Tag Archives: UCU

subtext 196 – wholly government-approved free-speaking subtext

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In this issue: editorial, campus update, rent strike, partnerships, freedom of speech, strategy, testing, still recruiting, a poem, letters.



Exactly one year ago tomorrow, UCU members up and down the country began 14 days of strike action over pensions and the four fights, just as the first wash your hands posters were going up on campus in response to what most thought would be a precautionary response to a new virus. This week, UCU members at Lancaster received ballot papers calling on them to support strike action over the University’s response to the ensuing coronavirus pandemic. As with other recent ballots for industrial action, the most important outcome may not be the actual result, but rather the turnout, as without at least 50% of local UCU members responding, the ballot will be null and void. For context, in just over two weeks’ time at least some in-person teaching is supposedly due to resume on campus, principally for courses with practical elements.

Meanwhile, the results of the January pulse survey of staff, released this week, showed that the majority of staff report that their wellbeing has been impacted as a result of the pandemic, with 250 reporting their wellbeing as poor or very poor:


Perhaps as a response to these findings, the Director of Human Resources reminded everyone, in an Intranet post on 12 February, that we should feel empowered to take breaks in order to manage your own physical and mental health:


So why not take a freshly-empowered break this afternoon to digest your latest edition of subtext? In a reflective issue, we’re looking at the largest student-led action in decades, the announcement of yet another partnership, and the proposed appointment of a freedom of speech champion for universities. We’ve also got a poem.

Demanding an Unsafe Teaching Environment

Amongst the many strange bits of guidance issued to staff in recent weeks, Managing a Safe Teaching Environment, a set of rules on masks and social distancing issued on 2 October 2020, is well worth a closer look. Many teaching staff will have been wondering whether, faced with a potentially difficult situation in a teaching space, they should put health and safety considerations first. There is now a definitive answer from the University – no.

The document is officially unauthored, but the file properties credit Prof Alisdair Gillespie (Law School) as the creator.

Staff are reassured that masks aren’t really needed in the first place: if a person is in a class without a mask then, so long as social distancing is maintained, the risk of transmission is not increased significantly. The word significantly is doing some heavy lifting there.

Social distancing regulations are treated very seriously and can be enforced by Security. If a student refuses to maintain social distance, you can ask them to leave and take a note of their name. If they refuse to leave, you may need to contact Security or end the class.

But as for masks – well, there are valid reasons why some students are exempt from wearing them. They may choose to wear a sunflower lanyard to indicate their exempt status, or use an e-exemption card on iLancaster, but this is not a requirement. In a classroom situation, students and teachers will understandably be concerned if someone turns up not wearing a mask or displaying a sunflower lanyard. What should the teacher do?

The University’s official advice is: you must do nothing, even if you believe the student may be putting others at risk, or if other students have indicated their concern. There is no requirement for students to inform the tutor that they have an exemption in advance of the session. Politely asking to see a student’s e-exemption card, or discreetly inviting a student outside to have a socially distant chat about safety, may be embarrassing or exclusionary. If other students voice their worries, your duty is to remind them that some students are exempt, and do everything you can to ensure that students not wearing a mask don’t feel uncomfortable. The most you can do is note the offending student’s name and take it up with them afterwards. Could be a bit late by then!

Ah well, at least we’re not allowing students who are coughing and sneezing to stay in our seminar rooms. What’s that… we are? Yes, we are. Remember, students with colds are entitled to attend classes and asking a student to leave the class when displaying symptoms of a cold is likely to prove highly embarrassing and distressing to a student, potentially leading to complaints. Well, at least we know they’ll be wearing masks… oh…

As an aside, it’s interesting that the risk of Lancaster receiving a (possibly vexatious) complaint seems to alarm senior management more than the risk of staff and student infection.

