Tag Archives: COVID-19

subtext 194 – ‘voluntary subtext reductions’

Increasingly less often during term time.

Letters, contributions, & comments: subtext-editors@lancaster.ac.uk

Back issues & subscription details: http://wp.lancs.ac.uk/subtext/about/

In this issue: editorial, BLM, open letter, appeal for editors, online teaching, rent strike, liddle, phones, nuttall, elections, pandemic, letters.

*****************************************************

EDITORIAL

Our new Vice-Chancellor was clearly trying to strike a Churchillian note when drafting his 10 June email to all staff. I am encouraged, he noted, by the resilience and dedication I have seen in Lancaster since my arrival, and with that spirit, we will face whatever may come as a united and collegial team. Very inspirational, for sure, but if it achieved anything it was to cement the fear that Lancaster University’s position is about as secure as the British Expeditionary Force in Dunkirk.

Whilst we’ve saved maybe £3–5m through furloughing, the announcement that the University Council is seeking to reduce spending by £66m over the coming financial year makes this belt-tightening seem relatively minor. This figure is based on the Council’s middle risk scenario, which supposes that around 20% of incoming EU and overseas students will not appear in October, leading to corresponding reductions in fee and accommodation income. Our cash flow is not great, with reportedly less than 2 months of cash in hand for paying salaries. Interest payments on £65m of private debt can’t be helping either.

The £66m in savings are to be split three ways: £22m saved by deferring our capital expenditure; £22m saved by making non-payroll budget savings; and £22m saved from payroll, hopefully to be achieved through voluntary options.

These options formed the main topic of conversation at an anxious informal meeting of Lancaster UCU, held on 11 June with 54 members present. Senior management had reportedly agreed to take a 10% cut in their salaries for the 3 month period beginning on 1 August; less, proportionately, than the amount that striking staff have already lost this year. Those opting for a voluntary pay cut will, officially, take their full normal salary but donate a portion of it back to the University through Payroll Giving, so preserving their pension contributions. Why the arbitrary division of £66m into three equal parts? UCU members were unsure. A more formal meeting of Lancaster UCU on 18 June was so popular that some members were unable to get in, as numbers had reached the Zoom-imposed maximum of 100.

On 16 June all staff received another email, from the Vice-Chancellor and the Pro-Chancellor, offering some ideas: making a contribution of your salary, delaying the financial reward element of promotions, purchasing additional annual leave, temporarily reducing your working hours, career breaks, flexible furloughing etc. Everyone is invited to participate in a survey to opt-in to a range of voluntary options which will help reduce the overall pay bill in the short term. The Vice-Chancellor will give up 20% of his salary.

The FAQ for the survey tries to reassure everyone that, there will be no direct consequences as a result of this survey or impact to you if you decide not to participate — what about indirect consequences, then? — but adds, in a way that can’t help coming across as slightly menacing, that the more staff who are able to participate then the stronger the University’s response to this financial situation will be.

Are we overreacting? Undergraduate recruitment figures are very good (our total number of firm accepts for 2020–21 entry now exceeds the corresponding figure for 2019–20 entry, which makes this year one of our best ever) although postgraduate taught figures are not quite as rosy. An email from the Director of HR to line managers, sent on 16 June, notes that the measures are designed to help protect the cash flow of the University over the three month period from 1 August to 31 October because there is a need for immediate cash preservation. Are we finding it more difficult to obtain credit at the moment? How are Leipzig and UA92 looking these days? Letters and thoughts to the usual address, please.

Asynchronicity

Understand blended learning yet? Where are you on the big ‘Teams vs Panopto’ debate? And how many times have you used the phrase ‘asynchronous learning event’ in the last two months? subtext‘s correspondent has tried to navigate the maze of buzzwords, so you don’t have to.

While the May 2020 paper Academic Delivery in 2020/21 and Beyond, produced by the ‘Bronze Assessment & Teaching Team’, offers the vision of a University switching, maybe several times in one term, between ‘multiple operating modes’, the June 2020 document Minimum Expectations for Teaching Events 20/21, signed off by Prof Maria Piacentini, makes it clear that, as far as our planners are concerned, we should focus on an all-online academic year.

