Third letter to the VC

In response to her second open letter to the Vice-Chancellor, Dr Deepa Govindarajan Driver received the following reply:

Dear Deepa,

Thank you for your letter to me dated 5 October 2020.

Your description of the recent consultation process as a “sham” does a disservice to your colleagues on the local UCU branch, your UCU Regional Officer, the University’s Staff Forum and the many colleagues across the University who engaged constructively with these critical discussions. The agreements reached are difficult but necessary. Furthermore, as you are well aware, the agreement also provides for early and regular formal joint reviews of the under-pinning financial position, and any significant change will be acted upon. “Preparing for the worst while hoping for the best” was, and remains, the most responsible approach to take.

It is disappointing that you continue to attempt to misrepresent issues, both current and historic. It is irresponsible, by way of example, to suggest that casual staff such as sessional teachers will take a pay cut. The agreement expressly excludes such staff from the proposed pay reductions.

Your comments in respect of lecture capture also misrepresent the formal position. You received notification on 16 March 2020, in your former capacity as President of Reading UCU, of the necessary adoption of a temporary policy, designed to enable colleagues to move to on-line teaching speedily but effectively. This was in the interests of our whole community, staff and students. You provided some comments on this on 28 September, more than six months later. There is a commitment to review this temporary policy in the Spring Term, via DELT in the first instance and with an opportunity for consultation with UCU. Your comments will be shared to inform that process.

My commitment has always been to ensure a healthy, compassionate and productive working environment across our community, and I will continue to demonstrate that through open and honest communication and being willing to take difficult decisions when that is in the University’s best interests.

Kind regards

Robert

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On 12th October, Dr Driver has responded as follows:

Dear Professor Van de Noort,

Thank you for your e-mail dated 6th October 2020, in response to my open letter dated 5th September 2020 continuing correspondence related to the ongoing consultation.

Your e-mail makes four key points (and I trust I paraphrase fairly):

  • You register your objection to my description of the consultation as a “sham” and explain why you believe this not to be the case;
  • You take issue with the way I represent issues more generally and rebut the allegation that casual staff will take a cut as a result of phase 1;
  • You strenuously contest the comments I make regarding lecture capture;
  • You reiterate your commitment to constructive, open engagement with staff and confirm you are happy for your response to the published.

For a consultation to be able to be meaningful and where necessary generate buy-in from those adversely affected by its outcomes, there are several obvious good practice criteria including transparency, integrity, disclosure, fair interpretation and accessibility. The University will no doubt be aware of these.

In particular, it is important that those initiating the consultation (the University of Reading in this instance):

–       present relevant information clearly and facilitate informed debate and opinion

–       genuinely offer options and disclose information objectively

–       embed equality issues into the consultation

The reason I refer to this consultation as a sham is because it was conceived alongside a threat to fire-and-rehire. The coercion associated with such a threat is severe. The anxiety and stress caused by such a fire-and-rehire on inferior terms threat, is not to be underestimated.

The information provided in the original modelling, showing a purported deficit of £106mn, was extreme in its assumptions, and inaccurate in its calculations. The way in which the subsequent Light Touch Review was constructed casts significant doubt on whether any reviews of the University’s financial position will be administered with accuracy and integrity. In light of the current student numbers for this academic year, any losses will be a tiny fraction of the numbers you have been claiming, and given the University’s commitment to use reserves first, do not justify any job losses or pay cuts.

The effects on casual staff of the way in which this consultation has been conducted has been particularly insidious. The pressures that have been put continually on individual departments and schools’ budgets and management, mean that many casual staff have had their fractions reduced significantly, or have not had their sessional contracts raised for renewal, as a result of the shrinkage in available funds of 15%. This is essentially achieving the same objective but without due scrutiny because of the manner in which they were achieved. It is also a fact that grades 1 and 2 would suffer a pay freeze at a time when many are experiencing financial hardship. Given the composition of our casualised workforce, the disproportionate burden such pay freezes and cuts place on staff with protected characteristics, is also worth noting. There is also no acknowledgement in your email of the fact that 55 members of staff including yourself earn in excess of £100,000. 

–       it is also vital that any analysis produced by the University is objective and verifiable, and interpreted fairly

–       it is also important that actions taken are proportionate to, and appropriately address, any risks that are cited.

Well before this consultation, the management narrative continued to indicate to staff the serious financial precarity of the University. Yet there is precious little evidence of management’s acknowledgement of their own strategic failings (including in Malaysia, on trusts, private housing providers or indeed on the admissions process this year). There is also no clear evidence of efforts made by management to use ‘force majeure’ clauses that are applicable given the global pandemic, and that would reduce the financial burden on the University. My concern in regard to any such relaxation under ‘force majeure’ applies to the payment of loan commitments, commitments to private housing providers, and to efforts to deal with covenants that may put various pressures on key performance indicators and the generation of surpluses.

All this calls in to question the integrity of the efforts put into finding means other than staff cuts, to address financial problems caused by serial mismanagement of the University’s resources. It also makes a very stark point about the moral hazard that has occurred in the way in which management has chosen to mitigate various risks that management have created. Those who have created the risks are certainly passing on its consequences to staff, while playing the narrative of “making difficult decisions”. Consequently, saying that management are “preparing for the worst while hoping for the best” makes it unclear in whose best interests these decisions are being made.  

Finally, it is my understanding that the authors of the lecture capture / screencast policy were instructed to delete an undertaking in the policy that would have offered meaningful reassurance to colleagues facing redundancies about restrictions on the active reuse of their recordings after 2021. This is deeply worrying especially when the University explicitly stipulates that it is entitled to use lecture recordings for example even after staff have left / been fired.

I am glad you have reiterated your wish to engage openly and transparently with staff. In light of that I trust that the current sound admissions numbers will ensure there are no grounds for any cuts. To ensure informed opinion formation and decision making, it is vital that any further decisions are made with current year admissions numbers being clearly and accurately contrasted with last year’s bumper admission round, rather than any arbitrary targets or forecasts. I trust that the changes planned to governance will offer us all the opportunity to ensure that the management decisions that put us in these difficult circumstances are addressed and look forward to continued dialogue as we embark on phase 2.

Yours truly,

Dr Deepa Govindarajan Driver