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Letter to VC Koen Lamberts 14/09/2023

Dear Koen,
We are now just a couple of working days away from the start of local strike action at the University, which threatens significant disruption to new students’ induction and first impressions of the institution, and which will set the stage for yet another disrupted semester for everyone. In previous rounds of sector wide action, this university has publicly taken the position that there is nothing that can be done locally to resolve the issues underpinning the action; however, that is not true in this case, and the university has even made it clear in all staff communications that resolving this action is possible, and outlined one step which could be taken to do so.

At our meeting with Ian, Mary and Rob last week, having presented the position we had brought from our branch, they revealed that there was nothing that they were willing to offer to try to avert the strikes. This is hard to comprehend given the scale of what’s at stake. We left the meeting making it clear that we would be happy to meet at any point should you decide that there are matters on which you can engage.

With the strikes set to go ahead next week, we expect to be arranging regular meetings of our membership to discuss developments, which would allow us to put an offer from you to our members, should you be prepared to make one. In that spirit, should you be willing to meet to explore the ground that might lead to a resolution, we reiterate once again that we would be very happy to do so.

Kind regards,
Robyn Orfitelli, Branch President,
on behalf of the Sheffield UCU committee
Cc Ian Wright, Director of HR

Letter to VC Koen Lamberts on the Marking and Assessment Boycott, 23/05/23

Dear Koen,

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.


Robyn Orfitelli,

Branch President, on behalf of the Sheffield UCU Committee

Response from the VC on USS

Dear members,
In response to our email to the VC on working towards resolution of USS dispute, we recieved the following reply on Friday 17 February.

Dear Sam and Matthew,

Thank you for your email.

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.

Kind regards,


Email to Vice Chancellor Koen Lamberts- Working towards resolution of USS dispute

Dear members,
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.

Dear Koen,

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:

  1. The resetting of future accrual to the levels that we saw before the recent cuts,
  2. A retrospective uprating of benefits accrued at the lower rate since April 2022,
  3. 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

Monday 13th February 2023

Solidarity in action: casework as support for colleagues

What is casework?

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 supporta 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 ucu@sheffield.ac.uk, 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.