Summer Branch News: restructures, Saturday working and more

Put our USS-themed Action Group meeting in your diary: Wednesday 13 September, 1-2pm, Room tbc.

Summer Branch News

The traditionally quiet time of year has been anything but, with member-led branch meetings, restructures and new policies imminent, and the USS pension fund making the headlines.

The university’s Strategy Delivery Group (SDG), a temporary management team set up by the Vice Chancellor to look for money-saving opportunities across the university, isn’t set to disband any time soon. The SDG were responsible for last year’s Staff Release Scheme, and their reviews of substantial areas of the university’s activities may well lead to significant change and uncertainty. With large parts of Professional Services currently in the spotlight and many staff potentially affected, we are keeping a close eye on what’s going on alongside UNISON and Unite. Most importantly, we are keen to make sure the university follows its agreed change management procedures and treats affected staff sensitively and fairly. Please do contact us with any concerns or issues you think we need to know about.

In July, following a call from 50 Sheffield UCU members, we held an Extraordinary General Meeting where a motion was passed strongly criticizing Sheffield City Council’s response to protests regarding Sheffield’s street trees. We are pleased to see such member-led initiatives, and would welcome calls for single-issue meetings from other members. You can read the latest developments on the trees at the Sheffield Trees Action Group website.

The USS pension fund has made the headlines this summer, with sensationalist reporting focusing in on an accounting figure which has little relevance to the scheme’s health. The figure that matters much more is one which will appear in the triennial valuation, due in September. Early signs are that there has been some softening of the ‘reckless prudence’ which was a hallmark of 2014’s valuation, although there is likely to remain significant damage from a self-inflicted risk-management measure known as Test 1. We are working well with the university on this issue, as so far our priorities seem to be closely aligned. That said, members could start preparing themselves for the worst case, where a sturdy defense may be needed of a pension scheme well worth holding on to.

This summer also saw significant coverage on pay inequality, with the BBC’s list of high earners revealing a startling gender disparity, and politicians starting to focus on eye-watering pay for Vice Chancellors in the context of soaring student fees and stagnating staff wages. Recent legislation mandates that employers publish their gender pay gaps; this University has been acutely aware of its own gender pay discrepancies for a number of years, and we have been working with them to understand the data and highlight the problems. We hope, ultimately, that the university will commit to some actions to alleviate the problem locally.

Two fairly significant changes for the coming academic year are the mass roll-out of lecture capture and a shift towards Saturdays for open days. Following a useful Action Group in June, we have written a letter to Wyn Morgan in which we acknowledge the benefits that lecture capture can bring while remaining concerned about the opt-out process. We have requested that the policy removes the requirement for Head of Department approval for opt-out so that lecturers will retain autonomy over pedagogical decisions, and await a response. Saturday open days are likely to affect a large number of our members and we are continuing to discuss how these will be handled by the university, having pointed out that time-off-in-lieu, a suggested mechanism for reimbursing time worked on a Saturday, is all but meaningless to most academic staff.

Finally, members voted in an indicative ballot earlier in the summer to accept the 1.7% pay settlement resulting from the national negotiations. With this being another big effective pay cut, and salaries below where they were in the late 1990s in real terms, it begs the question: can you see this turning around? And if not, any thoughts on where it will lead us? Answers on a postcard to the usual address.

Sheffield UCU Committee

Are you up to speed on ‘Prevent’?

The Prevent duty, part of the government’s counter-terrorism strategy, came into effect for higher education institutions in September 2015. It requires all HEIs to have due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism. UCU nationally has been campaigning against Prevent since it came in, with concerns that range from the possibility of infringement on academic freedom to certain groups being targeted due to prevailing narratives around extremism. You can read more about UCU’s response to Prevent, and download posters expressing that ‘I dissent from Prevent‘.

Over the last two years a range of policies and procedures have been put in place here at Sheffield that include Prevent duty actions. As a branch we’re interested in hearing from members who have experienced problems relating to the Prevent duty. Have you been prevented from putting on an event at short notice, for example? The external speakers policy requires 10 days to risk assess all external speakers, and we’re aware of at least one case of someone being refused permission to speak. Please get in touch if you have any concerns or questions about how Prevent is being implemented.

Are you in a health and safety hot-spot?

We have managed to increase our number of trained Health and Safety representatives, and are hoping to make health and safety inspections of departments more routine in the future. If you are aware of health and safety issues where you work – this could be an environment detrimental to mental health equally as well as physical well-being – then please let us know, as some ideas of where needs attention helps us to plan.

#JobstownNotGuilty defendants found not guilty

If you were at our general meeting earlier in the year, you will recall that the branch passed a motion in support of a group of protestors who were accused of false imprisonment after a sit-down protest in Ireland. The most recent trial has resulted in not guilty verdicts for the six facing the charge, but the campaign continues to ensure that all remaining charges are dropped.

Interesting reading/h3>

Dates for the diary

  • Wed 13 September, 13:00-14:00, Action Group on USS, Room tbc
  • Thu 12 October, 13:00-14:00, Departmental Contacts Meeting, Chancellors Room, Firth Court
  • Thu 19 October, 13:00-14:00, General Meeting, Council Room, Firth Court