Prof Gillespie’s guidance received endorsement from a surprising source on 15 October, in an email from Lancaster UCU to its members. Having sought clarification from HR and the Safety Office about face coverings in classrooms, and what to do if students don’t wear them, the union’s stance is that, it’s tricky – but the short answer, reasonably, seems to be that we can and should do NOTHING.

subtext readers are reminded that, according to section 44 of the Employment Rights Act 1996 on workplace health and safety, they have the right not be subject to any detriment by their employer if, in circumstances of danger which the employee reasonably believed to be serious and imminent and which he could not reasonably have been expected to avert, he left (or proposed to leave) or (while the danger persisted) refused to return to his place of work or any dangerous part of his place of work. If you think someone is potentially putting you and your students in danger then you are within your rights to leave, bringing your students with you.

SPECIAL FEATURE: Black Lives Matter


Much like a number of ‘brands’, including fashion labels, supermarkets and tech companies, Lancaster University’s social media accounts took part in ‘Black Out Tuesday’ on 2 June. The following day, the University’s Instagram account featured a series of images featuring slogans beginning with ‘What now?’, followed by slogans like ‘Support’ and ‘Educate’ and a few details of what the University is supposedly doing to support its black community (https://www.instagram.com/p/CA-nUaWgvkO/).

Warm words are always nice, but do little to address the real and sometimes shocking inequalities that currently exist at the University. While we are reminded every March of the University’s continuing failure to effectively tackle its gender pay gap (subtexts passim), things have been very quiet around the statistics relating to ethnicity at Lancaster. According to the most recent HESA data available from 18/19 (see https://www.hesa.ac.uk/data-and-analysis/staff/table-2), just over 10% of staff at Lancaster were BAME. Black colleagues made up just over 1% of the total. At senior levels, the figures look even worse: There were no black professors at Lancaster University in 18/19 according to the HESA data, and around 4% of professors overall were BAME. In the absence of Lancaster and other institutions publishing information about their ethnicity pay gaps alongside gender pay gaps, we are unfortunately left with a somewhat uncertain picture, but a 2019 report by the UCU (https://www.ucu.org.uk/article/10360/Black-academic-staff-face-double-whammy-in-promotion-and-pay-stakes) found that black academic staff are paid on average 14% less than white academic staff.

Returning to the University’s Instagram feed, one of the posts raised a few eyebrows in the subtext warehouse, not to mention among members of Lancaster University’s Race Equality Network (REN): ‘Unite. Staff and students can unite through the LU Race Equality Network to share, campaign and support one another.’ As the open letter sent to the VC by the REN (see below) states, the previous VC promised in 2016 as part of the EDI Strategic Vision 2020 that Lancaster would sign up to the Race Equality Charter (REC) by 2017 with an eye to accreditation by 2020. It appears that nothing at all has been done about this since then.

It may be tempting to consider this a problem not experienced in our leafy, progressive climes, but Lancaster is by no means immune to racial harassment and discrimination. Take 2018, which brought us the Snow Sports Society white t-shirt scandal and controversial suspension of the black BME Officer who went to the press with details (see subtext 183), instances of swastikas daubed on office doors (see subtext 166) and the charming emergence of a fascist student society that disrupted lectures both public (see subtext 173) and academic (see subtext 176).

The HE environment can be at best negligent, and at worst actively hostile, for black academics and students. Recently the hashtag #BlackInTheIvory has been used on Twitter and other platforms by black academics and students from around the world to highlight the many, many different forms of discrimination and abuse they have encountered at universities. And this is where we return to the University’s virtue signalling versus a lack of concrete action and commitment to real change: there is no point putting ‘Black Lives Matter’ on social media, if the University’s actions suggest that they don’t, when it counts.



Dear Andy Schofield,

We hope you are well and settling into the new role at Lancaster. A turbulent time to start.

We are writing regarding your inclusivity statement of 12 June. From the Lancaster University Race Equality Network’s (https://www.luren.org.uk) perspective, it was certainly good to hear of the University’s abhorrence of racism from the top. It was equally important to hear an acknowledgement of the dearth of activity thus far in attempting to address race equality at Lancaster. In the current moment this lack of action appears ever more stark.

