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Industrial action guidance and upcoming meetings

UCU has called 8 days of strike action, starting on the 25th of November and continuing through the 4th of December. While Sheffield UCU committee remains hopeful that Universities UK (who represent the employers on USS) and UCEA (who represent the employers on pay) will return to meaningful negotiations, we will be locally preparing for industrial action in the event that they do not. 


Our students are standing with us. The National Union of Students has declared their support, and last week, our local Student’s Union Council voted to support our strike action.


We have put together a Sheffield UCU industrial action document, which should hopefully answer many of your questions, and a specific set of guidance for GTAs and PGRs. We will continue to update these documents as and when we get more information, and will let you know when we do.


How can you get involved? We need your help! There is a trade union adage about the power of collective action: “The longer the picket line, the shorter the strike.” This sentiment applies before the start of the strike as well–the more visible we are collectively, the more we show our employer that we demand real, substantive change in our sector.   See our Guidance Document for more ideas of how you can get involved, but for a start, we have three upcoming meetings before the start of industrial action.


Pre-Strike Roadshows: In addition to any department meetings your SUCU departmental rep might be organising, we are holding two ‘Roadshows’ aimed at addressing concerns and queries from staff and students, members and non-members on what the strike action will involve

  • Monday, 18 November 1-2 Dainton LT1
  • Friday, 22 November 1-2 Alfred Denny LT2


SUCU branch General Meeting: In addition to discussing any updates on the imminent industrial action, there are several important motions that have been tabled by our members. Please attend, and bring a colleague! Our agenda is attached.

  • Thursday, 21 November 1-2 Council Room Firth Court

UCU and the University of Sheffield reach agreement over casual teaching arrangements and commit to further joint work.

Following concerns being raised by UCU, and negotiations between representatives of the University and the Sheffield UCU branch, a revised position on the use of casual engagements for those undertaking teaching has been agreed by the University Executive Board. Following negotiations with the University, it was agreed that all regular scheduled teaching would be undertaken by staff on an employment contract, making this the default position across the University. This led to the creation of a new GTA contract and the agreement that casual worker agreements can only be used if the work is genuinely of a short term or ad hoc nature (e.g. professional practitioners enhancing learning and teaching or one-off guest lectures). 

This signals positive progress on our campaign to end casualisation in our sector. Although the fight is far from over, having won GTA contracts at Grade 6 and Grade 7 means that there will be more security for GTAs across the university. This includes access to the same rights as other employees across the university including holiday pay, sick pay and The Deal scheme. 

Whilst the changes above mean that Sheffield UCU is able to close its claim from 2017 on casual teaching, tackling casual working and precarity of employment remains a key element of UCU’s national HE campaigns and the fight at Sheffield is far from over. We still have a long way to go both in terms of recognising the level of work undertaken by GTAs and the precarity that casualised colleagues face. 

Alongside our campaigning at a national level, over the coming year, we hope to improve pay and conditions for colleagues across the university. Using the new Grade 7 GTA contract, we aim to encourage departments to remunerate the hard work undertaken by GTAs by reviewing their pay grades. We also hope to develop a best practice guide for GTA employment across the university and work to recruit UCU ‘casuals’ reps to alongside existing departmental reps. 

If you’re keen to get involved in the campaign to end casualisation at Sheffield or need advice and support, do get in touch with the branch.

Congress and the Democracy Comission

Last spring, Sheffield UCU passed a motion calling for a review of UCU’s democratic structures that we then submitted to Congress, UCU’s annual policy meeting. You can read more about the history of the motion here and in the delegates’ report from Congress 2018 here.

Since the motion was passed at Congress last May, the Democracy Commission has been at work, organising itself around five working groups covering a wide range of UCU’s activities. The initial report of the Democracy Commission will be presented at this year’s Congress (25th-27th May).

You can read the full interim report here, but in short, the recommendations are focused on accountability and transparency in UCU’s structures and senior roles. There are recommendations relating to the following:

    1. recall of the General Secretary
    2. delegation of some of the General Secretary’s duties to elected officers in the event of their absence
    3. changes to how members can view policy
    4. changes to how NEC members can submit papers to NEC meetings
    5. the possibility of elected deputy General Secretary roles
    6. dispute committees made up of branch delegates should be convened for all multi-institution disputes.

All of the recommendations represent changes that increase the ability of members to influence the direction and work of the union.

The interim report of the Democracy Commission will be voted on at Congress by the delegates present and we urge all members to ask their branch delegates to vote in favour of the report and the ongoing work of the Commission. Should this be accepted by Congress, there will be a further Special Congress in the autumn of 2019 to consider the final report of the Commission and we hope that branches will send representatives to that meeting.

Here at Sheffield, we held an action group to discuss this and other motions that are on the agenda for Congress, as well as the ongoing General Secretary election. We continue to do all we can to try to make UCU’s sometimes non-transparent processes clearer to members. If you have any questions about anything to do with the Democracy Commission, Congress, or the national elections held within UCU, please do get in touch.

We will be updating after Congress at our AGM on Thursday June 6th at 1pm in the Council Room at Firth Court – we look forward to seeing you there, and at our end of year party at the Showroom on Friday 14th June (book your ticket here).

