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- subtext 192 – ‘strike while the subtext is hot’
- A TALE OF TWO UNION MEETINGS
- CASUALISATION NEWS
- PREVIEW – LANCASTER EXCHANGE II
- STUDENT DEMOCRACY UPDATE
- GO AWAY, OLDIES
- GENDER STEREOTYPING MASTERCLASS
- BUILDINGS NEWS
- FEARLESSLY SPINELESS
- LANCASTER DEBATES THE FUTURE OF UNIVERSITIES (AND TRIES TO SELL A FEW BOOKS)
- WIDDEN’S REVIEW – PIANO QUARTET CONCERT IN THE GREAT HALL
- PENGUINS, A FIRE AND A NASTY CASE OF HYPOTHERMIA
- subtext 191 – ‘fresh from the fridge’
- RETURN OF THE ANGRY DUCKS
- ANOTHER ONE BITES THE DUST?
- ARE YOU STILL HERE?
- subtext 191 – ‘fresh from the fridge’, December 13, 2019
- subtext 190 – ‘get subtext done’, November 1, 2019
- subtext 189 – ‘ imaginative thinking subtext’, June 28, 2019
- subtext 188 – ‘eurobants subtext’, May 23, 2019
- subtext 187 – ‘yet another meaningful subtext’, April 2, 2019
- subtext 186 – ‘stumbling towards a no deal subtext’, March 1, 2019
- subtext 185 – ‘the same subtext, only louder’, February 1, 2019
- subtext 184 – ‘life’s an illusion love is a dream’, December 17, 2018
- subtext 183 – ‘(white man) in lancaster sugarhouse’, November 23, 2018
- subtext 182 – ‘better late than ever’, November 8, 2018
- subtext 181 – ‘mean as you start to go on’, October 11, 2018
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Tag Archives: UCU
Impending strike action was the sole subject of discussion at what were otherwise two very different Lancaster UCU General Meetings, one on 22 January and the other on 18 February. Both were relatively well-attended – the January one looked packed because it was in the cosy Marcus Merriman Lecture Theatre, while the February one looked sparsely attended because it was in the cavernous (and freezing cold!) County South Lecture Theatre, but in truth there were probably around 60 attendees at each.
Members at the January meeting, held when the 14 days of action had been proposed but not agreed to, were worried and apprehensive. Despite an upbeat introduction by local UCU President Julie Hearn, suggesting we ‘look over the ocean’ at France, where a general strike seemed imminent, the majority of speakers advised caution. One thought this seemed the wrong time to take further action; another was worried that members were being asked to ‘go back out’ after no visible progress; another flatly suggested that the union’s tactics had failed. Those backing 14 days felt we currently had the momentum – and if we didn’t act now, there was no guarantee we’d reach the 50% threshold again. It was not logical to say, ‘we’ve not achieved much, so we shouldn’t go back out on strike!’
The meeting had officially been called to gauge opinions, and a motion supporting the planned strike action had been proposed, but it was agreed by everyone present that a vote was not appropriate (subtext’s view is that it would probably have fallen). One member perhaps summed up the majority: ‘no one is saying, don’t take strike action. We want to take strike action – but we don’t want to take 14 days’ strike action.’
The January meeting agreed to invite one of the national negotiators up to speak to a future meeting – a very wise decision, in retrospect, because the February meeting, with national pay and conditions negotiator Robyn Orfitelli (University of Sheffield) as lead speaker, was a much more optimistic affair.
Despite spending nearly four hours to travel from Sheffield to Lancaster by train, Dr Orfitelli was upbeat – about what the negotiators had already achieved on pay and conditions, and why she thought we needed to take further action. After a long period of silence, the employers had written to the unions in the last few days, with strike action imminent, asking for a meeting – a tactic they’d used just before the last strike, when talks started on the second strike day. ‘A lot of progress has been made’ in those talks, she reported, but not enough.
The unions want a negotiating framework for working conditions. UK-wide principles should be agreed as the ‘bottom line’, following which there should be locally-negotiated implementation of these principles. UCEA, the employers’ pay negotiators, offered some ‘principles on precarity’ and a commitment to information gathering, but there was still no progress on a sector-wide response to the workload crisis or – of course – on the headline pay offer. All of the ‘four fights’ were, at their core, equality issues. Universities were making financial choices which devalue their staff and students.
There were plenty of questions.
– ‘What’s the plan if the employer just sits this out?’ ‘I don’t think they will,’ replied Dr Orfitelli, adding that, when UCU members want us to stop taking action, they will tell us.
– What incentive do employers have to settle in one dispute, given we’d still be on strike due to the other dispute? Dr Orfitelli believed that, the instant that one of the two (UCEA for pay, Universities UK for pensions) breaks, the pressure ramps up on the other. These organisations are all ‘literally down the hall from each other.’
– Could reducing the number of fixed-term staff have the unintended consequence of placing more indefinite staff at risk, due to larger redundancy pools? Dr Orfitelli noted that campaigning was often like playing Whack-a-Mole.
– On pensions, Dr Orfitelli reported that employers had recently been reconsulted, and many are unwilling to take on extra contributions. Reports of ‘111 USS employers’ presumably means that each Oxbridge college is being counted as a separate institution. To get a resolution, we either need to get USS to fundamentally change, or get Universities UK to temporarily take on additional contributions. The Joint Expert Panel (JEP) was ‘over’ – it had delivered both of its reports, and its members were not directly involved in negotiations.
– Were there disagreements between the pay negotiators and the General Secretary? Both had sent emails to members, with different takes on the dispute, at almost exactly the same time! Apparently, there was no disagreement, just a ‘slightly different tone.’ The negotiators were concerned that members did not have access to them and their thoughts, and they were unaware that the General Secretary would be writing to members that day.
– If there was movement on job insecurity but zero movement on pay, would the negotiators recommend that members be balloted on the deal? ‘We’re not ruling anything out.’
– And the most unsympathetic VC? Birmingham, apparently!
At one point Dr Orfitelli floated the idea of a REF, TEF and KEF boycott, which was met with a round of applause.