According to the May paper, there will be three modes: ‘normal operating conditions’ (unlikely, in the first term at least); ‘social distancing imposed’ (which would mean the end of face-to-face lectures, but hopefully keep seminars and tutorials going); and ‘face-to-face teaching suspended’. Assuming that some face-to-face teaching is possible, the highest priority will be given to science labs, with lectures getting lowest priority. Despite the stated need to keep ‘a distinctive Lancaster offering’, staff are being asked to consider how they could ‘streamline their current and future offerings’, noting that ‘opportunities for reducing the number of programmes or modules and sharing of modules across programmes should be actively sought out’.

Given that departments will have been advertising the courses they expect to teach for over a year now and the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) takes a tough line when the ‘goods are not as presented in the brochure’, it seems unlikely that many courses could be ‘streamlined’ away, even if this was desired. A short summary of the CMA’s 2015 guidance to universities is available at:

https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/higher-education-providers-short-guide-to-consumer-protection-law

The CMA stresses that, ‘before, or at the latest when, offering a place to a student, you must tell them of any changes since they applied and give pre-contract information which includes course information and costs, information on complaints handling, and any cancellation rights.’ Most of our applicants were offered a place well before COVID-19 hit and the CMA is unlikely to accept ‘but hey, virus!’ as a reason why a key course can no longer be taught.

The June document moves from generalities to a highly specific — teaching staff might say too specific — set of rules. We must develop ‘asynchronous lecture events’, made available ‘no later than the start of the planned lecture’, and even earlier where possible. Live-streaming of lectures is specifically discouraged; the ‘gold standard’ is apparently to split up a lecture into 4 x 15-minute recorded segments. If possible these should be recorded from home; recording from lecture theatres should be avoided where possible. Don’t think we can ignore the timetable, though, as we must also build in ‘synchronous discussion sessions’ at timetabled hours.

As several commentators have already noted, this plan would prohibit lectures being taught, live and online, with recordings made available immediately afterwards; a method which would be the preferred choice of some. Instead, we’re asked to adopt a method which doubles staff lecturing time (once to prepare an ‘asynchronous lecture event’ and once to hold the corresponding ‘synchronous discussion event’). A further issue is that ‘synchronous discussion events’ are supposed to be recorded for students who don’t turn up. Experience suggests it is hard enough to motivate students to speak in seminars even in precedented times; will they be willing to speak if recorded, and what do we do about discussions around sensitive topics?

Speaking of students turning up, apparently ‘any synchronous aspects will likely result in clashes therefore must be recorded.’ Why lecture clashes are likely is not explained. If we can schedule a full programme to (mostly) avoid clashes when we’re all attending in person, why would things get any worse when we’re all connecting via Teams?

Could it be that Lancaster is having problems putting a timetable together with so many staff on furlough? subtext readers have noted that on 5 June, a request went out to those who have offered to volunteer to support needy people on campus asking for help ‘supporting the timetabling process at the University.’ Apparently, ‘the Timetabling team have requested some support in liaising with faculties and departments to identify and understand their needs and feed these back into the Timetabling team for them to process.’ Sounds far more rewarding than delivering food parcels!

If face-to-face teaching is permitted for smaller groups, then ‘seminars’ must be prioritised for face-to-face provision, but no such priority is given to ‘workshops’ in the sciences or the arts. The distinction between a seminar and a workshop isn’t specified, and at this point a trunked mammal walks into the discussion – given we had difficulty scheduling all our seminars into limited numbers of flat rooms when it was okay to squash 25 into a room designed to fit 15, how on earth could we achieve this if restricted by social distancing to 6 or fewer per room? And, given that halving the numbers in each seminar would mean doubling the number of seminar teaching hours, who is going to be teaching these sessions?

