Published: 6th April, 2020
Letter all Leicester UCU members, Monday 6 April.
As the University leadership team continues to develop and roll out its COVID-19 response, Leicester UCU continues to respond to members’ concerns.
1. Two Fridays ago (March 27) we reported on negotiations with senior managers regarding our suggestion that, in light of enormous goodwill University of Leicester staff have already demonstrated in face of the pandemic, they reciprocate by reducing strike-related salary deductions. We pointed out that, with many of us facing severe financial challenges of our own, such a gesture would not only be one of goodwill, it would also put into practice the vice-chancellor’s claim that staff well-being is paramount. Friday just gone (April 3) we received the reply from deputy VC Edmund Burke: no.
We will consider our response to this very carefully and seek consultation with all members. Suffice to say we are both disappointed and surprised by the rationale. The University’s Executive Board – in its response conveyed by Prof. Burke – claims that, by spreading strike deductions over five months, it is adopting the ‘most generous approach’ in the sector. But not as generous as: King’s College, London, which has cancelled all deductions; University College, London, which has cancelled all deductions for strike action taken in March; or Newcastle, Southampton, St. Andrews and Ulster universities and Birkbeck College, London, all of which have indefinitely suspended deductions. Our Executive Board also claims that not deducting strike pay would be ‘unfair and inequitable’. Because… ? Do our senior managers really believe that taking strike action is like taking annual leave? [On the subject of annual leave, see below.] As we pointed out to them last week, a large number of researchers, academics and professional services staff will benefit if we win our four fights disputes – whether or not they are UCU members, whether or not they joined the strike action; if we win the USS dispute, not only will these colleagues all benefit, but the University of Leicester itself will save ‘a small fortune’.
The University’s leadership is responding to the pandemic in a variety of other ways. We acknowledge that they are doing their best in difficult and obviously uncertain circumstances. But their responses are also creating additional uncertainty and difficulty for employees, including UCU members. We have already received many concerned emails from our members about the following issues. We are doing our best to respond individually, but we are also logging these concerns, attempting to unravel underlying issues and then raising these with the leadership team. Please continue to email us with concerns and information about how policies agreed by the Executive Board are being implemented by local managers (unevenly it seems) – all of this information helps us understand what’s happening. Our email address is email@example.com.
2. Most serious we think is the situation for the University’s many casualised staff, many employed via Unitemps. We were told in a meeting a fortnight ago that no new Unitemps workers would be engaged, except in areas which are ‘business critical’. This in itself will cause financial hardship to many dependent upon employment by the University of Leicester. The situation is perhaps even bleaker than this. While we were assured that ‘teaching’ was ‘business-critical’, we are now learning that, in many departments, requests to authorise the buy-in (via Unitemps) of staff to cover teaching and related activities (e.g. marking and dissertation supervision) are being refused. This is one of those instances in which the situation on the ground is quite different to that being conveyed to us in meetings with representatives of the Executive Board. We are urgently seeking clarification on this matter and will raise it again this week.
3. If not Unitemps-employed teachers, then who will supervise and mark all those dissertations (many hundreds of them across the University)? More ‘permanent’ – always a word that must be qualified in the 21st-century university – staff, that’s who. Colleagues who are already working in excess of their workloads (as well as organising home schooling and juggling other care responsibilities in many cases) are being asked to do this work instead. And while such staff are being told that if they work significantly over their agreed annual workload now, this will be reconciled over the next year or two, they are also being warned that it is likely that we will see redundancies within the next year – meaning that their ability to reclaim any of this time is thrown into question. In such circumstances, it’s little wonder that such Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven arguments have been met with incredulity.
4. We have had a high number of complaints from members concerning annual leave. Many colleagues have attempted to cancel leave booked over the coming weeks. But their requests to do so have, in most cases, been refused by managers. We understand managers’ wish to avoid a mass temporary exodus of colleagues later in year – when, hopefully, COVID-19-related travel restrictions have been relaxed. But we do not think such default refusals is helpful – they certainly do little to raise staff morale or elicit goodwill – and we are seeking to explore alternative ways of balancing the University’s staffing needs with the needs of those staff themselves.
5. Finally – for now – the University’s leadership has proposed blanket cancellation or deferment of all agreed study leave. Again, we understand that the University’s finances are currently threatened and we also understand that many colleagues’ study-leave plans will have been thrown into chaos by COVID-19. However, again, we do not think the one-size-fits-all policy is helpful; we have proposed a more flexible policy, with exceptions to the above.
That’s all, folks. This week, expect news of the University leadership’s plans to shift more teaching online – and more from us about the dangers and difficulties of doing so. (Fun fact: at the Open University, clearly the experts in distance learning, it takes an estimated 80 hours of skilled staff time to develop a single hour of online ‘content’; developing an online module typically takes two years.) Please be reassureed that we are also doing our best to gather information on the impact on professional services staff and the deputy VC’s blog post of April 1 that caused considerable anxiety amongst our colleagues.