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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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) - email@example.com. 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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 email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org 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: email@example.com.
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
February 2020 Branch Newsletter
Dear Fellow Members,
We’ve had a fantastic first two weeks of strike action, both here in Sheffield and nationally, with a number of institutions joining the strike for the first time this week after reading week. Kings College London, for example, has reported picket lines larger than 2018.
At the same time, staff in 34 Sixth Form Colleges and 16-19 academies, including Longley Park in Sheffield, represented by the NEU, have taken strike action February 11, February 27 and again on March 10th, making this a bang up week for education sector industrial action! Staff in all of our educational institutions deserve better treatment and we are making our voices heard.
We’d like to send out a huge thank you to everyone who braved the cold and rain to make our pickets so energetic and visible, as well as those of you who made it out to a well-attended and quite colourful rally on Wednesday.
As it stands, we are set to return to the picket lines next week from Monday-Thursday and the following week from Monday-Friday. However, as explained below, our negotiators have been in talks with the employers representatives this week in both the pay and pensions disputes so we remain optimistic about the possibility of reaching an agreement before the end of the strike.
As a reminder, please remember that we are continuing to take action short of a strike during non-striking days, including today and next Friday. Further information on action short of a strike may be found here.
As always, further information will be shared as soon as it becomes available. In the meantime, we have an exciting program of teach outs and other activities scheduled for the next weeks, as detailed below, in addition to a number of other updates.
Negotiations with both UUK and UCEA re-commenced this week and are ongoing. Negotiators met with UCEA once this week on Monday and with UUK twice, on Wednesday and today and remain optimistic. The strike action is helping to support the negotiations.
In addition, there will be crucial discussions on the 2020 USS valuation on Monday morning, with USS expected to publish their plans by the end of next week. Stay tuned for further information.
As always, for the latest updates, please follow our national unionand negotiators on twitter and read the frequent email updates from our national union.
Sheffield UCU met on February 25 with the VC and Student Union reps to discuss the dispute. We are still seeking clarification on how the university responded to the employer consultation on UUK. We will be meeting with them again next week.
Strike Form and Pay Deductions
As a reminder, members should fill out the strike notification form as soon as possible after each period (weeks 1 and 2; weeks 3 and 4) of strike action. If you have not yet filled out the strike notification form for the first period of action, please do so next Friday.
Strike pay from our national strike fund may be claimed once members can demonstrate that they have lost pay. The form to submit for strike pay may be found here.
As always, funds are available from our hardship fund for those who need additional assistance beyond what our national union can offer. Funds are made available on an as-needed basis. Please follow the link to submit an application.
Donations to the branch hardship fund are gratefully accepted. If you would like to donate, please use the following details:
Account name: UCU Sheffield 70 Hardship Fund
Sort code: 60-83-01
Account number: 20391171
Respect for Members on the Picket Line
We know that the vast majority of students, non-striking staff and members of the public have treated picketing members with respect. However, we are aware that this has not been true in every case. If anyone - whether a student, staff person, member of the public or university management - is disrespectful or abusive to you while you are picketing then please inform a picket supervisor or branch committee member immediately.
Schedule of Teach Outs and Other Activities, Strike Weeks 3 and 4
Please note that all events will be held in the Gallery Space of the Student Union unless otherwise noted. All events are free and open to the public.
