Learning Capture: on Recordings and Redundancies

The University of Reading recently released its Policy for the Recording and Digital Delivery of Teaching in 2020/21. The Policy requires staff to participate in learning capture – departing from Reading’s prior ‘opt-in’ approach – and makes failure to follow the Policy a disciplinary offence.

All academic staff at the University of Reading should be made aware that an earlier draft Policy on learning capture, which sought to protect their interests, was explicitly rejected by senior management.

The Policy as it stands raises major concerns for the hard-working academic staff of the University, many of whom spent all summer recording lectures and seminars. Put simply: when academic staff are made redundant during Phase 2 of the University’s Post-COVID-19 Response Programme, the Policy permits the University to use such recordings to replace their teaching.

Is the Policy legal?

The University does not have a clear legal entitlement to require staff to make learning capture recordings. Academic job descriptions at the University refer to ‘teaching’, but make no reference to the creation of asynchronous recordings. While the creation of such materials may be a ‘related duty’ to teaching, the University and UCU Joint Commentary on the employment contract provides that the University is unable to ‘unilaterally make fundamental changes to your role without first consulting with you’. The move from an ‘opt-in’ learning capture policy to a mandatory obligation is a fundamental change to the academic job description, and no consultation with the broader academic community at the University has yet taken place.

Reading the University and UCU Joint Commentary alongside the employment contract makes it untenable to suggest that the duties of staff members extend to the mandatory creation of lecture capture material. Indeed, the Joint Commentary explicitly provides that the University has ‘no intention of requiring employees to participate in lecture capture, and you will be able to decide whether or not to agree to have your image recorded in this way’.

In the absence of a clear legal entitlement to require learning capture, it would have been sensible for the University to proceed in a spirit of cooperation with its staff. Did it do so?

The Deleted Undertaking

The initial authors of the Policy were sensitive to the need to gain academic ‘buy-in’ with compulsory learning capture. To that end, the draft Policy contained an undertaking that the University would not use any recordings in future years without the consent of recorded staff, and would never use the recordings of staff made redundant after the 2020/21 academic year.

Prior to the review of the Policy by the University Board for Teaching, Learning and Student Experience (UBTLSE), the authors of the Policy were instructed to delete this undertaking. In a leaked memorandum made available to Reading Between the Lines, one of the authors then urged the UBTLSE to reject the Policy unless the deleted undertaking was reinstated. The author described the Policy which was subsequently approved by the UBTLSE and the UEB as ‘reckless’, because it failed to offer ‘meaningful reassurance to colleagues facing redundancies about restrictions on the active reuse of their recordings after 2021’.

Why Fire and Rehire when you can Fire and ‘Press Play’ instead?

Senior management of the University of Reading have already exhausted the goodwill of its devoted staff over summer, both by threatening pay cuts when admissions numbers are up and workloads have increased, and by offering students the choice to not return to campus on health and safety grounds, without extending the same courtesy to staff.

Because it enables the University to re-use recordings in future years without the consent of academic staff who have been fired or made redundant, the Policy is ethically abhorrent and pedagogically unsound.

The deletion of an undertaking, which sought to balance the interests of the University and its staff, paves the way for the deletion of committed academic staff during Phase 2 restructuring.

Stop the predatory management of the UEB in its tracks by voting NO in the current ballot. Voting NO sends a strong signal to our scheming senior management that we – the staff of the University of Reading – will not take Phase 2 lying down.

Majority of RUCU Committee rejects proposal

Between 18th September and 9th October Reading UCU members will be balloted on whether they accept the Consultation Group’s Final Proposal. If accepted, the university will implement a three-year pay freeze and pay cuts for all employees earning over c.£18,000 per year, including part-time workers earning that on a pro rata rate.

As the majority of Reading UCU branch committee, we reject this supposedly “Final Proposal” and urge all members of Reading UCU to VOTE AGAINST these unfair and disproportionate measures. These measures are unjustified given the information the University has disclosed to staff, and the position on admissions. They do not rule out future redundancies. Instead they propose inadequate mechanisms that fail to engage with the university’s true financial position or governance.

