This has been a very busy few months for all of us in the UCU union in Bristol. In November we had the big demo and strike day in our dispute with the employers over pensions. There was a fantastic spirit on the picket lines around the university precinct and the march through the city centre was more massive than I had imagined possible. The Bristol UCU group was near the back of the march, and we were held up for a long time because the head of the march nearly met up with us again, forming one entire loop all round the centre of Broadmead from Bristol Bridge all the way back round to the Castle Park. Since then the USS pensions dispute has gone a bit quieter, while some renewed negotiations have started. It is too early to say what this will achieve, but there is hope that there will be some concessions on the accrual rate (how much pension one gets), and on some of the caps for inflation. Nationally in UCU there has also been a lot of controversy around the Teachers Pension Scheme (TPS) which is directly controlled by the government (unlike our USS scheme here in Bristol). Currently UCU is conducting a consultative ballot of members in TPS institutions on the government’s “Heads of Agreement” proposals. If the vote is to reject the government’s final offer more strikes and national days of action are likely to follow.
Within the University there is still a lot going on for UCU, even if there has not been the massive number of changes and job losses that took place last year under SPR and academic restructuring. Some of the redundancy cases from last year have carried on over until this year, and one of our most longstanding members was made redundant in November. The person involved was clearly 100% dedicated to the student experience in their department, and had for many years gone way beyond normal expectations in terms of the effort spent in education. After 40 years of teaching students very useful (and marketable) practical skills in his subject, it was shocking to see how badly he was treated and how keen the university was to simply get him off the payroll. The fact that he refused to go quietly and refused to accept the “voluntary” severance offered only seemed to make matters more unpleasant.
Just this week I attended another Redundancy Committee on behalf of another long standing member of UCU who is also clearly a very dedicated teacher. While each case is unique, I do certainly see a pattern that those who put teaching above research are being squeezed (or simply pushed) out, while those who put research success above everything else are allowed to continue as before. Several times at our negotiating meetings with senior management they have stated that one result of the increased student fees would be to rebalance academic life so that excellence in teaching is valued just as much as excellence in research. If only that were true!
In fact we are handling personal cases for a large number of UCU members with problems this year. As well as redundancy the common problems are problems with different types of contracts, flexible working arrangements, initial service review for new staff members, and above all bullying, stress and workload. Members have had to leave the university after their longstanding flexible working arrangements were arbitrarily withdrawn by new managers. This is despite an excellent university policy on flexible working. We have had a number of particularly nasty bullying cases, where ambitious research academics feel able to undermine and exploit junior research assistants. It is especially worrying that some (although I admit not all) of these cases involve male academics bullying junior female members of staff. Harriet Bradley has made some very strong representations to the Vice Chancellor himself over this issue. It is all very well for Eric Thomas to make very positive statements about the role of women in the universities in his Universities UK role and in papers to Senate. But in the end there is a culture within the institution, and as head of the university (whether or not he is running it day to day) we in UCU believe that it is his responsibility to make sure that such behaviour is not tolerated at any level.
Finally I come to excessive workloads. This is perhaps the most common problem we are dealing with now, and is maybe the cause of many of the bullying, stress and serious illness cases that are emerging. During the academic restructuring and SPR process last year the university cut the number of academics and support staff by about 200, nearly 10% of the total number of employees in these areas. At the same time roles and responsibilities were moved around, so that long established relationships were disrupted. I became unclear about who does what. Are academics now responsible for tasks like addressing envelopes to students, or do the administrative assistants do this? If they do not, whose job is it? All sorts of questions like this were unclear at the beginning of the academic year in October, and many gaps have emerged where important things simply did not get done because they were not planned for in the new structures. The IT services has been particularly badly affected, by changing to a much more centralized structure, so that all IT problems in the whole university now go through an impersonal central web portal, and one can no longer simply ask the IT technician down the hall to fix something. As well as a loss of human contact, making us all cogs in an impersonal machine, there are simply not enough IT staff to handle the volume of work. Many of the IT staff are UCU members that they are themselves suffering from extreme workloads. Also for academics in some areas of the university workloads have increased dramatically, even before the projected increased student numbers which are expected in October 2012. We are told to publish more and better papers for REF and at the same time to spend more time with students to improve the university’s NSS scores. It seems that however many hours one works it is not enough and more is demanded. Unfortunately some people are working themselves into states of extreme ill health, whether through stress or other major illnesses. Paradoxically our USS pensions dispute was beneficial, since we could finally say to the managers, “no I have done my 48 hours this week” or “no I won’t be reading my email this weekend”.
In the future another big threat is looming over the UK higher education scene. Eric Thomas told us directly that the government is planning further steps towards privatization in the university sector, and the drastic cuts we have already seen are only the beginning! We have a flavour of this already through UCU contacts at UWE, where a major international company has now apparently ‘outsourced’ several subject areas from the university. It remains to be seen how long Bristol can avoid going down a similar path. Of course at UCU we believe passionately in Education for all as a public good which is essential for the well being of all the people in the country, and as such believe strongly that it should remain in the non-profit sector.
Written by James Annett, President of UCU Bristol Branch