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October 12th, 2021:

Essex UCU Response to P&C’s ‘UCU Disputes’ Blog

I write with an update on the impending ballot and a response to the ‘UCU Disputes’ blog entry written by our new Director of People & Cultures, Alix Langley, on 8th October, 2021.

I know that many of you hate the thought of taking industrial action this year. I know I do. But I also hate the thought of allowing Higher Education in the UK to continue to function off the back of underpaid, exhausted, insecure staff who are always expected to do more with less. It is with this in mind that I think it is important to respond to some of the claims made in Alix’s blog post.

The Four Fights and the USS ballots are disaggregated. This means that each institution has its own voter turnout threshold to meet, and its own ballot decision to make, with the result that some institutions may go on strike while others do not. But it is important to recognise that these are nevertheless national disputes, not local disputes. This means that whether there are slightly better conditions on some issues at particular institutions does not decide the question of whether members should vote ‘Yes’ in the upcoming ballots, particularly insofar as the University of Essex has chosen to participate in the national pay bargaining arrangements and is therefore bound by the outcome of the collective bargaining process. The University of Essex has also aligned itself with UUK in its response to the proposed cuts to USS benefits, despite the branch asking the Vice Chancellor to again take a leadership position in challenging UUK’s willingness to accept a significant erosion of staff pension benefits to keep prices down. The willingness to accept substantially reduced benefits – average members stand to lose 35% of their guaranteed retirement benefits – represents a failure on the part of UUK and the University of Essex to fight to protect those key staff benefits. This amounts to a significant pay cut for staff, as pension benefits are essentially deferred pay.

Not only are staff facing a substantial loss of USS pension benefits, but we are also faced with further erosion of pay value: since 2009, the cumulative loss to pay (compared to rises in RPI) is 17.6%. The most recent figures released by HESA show that total income for all UK universities rose by over 38% in the last 10 years, taking the total increase in university income since 2009/10 to over £11 billion. Hence this year’s pay uplift of 1.5% – rising to 3% for some lower paid staff – is totally inadequate, especially as families are facing steeply rising food and energy prices. With the increased expectation of home working for many staff – especially in professional services – these increased prices will continue to take a major financial toll. To date, the University of Essex has not agreed to our calls for a home-working stipend to be provided to offset those costs.

Another aspect of the ‘Four Fights’ campaign is the fight for more equality in Higher Education – a fight that has many targets. For example, the UCU view is that the pay of the highest and lowest in the sector should be based on a ratio of 10:1. We are similarly calling on all universities to ensure that Living Wage Foundation (LWF) rates are paid to all workers on campus, to both directly employed staff and to those employed by contractors and arms-length bodies. While we welcome and celebrate the University of Essex’s work on closing the gender pay gap, recent work by the Tackling Racism Working Group demonstrates that the University of Essex has a long way to go with regard to addressing racism. So while we welcome the University’s commitment to working on these issues, it is clear that there are many ways in which inequality continues to be a problem at Essex and nationally.

Workload is another aspect of the Four Fights campaign and one that is particularly problematic for staff at the University of Essex. The recent joint Unions-HR workload survey results show that pre-Covid, almost 25% of respondents – both professional services and academic staff – say they could ‘rarely’ or ‘never’ complete the work that is expected of them; now more than 45% say that it is not possible to do the work that is required of them. Similarly, 45% of respondents say they can rarely or never take breaks during the workday. Job satisfaction scores have a mean of 5.68 out of 10. Staff are increasingly called on to ‘volunteer’ for work that falls outside of the standard work week and they are often expected to simply cover for unfilled posts or for staff who are absent due to (often workload-induced) stress or ill-health. Graduate teaching assistants (now: assistant lecturers) and graduate laboratory assistants continue to report being expected to work more hours than they are paid to provide. Student-staff ratios are not an accurate measure of workload when the expectations on staff members continue to rise and, in many departments, the level of student preparedness for university continues to fall. And in many departments, there are concerns about both the fairness and transparency of the workload allocations, along with the accuracy of the workload allocation model itself. There are often significant disparities between individual staff members and between departments. Further, workload allocation models are largely non-existent for professional services staff. Professional Services job descriptions – which provide a benchmark against which to assess workload – are often out of date or incomplete. As part of the Four Fights campaign, UCU is calling on HEIs to develop workload models with their local trade unions that are based on the actual hours required to do the job, which, as many of us know, is not always the case with WAMs at the University of Essex. Attempts by the branch to have this issue addressed have met with limited success. And despite the rhetoric of ‘clearing the decks’ that was popular during the past year and a half, all of the staff with whom the branch has spoken about this initiative reported finding this slogan to have little to no effect on the level of work that was actually expected of them. For most staff, no decks were cleared.

Though the Director of People and Cultures notes that she has triggered our local dispute resolution procedures – at least in part in an attempt to avoid industrial action – it bears repeating that these disputes are not local disputes. They are national disputes that manifest in particular ways locally. Hence, they are not disputes that can be fully resolved locally, though your local branch has been working extremely hard to address local issues of workload, inequality, and casualisation and will continue to do so. It is obvious that pay and pensions are not local, but rather national, disputes. But workload, inequality, and casualisation are not purely local disputes either. They are shaped by the state of higher education nationally.

As I said at the outset: many of us hate the thought of taking industrial action this year. But the only way to change a flawed system is to fight it.

Please join us for a discussion of these issues on Thursday, 14th October 2-3pm. Zoom link: https://essex-university.zoom.us/j/92674957028.

Irene McMullin

UCU Branch President, Essex