SUCU Committee

Student Evaluations of Teaching and Academic Career Pathways

University management has been consulting on the development of its Academic Career Pathways for some time. The new promotion pathways came into effect from the start of the 2018-19 academic year, and will be used for promotions for the first time in 2019.

Sheffield UCU has been broadly in favour of changes to academic promotion criteria and procedures that increase transparency around the expectations at each grade, that provide clear pathways for those on teaching-specialist and research-specialist contracts, and that ensure that there are ways for colleagues to move between different pathways.

However, when the detailed expectations for performance at each level were released last summer, we were surprised and disappointed that the University had prioritised student evaluations as the primary (and required) means of evidencing high quality teaching.

There is extensive evidence that student evaluations do not measure teaching quality, and that they are biased on the basis of personal characteristics of the instructor – including gender and race. The feedback we received from members about the inclusion of this metric in the new career pathways was overwhelmingly negative. We therefore presented a briefing paper to members of the University’s senior management, briefly outlining the extensive academic research on these issues, and identifying the implications of that research for the formulation and implementation of student evaluations, and for the use of student evaluations in employment decisions such as promotion. You can access the latest version of our briefing paper, compiled by SUCU committee member Simon Stevens, here: ‘Academic Career Pathways and Student Evaluations of Teaching.’

As a university, we argued, Sheffield should adopt policies that are evidence- and research-based and that reflect international best practice. In assessing teaching quality for the purpose of promotion, the University should not require the use of a metric that is known to be flawed. And the University should adopt policies that promote good teaching, rather than policies – such as prioritising of student ratings in promotion decisions – that have a negative impact on teaching quality.

We are pleased that, as a result of the meeting at which we discussed our briefing paper with representatives of senior management, the University has agreed to remove the primacy of student evaluations from the Academic Career Pathways. In the revised expectations document, ‘consistently excellent student feedback’ is now listed only as one of a number of possible (and not required) forms of evidence that staff could choose to use to demonstrate that they have met the teaching criteria for promotion.

We understand that the University will be reviewing its formulation and implementation of student evaluations later this year, and we hope that that the University will take this opportunity to implement our other recommendations on this issue, especially regarding the kinds of questions in student evaluation questionnaires that invite biased responses.

We have also been concerned to hear from members that this semester the University has implemented a new policy that requires module leads to produce a plan of action if any question in the student evaluations of their module receives a ‘satisfaction score’ of less than 75%. We share the deep concern that many members have expressed about this policy, which creates an additional, punitive burden for staff on the basis of a metric that does not measure teaching quality. This additional workload burden is more likely to fall on those against whom student evaluations are known to be biased, including female instructors and BAME instructors. And, as we argue in our briefing paper, policies that prioritise student evaluation ratings in this way have a negative impact on teaching quality: instructors are incentivised to devote their attention and energy to approaches that correlate with improved student ratings but that are unrelated to (and may even have a negative impact upon) improved student learning.

We are surprised that the University has agreed to alter the academic career pathways criteria in light of the evidence on the limitations and biases of student evaluations of teaching, and yet has simultaneously implemented a burdensome new policy that ignores those limitations and biases. We hope this policy will be quickly abandoned.

We will continue to work on this issue, and will be convening an action group on the University’s use of student evaluations and other metrics on Wednesday 1 May, 1-2pm in Hicks F30: please come along to discuss our branch response to these issues.

Workload in HE: The broken reality

This post was anonymously written by a member of Sheffield UCU.

cw: topics related to mental health, self harm

I am an academic with a research/teaching contract, which is generally taken to be 40-40-20: 40% research, 40% teaching, 20% administrative work and service. If we factor in my 0.1 FTE buyout (which can be for things like residency outside of the university, an external partnership, senior admin roles, etc), and apply this to a 35 hour work week, then we end up with the following target breakdown of my week:

12.6 hours teaching, 12.6 hours research, 6.3 hours admin.

The reality is very different.

I am the convenor for 2 different UG modules this term, plus I teach on an MA module, which amounts to 8 hours of contact time per week, plus 4 hours of prep. That, for the record, is only because I’ve taught these modules before; it would be much more if any of the three were new. If I add in my 2 office hours (which are always full), an average 1.5 hours answering questions on discussion boards and in emails, and 2.5 hours marking or moderating per week, we are already at…17.5 hours. Now, add in personal tutee crises that can’t be handled within my office hours, which my calendar suggests amount to 0.5 hours per week on average, and an average of 1.5 hours of UG, MA, and PhD supervision per week, we’re at 20.5 hours.

Did I mention that this is my light teaching term? Last term I convened 3 UG modules.

I have two admin roles in my department, and must attend regular meetings of the entire department, various departmental subgroups, and one-to-one planning meetings related to admin. Plus Open Days, which everyone ends up on the rota for. All of this adds up to 7.5 average hours a week. This is actually far lower than my admin hours were last year; I negotiated my workload down by essentially refusing to continue with one of my previous roles.

