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Striking is how the light gets in

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.

Breaking the link between Language and Culture

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.

How many redundancies are Sheffield University’s management planning to make in Archaeology?

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.

Redundancy costs

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.

Option 3 is based on 80% of the redundancies in Option 2

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.

Formal declaration of trade dispute

As mandated by our members at our recent EGM, we have now entered into formal dispute with the University. Please see the declaration of dispute letter submitted to the Vice Chancellor, Prof. Koen Lamberts. The trade dispute is over:

    The decision to close the Archaeology department;
    The decision to restructure the School of Languages and Cultures, the School of East Asian studies, and the 12 dual and single honours partners impacted by this decision;
    The breach of the implied term of trust and confidence by the University in its failure to provide fair governance procedures for its decision making leading to (i) and (ii).

As we have discussed as a branch, points 1 and 2 fundamentally arise from the problems described in point 3. In this respect, the first step we have asked for is a fair and transparent independent barrister-led external review of the governance procedures that have led to these decisions. With full access to records, communications, and staff and student interviews, this should reveal where and how our governance processes are currently broken, and the steps which can be taken to fix them. During this review, we have asked for all actions related to the closure of the Archaeology department, and the continuation of the Future of Languages project, to be entirely halted.

We now await a response from the University. This is a simple, constructive and reasonable request that should help rebuild trust, getting management nearer to the “one University” goal. If they reject this request, we will proceed to a ballot for industrial action.

It is of special note our three other campus unions: Unison, UNITE and GMB were joint authors of the failure to agree letter and are also all exploring the next steps to escalate this dispute through indicative ballots etc within their own union framework. All staffside trade unions recognise the growing threat of the growing number of top-down flawed ‘change management processes’ which increasingly seem to run directly counter to the input and needs of staff and students in this community.

To join the Sheffield UCU dispute committee, please email us at ucu@sheffield.ac.uk.

Does the decision to close Archaeology make financial sense? Not on UEB’s figures.

In May, the University’s Executive Board (UEB) announced the results of a review they had conducted into the future of Sheffield’s Department of Archaeology. The review proposed choosing from one of three options:

  1. invest in the department with four new posts;
  2. close the department outright;
  3. close the department, moving some areas of research strength elsewhere.

The three-option set-up was plain for all to see, and to no great surprise UEB recommended the ‘compromise’ of option 3 to Council: Archaeology would cease to exist as a department, though small amounts of its activities would continue in other departments. As expected, Council backed its executive board and rubber-stamped the decision.

There has been much discussion over the processes that led to this decision (were students treated ethically during the review? why did Senate not provide a clear recommendation to Council?), but the financial aspects of the decision-making are yet to receive much scrutiny. If you assumed the decision to close Archaeology was in the best financial interests of the University, then think again: the numbers tell a different story.

Financial implications of closure

You could be forgiven for thinking the financial case for closure would be clear cut. Archaeology was making a loss as a department, so closing it and retaining its strongest elements would cut the losses and retain the profitable elements, putting the University in a better financial shape over the long-term. Or so the story goes.

The review document contained 5-year financial projections under the different options. It claimed the figures show “immediate cost savings and further saving realised following teach out which could be re‐invested into retained areas of strength and into other academic departments” in option 3 (closure and realignment). Meanwhile, option 1 (investment) “requires a large upfront investment, with limited evidence that the investment will address the challenges faced by the Department”, and warns that “the university will not recoup the investment if a) cross disciplinary programmes are not viable; and/or b) the department is unsuccessful in the development and expansion of the consultancy offer”.

A version of the review document was released as part of a Freedom of Information request (look in ‘FOI Papers.zip’, document 6). While it has some redacted figures, it contains enough information to assess the validity of the claims made. Interestingly, Senate wasn’t trusted with the full figures, and also received the redacted version.

Immediate cost savings?

First, the claim that closing the department generates immediate cost savings. On first glance, one can find in option 3’s figures a row for “cost savings” versus the status quo, which start at £620k per year in Year 2, rising to £1.2m per year in Year 5. But these cost-savings are more than offset by redundancy payouts and a projected loss in income of £1.2m in Year 2, rising to £1.5m in Year 5 (see Figure 1). In other words, there are no “immediate cost savings… which could be reinvested into retained areas of strength and into other academic departments”: quite the opposite. Closure of the department will cost the university hundreds of thousands of pounds per year.

By 2025/26, our analysis of the figures (not refuted by University management in our dispute meetings) shows that choosing option 3 over option 1 has a cumulative detrimental impact of over £1.6m. That is, by recommending closure of the department, UEB expect to be worse off to the tune of around £1.6m in five years’ time. They may have found a way to send the departmental deficit towards zero (after all, a department that doesn’t exist can’t lose you money), but the University as a whole takes the hit. Shared costs will be passed on to other departments. We all lose out.

Figure 1: Sheffield UCU analysis of the financial implications of options 1 and 3, based on UEB figures
(Spreadsheet available here)
Option 1 shows a better financial position than option 3 by £1.6m over 5 years

Recouping the investment?

Next up, the claim that the University may not be able to recoup the investment inherent in option 1. And again, one can see a row for the planned investment under option 1, starting at £178k in Year 1, rising to £402k in Year 5. In total, this represents a cumulative investment of £1.7m by Year 5.

The first thing to note is that there is no allowance for any improvement in income as a result of this investment, either in terms of improved student recruitment or improved grant or consultancy income (this is put down to “prudence”). But even without any allowance for this, option 1 still beats option 3 to the tune of £1.6m cumulatively over 5 years, as described above. In other words, the £1.7m investment to keep the department open will recoup itself and provide a £1.6m improved financial position over ‘closure and realignment’ over the next five years, representing a 96% return on the investment. In taking option 3, the university is implicitly setting itself a challenge of being able to find an alternative investment that doubles its £1.7m stake. It won’t manage it.

And then we get to the investment outlay itself, which is included under option 1 but not under option 3, despite UEB’s commitment to targeted investment in the areas it proposes to realign. If this unspecified level of investment were to be included in the figures for option 3, the financial benefits of keeping the department open would be even more pronounced.

Were the financial best interests of the University taken into account in the decision-making?

We are yet to see evidence that the financial best interests of the University as a whole were properly taken into account in reaching the decision to close the Department of Archaeology. There is no indication that UEB discussed them in reaching its recommendation (see the minutes of the 25 May meeting), and Senate had the necessary information redacted. We are used to seeing financial arguments as central justification for decision-making, so it seems unusual for them to be kept out of the picture here. It is hard to shake the feeling that the financial best interests were at odds with the recommendation UEB was keen to make, so they were kept out of sight and out of mind.

We are yet to see minutes of the Council meeting where the final decision was made, which will not be publicly released until October. Whether Council properly interrogated the financial implications of the recommendation they received from UEB, time will tell.