The meeting ended with thanks for Dr Orfitelli. Four hours on Transpennine Express well spent!
Contributed by Megan Marxel
A full room, including many recognisable as dedicated subtext readers, attended the book launch for ‘The University Challenge’ on Monday 3 February, hosted by the Institute for Social Futures. This wide-reaching book on the challenges facing (Anglo) universities was a collaboration between Prof Ed Byrne (VC of King’s College London) and Charles Clarke (former MP, former Home and Education Secretaries, Visiting Professor to Lancaster PPR, graduate of Highgate School [est 1565], Cantab, former President of the Cambridge Students Union and of the National Union of Students). I was impressed by this biography and was curious about what he had to say. But what stands out most in my memory of Mr Clarke is that he looked very bored, especially considering that this was his party.
I didn’t actually make it to the book launch itself (I was teaching), but that was just as well. I was far more interested in the panel discussion that followed. Pro-VC for Engagement Sue Black led a panel discussion on ‘What’s Wrong with Universities and How Do We Fix It?’. As the discussion was only an hour and a half long, we barely even scratched the surface.
Sue started by, somewhat defensively, clarifying that she had not set the discussion topic, which assumes that something is actively wrong with our universities. On the eve of more strikes across 74 universities, her caveat was, at best, disingenuous. She then warned the audience to avoid being ‘too strident’ in expressing our views. Her pre-emptive tone was perhaps understandable though, as Charles Clarke is the man responsible for introducing the university fees that have since gone on to indebt millions of British students.
The panel members each had 5 minutes to reflect on challenges facing universities. Little surprise, these were fairly unmemorable, generic statements about ‘collaborating more’ and ‘better clarifying mission statements’. There were a few exceptions, including when Prof Byrne argued that universities were making active choices to either serve as ‘engines of equality or engines of inequality’. Another exception was Dr Shuruq Naguib, Lecturer in Islamic Studies, who described the findings of over 1,000 interviews with British university students that highlighted the need to meaningfully tackle endemic Islamophobia across our future universities.
Despite these spikes of interest, something felt odd about the panel’s overall response to the prompt: not one person mentioned the plague of managerialism, the tragedy of student debt, relentless growth, the burdens of industrial action, or the risks of instrumentalism. Their polite skirting of the larger issues provoked a knowing sigh, ‘Ah, this is what is wrong with English universities.’
The audience’s questions were rectifying, perhaps because they included impassioned interventions from members of the Lancaster UCU Executive. Particularly memorable was an emotive question about the panel’s recurrent use of the personal pronoun, ‘we’. If ‘we’ are collectively responsible for defining the future of universities, then why do most staff and students feel so disempowered? Prof Byrne responded by highlighting a range of encouragingly democratising initiatives being undertaken at King’s College that left me envious. If true, the trajectories of Kings and Lancaster could not look more different.
Nevertheless, the panel discussion began to open up the types of honest, public debate that Lancaster so badly needs. Even if it comes under the guise of book sales, these conversations must form part of how we begin to fix the many things wrong with our universities.
Near the end of the event, a student was invited to ask a question. Unfortunately, he uttered the word ‘marketisation’. This clearly ruffled Mr Clarke, who retorted that he ‘did not quite understand what is meant by terms like marketisation, commercialisation and neoliberalisation in Higher Education’. I ended my evening by shaking his hand and offering to explain these concepts to him. He declined.
It was pure picket line déjà vu. Not just the buses and cars queuing on the main drive, trying to avoid running anyone over. Not just the hand-made banners and placards, the angry ducks and the picket discos. No, what most made it seem like February 2018 all over again was that staff had downed tools (or keyboards, in most cases) for pretty much the exact same reason as before: to protest against higher pension contributions, after employers refused to fully implement the recommendations of the Joint Expert Panel convened after the last strikes.
There were some differences this time around, however. Rather than just being about pensions, this was the first industrial action at Lancaster over pay and conditions for quite some time – no doubt helped by the focus on workload and equality (in particular Lancaster’s massive gender pay gap). Unlike last time, this strike seems to have enjoyed widespread student support, including from the previously rather apolitical Students’ Union. Successively more senior managers visited the picket lines to chat with the unwashed masses. When the interim VC eventually found his way there, he faced some difficult questions, but was not subjected to quite as thorough a grilling via megaphone as the previous incumbent (see subtext 175).
Rather than striking for an increasing number of days each week spread over a month, this strike was a contiguous period of eight working days. UCU activists were said to be split over the purpose of this different pattern, with some claiming that the current structure was not conducive to negotiation. And in fact, on a national level, there seems to have been very little movement by employers. It seems likely at this point that the pickets will return in the new year, ducks and all.
Every so often during term time.
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In this issue: editorial, sugar free, union council, apart-nope, sports, portrait, dundee, IP, emeritnews, ISS vs societies, pun corner, climate strike, letters.
Anyone walking up the Spine on Monday at around 6pm would have seen hundreds of students queueing to enter the Great Hall. A jobs fair? Yet another 6pm lecture? No. In a heartwarming display of activism, they were queueing to enter the Annual General Meeting of Lancaster University Students’ Union – an event that in recent years has seen just a few dozen diehards attending.
Let this put the lie to the notion that students are chronically apathetic. Nark them off enough and they will punish you for it. The spark for the nark this time was the proposed closure of a much-loved nightclub, and it is our hope that these students, having now experienced an intoxicating taste of activism, will develop their impulses in directions more socially rewarding than maintaining their access to 3-for-£5 VKs – perhaps the re-democratisation of their own Students’ Union, or this climate lark that everyone seems to be banging on about.
Speaking of democracy in action, as we go to press the news of the recent UCU ballot on industrial action over pay and pensions reaches the subtext warehouse. Lancaster is one of the 55 (for the pay dispute) and 43 (for pensions) institutions to both vote in favour of action and reach the 50% threshold. Expect more picket discos in the near future.
By the way, has anyone noticed that it’s now 1 November 2019 and we’re still in the European Union?