The supposed “Final Proposal” provided by UoR management is the product of a consultation that has not been conducted in good faith. In the midst of a global pandemic, senior management took the unprecedented step of threatening 500FTE redundancies or rehiring all staff on worse terms and conditions. They have also used flawed financial data as the basis for consultation. As the majority on the committee, whose concerns have been consistently ignored, we continue to be concerned that internal Reading UCU processes have been marked by serious infringements of both local branch rules and democratic process. Reading UCU members have not been represented by a negotiating team elected by branch committee, as per branch rules, and as members of branch committee we have not been meaningfully consulted about the proposal. As such we find the supposed “Final Proposal” to be a weak solution, that exacerbates and papers over problems rather than address them in a meaningful way that ensures that cuts and redundancies aren’t always just around the corner.

Under S188 of the trade union legislation, the University is required to engage in meaningful collective consultation with the recognised trade union. Sheffield UCU for example have insisted that a meaningful negotiation cannot be conducted while members face the threat of fire-and-rehire as the nuclear option if they fail to agree. Through active resistance to poor agreements under coercive terms, their branch has now been successful in ensuring their management rescinds both the threat of redundancies and any cuts to pay and terms and conditions.

If the University of Reading management wishes to demonstrate that it operates in good faith it will continue negotiations based on actual financial data.

As members of Reading UCU branch committee we therefore propose the following course of action:

1.     All RUCU members to VOTE AGAINST accepting the Final Proposal.

2.     Call on UoR management to immediately rescind the s188 letter and remove the threat of redundancies and ‘fire and rehire’.

3.     Elect a RUCU negotiating team in accordance with branch rules.

4.     Call on the University management to reopen meaningful consultation.

Signed by the following members of RUCU branch committee:

Rita Balestrini

Cherilyn Elston

Deepa Govindarajan Driver

Titus Hilberdink

Ellen Owens

John Russell

Chris Ryder

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

Reasons to vote NO to the University Proposal

  1. The figures are flawed

Our modelling suggests that the VC’s figures are out by up to £50 million. Quite a lot for a man who prides himself on ‘transparency’, eh? Especially when the savings senior management said they aimed to make through salary cuts were just £60 million.

Even the university admitted its own modelling was flawed! But after the ‘light touch’ review, the university still magically managed to come up with a ‘deficit’ figure of over £100 million by artificially upping pensions contributions. Why? Because this figure allowed management to push through the changes they wanted, to cover the losses that resulted from bad decisions taken by the university in the past. Are these cuts paying for COVID – or Malaysia? And what about the disastrous UPP agreement that they signed last year?

Asking staff to vote on pay cuts on the basis of these flawed figures is like asking the British public to vote on leaving the EU on the premise that we would save £350 million a week. And we all know what happened there. 

2. s188: take a pay cut or you’ll lose your job?

The empty threat of 500 FTE redundancies is being used to intimidate staff into accepting pay cuts, allegedly in order to save jobs.

In an unprecedented move, the University of Reading sent out a s188 letter to all staff in June, putting all members of staff at risk of redundancy, or of being dismissed and re-employed on inferior terms.

Other institutions followed. At the University of Sheffield, the UCU branch saw through this ploy, and successfully forced their management to withdraw the s188 that had been sent to staff there before the consultation process could even begin.

 But how likely is it that Reading would ever make 500 FTE job cuts, as they threatened? The university would be unable to function, as senior management have recognised (at [8] – university login required). And would management really fire and rehire all staff? The administrative burden of tearing up and redrawing 4500 individual contracts would be huge – not to mention the risk of individual staff members taking legal action against the university, and the adverse publicity such a move would attract.

 The truth is that senior management’s preferred option was always pay cuts. 500 FTE redundancies were never going to happen. It was a threat to get us to accept the pay cut. Don’t let it work.

3. Pay cuts now – redundancies later!

And here’s the sting in the tail:

Senior management can still make redundancies AFTER we have voted to accept these pay cuts. We don’t believe redundancies on the scale of 500 FTE will happen. But the wording of this agreement still lets management make any redundancies they want during phase 2 of the consultation. Vulnerable staff remain vulnerable. After the debacles of Malaysia and PAS, how much do you trust them?