Your statement referred to admissions criteria and representation in the Lancaster community, both key, yet the shocking race pay and attainment gaps also require attention. What was notably absent from your statement was any reference to decolonising Lancaster curricula. Unfortunately you are not alone in your reluctance (https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/jun/11/only-fifth-of-uk-universities-have-said-they-will-decolonise-curriculum). Yet decolonising work, including both specifically addressing curricula and more systematically interrogating and modifying practices in relation to student/staff recruitment, engagement, retention and attainment, has long been considered central to addressing race equality at all levels of education. Such work is currently being carried out by staff and students at Lancaster without Senior Management support, financial or otherwise.

If as you say you are committed to listening and learning, we hope you will take some time to listen to students from Lancaster University’s Why Is My Curriculum White? campaign, speaking at Decolonise UoK – Stories of Unbelonging (https://youtu.be/irkeT2aalIE), an event run by the University of Kent in March this year. These are our students’ lived experiences. They need to be heard.

We note also your commitment to seeing the University sign up to the Race Equality Charter, ‘and all that this entails’ by which, we presume, you refer to applying for Bronze Accreditation within 3 years of becoming a member. Having been promised this before in the EDI Strategic Vision 2020 (https://www.lancaster.ac.uk/edi/strategic-vision-2020/) you will forgive us if we do not wait with bated breath. LUREN understands that a feasibility study is currently ongoing to identify whether the University can fulfil its commitment to race equality without becoming a member. LUREN is clear that REC membership and accreditation by 2025 is vital if Lancaster is to fulfil its commitments to race equality, and concrete move in the right direction would be the establishment of a Self-Assessment Team and the appointment of a dedicated member of staff with relevant experience.

Race, as a protected characteristic, has long been ignored at Lancaster University, and our attempts to engage Senior Management in the experiences of staff and students from diverse ethnic backgrounds has fallen on deaf ears. But the public consciousness is shifting: Black Lives Matter. Prioritising the education, experience and wellbeing of staff and students is long overdue, but right now institutions, particularly HE institutions, are coming under the microscope. Empty words of commitment are considered simply insufficient (https://twitter.com/divanificent/status/1267746578615480323?s=20). What is required right now is action. We have attached the report by Sofia Akel (https://tinyurl.com/yc6zbocd) from 2018 outlining the situation at Lancaster specifically alongside recommendations. The REC, too, comes with an inbuilt set of requirements and recommendations. As David Lammy so eloquently put it on Radio 4 yesterday (https://tinyurl.com/ya3xtchp), instead of another review commission (or in Lancaster’s case a feasibility study) – implement them.

We wrote to Maria [Piacentini] regarding the suitability of a donation by the University to the Black Cultural Archives (https://blackculturalarchives.org), but have not heard anything further. This would be a good first step in demonstrating the University’s ‘commitment’ to race equality to your staff and students.

We are hopeful that your leadership represents a fresh start to race equality work at Lancaster University. We are tired, and angry, and disappointed. But we are also hopeful. We have every confidence that you will fulfil your responsibility to initiate action, given the broader mainstream narratives of racism in the UK right now. Lancaster has a dubious history of slave trading (https://tinyurl.com/y83n7wqt) but our past does not have to reflect our future. The University has the potential to become a leading light in HEI race equality. We hope that you will see fit to make it happen.

We look forward to hearing from you.

The LU Race Equality Network

If any subtext readers would like to be added to the LUREN mailing list, please contact m.barty-taylor@lancs.ac.uk

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/
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.


