Published: 4th December, 2020
Based on member feedback and the experiences of Leicester UCU representatives attending the numerous pre-change engagement meetings that have been ongoing since late October, we wrote to the Executive Board with a number of concerns and requests, almost all of which have been rejected. This is extremely disappointing given how prominently the staff members leading the pre-change engagement meetings have referred to the Managing Change Principles agreement drawn up in collaboration with UCU, Unison and Unite in 2018. They might be following the letter of that agreement but not its spirit. Leicester UCU has provided detailed feedback and guidance on how they could do better, but they haven’t been listening.
What follows is the text of a letter sent to the Vice-Chancellor, the Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Director of HR, 10 November. Leicester UCU officers spent some time poring over the Deputy VC’s response, received on 18 November, searching for the substantive content. But couldn’t find any. So we sent a more direct follow-up letter, on 19 November, and received answers from the Deputy VC on 3 December, both of which are included below.
During the pre-engagement change process across the University as part of the Vice Chancellor’s ‘Shaping for Excellence’ projects, a number of concerns have emerged about the nature of the process. Because of how the process was implemented, trade union representatives have voiced concerns with the process in the pre-change meetings and in support of members. HR recently asked for these concerns to be raised specifically and directly and the purpose of this letter is to enumerate these issues, and to reflect on how the process is not being conducted in accordance with the spirit of the agreement that was agreed in 2018.
Firstly, the timing of the process. Staff have worked particularly hard over the summer and the start of term to ensure that the University is enabled to deliver a blended learning approach and support our students during the ongoing pandemic. This means that, already at the start of term, staff are tired and, given the environment and uncertainty created by the pandemic, are physically, intellectually, and emotionally stressed. Even in a normal year, your own 2019 Recovery Plan aiming to restore staff morale stated that “We must be careful not to launch too many things at once at the start of the academic year and overwhelm colleagues” (October 2019 Progress Review). The context of the pandemic and the intensive work pressures facing staff as a consequence have made this point doubly acute. This context was not the ‘perfect moment’ to initiate a process of change that is intended to support and develop excellence at Leicester. It is certainly not the ‘perfect moment’ to threaten staff with redundancy.
In addition, the timing of initial communications was unacceptably poor. Those staff who are directly affected were informed only minutes before, not only the whole University, but also the press and general public by virtue of an announcement placed on the Universities website. This caused distress to a great many staff who had to face questions about their position before they had had a chance to digest the information fully themselves.
Those initial communications advised staff to talk to their line managers if they had concerns, despite the fact that in many cases their managers only found out at the same time. This caused unnecessary distress to both staff and managers. Only several days after the announcement of potential redundancies did the University email managers advising them about the new ‘Managers Support Toolkit’. We regard this as a breach of the University’s basic Duty of Care to staff to ensure wellbeing and not cause unnecessary distress. Staff should have been informed face-to-face (whether in person or online) by their direct line managers, and managers should have been briefed about the resources available in advance, in order for even the most basic level of care to be delivered properly and appropriately.
The scheduling of pre-change engagement meetings was unacceptable. Staff were given very little notice that these meetings would be taking place (sometimes less than 5 working days) at a time when diaries are full and many staff have significant teaching and other student-facing commitments. This made it hard for many colleagues to attend.
In addition, the scheduling of these meetings around half-term weeks in Leicester made it difficult for parents and carers to attend. We would note that this consideration particularly affects women (who are still mostly the primary carers in most families) and may, therefore, breach the University’s duties under the Equalities Act – it is certainly out of step with the university’s stated support of Athena Swan.
The timescales given for staff feedback were unacceptably short. In one case as little as five working days that ran across a weekend. As we have already noted, staff are extremely and unusually busy – staff at Leicester were already in crisis about workload before COVID (part of the reason for 22 days of strike action in 2019-20) and workloads have shot up as we work to respond and adapt to the current measures: much of the university is operating on an emergency workload model. Instigating a change process at this time is an unnecessary additional burden on colleagues. Many staff will have felt pressured to respond and have had to do so outside of work hours and in their (limited) personal time. This is a barrier to participation and engagement for those with caring responsibilities, health issues, or other factors which means the change process is unlikely to effectively or productively engage staff.
It is unacceptable to ask staff to respond to the questions posed (either at meetings or in writing subsequently) under the duress of threats of redundancy. This not only places staff under unbearable stress and uncertainty, not least causing them to question what the management response to their comments might be and how that might later impact upon them and their colleagues, but is also unethical and invalidates the results of the process. You will not gather honest opinions or robust data when participants are under such duress.
Where meetings have taken place at which managers have presented the responses of staff to questions posed at previous meetings or in advance of meetings, we are concerned that only cherry-picked summaries have been presented. As already expressed, we regard this process do be flawed due to the issue of unnecessary duress, but if managers are going to use the data gathered, then, as a very basic principle, staff should have access to the full set of (anonymised) responses in order to understand their situation and the responses of their colleagues, not just those responses or summaries that managers choose to share.