Voting for this agreement doesn’t end uncertainty about redundancies. It increases it!

4. Solidarity is not voting for unnecessary pay cuts

Senior management are playing on the conscience of staff to emotionally blackmail them into taking pay cuts to allegedly save other people’s jobs. But these pay cuts won’t save jobs. And if they cared so much, why aren’t senior management taking a bigger cut from their own pay packets?  Why are we seeing cuts to grade 3 when the best paid officials in the university will still be taking home more than £200,000 a year?

And how fair is it really for any one person to vote to cut another person’s wages? 

Maybe you’ve got a partner who earns good money and you’ll cope with a pay cut. But perhaps your administrative colleague on £18,000 a year is a lone parent, struggling to pay the rent and bills every month as it is. Perhaps a pay cut will force them out of their home. In what world is voting for colleagues on breadline wages to take unnecessary pay cuts solidarity?

5. Governance reform needs to be meaningful

We agree that there needs to be thorough reform of the governance of the university. But the concessions that are offered in this proposal are simply procedural reforms, and fail to provide staff with a genuine role in the governance of the university.

We ask you all to vote AGAINST the proposal in order to resume negotiations.

For meaningful and good faith negotiations to take place, we demand that:

  1. The Chief Financial Officer’s model must be submitted to a full and independent – rather than ‘light touch’ – review. Good faith negotiations cannot happen with flawed figures.
  2. The university’s model must distinguish between losses incurred due to COVID-19, and those incurred due to other reasons.
  3. The s188 letter must be withdrawn to remove the threat of redundancies and ‘fire and rehire’.
  4. The senior management team must provide a full and formal response to the 52 questions provided by UCU at the start of the consultation period, and any further questions that arise.
  5. The consultation must be conducted by a legitimate negotiating team elected by the UCU branch committee, as branch rules require. (The majority of the UCU branch committee were not consulted in respect of this proposal, and are deeply concerned about its content.)

Remember:

Staff and students make the university. Not senior management.

The university cannot exist without us. We are not powerless. We CAN resist these cuts.

And don’t forget: only UCU members can vote in this ballot, even though its outcome will affect all staff members. So if you’re not in the union, join today so you can have a say in your own future.

A BETTER UNIVERSITY IS POSSIBLE

Reading Between the Lines

To join our mailing list, please contact readingbtl@protonmail.com

The University Proposal: Reading Between the Lines

In June 2020, the University of Reading commenced consultation via a section 188 notice in response to a claimed financial shortfall arising from Covid-19. In a move that was unprecedented in higher education, the University put ALL staff at risk, with the threat that it would fire and rehire employees on inferior contracts, if agreement was not reached through consultation. In August 2020, the University put forward a Final Proposal (FP) in respect of this consultation. This proposal will now be put to a Reading UCU member ballot. It is very important that people are fully informed about this final proposal before voting.

In the FP, the claim is made that it is ‘as fair, reasonable and proportionate as it is possible to be in the circumstances’ (FP, para 8). As staff at the University of Reading, we emphatically disagree. Contrary to what is claimed, the agreement reached in consultation with UCU negotiators does not buy us out of redundancies, which remain very much on the table. It exposes all employees that earn over £18,000 per year to a pay cut, and everyone to a three-year pay freeze, in a manner that is anything but progressive and fair. The implementation of the pay cuts can supposedly be stopped after two reviews of the University’s actual financial position, but no information is given in the FP or the University-UCU-Staff Forum Memorandum of Understanding on the targets against which that financial position is to be judged nor on the process for those reviews. And all that is offered in return is a promise for more discussion, at some point in the future, around governance reforms.

No redundancies … today

The Vice-Chancellor in his briefing of 14 August expressed his pleasure that an agreement had been reached that removed the need for compulsory redundancies. As the final proposal states, ‘[f]or the avoidance of doubt, this means that there are no projected compulsory redundancies arising from the predicted shortfall in student fees arising directly from the Covid-19 emergency’ (FP, para 11). And in her email of the same date, the Reading UCU branch president stated ‘[i]mportantly, it [the final proposal] eliminates the University’s previous threat to cover the costs of Covid-19 by making staff compulsorily redundant’.