One of the most inspiring aspects of the UCU strike was, once again, the series of ‘Teach Out’ sessions in the Gregson Centre. The 15 events at the Gregson, held between Thursday 20 February and Wednesday 11 March, included readings of radical fiction, an alternative guide to the University’s finances and a workshop on the role of journalists during the civil war in El Salvador. Here are just a few reviews.
A good-sized audience (especially as it was the second teach-out session of the day) turned out on Wednesday 4 March to hear Veronika Koller’s history of the Quakers in Lancashire and their connections to Lancaster University.
The colours of Lancaster University, red and grey, are Quaker colours. Several buildings at Lancaster University, including the eventually-to-be-finished 400-seater Margaret Fell Lecture Theatre, are named after Quakers. There’s a Quaker collection in the Library and an MA in Quakerism in the Modern World. Why the close connection?
The Quakers were founded locally. George Fox, though originally from Leicestershire, journeyed to Lancashire and had a vision on Pendle Hill in 1652. The foundation of the Quakers is usually dated from the day, soon after his vision, when he preached to crowds on Firbank Fell, near Sedbergh. Fox was later imprisoned in Lancaster Castle. The Quakers have had a strong presence in North Lancashire ever since, and when Lancaster University was founded, its first Vice-Chancellor, Charles Carter, was a Quaker.
Quaker values are summarised by the acronym STEPS: Simplicity, Truth, Equality, Peace and Sustainability. How does today’s Lancaster University measure up to these values?
Simplicity – a life full of forms, reports, action plans and metrics;
Truth – the University’s motto is ‘truth lies open to all’, but this truth is often concealed;
Equality – pay gaps, precarity and large salaries for senior managers;
Peace – the George Fox Six and more recent bullying cases;
Sustainability – the University has made many unethical investments.
The 2004 case of the George Fox Six, when a group of students disrupted an arms conference being held in the George Fox Building (of all places) and were prosecuted for aggravated trespass, summed up the contradictions between the University’s values and actions. When students stop being students and become knowing subjects, Koller reflected, ‘the University comes down on them like a ton of bricks.’ Today, Lancaster departments continue to collaborate with the defence industry – BAE Systems is a significant local employer and always welcome at our student careers fairs – and the University hasn’t yet committed to divest from its investments in fossil fuels. On the positive side, we have our wind turbine, other renewable energy initiatives and good food sustainability.
In summary, noted Koller, ‘peace does not mean being soft and gentle about anything – but it does mean no violence.’
Andrew Williams began his talk on ‘the right to know as a tool of resistance’ on Monday 9 March with quotes from E P Thompson’s ‘Warwick University Ltd: Industry, Management and the Universities’ (Penguin, 1970), an account of the 1970 student occupation of Warwick’s administration building, and the events that followed from it. The affair uncovered widespread political surveillance of staff and students, complete with leaks, whistleblowers and listening devices, and explored the importance of information, and how it is controlled: important papers would appear unannounced, inaccurate minutes would circulate, and the realisation grew that ‘knowledge is power’.
Of course such activities would never be tolerated here…
Williams went through the four main pieces of legislation that enable us to request information from public bodies: the Freedom of Information Act 2000, in force since 2005; the Data Protection Act 2018 (and its predecessors from 1984 and 1998); the Environmental Information Regulations 2004; and the various Public Records Acts.
Tony Blair now regrets passing the Freedom of Information Act 2000, but it has dramatically changed the rights of individuals to request information from public bodies. Universities, despite their hybrid ‘public-private’ status, are explicitly designated ‘public bodies’ for the purposes of the FoI Act. It was used to, for example, obtain a copy of our former VC’s email, dated 23 August 2019, on support for off-campus students, at a time when incoming first years were being advised to sign agreements with off-campus residences that weren’t ready for occupation (see subtext 190).
In FoI requests, ‘exemptions are the rule’, usually under Section 40 of the FoI Act, as modified by the DPA Act, which creates numerous exemptions for ‘personal data’. There is a long appeals process for FoI requests: firstly there should be an internal review, then the matter can be taken to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), and from there there is a route to a First Tier Tribunal, an Upper Tribunal, the Court of Appeal and lastly, in theory, the Supreme Court.
The lesser-known Environmental Information Regulations are very helpful – indeed, in many situations, they can be more useful than the FoI Act, because when dealing with requests under these regulations, there is a presumption in favour of disclosure. A large number of bodies fall within the scope of the regulations (e.g. United Utilities and MI5) and they can be used to make requests on the state of the elements or the impact of legislation on the environment.
At Lancaster, management holds a ‘knowledge monopoly’ and this leads to a fundamental imbalance of power. Using FoI, DPA or EIR requests is one way for journalists and researchers to challenge this monopoly. For example, Williams had successfully obtained copies of emails showing that the proposed sale of the Sugarhouse had been discussed (January 2019) some months before the proposal was disclosed to students (September 2019). It was possible to find out information about the University’s investment portfolios, showing that Lancaster has interests in British American Tobacco, Glaxo SmithKline and BAE Systems amongst others. Information obtained following the highly-publicised phishing attack on the University in July 2019 showed that, while one person had been arrested, they had later been released with no charges known.
Aspiring investigators should ask for something very specific, and/or ask to search within parameters. The Centre for Investigative Journalism outlines two techniques: ‘grazing’ (targeting specific information lying outside the exemptions) and ‘mining’ (stopping at nothing to get the information). Requests should be acknowledged within 18 hours; a response should normally be received within 20 working days.
The meeting concluded by considering possible requests for information that could be made, including the amount of strike pay deducted after each round of UCU industrial action, disaggregated by faculty, and the turnover of staff at Lancaster’s Beijing Jiaotong University (BJTU) campus. If subtext readers have any other creative suggestions, please send us (or foi@lancaster.ac.uk) your thoughts.