More than a year after UCU members stood down from the picket lines, the prospect of another strike is again looming in the air over alleged mishandling by the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), the fund manager, and over employers acting in bad faith with regard to pensions. The main concession the striking union gained from employers back then, as avid subtext readers will no doubt recall, was the establishment of the so-called Joint Expert Panel, which would look closely at valuations past and future and make recommendations which both employers and staff representatives would stick by. Employers, however, have been rather selective in which elements of the panel’s recommendations they support. If this dispute were only between employers and staff, this position would clearly contravene the spirit and letter of the agreement gained during the last strikes. However, because USS is a separate legal entity, employers can throw up their hands and claim that they can’t do anything about USS’s refusal to implement the JEP valuation recommendations, and USS in turn claims that it is bound by the regulations around pensions.
There are a number of problems with these claims of helplessness: first, the board of USS consists of both employers and staff representatives, with employers holding the casting vote. They can set policy for USS. Second, it has been alleged, according to reports in the Financial Times and the Today Programme (links below) that USS has withheld information from its trustees and misrepresented The Pensions Regulator’s position on risk.
UCU is demanding that employers bear the additional costs of pensions (due to USS’s decisions on valuations) until the JEP recommendations are implemented in full. Watch this space – or possibly the space outside the Sports Centre, where strikers may in due course again put on picket discos and brandish signs with duck-related puns.
The University and College Union is yet again balloting its members over industrial action – not over pensions this time, but rather over casualisation, workload, pay inequality, and… well, pay. Union members are said to be scratching their heads as they walk around campus in a daze (that’s just the standard academic habitus, mind you), wondering whether they hadn’t already done one of these about six months ago. And indeed they did – but only a small handful of institutions reached the magic 50% figure imposed by recent trade union legislation, so there really wasn’t much of a solid platform for industrial action. This time, after some ill-tempered shouting (or should that be well-reasoned debate?) at a national union conference, UCU has gone for an aggregated ballot, which means that all branches are lumped together and the 50% threshold must be reached across the board.
Opinion seems divided on whether this will succeed – on the one hand, the last, ill-fated ballot still achieved the highest turnout of any ballot over a national pay & conditions negotiation ever. On the other, there is nothing like the sense of unity and anger that surrounded the pensions dispute. Is this a case of people only voting when their own interests are at stake?
The 2018 staff survey is now live. This has been covered by subtext already (see subtext 178 for example) but the real excitement for us this month is whether UCU’s call for a boycott will gain any traction. After all, our staff traditionally take the path of least resistance with the biennial survey and ‘just do it’. It can’t hurt, can it? Presumably the university takes our comments on board.
A look at the current staff survey results page at:
is not very encouraging, opening as it does with ‘the results are in for the Lancaster University Staff Survey 2014,’ and linking to Capita’s report from January 2015. Turnout – 63%. Hm, can we find any record of the 2016 exercise anywhere? After a bit of work, we found it on Box. Turnout – 73%.
Rather like the National Student Survey, staff surveys consist of statements to which we can ‘agree’, ‘tend to agree’, ‘tend to disagree’ or ‘disagree’. Responses in 2016 were generally ‘positive’, although subtext wonders whether it is really so positive that 26% agreed with ‘relationships at work are strained’, while 36% disagreed with ‘I feel fairly rewarded for the work I do.’
Whatever their misgivings, UCU has actively participated – as HR is keen to remind people – in the Staff Survey Planning Group all year, so why the boycott now? According to the email sent to Lancaster UCU members by the branch Vice-Chair, UCU ‘sought to engage with the management response to the last survey, but this was not made possible for us to do in a meaningful way. […] A questionnaire-based staff survey could conceivably be used to support collegiate workplace improvement, but the current approach does not lend itself to doing this.’
Specifically, UCU feels, benchmarking our results against other institutions is flawed, because management will think, ‘if we do not get worse result than the rest of the sector, then all is fine,’ and benchmarking requires standardised questions which ‘severely limits what we can say freely due to the lack of open-ended questions and what we can learn about local conditions.’ Benchmarking also relies on using Capita, and LUCU ‘has ongoing concerns about relying on Capita, given their track record.’
Improvements to the staff experience due to the 2016 survey do seem to be rather limited. On the 2018 staff survey site, examples given are a revamp of the Employee Assistance Programme, more flexible benefits, a ‘clearer PDR process’ (ahem! – see subtext 153) and, thanks to the faculty professional services project, creating ‘a more positive environment for thinking and talking about change which, in turn, has created a more positive platform for change.’ Feedback from those for whom ‘change’ meant ‘P45’ does not seem to have been highlighted.
Will the UCU boycott have an effect? If it reduces the turnout compared with 2016 then, just maybe, the university might consider something different for 2020. Or maybe not.
Every year the five main UK Higher Education unions (including the three recognised at Lancaster University) haggle and bargain over pay rates for staff in the sector with the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA, acronym fans!).
This year the unions’ joint claim was for an increase of 7.5% or £1500 (FTE) whichever is higher, and a minimum wage of £10 per hour, plus demands around the gender pay gap and precarious contracts. Full details here: http://www.ucu.org.uk/media/9311/UCUBANHE29/pdf/HE_Pay_claim_submitted.pdf
UCEA’s final offer was a pay increase of 2% or £425 (FTE), whichever is higher, alongside promises to tackle the gender pay gap and casualisation issues at a sector level. Full details here: https://www.ucea.ac.uk/download.cfm/docid/CD07D3D7-EBCE-4027-9FB2DF4F48C39D6E
Unsurprisingly, most of the unions rejected the UCEA offer, and both Unison and UCU decided to ballot their members about taking industrial action.
Now. Given that there has to be co-ordination and communication at a national level to do this, and given that UCU have recently taken successful industrial action over pensions (that arguably only really affected the highest paid staff) and given that the gender pay gap at Lancaster University is the third worst in the country, and… well, you’d think that there would also be a level of joined-upness locally…
Erm, well, no. UCU and Unison ballots went ahead at Lancaster University simultaneously, with the left hand not knowing what the… left hand was doing. Just think what a little joined up thinking and campaigning could have achieved.
