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 email@example.com, 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.
Our thanks to the staff and students in the School of Languages and Cultures (SLC) who contributed to this post, telling the story of how the University is forcing through changes to this programme that go against the best interests of staff, students, and this university. This decision, made by a small group of senior management with no expertise in language teaching, is not only having a detrimental impact on members of SLC and the Modern Language Teaching Centre (MLTC), but also staff and students in the School of East Asian Studies (SEAS), and all 11 of the departments that have dual or single honours programmes with these departments. Central admissions staff were not consulted in making this decision, and the restructure has left professional services colleagues in these departments with uncertainty about the future of their jobs.
The stress that this process has created is unconscionable, but even worse, the damage that this decision will do to languages teaching at Sheffield cannot be overstated. Sheffield UCU is currently balloting to oppose this disastrous and unnecessary process, specifically University Management’s unwillingness to even guarantee that there will be no compulsory redundancies as a result of it. We ask all members to vote YES to Action Short of a Strike and to Strike Action on your ballot, and to return them today.
Breaking the link between Language and Culture
One Monday morning in February, twelve members of staff in the School of Languages and Cultures received an email from the Head of School telling them that they were to be transferred to the Modern Language Teaching Centre. Colleagues who had taught the rich mixture of languages and cultures associated with Catalan, Czech, Dutch, French, German, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish – some for decades – learned that from September they would only be permitted to teach language courses.
The next day the rest of the staff in the School were informed, and it emerged that all staff had effectively been classified as somehow either specialists in ‘languages’ or in ‘cultures’, with no recognition of the fundamentally intertwined nature of language and culture that constitutes the heart of this type of degree all over the world. Decades of experience of researching and teaching language and cultures together were to be set aside, as university management sought its own ‘synergies’.
Staff in the Modern Languages Teaching Centre received a similar announcement, and joined with their SLC colleagues in pointing out that the proposed changes showed a total lack of understanding of the different expectations and modes of learning that characterise a cohort of linguists doing a languages degree and those who choose MLTC modules as an elective or a personal development activity. A very broad-brush example: a student taking a dual degree in German and History needs different language skills to be able to read, contextualise and analyse complex texts in German as compared to a Chemistry student taking a German language course in order to be able to work with a German company.
It’s a ‘broad-brush’ sketch, but it underpins the way languages are taught here at Sheffield and across Europe – and this has been wilfully disregarded in this reorganisation. Our colleagues in both departments have been dismayed to see attempts by university management to sow division by suggesting that staff in one department see their own methodologies and pedagogies as somehow ‘better’ than those in the other department. They’re not. They’re just different; and designed to cater to different cohorts of students.
An example is translation: in the MLTC translation is used to develop communicative skills, while in the SLC translation is treated as a specialist skill in itself, and a practical and theoretical base for postgraduate study and careers. Development of translation as a specialist focus has been encouraged by Faculty for several years now, as it fits with the University’s employability agenda, and feeds into the SLC’s Masters programmes in translation. For staff, the restructuring will have the bizarre and costly effect of stopping some highly experienced colleagues teaching translation, and asking others to hurriedly train up in a discipline that does not fit with their longstanding methodological expertise. For students, many of whom take two or even three languages, there is a clear threat of despecialisation.
Students have been demanding clear and detailed information on what all this means for their degree, and have consistently been told that ‘learning outcomes’ will not change. This is true in one sense – after intense lobbying by students and staff last semester, students have been promised that they will be offered instruction covering materials that correspond to the same CEFR levels as presently. But the CEFR scale, devised by the Council of Europe, only measures the “operational appropriation” of a language. Students will perhaps “operationally appropriate” a degree, but whether this will have the same standing and value as the languages and cultures degrees offered by other Russell Group universities has been thrown into doubt by this staggeringly ill-informed restructuring.
In a recent blog post, we explained how the financial information used in the review of Archaeology and published as part of a Freedom of Information request indicate that the University would be better off in five years’ time were it to keep the department open and invest in four new posts. But this revelation is not the only nugget lurking within the figures, which also contain both an indication of the possible levels of redundancy under consideration and what looks like a worrying standard of financial analysis underlying our university’s decision-making.
By comparing the figures from the three different scenarios in the review document (investment, full closure, and the selected option of ‘closure and realignment’), we are able to draw inferences on what the nebulous ‘closure and realignment’ option may mean for staffing levels.
In the case of full closure of the department (by far the worst financial decision the University could make), there are two rows relating to staffing levels. One shows the projected costs relating to redundancy payments, and another the cost savings due to the reduction (to zero) of future salary payments. Redundancy payments are projected to start at £360k in 2022/23 and tail off to £144k by 2024/25, and zero thereafter. Cost savings move in the other direction: £775k in 2022/23, increasing to £1.7m by 2025/26.
The interest comes not so much from the magnitude of these numbers than from the comparison with the case that UEB decided to pursue of ‘closure and realignment’. Here, both the redundancy payment and cost saving rows are around 80% of the figures for full closure (precisely so, in the case of redundancy payments). In other words, the ‘closure and realignment’ model used in the decision-making assumes 80% of staff (by total payroll) being made redundant.
Does this mean that the University is planning to make 80% of those currently working in Archaeology redundant? Possibly. But there are other potential explanations. It may be, as the University has indicated to us, that the 80% figure is a prudent upper-bound for the number of redundancies, something of a worst-case scenario.
So, is it prudent to use a figure relating to an upper-bound for redundancy numbers in the financial projections? Not if one uses this same proportion to also adjust the cost-savings! Since the figures for cost-savings are larger than for redundancy payments, using an upper-bound for the proportion of job losses to adjust both sets of figures results in something far from a prudent financial projection, since the gains from the cost-savings outweight the redundancy costs. A lower proportion (a half? a quarter? a fifth?) would be more financially prudent. Over-estimating the number of staff likely to be made redundant boosts the financial summary statistics for the ‘closure and realignment’ case, potentially making it more appealing to decision-makers.
Were the University to take a genuinely prudent approach to modelling potential redundancies in its projections, it would use an upper-bound when calculating the redundancy payments and a lower-bound in the cost-savings. This would skew the figures for UEB’s chosen scenario significantly for the worse. Using, for example, a figure of 80% for redundancy payments and 20% for cost savings would show the ‘closure and realignment’ option as leaving the University over £4.3m worse off over five years (up from the £1.6m in our previous analysis) as compared with investing to keep the department open. It would also push up the projected departmental deficit for that scenario in each of the years from 2022/23 onwards, above those forecast in the situation that the department remained open.
We do not know whether UEB is planning to make 80% of staff in Archaeology redundant, or whether they believed the figures represented a prudent estimate for the purposes of decision-making. As the University of Liverpool’s UCU branch has shown in its successful recent dispute, one compulsory redundancy is one too many, and members are unlikely to tolerate any threat to jobs. A plan for 80% redundancies in the department will pour petrol on a ballot for industrial action. On the other hand, if the calculations were intended to be a prudent approach to financial planning, then they raise serious questions over the quality of the decision-making at the University and, ultimately, the soundness of basis on which the decision to close Archaeology was made.