An open letter to the VC

Dear Professor Van de Noort,

I write this open letter, as a concerned member of staff at the University of Reading (UoR) and as a trade unionist (member of the Reading UCU branch). 

Many of my colleagues across the University, and I, are deeply concerned about the process of consultation (under s188 of TULRCA) in respect of the proposed cuts to staff terms and conditions & jobs. We contest the grounds for the potential agreement suggested by the University and being circulated by RUCU for a vote that will commence imminently. 

The University’s position in relation to this consultation, and in relation to two other key areas has been characterised by the illegitimate use of power, by deception and by confusion.

On the surface, UoR management seemed to be thanking staff for the huge amount of work they have put in since the start of the pandemic and continuing through the summer. During this period, staff have worked around the clock to keep the University going, to support students & stakeholders and to move teaching online at a time when many were struggling with the effects of the pandemic on their own lives. Yet, at this very time, the University issued an unprecedented threat within a s188 letter that detailed a doomsday scenario including high numbers of redundancies and pay-cuts. What was also disturbing was that all this was presented to us by management as a collective act of solidarity amongst colleagues, at a time of difficulty for the University.

It is clear that the pay cuts were what UoR management were always after and the possibility of circa 500 redundancies was used by UoR management as a misleading threat. That the s188 letter also mentioned the possibility of being fired and rehired on inferior terms if we did not come to agreement, was also extremely disconcerting. This misuse of the University’s powers to coerce staff into accepting pay cuts, in addition to the high levels of casualisation and inequality at this University, have truly revealed management’s double-speak and whether they genuinely value education, staff and students. 

During the urgently convened consultation process that followed the issuance of this s188 letter, I wrote to you and to the Chair of Council, with the intention of making Council and UEB aware of serious flaws in the modelling underpinning management’s arguments for job cuts and/or salary cuts. My letter pointed out serious problems with both the assumptions and the mathematics of the modelling, with huge underestimates of future student intakes. This toxic combination resulted in a £50mn overstatement in the scale of the potential shortfall to the University. Given the supposed deficit of £106mn, let me reiterate here the absurdity of a model that overstated the deficit by an incredible 100%. 

Although the ‘errors’ in the modelling were not publicly acknowledged by the University management, as such, a “light-touch” review was subsequently undertaken. This light touch review made corrections of £18m in relation to the errors on projected student income, but then arbitrarily introduced new costs, including an estimated £10m in pension costs, that brought the University’s deficit back to the magic figure of £104mn. However, these pension costs were later removed in the final proposal, with the acknowledgement that they were not Covid-related costs but instead costs which should be dealt with in what the University terms ‘phase 2’. This level of duplicity in manipulating data to suit the management narrative of the day is worrying and points to serious structural weaknesses in the governance of our University. 

Of crucial importance is the fact that these misleading models have been used as the basis to justify redundancies and/or pay cuts. How can models with such huge flaws have been approved by UEB and Council despite the life-changing implications for staff and students?  How can students and staff have any confidence that such grievous ‘mistakes’ will not be slipped into models in the future? Why are we using these ever-changing models, when very soon we will have the actual numbers of students enrolled? The latest enrolment data shows that any deficit due to Covid is likely to be relatively trivial and well within the bounds of annual fluctuations. Therefore, there is absolutely no justification for pay cuts or job losses.

What is also astonishing is that the University’s phone lines were largely non-operational during the first two hours of clearing (and for some operators this continued for a further week). These hours are typically the most busy. In addition, the decision by UoR management (at the start of the lockdown), to require all departments to use only the Me@Reading applicant platform for communications to applicants no doubt negatively impacted recruitment when that portal also went down. This was despite requests by departments that they be permitted to communicate in other ways with applicants to ensure continuity. Colleagues involved in the admissions process have also reported long delays in departmental communications to applicants even being uploaded to this shared platform. If there is any shortfall in student numbers, it will not be primarily because of covid. It will be because of management failings.

While you reiterate that the forthcoming consultation has been based on ‘planning for the worst, while hoping for the best’, it is not clear whose best interests are being served. The agreement under consideration does not give basic details on what can be expected with the promised trigger/review points. The consultation has been presented as being part of honest and open discussion, with the meetings being minuted, and these minutes all being published on the staff website. Yet, discussions have continued privately with UCU, and these side discussions have not been minuted or disclosed by the University. 

In public, the University has, over the past year and particularly over the past few months, run a concerted propaganda campaign. While providing a veneer of transparency and openness, the University has used much of its reach to all staff to present one-sided arguments legitimising management’s preferred policies, while making the case that ‘There is No Alternative’ (TINA). A typical PR-strategy aptly named the “dead-cat strategy” which involves flinging into open view wildly distracting information so as to avoid scrutiny of the substance of key decisions, has been employed. Difficult questions were screened out of the ‘town-hall’ type presentations, and on more than one occasion, answers were incomplete or used sleight-of-hand to distract from the real issues. 

UoR management has failed spectacularly to address any need for serious governance reforms such as the return of statutes, while offering cosmetic changes that do not do anything to address rampant and persistent mismanagement. This includes the questionable use of trust funds, the misadventures at UoR Malaysia, the University’s high-occupancy promises to private housing providers with excessive costs, the abysmally poor efforts to renegotiate financial agreements given a force-majeure situation, and the haemorrhaging of money through a host of other non-core activities, including consulting contracts, and onerous leases in TVSP costing the university over £11m last year. There is also a lack of accountability about the situation with trusts and the use of other special purpose vehicles in relation to the housing. These failures have been accompanied by complex and contradictory executive decisions including staff suddenly coming across the news that UoR management are to fund a Hollywood film studio at a time when they say that the University needs to make stark pay cuts to sustain normal staff costs. Complex decisions that should be taken at University level are then devolved to departments under the guise of empowerment, while these departments are inadequately resourced and under severe pressure. 

The current proposal is an insult to staff and students. We deserve better than this! I am therefore writing to request you to rescind this proposal, and withdraw the s188 letter forthwith.

Yours truly

Dr Deepa Govindarajan Driver