For the arts, the prescribed solution is to get students doing their practicals at home: ‘departments may seek to enable the use of domestic internal and external spaces by individual students in which case appropriate consideration must be given to H&S and EDI issues.’ The idea of clusters of Theatre Studies students all practising out on County Square does have a certain beauty to it, although probably less so when faced with Lancaster’s usual winter weather.

Neither of the documents discuss the likely number of students who will actually be living on campus, because of course no one knows, but we’re reassured that we’ll still be offering ‘a college-based campus learning environment’. We can only hope that most of our students turn up in person, given that if they don’t, our much-publicised cash flow problems may go from being serious to critical. Fingers crossed.

PANDEMIC REVIEW: COVID-19

Deadly dull and goes on far too long. 2/5

subtext 193 – ‘stay home and read subtext’

Every so often during term time (and sometimes slightly later).
Letters, contributions, & comments: subtext-editors@lancaster.ac.uk
Back issues & subscription details: http://wp.lancs.ac.uk/subtext/about/
*****************************************************
EDITORIAL
That UCU strike seems a long time ago now, doesn’t it?
As Lancaster’s staff and students adjust to a new working life involving ‘daily exercise’, Microsoft Teams, Zoom and all manner of ‘virtual learning platforms’, subtext reflects on two weeks we should have probably all seen coming, but which most of us didn’t.
For those on campus during Week 20, the atmosphere was strangely peaceful; hardly anyone around, bars and shops gradually choosing to close, and nothing but the almost-daily updates from ‘Lancaster Internal Communications’ to remind us that things were, in the wider world, definitely not getting any better.
Incidentally, subtext would be interested to know why the Vice-Chancellor has chosen to colour the ‘Lancaster University’ header at the top of his COVID-19 updates in Management School Teal, rather than the usual Lancashire Red. Is he trying to create an artificial divide between his usual chummy ‘we’re all in this together’ persona and his new, necessarily terrifying ‘vacate your offices by Monday’ persona? Every time we see that flash of green at the top of an email, we know the news is bad. The consequences could be severe – subtext has visions of groups of staff in years to come experiencing flashbacks and panic attacks every time they pass LUMS and catch sight of that oppressive shade of green.
The UCU disputes on pensions, pay and conditions continue, of course, with not a lot changed after 14 days of further strike action – except the election of a new UCU National Executive Committee that will be far more to General Secretary Jo Grady’s liking than the outgoing one. Relations locally between unions and management remain strained. Unlike several universities, including Birkbeck, King’s College London and St Andrews, which have indefinitely deferred all strike deductions in the light of the coronavirus crisis, Lancaster seems unusually keen to punish its staff as rapidly as possible, with many staff due to see a full 14 days’ worth of pay deducted from their March salary payments. Most Heads of Department seem to have been happy, under orders from HR, to ask staff to declare their strike days as soon as possible. Could the University be jittery about its financial position? This week’s announcement of a freeze on all external recruitment (see our article in this issue) suggests that they may be.
As we go to press, news has reached the subtext warehouse that the University now wants all staff to report their COVID-19 status. In an email to staff, Director of HR Paul Boustead claims that they ‘require this information to enable the University to meet its reporting requirements and respond to requests from [the] Office for Students, government and emergency services.’ While it is clear the University has a role to play in flattening the curve, and in some respects has been ahead of the government in this regard, asking all staff to disclose specific details about their health seems like a clear case of institutional overreach. Readers can of course make their own decision about whether to comply with this request, or reply to Paul Boustead with a frank indication of their views.
There will no doubt be a lot to think about in the coming months. As we prepare for a term, or perhaps longer, of remote working, subtext hopes to be there to cover the serious stories and, hopefully, provide a bit of light relief. Stories, reviews and letters are more welcome than ever – send them to the usual email address.