On a national level, despite a high turnout from UCU members, very few institutions met the 50% turnout legal requirement. Lancaster hit 44.9%, though among those members who did return their ballots, 69.7% supported strike action and 80.7% action short of a strike. In Unison, an ‘overwhelming majority’ of HE members voted to take strike action, but unfortunately that tricky 50% turnout threshold was once again not reached.
Our subtext drones made discreet enquiries amongst professional services colleagues to see if we could get a comment from a Unison member, but everyone had their heads down. In the end we asked the branch contact for a few words:
‘The Lancaster University Unison branch has been dormant for quite some time, and there’s currently just me and one other volunteer who are trying to get things up and running again. We didn’t have members’ contact details to try and organise any meetings around the pay offer. It would have been really good to know that UCU were also balloting, maybe hold some joint meetings, share information and campaign together about this.’
On the other hand, we just had to lob a brick out of the warehouse window to hit a UCU member who was prepared to comment:
‘On this occasion it looks like Lancaster UCU missed an opportunity to collaborate with Unison. There are numerous issues on which we already do work together with our sister unions, and we will try to continue to stand up for all University staff by standing together with Unison and Unite.’
Given the current state of affairs in the subtext warehouse (see subtext 181 editorial) we totally recommend being in a union, but please give your branch officers a prod to talk to the other ones!
Fortnightly during term time.
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Gaps, holes, deficits, cuts, absences. Call them what you will, it would be hard to deny that the academic year has been littered with them, providing the subtext drones with more than enough metaphorical material to stretch to breaking point and enough space to fly the traditional end of year round-up through on a bus.
The biggest gap generator has been the ongoing building work on campus, particularly on the Spine. There have been holes in the ground where the Spine has been dug up, communication gaps where the pink and purple diversion signs have failed to keep up with the actual situation ‘on the ground’, and most worryingly there has been a huge gap in provision for disabled users of the spine, with accessible routes around the pinball game that traversing campus has become having all but disappeared. Add to this the gaps of buildings that failed to appear (squints at the Management School) and the gap we didn’t know we had (cocks an eyebrow at Alexandra Square’s Big Screen), and it’s a wonder we didn’t all get a collective sprained ankle.
There have been financial gaps as well. Students who may have specific learning disabilities have seen a cut of 50% in the funding available from the University to be assessed for them – a massive blow to the life chances of those that need one but can’t afford it. Nationally, the most disruptive gap of the year was the deficit in the UCU pension fund – and understanding thereof – that saw an unprecedented turnout in support of strike action, and UCU members picketing for two weeks in freezing conditions. Whilst the picket lines saw a huge amount of support from students and non-striking staff there was another gap: no clear or coherent response from the VC. The University as a whole continued to fail to cover itself in glory when the Gender Pay Gap report was published in April, revealing LU to be third from the bottom in the country (University of the Year, though!) with a mean pay gap of 27.7% as opposed to the national average of… cough… 17.8%.
There have been notable gaps in democracy, honesty and decency. Maybe it started when Lancaster University Students’ Union refused to take a stance in regard to supporting the UCU strike, and it definitely didn’t end with their ‘creative’ approach to the online AGM ballot. Maybe it started when the University Court was abolished, removing one of the last democratically elected bodies in the institution (and one that oversaw the appointment of various posts). In fact, subtext notes – with some glee – that you can read all about the machinations of Lancaster University’s ‘Strategic Planning & Governance’ division at gap.lancs.ac.uk. Maybe it started when the VC led us to believe that Lancaster was the first port of call for UA92 (it wasn’t) and shrouded the entire business in a cloak of secrecy. Maybe it started with swastikas on Sociology department doors appearing overnight followed by the attempted setting up of a new student society concerned with white supremacy and other alt-right (i.e. fascist) ideas. This is a gap that is going to take more than a bit of polyfilla and a trowel to sort out.
And we’ve been feeling a bit gappy ourselves – retirement and illness have left us short of an editor or two in the subtext warehouse, so we welcome all those readers with a critical eye, a writerly bent and a typing speed of 80wpm to drop us a line at email@example.com to get involved. And so, once more unto the breach, dear readers – starting October. Until then, thanks for reading, and thanks for writing in – do keep doing that. Failing that, hit us with your ‘like’ stick on our Facebook page, at www.facebook.com/lusubtext
Following our report in subtext 178 on the rather confused goings-on at the Lancaster UCU AGM we can report that things appear to have been sorted. Well, clarified. The bewilderment arose regarding the election of officers on the Lancaster UCU executive. Those attending the AGM were told that the actual posts (i.e. the people who would be taking up these positions) would be dealt with ‘in-house’ by the executive. No dissenting voices regarding this arrangement at the AGM and within a fortnight the executive delivered on its promise.
The reason for all this obfuscation was a falling out behind the scenes. Trade unions have historically been broach churches with diverse memberships and this is reflected in individual branches. Lancaster UCU is not untypical in that regard, and fissures will occasionally ensue.
The outcome of all this is that it is all change at the top table of Lancaster UCU. They now have a new President, Vice-President, Treasurer, Secretary, Membership Officer, Equality Officer and Anti-Casualisation Officer. The post of Welfare Officer has also been created. subtext wishes them all well, so that Lancaster continues to be strongly represented in what may be another fractious year in the sector.
The Annual General Meeting of Lancaster UCU on Wednesday 16 May in the Elizabeth Livingston Lecture Theatre passed off without incident. Rumours of coups and tantrums (prams and toys) and factions were groundless or forgotten. The meeting voted through several amendments to the local branch rules and listened to a report from the Chair and the Membership Officer, plus an update from the Treasurer. There was also a report on the anti-casualisation workshop (see below). The ‘results’ of ‘elections’ to the executive were announced (none of the posts were contested and most officer positions were already taken.) Members were assured that this situation would be handled by the new executive with co-options into these positions. This all seemed rather odd but there were no dissenting voices so with a feeling of ‘nothing much to see here’ the meeting moved on. In a sign of changing times, the executive had instructed members that in the interests of minimising our environmental impact, they would not be printing multiple copies of the documents for the meeting. Members were advised that if they would like to have them in front of them during the meeting, then a digital device would be a good idea. They also displayed them on the lecture theatre screen at relevant points in the meeting. Woo save the planet!
