I am writing on behalf of the Sheffield UCU Committee, and all University of Sheffield staff within our bargaining group, regarding the UK-wide dispute on pay and conditions which is the source of the current boycott of marking and assessment work by many staff at the University of Sheffield. Below I raise two areas of concern, and we would welcome the chance to meet with you at your earliest convenience to discuss them further.
We have been extremely disappointed in the approach that the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA) have adopted in this dispute, including their misuse of HESA data on sector finances. In a press release on 3 May, UCEA cites a sectoral deficit, despite the report it is based on warning that it “is not reflective of the pure underlying financial performance of these institutions for this year”. Instead, as you will be aware, this artefact is caused by a pension adjustment including the demonstrably unrepresentative 2020 USS valuation; absent this paper cost, the sector has yet again posted a sizeable surplus. I’m sure we both agree that these are increasingly difficult times in Higher Education, and it’s crucial for the future of the sector that we find a way to resolve the source of the conflict, for the benefit of all. However, such a misrepresentation of data serves neither staff nor employers, and it stands as an active impediment to ending the ongoing dispute.
Secondly, reaching a healthy resolution is not possible without the resumption of negotiations, which UCEA have continued to refuse, even as recently as Friday, 19 May. There is still time to bring this dispute to a close and avoid major disruptions to students’ graduation and progression, but every day that UCEA makes the active choice to delay makes it less likely that this will be possible.
While this dispute cannot be resolved by negotiation in Sheffield alone, that does not mean that we have no impact on the wider dispute. As a member of UCEA, we ask you to exercise your position as a member to ask them to both cease their public misrepresentation of sector finances and to return to the negotiation table. Just recently, the Universities of Glasgow and Cambridge have made joint public statements calling for the resumption of negotiations, and we are aware of ongoing work at several other universities which may lead to similar statements. We would be very interested in working with you on a similar joint statement, and it would be a reflection of the leadership that this university exercises in our sector.
At a local level, we are very disappointed that the energy of University leadership seems to be focused predominantly on circumventing and mitigating the marking and assessment boycott, rather than on trying to bring the overall dispute to a close.
Our colleagues are rightly standing up for principles of fairness in their employment contracts, and the University’s position on partial performance could lead to significant financial distress by locking them out of their jobs for an extended period, in some cases on the basis of just a few hours of uncompleted work. Further, it seems clear to us that the threat to lock people out of their jobs until a pre-specified date, even where there is no marking and assessment work left for them to carry out, has no basis in law, and we ask that you withdraw your stated intention to do so at the earliest opportunity. Lastly, the recently announced decision to pursue 100% deductions from staff who are not themselves participating in the boycott, but refuse to take on additional marking, is punitive, and may have unintended consequences.
The decisions taken here do not just exist in isolation for the current dispute, they have substantial ramifications for the health and industrial relations of our university moving forwards.
I look forward to hearing from you, and we would welcome the opportunity to discuss the situation with you to seek progress.
Branch President, on behalf of the Sheffield UCU Committee
Like you, I welcome the ACAS-facilitated talks between UCEA and the joint trade unions in the dispute over pay and conditions, and I hope that they are productive and result in an agreement.
Thank you for your summary of UCU’s position on the USS dispute. As you know, we have reconvened the USS Valuation Working Group, the purpose of which (as outlined in the terms of reference) is to collectively aid the University’s understanding of matters relating to the USS pension scheme, and to inform its response to employer consultations in a way that is evidence based and represents the views of scheme members and the University.
The University’s current position on the USS valuation is articulated on the following webpage, which states our support for:
Governance reforms in USS;
Development of lower-cost options, to enable more staff to participate;
The exploration of other measures to support the scheme’s long-term sustainability, potentially including conditional indexation.
The University Executive Board intends to provide an institutional response to the valuation, and for this response to be informed by the collective views of UEB and the USS Valuation Working Group. Clearly, the outcome of the 2023 valuation will be key, but it remains my view that, if the financial health of the scheme allows it, improving member benefits should be the priority.
I look forward to seeing the reports from the USS Valuation Working Group to inform the University’s response to the USS Valuation.
In the wake of the mediated talks with ACAS on pay and conditions that have started today, we have sent the following email to the Vice Chancellor Koen Lamberts to ensure he uses his power as VC to secure a positive outcome for staff in the USS dispute.
