Myth Busting at the University of Reading

All staff at the University of Reading have been asked to accept cuts to their terms and conditions – through a combination of pay freezes, removal from national pay bargaining, pay cuts, and cuts to the working week – to avoid 500 FTE redundancies. Given the levels of casualisation, this could mean 800-900 staff losing their jobs.

Firing and Rehiring: Business as Usual or Blackmail?

On 16 June 2020, the University of Reading sent the University and College Union (UCU) a ‘section 188 letter’, which set in motion the current consultation between university management, the UCU and the Staff Forum. 

Section 188 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992 requires an employer to engage in meaningful collective consultation with the recognised trade union when 20 or more redundancies are expected in any 90-day period.  

The University of Reading’s section 188 letter included a threat to ‘fire and rehire’ all staff on inferior terms and conditions. 

Reading’s reference to ‘firing and rehiring’ is unprecedented in the UK higher education sector, because it puts all staff across the university at risk. Senior management at the University of Reading is using the threat of ‘firing and rehiring’ in an attempt to obtain consent from staff to voluntary cuts to pay, terms and conditions. 

In other sectors, the invocation of ‘firing and rehiring’ has been described as a ‘smokescreen’ to ‘erode the pay and conditions of workers’, which ‘smacks of blackmail – ‘If you don’t do what we want, we will issue notice of dismissals’’. MPs on the House of Commons transport select committee described British Airways – which adopted the same tactic – as a ‘national disgrace’ for making a ‘calculated attempt to take advantage of the pandemic’ to slash its staff conditions. Since June, management of the University of Sheffield have adopted a similar approach, but Sheffield UCU has demanded that the threat be removed before engaging in meaningful consultation.

Much Ado About COVID-19

The University’s ‘Post COVID-19 response – proposed restructuring process’ document provided by the University alongside the consultation states a projected £106m deficit, comprising a projected deficit  of £94m in student fees over 3 years plus other associated losses. Its recommendations state that savings can be made through £xx investment assets (figure redacted but visible behind UoR login) and pay-related savings of at least £60m.

It would be intuitive to assume that the University is having to make these cuts as a response to a reduction in student recruitment as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. In his briefing sessions, the Vice Chancellor has repeatedly stated that he is ‘hoping for the best’ but ‘preparing for the worst’ as far as recruitment is concerned. He has noted that there would be triggers that would prevent cuts from taking place were the fears not to materialise. On the surface, this seems like a reasonable management proposition, but there are some concerns.

In the same restructuring document, the Chief Financial Officer has stated that if ‘the University finds itself in a more positive position in the Autumn Term eg International Recruitment is stronger than expected and therefore the shortfall is lower, it is recommended that we call less upon the investments’.

In other words, if student recruitment is better than expected, the University of Reading will still push ahead with cuts to staff costs while protecting its investments. This suggests quite clearly that the University’s focus on cuts are not a response to COVID-19, but rather an intentional restructure of the University for which COVID-19 is the convenient thin end of the wedge.

Deficit, What Deficit?

The original financial modelling on which the University of Reading relies stated that savings of £106m were needed. The University’s calculations are inconsistent with their own assumptions about future student numbers, making their expected losses appear much greater than they are likely to be (approx £25m). Their own assumptions seem extreme, because they assume a 50% decline both in 2021-22 and in 2022-23 for example. This overstates their losses by as much as an additional £25m. 

Models must be reliable and replicable. Data must be accurate. The mathematical techniques used must be sound and the modelling assumptions reasonable. In the case of the original model used to justify the cuts, none of these conditions were met. Yet this model was approved by UEB and Council, without these huge differences being spotted or remarked upon. Given the vast impact the model has on livelihoods and on staff terms and conditions, this suggests a serious failure in governance and oversight.

Subsequent to these ‘errors’ being pointed out, a new Light Touch Review model was produced over half-way through the consultation period. The student fee loss was reduced from £94m to £76m, but the model added in further new costs bringing the total deficit back up to £104m. This suggests that the magic figure of approximately £100m will be used no matter what the real deficit is. 

There is another key reason why we must treat the university’s modelling with caution. This is because the estimated deficits are not based on actual known figures, but on estimated projections arising from vastly inflated growth targets. For instance, the number of international undergraduate students has been projected to increase by 200%. Comparing actual performance to such inflated numbers naturally results in a deficit even when recruitment is stronger than last year. As far as current admissions data is concerned, the number of acceptances for both home/EU and international students are all higher than this time last year.

The ‘business case’ for redundancies or cuts to terms and conditions is therefore based on a false necessity. 

Pay Cuts: How Not to Show Solidarity

It is short-sighted for staff to think that they are showing solidarity with so-called ‘precarious’ colleagues by accepting cuts to terms and conditions, to avoid compulsory redundancies. 

This use of language is dangerous. It divides up the university into two groups, the ‘vulnerable’ and the ‘not vulnerable’. This plays directly into the management rhetoric of ‘necessity’ and ‘restructured efficiency’, moving the debate away from negotiations which are supposed to be dealing with the effects of a global pandemic to a pre-existing agenda of structural reorganisation.

Solidarity is not charity. Pay cuts are not bespoke: just because your personal and financial circumstances can tolerate one does not mean that other colleagues can. Accepting pay cuts pushes pay and conditions down across the grade scales, especially for the most precarious staff – a complete subversion of solidarity.

Agreeing to pay cuts also does not demonstrate solidarity with colleagues across the national higher education sector, with the University of Reading already having been described as the ‘canary in the coal mine’.  

Pay Cuts Now, Redundancies Later

Agreeing to pay cuts and pay freezes does not stop management of the University of Reading from introducing redundancies further down the line. 

Pay cuts and pay freezes that remove Reading from national collective bargaining, guarantees and protections are dangerous. Such reductions in pay and conditions will exacerbate existing inequalities, including gender and ‘BAME’ pay and pension gaps (the latter an increasingly disputed term).   

Staff Health and Safety

Shifting the risk onto employees has not only been seen financially but also in the University’s planning for next year’s teaching, where health risks for staff are being ignored to encourage recruitment. It has been proposed that the University apply the 1m+ rule on social distancing in classrooms as the norm, rather than the exception for which that rule was created by the government.

What senior management and the UCU representatives should be talking about is the health and safety of staff during a pandemic, and the implications of cuts on staff workloads. 

Reading Between the Lines

Reading Between the Lines is a grassroots solidarity group of University of Reading staff and supporters, seeking to create clarity on – and organise against – the spin and misrepresentation that has characterised the debate on proposed cuts at Reading.  

Reading Between the Lines calls upon management of the University of Reading to:

  • Remove the threat of ‘firing and rehiring’, as a good faith consultation partner.
  • Submit the Chief Financial Officer’s modelling to full and independent – rather than ‘light touch’ – review.
  • Extend the period of consultation until accurate rather than projected recruitment figures are known.
  • Engage in meaningful consultation and provide a full and formal response to the 52 questions provided by UCU at the start of the consultation period.