of their careers can be discussed and tackled. We explored the possibility of publishing an open-access special issue on our strikes and using international academic conferences to mobilise casualised and precarious workers.
The two days we spent in Paris gave us a valuable insight into the struggles of our French colleagues. We learnt that our fight is the same and therefore a mutually co-ordinated fightback would benefit all of us. The lock-down may have temporarily stopped things but once we get back, we should make sure that the channels of communication are open and the knowledge exchange continues.
“And You’re Supposed to Be the Clever Ones!” A Comment on Unsustainable Academic Workload
Being a University lecturer or professor conjures up images of very brainy people sat in worn leather armchairs, thinking through the biggest problems in their subject after reading enlightening articles by their colleagues so they might too write a paper to contribute to the wealth of knowledge or invent a new process or material or cure to contribute to civilisation. They may then present all this along with more broad education in the field to keen students in a lecture theatre.
These images are indeed what academia should be about. Research and teaching is what makes up the contracts of all T&R academics. It was until recently seen as a very attractive job with flexible working patterns, autonomy, freedom to be creative, and impactful; training and inspiring the next generation while impacting and solving some of the biggest issues for civilisation. It was collegial, collaborative, with unpredictable peaks and troughs of work depending on research results and student numbers. Such unpredictability demanded a “give and take” culture which was par for the course.
You will note the past tense. It is a long way from the attractive job outlined above. One can argue it hasn’t been like that for a very long time but the 20-odd years I have been in academia the pressures, the changes are remarkable: the job is unrecognisable from when I started. For me, the biggest issue, the driving force that is really making me consider leaving my job and the sector is workload.
So what has happened over the last decade? I should caveat that I am not an economist, historian, social scientist or management expert, so the next paragraph could be nonsense academically, but from where I stand, I see something similar to what happened in the NHS.
Academics really care, like NHS staff care. Our work is not as crucial as the life and death situations which NHS staff deal with, but we do feel a devotion to our students and a passion for our research that goes beyond simply work. Unpredictability, collegiality, and a give and take ethos exists in both environments.
So when both become marketized and managed in a new economic way, what happens? The first thing that happens, as a result of assessing everything in terms of finances only, is cuts. Activity comes to be supported by business plans with only financial considerations. In most businesses, certain cuts would have negative impacts on business, so would be reassessed. But these impacts were not seen when they should have been in the NHS and in academia because staff could not bear to see a reduction in services. NHS staff work unpaid overtime to give desperate patients the care they require. Likewise for academia, we would not agree to a reduction in care for our students or to not pursue that research idea that is our passion. And so it transpires we are squeezed, and because of our overwhelming loyalty and devotion to colleagues and students, we work for free!!
However, unlike most aspects of the new overworked NHS we also have a global competitive culture. We compete with well-resourced research professors in countries where there is less of a workload issue, and also with our colleagues here in the UK “happy” to work 14 hours a day (no exaggeration) – colleagues who do their teaching and admin/leadership by day and research by night. I try really hard to set boundaries. I cannot rob my children of their parent during their childhood, so I end up doing most things just good enough, satisfactorily or even badly when I just don’t have time. I have to work overtime for paper writing and grants that are competitively judged and this work goes long into the night once the kids are down. But winging it is too often a necessity. It is common for me to be paralysed with long lists of job only I can apparently do, that all need doing NOW, before I teach in an hour. Finding time to eat lunch is out, I am bound to my office and my email as I need to review some potential student before a noon deadline, send some other overworked academics some metrics on me for some national body or other, review a tutee’s extenuating circumstances case NOW for the meeting happening at 1pm, write the lecture and photo copy the material that I am due to deliver in an hour, no 40 mins now. Ahh. Which do I do first? Forget lunch, forget the new exciting teaching I was going to try, hello old notes, don’t even have time to go to the loo, so here I arrive in front of a lecture of 120 students, hungry, needing a wee and unprepared. Winging it.
So what does this workload look like? For an excellent account of the reality of a teaching and research staff academic workload see this excellent blog post. What I am interested in exploring here though is how we have effectively fallen between two stools. We work for free, yet in a marketized system. We need to value our own labour within the context of marketisation and we currently simply do not.