We are writing regarding the industrial disputes and strike action that are threatening the integrity of this semester’s teaching and research at the University. There has been positive news on the pay and conditions dispute, with UCEA agreeing to mediated talks at ACAS that began today. Resolution of both disputes is essential to returning our campus to normal operation; thus, we want to ensure that the USS dispute is also moving in a positive direction.
The UCU demands over USS to encompass the following aspects:
The resetting of future accrual to the levels that we saw before the recent cuts,
A retrospective uprating of benefits accrued at the lower rate since April 2022,
Adoption of a modestly prudent methodology for future valuations of the scheme, beginning in March 2023 and continuing onwards.
With the 2023 valuation expected to show significantly lower future service costs than currently being paid and a large surplus (and hence no deficit recovery payments), the objective in (1) is likely to be an immediate consequence of the 2023 valuation and your commitment on the 24 March 2022 to call for an improvement to pension benefits rather than seeking reductions in contributions.
The objective in (2) is (with the possible exception of the DB threshold) possible should the JNC and trustee agree, and can be funded out of a surplus arising in the scheme (for example, out of a 2023 valuation). As such, it is likely to cost the University nothing. Given that the benefit cuts were predicated on a 2020 valuation that this university, and Universities UK as a whole, rightly thought overly prudent, I trust there will be support from you for this outcome.
The objective for (3) is to break the cycle of disruption caused every three years by a triennial valuation methodology that has been described as ‘reckless prudence’. It aims to deliver a true resolution to this dispute, rather than kicking the proverbial can down the road for another few years. The UK Higher Education sector has experienced industrial action over pension cuts every two or three years for more than a decade. Updating a flawed methodology would put an end to a disruptive cycle.
We would be happy to discuss these points with you to ensure that this university is well placed to react quickly to positive developments that could resolve these disputes.
With kind regards,
Sam Marsh & Matthew Malek, on behalf of the SUCU Committee
It’s rare we want to think about distressing experiences that could happen to us at work – for instance, questions asked about our capability to perform a role; concerns raised by colleagues or students about our behaviour; or a health condition making our established pattern of work temporarily unachievable. However, despite a natural aversion to considering them, such things do happen, and while clearly shaped by individual circumstances and conditions, they are almost invariably stressful, painful, and difficult.
At these points of challenge, there is union support available. This takes the form of casework support – a trained colleague who has experience of institutional processes working with a member to offer information, advice, and a listening ear. It may be that you will reach the end of your career and never need to draw on caseworker support, in which case your good fortune should be celebrated. But if you do find yourself in a position where things are going less well than you hoped, having an effective casework structure in the local branch can be invaluable.
Casework support within Sheffield UCU
In our branch, we have a team of talented caseworkers, with rich experiences and strong connections to other aspects of the branch’s work.
There are around 18 colleagues involved with casework, and in the twelve months up to October 2022, the branch received 89 requests for casework support.
If we were to divide this equally, that would result in around 5 cases each, and it represents a significant increase from the twelve months before this point. Even brief consideration of the current working conditions in higher education broadly, and this institution in particular, might offer some indications as to why.
What does a caseworker do?
The kinds of thing that a caseworker can do include accompany members to meetings, support them through institutional processes such as around disciplinary matters or sickness absence, offer information and guidance to help contextualise individual circumstances, give personal and moral support, and, when required, put members in touch with regional union officials as a step towards engaging legal representation. It is work that is frequently challenging but also rewarding, as the impact it has on colleagues at the sharp end of uncomfortable experiences can be significant. It is also work that makes a material difference to colleagues’ working lives and experiences, as it is partly through understanding the difficulties individual members are facing that the branch determines priority areas for policy development.
Join our Casework Team!
As strong as the current casework team is, we are always open to new colleagues who would like to join. You might want to consider it if you are good at working with people, you are willing to become familiar with volumes of HR policy and semi-legal documentation, and you’re comfortable with questioning those in positions of authority. There is full training and support available locally, regionally, and nationally, and a mentoring and shadowing structure in-place to ensure that no-one takes on work for which they do not feel prepared. Facility time is available at certain points in the year, so this is a responsibility that can be workloaded, and time spent training can also be recognised by line managers. If you are interested in becoming a caseworker, please email firstname.lastname@example.org, and we can discuss the options from there.
Contact us early if you think you might need casework support
And one final, different, request:
if you feel that you might be entering a situation of difficulty – if you’re not yet in the storm, but you can see the clouds approaching and feel the wind rising – we would encourage you to make contact with the union sooner rather than later.