CHALLENGING CASUALISATION – A ROADSHOW REPORT
An event organised by the Lancaster UCU anti-casualisation working group took place on Wednesday 2nd May in George Fox Lecture Theatre 2. There, more than thirty colleagues reported a range of contractual situations: teaching colleagues employed on hourly-paid contracts; researchers on a succession of fixed term contracts; colleagues often juggling two or more contracts and other colleagues who had experienced casualised employment contracts in the past.
Speakers included Dr Catherine Oakley, a researcher based at the University of Leeds, a new member of the UCU national anti-casualisation committee. Catherine is a founding member of The Academic Precariat collective, an ‘…activist-led platform uniting education workers employed precariously in UK HE’ and co-author of a report ‘The Precarious Post Doc’ https://tinyurl.com/y8kqthjc. Lancaster University’s Dr Joanna Kostka led a discussion on the challenges faced by international colleagues and their precarious employment experiences. UCU’s Jonathan White, a national pay and bargaining official with a specific focus on the union’s anti-casualisation work, talked about what the union is doing at a national level to challenge casualisation. The final session was led by Craig Jones and Dr. Joao Nunes de Almeida, both of Lancaster University, asking what we can do now to move forward within this University to challenge the increased casualisation of employment contracts. A number of practical steps were suggested in addition to the work that the union is already doing through supporting colleagues through casework. Members attending the workshop proposed setting up an anti-casualisation network with face-to-face meetings and a virtual presence and organising regular one hourly drop-in sessions for colleagues to discuss specific issues around casualised employment and experiences of precarity.
If you are interested in finding out more about what local staff are doing to challenge the increasing casualisation of academic work, or in joining the anti-casualisation working group, please contact Clare Egan, the UCU anti-casualisation rep.
Fortnightly during term time.
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It must be hard, being a Vice-Chancellor. Apart from the hundreds of thousands of pounds you earn, the chauffeur-driven Jaguar, oh, and the pornstar martinis of course, there don’t seem to be many positives to the job.
Everyone’s always complaining at you. Staff who want fair pensions. Students who complain when they aren’t being taught, and want their money back. Deans who complain when their HoDs refuse to do what they’re told to keep striking staff in line… And to top it all off, there’s the union members who complain when you don’t come and visit them for 9 days on the picket lines, and then complain afterwards that you haven’t really said anything. Even when you throw them a bone by agreeing to spread out their payments over three months, they still complain because you’ve told them you don’t think they’ve sufficiently considered the financial impact of striking. Fortunately you’re confident that, like you, they don’t understand all the complicated actuarial science behind their pension schemes, so you’re sure they’ll come round eventually if you just keep repeating that line!
And also, you’ve taken some steps to make sure that any dissenting voices won’t have much opportunity to make themselves heard. You’ve destroyed Court, clipped Senate’s wings, and Council is hardly going to cause you much trouble, given the present membership.
And of course you would never stoop to such questionable ‘leadership’ tactics as Glasgow’s VC, who was out on the picket lines from near the start of the strike, or Kent’s, who issued a joint statement with the local union branch. Or Leicester’s, who is only deducting two days worth of pay per month for the strike action, so the financial loss is spread out over seven months. What a wimp!
Nor would you wish to align yourself with the dozens of VCs who publicly called for a return to negotiations – no, when some nasty journos wrongly reported that you had, you made sure to tell people what’s what. And coming right out and saying we should retain defined benefits, like the Cambridge VC – madness! After all, someone in as important a position as chair of UCEA had better watch out, and stay on the good side of his UUK buddies. Yes, that’s what real leadership looks like!
In the fortnight since the last edition of subtext, there has been a considerable amount of strike-related activity, both in Lancaster and at the national level.
THE LOCAL FLAVOUR
The campus picket lines have been busier than ever, with a head count of over 160 on Tuesday this week, along with music and dancing every day (Zumba being particularly popular) and even some protest poetry on Wednesday. The VC ‘visited’ on the 8th March, but received a markedly less positive reaction than the several HoDs who did their stint on the lines. A video of his visit, with added commentary by the local UCU branch, is available here: https://youtu.be/lfSTLmdnRVE
Compared to previous disputes, the staff on strike are spread across the whole range of departments in the University, with somewhat less representation from LUMS. Meanwhile, the teach out events, featuring everything from a personal history of the 84/85 miners’ strike to yoga, have also been well attended – see below.
Numerous colleagues involved in the strike have remarked what a sense of solidarity and community is emerging from being thrown together in these adverse circumstances, while the lack of day-to-day work schedules seems to have unleashed all kinds of creativity and willingness to engage in activities that we never normally have time for. Union members were particularly heartened by the strong support from students, some of whom have been coming to the picket lines and teach outs every day.
STRUCK DOWN IN ANGER
At the national level, the past few weeks have seen a flurry of activity. Universities UK (UUK) initially refused to negotiate with UCU, then agreed to meet but not reopen the decision on the pensions proposal (raising questions about what exactly they were proposing to discuss). When one VC after another came out publicly in favour of open negotiations, UUK were eventually forced into a humiliating climbdown and agreed to talks without preconditions at ACAS.
Following a few quiet days last week, and then an announcement that negotiators would be working through the weekend, Monday evening saw the announcement of a so-called agreement between UCU and UUK. This represented an improvement of sorts on the original UUK proposal, but included a worse accrual rate (1/85th of salary for each year of service vs the current 1/75th), an increase in both employee and employer contributions, and a cap of 2.5% on the rate that pensions could increase annually with inflation, meaning that if prices rise by more than this amount, pensions would lose value in real terms.
The reaction from UCU members was… not good. Very quickly, UCU Twitterati took the proposal apart, and an open letter in opposition to the proposal had collected around 3000 signatures by midnight on Monday, while a further 4000 signed by 11am the following morning.
Above all else, members were incensed by the proposal that teaching that had not taken place as a result of strike action should be rearranged. Colleagues argued that this would effectively mean doing work they had already sacrificed pay for. And in any case, there was not nearly enough time to fit 14 days’ worth of teaching into the few remaining days of term.