At this point, my week is at 28 hours, which is pretty far off from the target breakdown, but at least I have 3.5 whole hours remaining for research, right? Wrong. Because now we need to consider all of the things that aren’t “workloaded”, and yet are either required for promotion, to allow your discipline to function, or required by university management to satisfy some type of independently mandated metric: Service.

Peer review. National organisation membership. Journal editorship. Research centre membership/organisation. Working groups. Letters of reference. Online fire-safety/GDPR/out of hours training. Impact training. Impact case studies. Emails about the REF. REF internal audits. It’s hard to measure these things, so I’ve been conservative, but I would estimate that local/national service plus training plus imposed workload for REF adds up to 5.5 hours per week. None of which is workloaded. All of which is, in some way or another, required.

In the end, I have negative 2 hours per working week to conduct my world leading, 4* research during the teaching term. Under-performing in research can lead someone to not pass probation, to be placed under informal performance review measures, or even to be pressured to leave under a voluntary (or not) Staff Release Scheme. And yet: negative 2 hours.

What do I choose to do? It’s a Catch-22 with repercussions for my students, my career, my family, and my health. Do I cut back on the amount of time I’m prepping for classes, not respond to my students’ questions, or not respond to a personal tutee in the midst of a serious medical crisis? Do I shortchange my research and accept the implications for promotion? Or do I work in the evenings and on weekends, which has repercussions for my family, my physical health, my mental health, and ultimately, my productivity — it’s not just unethical to have workloads this high, research on high functioning workplaces has repeatedly demonstrated that it is counterproductive.

I should say two other things about the numbers I put above. First, they will be different for every member of staff. I have a high number of contact hours, but a manageable number of students to supervise — I know staff with PhD students in the double digits, which leads to an equally overwhelming schedule. Second, those numbers represent me operating at peak efficiency. In addition to lacking any time to conduct research (let alone to write it up), they don’t include time for me to read new papers in my field, write grant applications, meet with potential research collaborators, compare pedagogy with colleagues, and — and this is a big and — there is absolutely no space for me to be unwell. If I get ill, the delicately balanced house of cards will fall.

Now look around you at the casualised staff who — on top of this — have to apply for jobs, and worry about their financial security.

When staff talk to each other about workload, we admit that we employ a combination of many “triage strategies” to survive. First, most of us try to cut back on admin and service, but meetings make up the bulk of those hours, and they are hard to avoid. We next turn to teaching prep — it doesn’t feel good to do this, but it might add an hour or so per week. The next strategies are more painful. We have to decide which student emails to reply to, and some go entirely unanswered. We have to decide between getting enough sleep, or finishing our marking on time. The already high amount of emotional labour in our day to day jobs becomes overwhelming when faced with a constant flow of these decisions.

Underpinning all of this is guilt. The drip, drip, drip of Who am I letting down this week? wears on you, it keeps you from sleeping or wakes you up in the middle of the night, it causes you to choose the option of working tonight, tomorrow, and maybe Saturday — just for a couple of hours — so that you don’t feel quite as guilty. This week.

There is a cost that comes with these hours, and these choices, and the guilt; and that cost grows each year, until the word burnout starts to loom on the horizon. Until we see our friends and colleagues engage in self-harm and unhealthy or self-sabotaging coping strategies: Ignoring problems, self-blame, misdirected anger, high levels of worry, isolating oneself, working longer hours, or alcohol, substance, or food abuse. One in three early career researchers face serious mental health problems.

The worst thing is that we all know we shouldn’t feel guilty, but we do anyway. This cost isn’t of our own making — it has been imposed on us by a government bent on turning HE into a marketised parody of itself, where education is no longer the goal, and students are measured by their financial value to the university.

I don’t have a neat and tidy solution to the problem of workload; it’s a systemic one, requiring structural shifts in the sector, and in government. But one things is very clear: There aren’t enough staff to do the fundamental work of a university. When University management prioritises expensive capital projects over staff, they place all of us at risk. When they refuse to use accurate workload models (or any at all), and when they participate in expensive, ill-advised “efficiency” metrics like restructures, they exacerbate this risk.

Unless we push back, nothing will change. Universities UK has made it very clear they feel no duty of care for their employees, and have no intention of changing their marketised “vision” for HE, despite it being very clear how this vision is harming their staff and students. So we need to be so loud that we make them hear us. I have voted Yes and Yes in UCU’s ongoing Equalities and Pay ballot because a healthy workload isn’t a perk, it’s a right we have to fight for.

However busy you are, however overwhelming your workload is, please take the time to post your ballot today, to give UCU negotiators the best chance fight back for all of us, and to say as loudly as possible that we cannot go on like this — we deserve more.

If you are very worried, stressed, anxious or if you just don’t feel like yourself anymore, you can make contact with your usual GP, who can refer you to support services or you can access the NHS Sheffield Helpline for Mental Health Issues at 0808 801 0440. Without registering, you can work independently on a growing number of excellent online sites for example NHS Moodzone, Mental Health Foundation and Mind. iPad Apps like Unstuck and NHS self-help suite may also prove useful to manage symptoms. If you or someone else is in immediate risk of serious harm or injury, you should call the emergency services by dialing 999.