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:

Irene McMullin

UCU Branch President, Essex



Vacancy: Branch Administrator / Organiser

Branch Administrator/Organiser for Essex University branch (part time, 12 hours per week)

Salary: £11,693 p.a. (£34,107 p.a. pro rata)

Our Branch is seeking to appoint someone to assist with managing our office (normally based at Essex University), with minimal supervision.
The successful candidate will work 12 hours per week.

You will develop and implement a recruitment strategy, undertake organising activities, keep the Branch website up to date, and take minutes.
With sound organisational, communication and interpersonal skills, you will have knowledge of the implications of working for a trade union or other not-for-profit organisation, be the first point of contact for members and be expected to support the branch officers in all aspects of your work for UCU.

To apply, please download an application pack below or email quoting job reference BAO4.

Application pack: Branch administrator, Essex University (BAO4) [445kb]

Closing date for applications: 5 October at 10 am

Interview date: 8 November

Space and smart working petition (June 2021)

Essex UCU branch has launched a petition, to be found here, demanding that future decisions about staff workspace allocations be governed by the ten principles and objectives that UCU Essex has developed through extensive consultation with members on this issue

Please sign our petition aimed at protecting staff rights relating to these issues. The petition is open to all staff at Essex University- not just UCU members – so please share it with colleagues.

Thank you

Dr Irene McMullin

President Essex UCU

Unions support the BAME Staff Forum’s response to the Sewell Report (May 2021)

Essex UCU, Unison and Unite support this response from the BAME Staff Forum (University of Essex) to the recent Sewell Report on race and ethnic disparities that was commissioned by the UK Government:

The Sewell Report – ‘Writing out Racism’

 BAME Staff Forum’s response to the Sewell Report, University of Essex.

We, the stakeholders, reject the findings of the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, chaired by Dr Tony Sewell, for ‘writing out racism’ in the UK. Through downplaying the structural and institutional reasons behind racial disparities, the report not only denies the everyday lived experience of Black Asian Minority Ethnic (BAME) communities in the UK it shifts attention away from attempts to deal with racial disparities and racism collectively. The report lacks coherence, accuracy and integrity and dangerously supports an ascendant right-wing culture war against struggles for justice by all progressive groups in the UK. As a counter to the claims of the report, we pose some questions below based on credible existing research from academics, unions, independent committee reports and the Runnymede Trust.

Is there no structural and institutional racism in the UK?

Why are unemployment rates higher among BAME groups, and remain unchanged since the 1981 Brixton uprising for Black/African/Caribbean groups?

Why is there an ethnicity pay gap in most institutions in the UK?

Why are Black women five times more likely to die during childbirth?

Why are exclusion rates higher for Black Caribbean students in English schools than their White peers in some local authorities?

Why are BAME people, and Black youth in particular, disproportionately stopped and searched by the police?

Why do nine out of ten children on remand come from BAME communities?

Why do BAME men and women constitute 25% of prisoners, and over 40% of young people in custody from BAME backgrounds, despite making up just 14% of the overall population?

Why are BAME communities disproportionately affected during the Covid-19 pandemic?

Why were nine-in-ten (93%) doctors who died of Covid in the UK from BAME communities?

Is it much different nearer home – in Higher Education institutions?

Why are fewer than 1% of the professors employed at UK universities Black?

Why are more than nine in ten college Principals (93%) and University vice chancellors (94%) white?

Why are Black students over three times more likely to drop out than their white counterparts?

Why is there an award gap between students from BAME background as compared to their white counterparts?

In view of the lack of credibility and the sheer ingenuity of the report in denying racism, it becomes a challenge to accept some of its more valid suggestions, for example the viability of the term BAME. We recognise the existence of institutional racism and the pervasive ways in which it affects all of our lives. We stand in solidarity with those affected by all forms of racism and seek to address the structures that perpetuate it. Racism has no place in our institutions or in our communities.

Some relevant references

Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities: The Report (March 2021) or The Sewell Report

The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry Report or The Macpherson Report (February 1999)

The Lammy Review Report (September 2017)

Fair Society Healthy Lives: The Marmot Report (February 2010)

Joint Union statement in response to the Sewell Report

Sewell Report: Runnymede Responds (April, 2021)

British Sociological association (April 2021)

The Sewell Report: an example of institutional racism (April 2021)





Today- 19 May 2021, 12pm: Let’s Discuss Professional Services staff and the issues facing them

Essex UCU are holding another ‘Let’s Discuss’ event dedicated to addressing issues facing Professional Services staff, including expanding workload, career progression, and other pressing concerns. We will be discussing in particular the disconnect between job descriptions and job roles. This will be a free-flowing conversation hosted by a member of our professional services team. This event is also open to those who are not UCU members or those who do not work in professional services but who would like to support their professional services colleagues. The meeting will take place Today, Wednesday, 19th May, 12:00-1:30pm.

Jo Grady, UCU General Secretary, joins our all-staff USS pension discussion 14 May 2021

Essex UCU are delighted that Dr Jo Grady, UCU General Secretary, will join our branch USS pension discussion on Friday 14th May 1-2:30pm. This will be an all-staff meeting – not just for  UCU members, so any USS pension member may join. Jo is able to join us and speak for the for the first 30 mins,  then other UCU reps will answer questions. (waiting room enabled, outlook invitation attached).

GM today, AGM is on 23 June, and nominations are open! (24.3.2021)

A reminder that our branch GM is today, 24 March 2021 1pm. Zoom link has been emailed to members.

Please note that our branch Annual General Meeting will be on Wed 23 June 2021 at 1pm.
A zoom link will be emailed to members closer to this date with the calling notice.

Please note that nominations are opening 24 March 2021 (Branch online nomination form 2021)

Issues facing Professional Services staff and open meeting on 17 March 2021

Open letter on the issues facing the Professional Services section (published Wed 10 March 2021)

Please read the above open letter to all staff in which we note with concern the difficult circumstances that many staff in professional services at Essex are facing.

We also note that on Friday in Essex Weekly, People & Cultures shared a link to an all-staff survey on workload that was developed in conjunction with the three trades unions: UCU, Unison, and Unite. We urge all members to complete this survey so that we can better address the serious problem of untenable workloads that many staff are facing.

UCU will be holding an informal discussion session, Wednesday, 17th March, to talk about the issues mentioned in the above open letter further. It will run from 1-2pm and is open to all staff, not just UCU members, and not just professional services staff. Please come! We need to come together as a community to try to find solutions to the many problems that we’re facing, so all our welcome to help in that endeavour. The zoom link can be found here:

UCU Essex branch committee