Throughout Tuesday, members of the union’s Higher Education Committee were subject to a frenzy of social media and email lobbying, overwhelmingly urging rejection. A meeting of branch delegates from all over the country decided almost unanimously to reject what they felt represented a betrayal of the sacrifice that members had made by being on strike.
In the end, the reject camp prevailed, perhaps helped by the large demonstration outside UCU headquarters in London, whose chants could be heard by the delegates arguing inside. The UCU general secretary, Sally Hunt, later explained that the negotiators had been tightly constrained by the ACAS process in what and how they were allowed to communicate.
So the strike continues today and tomorrow, with the fourteen further strike days set to hit assessment season, with exam marking and exam boards likely to be a particular target for local branches. This will undoubtedly have a bigger impact on students than just missing a few lectures, possibly even delaying graduations for final-years. Action short of a strike also continues: UCU members are ‘threatening’ to only do the work they are contracted to do, rather than contributing the massive amounts of unpaid overtime that normally keep universities going on a day-to-day basis.
UUK are blaming the dire situation on UCU for walking away from negotiations, while UCU’s line is that the employers could stop the strike at any point by making a fair offer. Students at Lancaster, for now, seem to be largely supportive of their local staff, though whether this solidarity will continue for a further 14 days of disruption remains to be seen.
As reported in subtext 174, UCU have been running a series of ‘teach out’ events during the strike – a different way of engaging with staff and students and anyone else who is interested in what the industrial action is about, as well as a number of other somewhat related topics.
While teach outs resemble the form of the labour that staff have withdrawn from their employer, the sessions do not necessarily follow the expected conventions of university teaching. The inherent radicalism of such a venture comes from the enforced interdisciplinarity of the project: colleagues, students and members of the public may come from any academic background, or not be involved in academia at all. It is teaching for interest’s sake, not for ‘knowledge-transfer’, measuring, testing, or satisfying government ‘key information sets’.
Lancaster UCU, together with a host of other branches, organised an alternative education experience for every day of the strike action. Most of the sessions took place at the Gregson Community Centre and were largely well attended, with many packing the Gregson Centre’s modestly-sized hall to the rafters. The curriculum features a mixture of debates, interactive workshops, informal lectures featuring some outside speakers as well as Lancaster academics, film showings, a couple of musical gigs and away from the Gregson some ‘walk and talk’ happenings. In the final days of the current round of strike action, sessions with a more restorative agenda were planned i.e. yoga and craft making.
All the sessions were open to University staff, students, and other folk from the wider community. There was a strong student presence at some sessions and even some members of the public at some events. However, it was staff from the University that made up the bulk of the attendees.
Many of the sessions focussed on the question: ‘what kind of university do we want?’ Yes, pensions were discussed, but within a wider understanding of the changing nature of the sector. Attendees remarked that they felt particularly empowered by speaking with other members of the University who they would not normally meet at work. This prompted a lot of talk about the future and how the this strong feeling of solidarity could be maintained after the dispute.
Readers may have ideas on how this ‘new space’ that the striking community has built can be maintained, and what its purpose would be once work resumes. subtext would welcome contributions on this fascinating development at Lancaster, and would be happy to play a part in future conversations.
RADICAL OR MERELY YOUNGER? A REVIEW
It seems appropriate that on Monday 12 March, midway through Lancaster’s longest period of industrial action in decades, UCU’s teach out at the Gregson played host to an event that seemed to shout, ‘Call that radical? Ha!’ Marion McClintock, Honorary University Archivist and former Academic Registrar at Lancaster, and Alison Lloyd Williams of Global Link’s Documenting Dissent project were our guides as they took us through Lancaster’s radical past, both on and off campus.
According to Mrs McClintock, Lancaster University in its early days was characterised by very conservative Heads of Department, many of whom were ex-military, alongside younger, more radical staff, who pioneered Lancaster’s distinctive degree programmes: Religious Studies (not Theology), Independent Studies, Creative Writing, Environmental Studies, Peace Studies, Marketing, and Systems Engineering. Students were given the chance to ‘grapple with subjects they’d not studied before.’ Above all, Lancaster was shaped by its first Vice-Chancellor, Charles Carter, who actively encouraged this interdisciplinary approach. We were a university that ‘was taking a fresh look at society, was taking nothing for granted and was questioning norms.’
Publications of the time, like John O’Gauntlet and Carolynne, reflected this mood and encouraged debate on drugs, sex and gay rights, although some of their editorial choices, such as pin-up girls in Carolynne, seem archaic today.
Among the many disputes of the early years were ‘the mixed bedrooms argument of 1968’, the David Craig affair (see subtexts 8 and 9) and the 1975 rent strike which lasted over 12 months. Student involvement in these disputes was strong.
Lancaster’s college system played an important role in Lancaster’s free-thinking tradition; Sir Noel Hall, one of the university’s founders, was formerly Principal of Brasenose College, Oxford and had insisted that the colleges must form an integral part of Lancaster’s governance.
Why are things not like that any more? Lancaster’s rising research reputation in the 1980s meant that staff and students no longer had as much time to spend on innovative teaching or political discussion, and even Prof Carter was subject to the same pressures as everyone else.
Ms Lloyd Williams gave a history of the Documenting Dissent project, which was inspired by Lancaster Castle and its status as a symbol of state power and the location of Lancashire’s most important court. Many dissenters, including several chartists, had been tried there.
Lancaster is particularly significant in LGBT history, given the number of people prosecuted for homosexuality at the Castle, but more happily due to the significant presence during the 1970s of the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) on campus, and the Campaign for Homosexual Equality (CHE) in town. Lancaster University pioneered women’s studies and radical feminism, while the very first CHE Conference took place in Morecambe.
More recently, the case of the George Fox Six, where six students and ex-students disrupted a conference in George Fox Lecture Theatre 1 and were promptly prosecuted for aggravated trespass, shows both that the dissenting tradition is still there … but that the university is no longer as tolerant as it was. The Documenting Dissent website includes an account of the affair, including an interview with Matthew Wilson, one of the six.