subtext 192 – ‘strike while the subtext is hot’

Every so often during term time.
Letters, contributions, & comments: subtext-editors@lancaster.ac.uk
Back issues & subscription details: http://wp.lancs.ac.uk/subtext/about/
‘Ultimately our aim is to protect our community’s wellbeing and our collegiate values,’ states the Director of HR in his email to all staff today, setting out the University’s official position on the UCU strike which begins tomorrow. The acting Vice-Chancellor made similar noises in his email on 5 February: ‘We are committed to being a good and fair employer in rewarding you for the work that you do, enabling you to achieve a good work/life balance and supporting your wellbeing.’
This picture of a hilltop vigil contrasts jarringly with a recent open letter on bullying and victimisation at Lancaster, signed by over 400 students, staff, alumni and trade unionists, and handed to the acting Vice-Chancellor in person on 12 February:
‘We are appalled that the University is facing an Employment Tribunal hearing for the trade union victimisation of Dr Julie Hearn, President of UCU’s Lancaster branch. […] The intimidation and bullying of workers and trade unionists at Lancaster University is endemic.’
The acting Vice-Chancellor has promised to read the letter. UCU gave some background to the claims in an email to its members on 5 February:
‘Last year Lancaster UCU has brought three cases against a manager, including a collective grievance case involving 14 members of staff, resulting in two individual settlements. Despite our warnings to the employer since 15 September 2019 that Julie, as president of Lancaster UCU branch has been left open to reprisals and is experiencing detriment on a daily basis, the employer has failed in their statutory duty to protect her, and consequently Julie has been signed off with work-related stress. She is thus unable to carry out her role as branch president and HEC member at a crucial point in two national disputes. We now have an employment tribunal claim for trade union victimisation against the employer, with the preliminary hearing on 28 Feb.’
We hope this matter can reach a settlement before the tribunal hearing. For many of our staff, it will clearly be some time before they trust their employer to protect their wellbeing.
See you on the picket line.


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.

subtext 190 – ‘get subtext done’

Every so often during term time.
Letters, contributions, & comments: subtext-editors@lancaster.ac.uk
Back issues & subscription details: http://wp.lancs.ac.uk/subtext/about/
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!

subtext 180 – ‘better sorry than safe’

Fortnightly 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, welcome week, deanshare, lab location, UA92 galore, FASS typos, house-building, union blues, shart, poem, TV review, letters



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 subtext-editors@lancaster.ac.uk 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!



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.