Yet, the truth is that, because of the University’s decision to divide its cuts and restructurings into ‘Phase 1’ (dealing with the consequences of Covid-19) and ‘Phase 2’ (its longer-term plans to restructure the University), redundancies remain very much on the table in the context of Phase 2, which has been running simultaneously alongside the Phase 1 consultation group. Formal consultation on the Phase 2 restructuring plan, according to the timeline set out in the University’s May 2020 post-Covid-19 restructuring process, is expected to begin as soon as September, with any redundancy notices being served in January 2021. By separating out its plans in this way, the University has ensured that redundancies remain a tool at its disposal.

A ‘progressive’ pay cut?

The FP states that the agreed tiered pay cut ‘is designed to provide protection to lower-paid staff … and is progressive’ (FP, para 9). It is true that the pay cut does not apply to staff on Grades 1 and 2, and for those on higher grades the proportion of the pay cut increases (to 15% max). However, there remain serious flaws with the tiered pay cut. First, exempting only Grades 1 and 2 from the pay cut means that those of us earning as little as £18,000 will have our salary cut. When considering whether something is fair, reasonable and proportionate, one should consider the likely impact on the people affected. Many of us on £18,000 a year are simply not in a position to shoulder any cuts to our pay, in stark contrast to those at the top end of the salary scale, for whom a 15% pay cut still leaves a salary vastly greater than the average UK income.

As part of this, a serious equality impact assessment should have been conducted and shared with staff. Instead, the FP (at para 9b), and the VC in his 14 August briefing, state that the pay cuts will reduce the gender pay gap and that their impact on BAME staff is reduced by the exclusion of Grades 1 and 2. This is not an equality impact assessment. And this is not the way to address the gender and ethnicity pay gaps at the University.  

Secondly, only three tiers of pay cut are proposed in the FP: 5% for Grades 3 to 5, 10% for Grades 6 to 8, and 15% for Grade 9 and above. This was the very proposal put forward by the Director of Human Resources at the beginning of July. It is not a genuinely progressive pay cut. As you move up the three tiers, each spans a greater range of salaries than the previous: the 5% cut applies to those on £18,000 to £30,000 (a £12,000 range); the 10% cut applies to those on £30,000 to £60,000 (a £30,000 range); and the 15% cut applies to those on £60,000 to £269,999 (the highest salary listed in the 2018/19 University accounts) (a £209,999 range). At the very least, one would have expected to see a far more graduated scale according to salary in a proposal claiming to be ‘progressive’.

And finally, these cuts ignore the reality that staff pay has already plummeted in real terms over the last decade, exacerbated in Reading where the costs of living have significantly increased, while high levels of precarity and equality barriers continue to bite. A significant number of university staff struggle to pay their mortgage/rent and bills. This stands in stark contrast to the 55 employees at the University of Reading that earned over £100,000 a year in 2019 (see 2018/19 University accounts). Our VC earns a wage of £195,000 per annum plus pension, as well as £17,503 per annum for 5 days a month chairing the Thames Regional Flood and Coastal Committee. This pay for 5 days of work a month is higher than many full-time staff earn as their entire annual income. No agreement should be made without a cap on such high salaries.

Reserves before salaries

The final proposal states that ‘any improvement in its projected financial position will be reflected first and foremost in amendments to the proposed temporary changes to terms and conditions, prioritised over any consideration of the £46m call upon identified reserves agreed by Council’ (FP, para 14). To clarify, we are reading this as saying that the proposed cuts to salaries will only be relied upon if losses exceed £46m. However, two questions remain open that should have been clarified in the final proposal. First, how is ‘projected financial position’ in paragraph 14 of the FP defined? Second, what proportion of the £46m in reserves remains? 