Contributions from the floor included comments from several people who have been encouraging the radical tradition at Lancaster for decades, including city councillor Andrew Kay, who remembered long campus debates on ‘this house will not give a platform for racist and fascist speakers’ and ‘this house is glad to be gay’, and former city councillor Tony Pinkney, who thought two years stood out in particular – 1886, when William Morris’s talk in the town led to the founding of the Socialist League, and 1999, when Lancaster elected its first ever group of Green Party councillors.
The Documenting Dissent project’s website is at: http://www.documentingdissent.org.uk/
DEMOCRACY IS THRIVING … ELSEWHERE
There have been many Vice-Chancellorial U-turns on USS and risk recently, but the most notable ones have come from the VCs at Oxford and Cambridge, both on 7 March. Given that the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge were all treated as separate institutions in Universities UK’s September 2017 survey of attitudes to institutional risk, this is a major shift.
Why the change? Of course, we are happy to accept that both VCs will have reached their decisions sincerely. But Oxford’s VC, Prof Richardson, has probably been helped by the meeting of Oxford’s Congregation on 6 March, at which a resolution seeking to overturn Oxford’s existing stance on pensions was first blocked controversially, and then discussed outside, where it passed 442 to 2.
Likewise, Cambridge’s VC, Prof Toope, doubtless had his mind sharpened by the impending ballot of Cambridge’s Regent House, on a motion submitted by 501 members, which seeks to amend Cambridge’s official view on USS.
For readers not familiar with how Oxford and Cambridge work, the Oxford Congregation and Cambridge Regent House are the supreme governing bodies of those institutions, made up of all academic staff. They can, and occasionally do, overrule the University Council.
True democracy in action! But wait. Surely these forms of governance must violate the Committee of University Chairs’ Higher Education Code of Governance, the document which our Chief Administrative Officer in particular is very fond of (see subtext 174 and other subtexts passim)?
Well … yes. But they seem to be doing OK, all things considered.
Now that our Court has met for the final time, and our Senate has willingly handed its power to amend statutes over to our Council, perhaps we should start advocating something similar here? After all, our VC’s usual answer when challenged about centralising power is ‘the Warwick clincher’ – they do it at Warwick so it must therefore be a good thing – so perhaps we should start playing ‘the Oxford gambit’ in response.
This week our VC wrote to tell us that Lancaster would have supported the ACAS deal. But it is also true Lancaster would have supported the original UUK/USS proposal (perhaps reluctantly) which amounted to little less than criminal theft of our pensions.
This week our VC also wrote thanking those staff who have carried on working through the strike. I would also like to thank the strikers for having the courage to stand up for what is right. They are making sacrifices in order to protect the common good. They are striking because they care about Lancaster University, its students and the quality of education. Throughout the strike we have carried on teaching and learning at events in the city; this has not stopped. And any gains we make against the theft of our pension will benefit every USS member, not just those who are taking action.
The ACAS deal this week appeared at first sight to some to claw back some of what was being stolen from us. They would steal a little less. But we would pay a heavy price for that and end up all the weaker. It was firmly rejected because it too would signal the end of what we still have now – a mutualised scheme. And that is also why strikers are standing out there on the picket line every morning – because they don’t want to work in a glossy private corporation, they want to work in a university where education is seen as a public good for mutual benefit.
UUK’s position and governance processes are now exposed as a sham and are discredited. University leaders, students and even the financial press are calling for a rethink of the whole process and valuation methods. It seems no one can publicly defend the unethical practices which led up to the UUK’s decision to insist on ending defined benefits. An official complaint has been made about USS governance to the Charity Commission and there is now a crowdfunding initiative to sue the USS trustees. But we can’t give away our pension while the rethink takes place. Everyone will then lose.
So if you are a member of USS and you haven’t yet joined the action, join us for a warm welcome, and you can join UCU immediately. This will shorten the dispute and help us all do what we want – get back to work.
Apropos Bob Jessop’s ‘seven crane vice chancellors’ (subtext 174), some time in the 1990s I paid my annual external examiner’s visit to an MA exam board at an institution on the outskirts of Greater London – naming no names. The course – innovative, if not radical, and with a terrific track record in attracting and supporting non-traditional students – had been in the university’s sights for some time, partly for just those reasons but also because several of the staff had had the cheek to object to various managerial ploys. I arrived just after the startled chair of the board had received a phone call from the Vice Chancellor’s office, to say that the VC was planning to turn up in a few minutes, to exercise his statutory right to attend any exam board in the university (not one of his regular habits). We decided that this must be intended to intimidate me, since the internal examiners were well beyond intimidation. A kindly staff member said to me ‘I find it helps if you remember that all VCs are property spivs. Some are developers, some are speculators. Ours is a speculator. What’s yours?’ Since this was in the days of the blessed Bill Ritchie, I was slightly at a loss to answer, but I found the advice helpful, and persisted in writing a glowing report despite the menacing charm with which the speculator took me aside after the meeting and invited me to ‘tell the truth’.
Thank you for the review of the Dave Spikey show at the Grand Theatre, I am pleased that you liked it. As the volunteer Stage Manager I feel I can answer the question that you pose. The Grand Theatre presents shows which aim to attract audiences from all walks of life. As a charity funded largely by ticket sales we aim to complement the subsidised Dukes Theatre in our programming and attract as wide an audience as possible. Therefore the audience that you were part of merely reflects the followers of the act in question.
In the last edition of subtext your cultural correspondent in his review of the Dave Spikey show at the Grand invited readers to prove him wrong regarding his observation that he was the only member of the audience employed by the University. I was there on row C (that’s the second row for those unfamiliar with The Grand’s unusual seating plan) – a thorn between two retired/semi-retired colleagues. I’m sure there were others, although I will admit that I didn’t see any others from Uni, despite having plenty of time to look during the slexit (slow exit).
Fortnightly during term time.
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In this issue: editorial, senate stuff, gary’s barmy army, bunker blues, fashion notes, pickets’r’us, sorry scan, court in the act, lusu democracy, lost and found, more lusu democracy, more lost and found, unis for sale, shart, comedy review, widden reviews, letters.