FROZEN

News reaches subtext that, in an email to line managers on Wednesday 25 March, the Vice-Chancellor has announced a complete freeze on all external recruitment at Lancaster. Where an offer has already been made, this will be honoured, but all other appointments and vacancies are to be frozen.
The VC informs managers that ‘we are having to review our short to medium position regarding staff recruitment and all other costs in light of the significantly altered financial and operating position. You will be aware that we communicated last week a deferral of the most significant capital projects; i.e. the next phase of the LUMS development, the refurbishment of the east estate, and the construction of the new Engineering building. Other changes to the capital programme will follow.’ As a result, ‘all external recruitment (including through ERS) with immediate effect is being placed on hold until further notice.’
The existing vacancy control process for Professional Services staff will now apply to all roles, including ERS (the University’s in-house employment agency that lets them hire people on zero hours contracts while pretending not to have any staff on zero hours contracts) positions and proposed extensions to fixed term contracts. The process will assess whether vacancies are ‘strategically critical roles’ where the freeze should not apply.
There is some reassurance: ‘we need to ensure we are, where possible, providing job security to our existing staff and mitigating the cessation of fixed term contracts. This will require us to think differently and creatively as we redeploy staff and share our resources.’ Furthermore, ‘we will automatically place all fixed term contracts due to come to a natural end on the redeployment register.’
Fixed term staff awaiting transfer to indefinite status, as promised by the University’s new policy, are likely to be disappointed: ‘we are mindful that work is due to start in respect of the new Fixed Term Contracts Policy and this work will continue as best it can do in light of COVID-19 context. However, managers should still keep fixed term contracts under review as normal.’
This announcement will hardly have come as a surprise to anyone – after all, how many overseas students do you think we’re realistically likely to recruit for the coming year? Your subtext drones wonder how equipped the university would be, or more likely would not be, to weather a significant one-year drop in student numbers without redundancies.
We should perhaps be grateful we are not at the University of Sussex, which reportedly announced on Wednesday 25 March that all temporary contracts should be ‘terminated where possible’:
https://twitter.com/KathrynTelling/status/1242860784306343938/
As subtext goes to press, 44 vacancies are still being advertised at: https://hr-jobs.lancs.ac.uk/

SHOWING YOU CARE

Some of you may be familiar with the ‘Clap for Our Carers’ campaign, which has recently spread across social media with the speed of, well, some sort of virus. The idea was that the people of the UK would, at 8pm on March 26th, take to their windows, porches, gardens, etc. to deliver a nationwide round of applause for those NHS staff currently on the frontline of the fight against the coronavirus.
Alas, we still haven’t got around to removing the soundproofing we installed in the subtext warehouse during the recent campus construction works (subtexts passim). However, reports reach us from those on the receiving end of this display of gratitude – reports of banged pots and pans, car horns, fireworks and applause. Suffice it to say they were extremely grateful for the show of support; good on you to those subtext readers who took part!

WE’RE STILL THE RECORD HOLDERS

As coronavirus fever first gripped the country, and as the government prepared to enact emergency laws to postpone all public elections, one solitary local council by-election took place on Thursday 19 March 2020, for the Upper Stoke ward of Coventry City Council. Other by-elections had been scheduled for that day, but called off unilaterally by their returning officers, and no further by-elections are likely to take place anywhere in the UK for the foreseeable future.
Gurdev Singh Hayre (Labour) won the Upper Stoke ward with 639 votes, out of 1214 who cast ballots, 651 of whom were postal voters. A shockingly low turnout of 9.02%.
Surely this pandemic-affected turnout must be a record low for recent public elections? Apparently not, commentators concluded – there was another council by-election, in 2016, where the turnout had been even lower, 7.12%, and the winning candidate had been returned with just 98 votes. Where could that have been?
You’ve guessed it. The University & Scotforth Rural by-election for Lancaster City Council (see subtext 156), held on 8 December 2016, continues to defeat all comers in the apathy stakes. It’s comforting to know that even the fear of catching COVID-19 has nothing on our students’ tendency to avoid the polls on a cold day.

SUBTEXT PRESENTS: A SOLUTION TO TOILET PAPER SHORTAGE

1) Receive this latest issue of subtext
2) Print off this latest issue of subtext
3) Problem solved