The Devil is in … or rather not in … the detail

The FP emphasises that the implementation and continuation of the cost saving measures will be contingent on the outcome of two reviews – an ‘interim review’ in October 2020 and a ‘formal review’ in February 2021. It is stated that the latter will take ‘into account the savings accrued from any of the voluntary measures … and key metrics in relation to student recruitment (i.e. total fees income from Home and Overseas students) and any revised University income projections (to be presented in an open and defensible manner, with an ongoing commitment to respond positively to reasonable requests for relevant management information)’ (FP, para 18). No objectively identifiable criteria for assessing the University’s actual financial position are set out. This is a fundamental omission, particularly in light of the errors in the University’s financial forecasting that prompted this consultation (see our explanatory letter to staff) and the University’s addition of new and exaggerated projected income losses in its July updated Covid-19 financial impact model. If such criteria have been agreed, they must be made public, as must any agreed process for these two reviews.

More specifically, there are a number of problems in this part of the FP. First, the reference to ‘revised University income projections’ is extremely opaque, inviting yet more hypothesising by the University over future income. Second, what degree, if any, of a shortfall against target in student recruitment can be tolerated before the University is projected to incur a loss that would need recuperating through investments and (subsequently) cuts to its costs base? The July updated Covid-19 financial impact model refers to ‘lost income’ arising from Covid-19 that must be recuperated, implying that we are being asked not to underwrite a deficit in the University’s accounts but to make up lost/projected income, without regard to the University’s overall financial position.

Third, what would constitute a ‘successful’ recruitment round is undefined. Setting out the benchmarks for assessing recruitment levels is essential. This is all the more important given the significant increase in our targets for recruiting home/EU and international students for 2020/1 compared with 2019/20. Indeed, those targets are even higher than the very successful above-target actual enrolment numbers for last year. What is more, in the May 2020 report of the University’s Chief Financial Officer, as well as in the July updated Covid-19 financial impact model, the ‘planned’ level of home/EU and overseas undergraduate recruitment for 2020/1, on which the projected losses and need for cuts are based, was stated to be even higher still.[1] Without clear, reasonable and non-arbitrary criteria for judging our actual 2020 recruitment performance, these two reviews will fail to serve the purpose for which they are claimed.

An afterthought – lip-service to governance reforms

The errors in the University’s financial modelling on which this consultation process has been based were noted above (see our explanatory letter to staff). The over-inflated recruitment targets in that financial modelling (and in the updated July 2020 model) were also noted in the previous section. Notwithstanding these significant errors, the University Council approved the commencing of the consultation process in June 2020. This is the most recent example from a long history of poor oversight of the University Executive Board. The reported five-year bill of £50m to £70m since 2016/17 arising from the decision to develop a Malaysia campus recently led to a restructuring and redundancies for our colleagues there. The poor planning and decision-making leading to the development of the Malaysia campus has been acknowledged by the University itself. In a similar example of poor oversight, the University suffered major negative press last year after it had to refer itself to regulators over its management of the National Institute for Research in Dairying trust. And the provision agreed with UPP by which the University would underwrite 99% of UPP student accommodation rooms creates a potential cost of £31.2m for 2020/1.

This long history of poor oversight makes the reform of University governance urgent. In the Reading UCU branch president’s email of 14 August 2020, it is stated that concessions were won from the University during the consultation relating to changes to governance structures and greater scrutiny of decision-making processes. In truth, however, the final proposal contains very little by way of substantive governance reform. Indeed, these supposed reforms are treated as an afterthought in both the FP and the VC’s email of 14 August, where they are alluded to extremely briefly at the end (‘[t]he University has also committed to a joint review of workloads and to provide opportunities for colleagues to have early scrutiny of major proposals and to conduct a review of workload issues.’)  Moreover, only the ‘preliminary details’ of these have been agreed (FP, para 19) – we are thus being asked to shoulder the cost of the University’s financial mismanagement on the basis of future discussions around governance.

More specifically, the final proposal states that ‘[t]he University of Reading will seek to engage with staff and stakeholders about ways to improve University governance. This will be facilitated in a number of ways including’: ensuring Senate and Council papers are available for colleagues to read; requiring consultation within Schools and Functions regarding annual plans; providing UCU and the Staff Forum with an opportunity to comment on key University proposals; providing a regularly updated list of significant matters to the Senate Agenda Setting group; discussion of all new proposals in excess of £10m by Senate, the Joint University and UCU Committee and Staff Forum.