Five days down, nine days of strike action to go (unless one side blinks today or tomorrow). It’s time for our Vice-Chancellor to state a consistent position, publicly, on the future of USS.
As subtext revealed in a newsflash last week, Prof Smith denied in Senate that – as reported in the Times that day – he’d broken ranks with the majority of Vice-Chancellors and supported a change to Universities UK’s current policy on USS. Apparently the sides are too far apart and we couldn’t afford UCU’s demands anyway.
Meanwhile, Prof Smith’s statements to staff meetings over the past few months have been broadly supportive of retaining a defined benefit scheme, and many staff had been heartened to read that ‘Mark’s on our side’ last Wednesday. Some may have decided at the last minute not to take strike action, in the belief that Prof Smith was one of the good guys and gals within UUK who deserved support.
So was the Times’s story just fake news? Or has our Vice-Chancellor been giving different messages to different audiences?
A string of Vice-Chancellors made public declarations of support for a change to Universities UK’s pensions policy in the last week, with one (Glasgow Principal Anton Muscatelli) even joining striking staff on the picket line . Now might be a good time for Prof Smith to side with the staff at his own institution …
… or not, if his statement to the Senate is a truer reflection of his thinking. If so, then he should say this openly – at least we’d know where he really stands.
PLUNDERING THE PENSION
The VC opened his report with some good news. Applications are up, including a 9% increase from EU countries, while the sector average is down. Research grant income continues to be strong. Work has at last started on the new £41M Health Innovation Campus. Now for the not-so-good news. The level of university fees was now being questioned by the government (yes, that same government that increased them to over £9K in the first place). This was not good for universities, and while students might raise the odd cheer, the VC was scathing, especially about Lord Adonis’ suggestion that fees be pegged at £6K.
The big issue was the pensions dispute. The VC gave a succinct account of the recent history of USS pensions, showing how the various changes over the last few years had steadily reduced their value. There was a dispute about the size of the scheme’s current ‘deficit’ but he had thought that an agreement was close until the intervention of the Pensions Regulator. This, he believed, was political. The Regulator had been publicly lacerated over its laxity in the BHS and Capita pensions scandals and needed to show that it was on the case with USS. (Of course, an alternative interpretation might be that, as with Carillion, the Regulator was only too willing to support the employers’ interest). So this was how we got to where we are now.
At this point Senators might be forgiven if they thought that the VC was about to announce that he would be joining the picket lines himself the next day. Alas, this was not to be the case. When asked if he would be supporting LUSU’s and other Vice-Chancellors’ calls for an immediate return to national negotiations, he said emphatically that he would not. He denied the report in that day’s Times that he had joined ten other VCs in calling for a resumption of negotiations. The two sides were too far apart – he used the word ‘chasm’ – and as such there would be nothing to negotiate about. Besides, Lancaster could not afford the UCU demand for a 2% increase in the employer contribution to the pension fund. It would cut into our annual surplus, and everyone knows that our surplus is for Spine embellishments, football universities, and golf courses, not for frittering away on staff. Was there any chance of students’ getting any compensation for lost contact time, as is their right as consumers? Hardly! What about the strikers’ pay deductions? Would the money the university saved be donated to the student hardship funds, as had happened with previous strikes? Yes, of course, but only after certain university expenses had been covered. And what were these? Why, the cost of providing pensions advice to staff who would have to grapple with the complexities of a new defined contributions scheme. You can’t say that our VC doesn’t think ahead.
ALL POWER TO THE COUNCIL!
The big agenda item for the day was a raft of constitutional changes for Senate to approve. The Chief Administrative Officer opened by stating that the proposed changes followed from the recent Council Effectiveness Review and the abolition of Court, and it was largely a tidying up operation. She would not go through these in detail as she presumed that everyone had read the papers. It soon became clear that most Senators had not read the papers. Some had, though, and the claim enshrined in the proposals that Council was ‘the supreme governing body and final decision-maker’ was challenged. According to the CAO, this was required by the Code of Practice that all university governing bodies had to observe. Not so, said some Senators, with one reading aloud what the Code actually stated. To which the CAO responded with an irrefutable alternative fact – that this is what the new Office for Students might in the future require us to do. Senate seemed happy to accept this line of reasoning. One Senator seemed particularly troubled by the proposal to give Council the sole authority to make and amend Statutes and Ordinances, ‘Henry the Eighth powers’, as he called them. Against this the VC deployed his ultimate debating weapon – the Warwick Clincher. His old employer had done this, therefore so should Lancaster. Senate duly voted in favour. However, there was by now enough disquiet about the future position of Senate in terms of academic governance that the rest of the proposed changes were withdrawn for further working. But the VC had achieved what he wanted – Council now had the sole right to make, change and remove Statutes. Lancaster can now look forward to having a much smaller Senate – just like they have at Warwick, where they don’t have colleges.
BEST OF THE REST
The Dean of LUMS presented the formal proposal to close the Department of Leadership and Management, and split its activities between the departments of Organisation, Work and Technology, and Entrepreneurship, Strategy and Innovation. It would seem that the process to bring this about was a model of best practice, with a ‘consultative approach’ throughout ‘the project’, ‘clear communication given to staff’, and ‘consistent’ involvement with the unions. For what really happened, see subtext 169.
A proposal from the PVC (Education) for the establishment of an ‘Institute for the Enhancement of Learning and Teaching’ (InELT) was warmly received, its safe passage ensured by the promise that it wasn’t going to cost any money. However, it was felt that the acronym was insufficiently cumbersome for a Lancaster University institute so it was agreed that ‘curriculum’ should be inserted somewhere in its title. Perhaps it could be called something like ‘CELT’. Now that name rings a bell…
Finally, a paper from PPR and the Deputy VC for the establishment of an ‘Interdisciplinary Research Centre focused on China’. Now this one would cost money, so the paper was a testing of the waters rather than a definite proposal. Senate rather liked the idea, and agreed that the sponsors should go ahead with putting together a more detailed proposal.