Similarly, our membership is deeply concerned about the use of external data such as information gathered by DataHE. As above, any data used should be shared, in full, with affected staff and their representatives in order that they can understand the context and implications of such data. During one pre-change engagement session, when the relevant Head of School leading the meeting was asked to share with staff a more detailed, granular level of the DataHE report on projected future recruitment trends, they responded that they were unsure if such further detail existed. We are largely sceptical about the value of such externally produced data and reports, and as yet no pre-change meeting explained to staff or the trade unions why and how certain areas of the university had been targeted for this process. By deliberately obscuring the data and analysis on which this pre-change process is based, the process has significantly increased uncertainty for staff and further diminished trust in the university executive.
Finally, the University has failed in its duties under the Equalities Act 2010 to facilitate the full participation of disabled staff. Where staff have requested the Reasonable Adjustment of being provided with information (such as slides presented) ahead of meetings, this has been refused. When UCU flagged this issue to HR, the response was to double down and continue to refuse to consider adjustments or solutions. This means that not all staff have been able to participate fully in the process and have been caused distress by the actions of management. We would note that the duty to facilitate full participation by all staff is Anticipatory, and staff should not need to ask for such adjustments themselves. We have written to the Head of EDI separately on this issue.
The process has been inconsistent across the University. Sometimes staff have been asked to give feedback before meetings, in others during or after meetings. Some meetings have been run as information gathering sessions with staff asked to respond to specific questions (with no notice of such questions), whereas other sessions have offered longer periods of time for open questions. The time dedicated to open questions from staff has varied considerably across the meetings. The process should be consistent and staff should know in advance what will be expected of them during these sessions.
When the current change process was agreed, we believed that we had agreed that management would engage staff in meaningful and supportive conversations around the process of change. Instead of that, staff are being provided with limited information about the context and aims of the change process, are being given limited opportunities and short timescales to respond, and are suffering undue and unnecessary stress and anxiety through allegations of under-performance and general threats of redundancy across whole departments.
The process as currently undertaken could hardly be further from the spirit of the agreement reached between the University and trade unions in 2018.
Unfortunately, the current pre-change process is landing very badly with staff, similarly to the disastrous 2016 reorganisation. We call on you to act now to limit the harm, and return to the spirit and positive potential of the original intent of the agreement by 1) halting the pre-change engagement process, 2) immediately lifting the threat of redundancies and 3) engaging with staff in a meaningful conversation about the future aims and objectives of the University and how we can embark on our next Century together.
We consider your response inadequate. It side-steps the most important issues we have raised via generic platitudes. So, we here ask for direct answers to the questions below within a week.
Please be advised that Leicester UCU’s branch position is that:
If answers to the following questions are not satisfactory, we will raise our concerns publicly and repeatedly.
As this pre-change engagement process moves forward, will the Executive Board:
*Our translations of the Deputy VC’s answers are added in square brackets in pink.
1. Remove the threat of compulsory redundancies? [No]
We are currently completing the pre-change engagement process. The outcomes of these sessions may feed into a future business case which may lead to some job losses but we cannot pre-judge the outcome of this process at this stage. Pre-change engagement is not part of the formal Redundancy Ordinance. If, having reviewed and considered the feedback, it is decided that a formal change programme is required to facilitate a necessary change, then we will implement a consultation process with the staff that will be affected by the change, in line with the University’s Redundancy Ordinance. The University is committed to mitigating against compulsory redundancies wherever possible.
2. Commit to a much more reasonable timescale for the setting of meetings, allowing staff time for feeding back views and raising questions? If yes, please provide an anticipated timeline. [No]
Pre-change engagement is not a set process and, as such, the format of the sessions and timescales will not all be the same. Timescales for notice of the meetings, allowing for staff to feedback and to raise questions has been considered by the leads as part of the process.
3. Ensure that adjustments for disabilities are anticipatory and not the responsibility of disabled staff to arrange individually? If yes, please specify how you plan to do this. [No, but we will agree to provide information in advance if they ask for it]
The invites to meetings ask staff to contact their HRBP if any reasonable adjustments are required to facilitate full engagement for staff with disabilities. It has been agreed that, going forward, staff requiring a reasonable adjustment can have access to information being shared in these meetings in advance, so that they can engage fully in the meetings.
4. Enable line managers to support their staff by providing information to them about what’s happening in advance of informing staff? If yes, please provide details. [Maybe]
As stated above, pre-change engagement is not a set process and, as such, the format of the sessions and timescales will not all be the same. The leads are aware that, where appropriate, detail should be provided to managers in advance of the detail being shared with staff.
5. Provide to Leicester UCU (and/or all staff) a copy of the full, institution-wide DataHE report the university has obtained and used to inform the pre-change engagement process, and any other external data upon which decisions have been/are being made? [No]
We have shared the DataHE reports with each of the College leadership teams but cannot share more widely, as it is commercially sensitive information.