That might be through your departmental rep, or by emailing the branch; the main thing is the more we know earlier on, the more likely we are to be able to support you if the storm breaks. This is particularly true if something like an Improvement Support Plan (ISP) has been discussed in your working context, or concerns have been raised about the amount of sick leave you are taking. Both of these – and more – are areas where even members confident in their managers might be well-advised to seek support, as the institutional processes around them sometimes have momentum that override the good intentions of individuals involved.
Casework is one way of making tangible the solidarity we profess as a union. Whichever end of the process you are involved with at different times, we would encourage you to be engaged, both for your own benefit, and the collective benefit of all members.
One of our former branch members wrote this incredibly powerful reflection on the three days of strike action taken in December 2021, and the transformative power that we are fighting to return to higher education. Thanks to them for sharing it with us, and thanks to everyone who is part of the fight to make higher education a transformative space once again.
Striking is how the light gets in. It reminds us of all the positive things about working in education, that there are people on the ground trying to circumvent ‘the system’ and do good work. It is at once exhausting and energising. These are not original thoughts by any means though, and many similar words have been written in the past, these are mine.
One specific encounter in the last three days has reminded me that education is special and worth fighting for on every level. I was in an online rally on Thursday, with some external guest speakers. One speaker was from a university currently in local dispute, in addition to our national one. He was reporting live, from the picket which felt so exciting, a moment from the ‘front line’ for those of use joining remotely. His name seemed vaguely familiar, which I suppose isn’t unusual these days. Social media in particular has widened the number of people I know by name only, but it gradually dawned on me that we had actually met in real life. A very long time ago, I used to be a teacher and this articulate and passionate speaker, eloquently talking about the local dispute, had been a shy introverted teenager in the very first GCSE History class that I taught. His memory of our encounter is likely different to mine, so I describe it below with this disclaimer, but this is how it showed itself to me.
Education has within its power to be transformative as well as being frustrating, and beaming out from a London picket, here was a reminder of both of those things. As well as being shy and introverted, the teenager I taught was also super-smart. I remember clearly, even back then, my frustration at a GCSE exam marking scheme that relied on hoop jumping and did not leave room for those able to think beyond it. I remember explaining, time after time, that while this or that answer was well-argued and ‘right’ it would be difficult for an examiner to award it any marks because it did not do what the mark scheme dictated. It felt like crushing the abilities of a very bright student, whilst at the same time trying to encourage him to jump through hoops in order to get through the exam. ‘It will be different once you’ve got through GCSE.’
I do not remember what grade that he got in the end, I suspect he did end up with an A and I do know that the whole of that class, bar one student, got a C or above. It was before the days of numbered grades and even before the advent of the A* it was so long ago! Based on the one, rather brief encounter with this teenager, now a lecturer at a university and active in his union branch, I’m so proud of what he has become. I can’t claim to take any credit for that at all, but as we stand in the same union, in the same dispute, on the same (virtual) picket, I am reminded that education has the power to transform all those who are involved in it. That early encounter with a bright student who was in danger of failing because of the way the system was constructed was transformative for me.
I did not last long in secondary education. Even in 2000, when I abandoned full-time teaching, the workload and constraints on creativity were stifling. Yet my whole ‘career’, such as it is, has been in education of one sort or another. Post-school teaching I was in museum education and for the past nearly ten years, in universities. All of these jobs have had a profound effect on me as a person, on my views and outlook, but it is through union membership and activism that these views and outlook have been cemented into my work. Imagine a university where metrics do not matter, where good work is properly funded regardless of how lucrative it is, where there is no REF, no imperative to chase grants with miniscule chances of success, where creativity, exploration and experimentation are enough. The conversations I have with colleagues now are not wildly different to those I had with that teenager. ‘Here is the system, it’s a bit broken, this is what we need to do to get around that and make it work in the best way we can.’ I know that many similar conversations take place everyday, up and down the country.
We fight for a sector where these conversations are no longer necessary and the last three days have reminded me of that. I’m tired, but standing both in person and virtually with colleagues on pickets, talking to them, and my encounter with the past remind me that education is always worth fighting for. I return to work energised by it, more determined to make a difference, in the same way that I was determined to make a difference in schools. I am more determined to fight on, with more strike action if necessary, for the higher education sector that we all want, need and deserve. I am reminded that the transformation of people is the goal of education. We all need a reminder of the light sometimes, and striking is how that light gets in.