Monday, March 2
1-2 pm: Shahd Abusalama and Majd Abu Shawish -- Voices from Gaza
2-3 pm: Olive Rickson -- System Change, not Climate Change
3-4 pm: Elena Simon -- Climate Change and Trade Unions
Tuesday, March 3
1-2 pm: Caroline Metz -- Grève générale? Strikes, Yellow Vests and Police Violence
2-3 pm: Joerg Nowak -- Mass Strikes in Brazil and India
Wednesday, March 4
1-2 pm: Caroline Metz and Erika Conchis -- Solidarity Zine Making Session
2-3 pm: Peter Matanle -- Competing Sexisms at Work: Towards a Resolution of Gender Segregation in the Japanese Employment System
3-4 pm: Hannah Lewis: Precarity, Unionisation and 'Modern Slavery'
Thursday, March 5
1-2 pm: Joe Diviney -- Public Order Policing: from the 1980s to the Present Day
2-3 pm: Catherine McAndrew: Who Made Your Shirt?: Worker Exploitation in Global Supply Chains
3-4 pm: Natalia Mole: Decolonising the University: Beyond Reading Lists
From 2-5 pm, there will be an alternate event in Food Hall (central Sheffield) on ‘The Feminist School of Architecture’ featuring interactive talks and workshops.
Monday, March 9
1-2 pm: Johanna Blakey -- The Issues with Accent Prejudice
2-3 pm: Robbie MacPherson and Georgina Collins (Hope for the Future) -- Finding Common Ground - Negotiation Training for Climate Action
3-4 pm: SU Sustainability Committee -- Fast Fashion and the Climate Crisis
LGBT students and alumni have organised an event trom 2-5 pm in the Site Gallery (central Sheffield) on Queer and Trade Union Solidarity.
Tuesday, March 10
11:15: Professional Services Post-Picket Gathering at NICE Neighbourhood (further information below)
1-2 pm: Emma Nagouse -- Boys Will Be Boys, Elders Will Be Elders": Rape Myth, Riverdale and the Bible
2-3 pm: Mary Going -- My Brother's Keeper: The Horror of Cain and Abel in Supernatural
3-4 pm: SU Sustainability Committee: Careers and the Climate Crisis
Wednesday, March 11 -- Day of Action on Prevent (further information below)
1-2 pm: Maria Wang Mei Hua and Energy Switch -- Clean Energy
2-3 pm: Dr. Daniel Kreiss -- Democracy in the Era of Technology-Intensive Politics
3-4 pm: Sheffield Sustainability Committee -- The Beef Levy and the Climate Crisis
Thursday, March 12
2-4 pm: SU Sustainability Committee -- Decolonise, Decarbonise, Democratise - Another University is possible
Friday, March 13 -- Climate Strike!
We will once again be joining local students for the Climate Strike. Further information will be forthcoming.
Evening: Post-strike Party at DINA with Sheffield Hallam UCU and community supporters (further information below)
AMRC/Orgreave Picket Visit, March 5
We are taking a trip up to the AMRC on Thursday 5th March, to once again picket close to the site of the Battle of Orgreave. If you’re interested in going along and would like a lift, please contact Sian on firstname.lastname@example.org.
We are very grateful to campaigners from Orgreave Truth and Justice who came along for our event last week, and would encourage all of you to read about their work and support them in any way you can.
Climate Summit Planning Meeting, March 7
On March 7, a planning meeting will be held from 10:30 am - 2:30 pm in St. Mary’s Church, Bramall Lane to build for the UNCOP26 Climate Summit. Further information may be found here.
Professional Services Post-Picket Gathering, Tuesday 10 March.
If the strike continues into its fourth week, please join us for a post-picket gathering of Professional Services staff on Tuesday 10 March at Nice Neighbourhood on Glossop Road. We'll be there from about 11.15ish for coffee and a chat.
Day of Action on Prevent (March 11) and Prevent Workshop (March 30)
On Wednesday 11th March, UCU branches across the country will be taking part in a Day of Action against Prevent. This will include picket line activities, teach outs and organising meetings that focus on the Prevent duty, its problems and what university workers and students can do to resist and abolish it.
At its 2015 and 2019 Congresses, UCU passed policy which objected to the Prevent duty, on the grounds that it:
seriously threatens academic freedom and freedom of speech
stifles campus activism
encourages educators to spy on students
is discriminatory towards Muslims, and legitimises Islamophobia and xenophobia,
encourages racist views to be publicised and normalised within society
Please join us for this Day of Action!
If you would like support in organising your day of action, email email@example.com and we can send you resources.