A solicitor once described how they charged for their time by the hour and/or by the letter written. He snorted when he was told about some free paper reviewing we do saying “And you’re supposed to be the clever ones!!”
It is basically too embarrassing to carry on these conversations with other professionals when we think of the lists and lists of things we do for free. Under the heading of professional standing and leadership we are sitting on national advisory, editorial advisory and learned society boards, as well as decision panels for interviews and research council grants etc for free. We organise and run conferences, for free. Under the heading of research, we review grants and papers all for free, most (for grants) and some (for papers) of which is wasted work that does not result in a positive outcome.
Let’s look a bit closer at the latter two.
We perform our research and thus write a paper. Most of us would agree this is part of what we get paid for. Then we submit the paper (which is invariably a complex and time-consuming process). Then an unpaid academic editor sends this paper to be reviewed for free by several unpaid academics. Changes are suggested and hopefully the unpaid editor accepts the paper. Frustratingly editorial changes are now more commonly made by the author (rather than a paid-production team) and the paper is printed. This results in a bill for the author for the pleasure of publishing and/or a bill for the institution or individual that wants to read it. No money is being spent on anyone’s labour in this process. Where does all the money go?
Research funding is another. We spend months formulating and crafting excellent research bids. Grant writing is rarely accounted for in workload time. So this is again mostly done for free by academics. Again unpaid academics spend time reviewing these grants and then further unpaid academics act as panel members so must read all these grants and reviews together and spend even more time sat on a panel to judge them.
Success rates were at 10% for several research councils last I looked, so not only is this huge amount of labour again unpaid, 90% is fruitless!
If 10 people wrote large grants, requiring 3-5 reviewers per grant resulting in a panel this would result in approximately 365 days of free academic labour[i] to give 1 person funds to do some research.
So why do we do it? Why do we review grants and papers? The system we work in depends on it. If I didn’t review other people who would review my grants and papers? While most of this work is designed to be anonymous, people do not just do this work as a selfless act for the sector. There is an ulterior motive: the element of “friendly” reviewing is key in any research community, so the better your networking, the more time you can be present at conferences, “sell” your work, build relationships, review someone’s grant or paper favourably, just in time for them to review yours back, the better for theirs and your career. This has massive implications for the careers of those that don’t have this time to work for free: those with caring responsibilities, those that find it difficult to travel to conferences due to childcare or disability. It is this sort of work that gets you promoted, and lack of it, the opposite. I believe this element of unpaid work is a major contributor to the gender pay-gap.
Yes, all free labour is unaccounted for on most workload models and when present, vastly underestimated. Once an academic has won a research grant (through a process demanding nearly 2 working day years of unpaid labour), many institutions do not even workload the time the academic has on the grant to perform the research! The time actually paid for by the tax-payer is not work-loaded; it is effectively stolen by the institution.
This pattern of unpaid labour is seen not just in the research aspect of our job -- it is anywhere we let it happen, which is usually when we let others down (such as our colleagues and students) if we don’t do the unpaid work. For example, just for our students, this covers unpaid preparation time for lectures and pastoral care for tutees (ours and others), writing them references for summer placements, jobs, further study etc.
When workload models are actually challenged with regards to all this unpaid labour we are constantly met with “well that is not financially viable” to include it all. It is “not financially sustainable”, so the result is that the system only works if we all work 70+ hour weeks? If proper work-loading is unsustainable, it is the model/system that needs fixing. To fix this system, we need to start charging for every bit of our labour. It is sad but true that the only way to count worth in this marketized world is financial. You need me to review a grant, pay my employer and give the time.
Academia is simply not an attractive job anymore. The salary is not competitive, with 20% real terms reduction in recent years. The pension was seen as a big draw, but not anymore. But worse for me is losing job satisfaction. I yearn to be given the time and space to sit down and do just one aspect of my job well, to a high standard -- a standard I know I am capable of yet never have time to get anywhere near.
I am sure I know creative academics with the skills and expertise that could look into these issues, if only they had the time…
[i] Calculated on 1 grant taking 30 days to write, 1 review taking 1 day, and panel members spending 2-4 days on reviewing and attending the panels.
Sheffield UCU Branch Committee