A workshop on ‘Preventing Prevent’ will be held on March 30. Further information to follow.
Post-Strike Party! March 13
We are also planning a strike after party in collaboration with Sheffield Hallam University and the Sheffield TUC. It will take place on the 13th of March at DINA. Watch this space for updates and if you’re musically inclined and would like to perform, please email Eda at firstname.lastname@example.org
Report Back from Faculty of Arts and Humanities Meeting
UCU members of the Faculty of Arts and Humanities met on 25th February (strike action day) in the Students’ Union building. The meeting was well-attended by both staff and students and had representatives from most departments within the Faculty, as well as the SUCU Executive.
The meeting was called by the Department of Archaeology over concerns about the unilateral decision by the Faculty to close one of its more successful undergraduate programmes (and initial threat to close all of them) and, in general, a heavily top-down approach taken by the Faculty management, which leaves very limited space for dialogue.
Although the Department of Archaeology appears to have been most severely hit by this managerial attitude, through interventions by members across the Faculty, it has become clear that the issue is not isolated, and that concern is widespread.
Worries were expressed about the well-being of staff, who often feel under-valued and under attack, but also about the effectiveness of this type of management, which does not promise to bring any long-term benefits to the Faculty.
Special concerns were raised about a current administrative review, which is placing several staff across a number of departments in a situation of great uneasiness regarding their future jobs and roles.
The main objectives of the meeting were the exchange of information and the opening of a constructive dialogue among Faculty members. There was a widespread feeling that this conversation should remain open, and that we should continue monitoring the situation, providing support to vulnerable colleagues, and elaborating joint responses when needed.
Our annual UCU Congress will be held this year from May 27-29 in Bournemouth. Please send expressions of interest to become a Congress delegate for Sheffield UCU to email@example.com by March 31. Further information on the Congress may be found here.
As a reminder, the ballot for our union’s NEC election will be closing March 4. Ballot papers must be received by that date in order to be counted. Further information on the candidates may be found here.
Report Back and Motions from Our February 27 General Meeting
At the GM one of our members raised the idea of a petition to put pressure on the Vice Chancellor to do more than he has so far felt able to do in public to exert his influence over the national employers’ bodies. We think this is an excellent idea for next week and will work on putting together a draft as soon as we can. Your support in collecting signatures would be invaluable.
In addition, three motions were passed at the General Meeting. The text of these motions may be found at the bottom of the newsletter.
The first motion calls for Multi-Year Bargaining to replace annual bargaining on pay. This motion will be taken to the Higher Education Sector Conference in May.
The second and third motions call, respectively, for action to be taken within UCU to better respond to issues of sexual harassment and sexual violence and to investigate and implement improved accountability measures for past instances of abuse. The first of these two motions will be taken to our annual Congress in May.
Report on Sacked USS Trustee Jane Hutton
The latest development in the Jane Hutton saga raised some eyebrows on the picket lines last week.
Hutton, a professor of statistics at the University of Warwick, was a representative of UCU on the board of our pension scheme USS, until she was suspended last summer and then sacked last autumn. In the intervening time, there had been some concern about why this had happened. USS had commissioned a report at some expense from the law firm Slaughter and May to justify her removal, but that report has controversially remained confidential.
However, last week, the summary of the report was leaked [https://academicfreedom.watch/node/51]. It is not long, and makes interesting reading.
Among other things, we learn that "Prof. Hutton held a belief that she was appointed to the Board to... act as a statistician which led her to... apply herself meticulously". We learn also that, amidst a major crisis in our £60 billion scheme, that USS felt that her requests for information were "disproportionate", and caused "a significant amount of... time and fees... to be incurred".
It is understood that Hutton has called a tribunal, claiming unfair dismissal.
Israeli Apartheid Week
The student Palestine Societies from the University of Sheffield and Sheffield Hallam University are planning an exciting program of events for this year’s Israeli Apartheid Week (beginning March 16). The opening event features Lowkey and tickets can be booked at this link.
1. Multi-year pay bargaining motion
The major successes of our Four Fights campaign in bringing together issues of pay and equality, and crossing the anti-union threshold in many branches
That, nevertheless, staff in HE have seen over a decade’s decline in real-term pay
That timelines for annual pay negotiations mean that these almost inevitably extend into the next bargaining round, potentially limiting options and leverage
That there is a continued need to demand better pay and conditions and confront inequalities through UK-wide negotiations
That a medium-term strategy would allow for improved flexibility in our negotiating and bargaining response
that UCU should actively explore options around multi-year bargaining with the other New JNCHES trade unions, in advance of the 2021-22 bargaining round.
That the baseline negotiating position should include sustained above-inflation pay rises and concrete benchmarks for addressing pay inequalities, workload and casualisation on a UK-wide basis
2. Branch Motion: #Metoo Truth and Reconciliation
The importance of the #metoo movement globally in redressing gender inequality;
Sexual harassment and sexual violence occur in progressive organisations, including trade unions such as our own;
Rape culture is enabled by institutions and structures that harbour perpetrators and create an environment hostile to survivors.
There is an urgent need to address this issue within our union, our universities and the society more generally.
The misuse of confidential processes can shield perpetrators from scrutiny, further traumatise survivors and enable further abuse to take place.
To support an independent third-party expert review of existing policies, practices and procedures in the union in order to:
a) Improve structures for reporting;
b) Improve support for survivors;
c) Facilitate investigation of past practice to ensure a supportive environment for survivors;
d) Consider what measures should be implemented to ensure that the union is accountable to its membership.
3. Member Motion: #Metoo Truth and Reconciliation
The importance of the #metoo movement globally in redressing gender inequality.
Troubling cases of sexual harassment and sexual violence within the union, including cases of union leaders as perpetrators.
Rape culture is enabled not just by perpetrators but by the individuals, institutions and structures that harbor them and create a hostile environment for survivors and enforce silence.
There is an urgent need to address this within our union, within our universities and within the society more generally, bringing these issues into the open.
To support an independent third party expert review of existing policies, practices and procedures in the union in order to improve structures for reporting; improve support for survivors; end the use of gag orders of survivors by the union and employers; and facilitate investigation and accountability with respect to the hostile environment created for those who disclose abuse.
Great first week of action!
Dear SUCU members,
An amazing day two of the action today! Our pickets have been solid and strong despite inclement weather on both days so far, and we were very grateful for support from local MP Olivia Blake today! If you saw the General Secretary’s email yesterday you’ll have seen that she is confident that if we can keep this up, we’ll see a shift in the employers’ position.
This week was half term and we were glad to welcome some very young picketers to Jessop West. We’d love to see as many dogs as you have available at the picket on Monday!
Our teachouts continue strong, and we have a great line up of talks next week! On Tuesday we’re hosting a screening of the film The Battle For Orgreave with activists from the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign. Register to reserve your space here! On Wednesday, we will be rallying after pickets on Wednesday at 12.30pm after Firth Court. Also on Wednesday, we are going to have picketers on every single building --talk to people in your work areas about making Wednesday a huge action!
You may have seen some of the media coverage of the strike yesterday – the General Secretary on Radio 4’s Today programme, the segment on Channel 4 news, and branch VP and national pay negotiator Robyn Orfitelli on BBC Look North.
We are meeting the Vice Chancellor with representatives from the Students’ Union again on Tuesday 26th February. We’d like your feedback on anything you think we should be raising at that meeting. We’re glad that all parties are continue to work together constructively at this point, but at the same time we want all UCU members to be asking tough questions of their leaders right now. It’s completely unacceptable that the employers are reluctant to move at speed here – the disruption that is currently being caused is on their conscience, and we need to apply as much pressure as we can.
Please take the weekend to rest and recharge and we look forward to seeing you again on the pickets on Monday morning. As ever, if you have questions, concerns, or feedback, please get in touch.