Given the degree of sacrifice that staff are being asked to make, these governance ‘reforms’ are woefully inadequate. They reflect formal, procedural ‘reforms’ at best, with no necessary substantive changes. In truth, these should already be a part of our governance. They reflect necessary (but not sufficient) conditions for good governance in the first place, not extra goodwill gestures from the University. This University is desperately in need of genuine governance reforms and stronger oversight of the University Executive Board.

Reading Between the Lines

20 August 2020

To join our mailing list, please contact readingbtl@protonmail.com


[1] We have avoided referring to actual figures in this section due to confidentiality. However, Reading staff can compare these figures for themselves: to find previous years’ target and enrolment data, please see the admissions page on the PSO website; to see the higher targets for this year’s recruitment round, please see the most recent application statistics for the current recruitment round here; to compare the even higher ‘planned’ 2020/1 home/EU and total international (including TNE) student intake relied upon in the University’s financial modelling, see page 8 of the July 2020 updated Covid-19 financial impact model and page 29 of the May 2020 post-Covid-19 restructuring process, both available here.

Statement on RUCU Branch Democracy

On Monday 20th July Reading UCU held an Emergency General Meeting (EGM) where a motion entitled ‘A Jobs First approach for Reading UCU’ was debated and passed by members.

Both the EGM and the motion sought to determine Reading UCU’s response to the University of Reading’s decision to issue a ‘section 188 letter’ on 16th June 2020. This letter outlined a number of proposals for consultation, including the threat to fire and rehire all staff at the university on worse terms and conditions. It also threatened to make 500 FTE redundancies if a collective agreement was not reached with UCU to agree a series of cuts to pay, terms and conditions.

On the surface the ‘Jobs First’ motion appeared to be protecting members’ interests by adopting an approach ‘that stops or dramatically reduces the scale of redundancies of UCU members’. However, the organisation and conduct of the EGM, as well as the content of the ‘Jobs First’ motion, were marked by serious infringements of both local branch rules and democratic process.

The result of this has been to shut down democratic debate in the branch and silence dissenting viewpoints. Most concerningly, the ‘Jobs First Approach’ has been communicated to members as if the only two options available for negotiation were to concede cuts to pay, terms and conditions or face redundancies. This is a false choice, which has silenced democratic discussion about the questionable financial modelling on which the proposed cuts to pay, terms and conditions are based.

Staff must be protected by a union which upholds democratic standards and shares information with members transparently. As members of Reading UCU we therefore raise the following concerns with the aim of addressing the current democratic deficit in the branch:

  1. The agenda for the EGM had not been reviewed by the branch committee. This contravenes the local branch rule that states “the committee will determine the agenda and prepare recommendations as to the order in which the business is to be conducted” (Appendix 1, point 1). This was also raised as a point of order in the EGM, which was ignored. 
  2. The agenda and motion were sent at 16:51 on Friday 17/07/20 by the Branch Secretary. No deadline was set for submitting motions, yet two motions submitted on the morning of Monday 20/07/20 (‘Alternative Negotiating Strategy’ and ‘Branch Democracy’) were classified as “late”. These two motions were neither circulated to membership for debate nor posted in the chat on Microsoft Teams during the meeting.
  3. Minutes of the AGM on 30/06/20 were only circulated one hour before the EGM and the point of order regarding corrections to the minutes was not acknowledged when the minutes were agreed by the meeting.
  4. A meeting protocol for the EGM was sent by email only one hour and a half prior to the start of the EGM, causing confusion for some participants when voting.
  5. The meeting invitation on Microsoft Teams breached union membership privacy requirements. The meeting was openly visible in Outlook calendars of members whose permission settings allow colleagues to read or manage their calendars. These colleagues could include a member’s line manager and/or non-union member colleagues.  
  6. The ‘Jobs First’ motion “mandates the local Branch President to select a Branch negotiating team to represent UCU members in any consultation and negotiation meetings with senior management”. This contravenes local branch rule 7.4: “Where there is one Branch/LA in the institution, the committee shall elect (from among its own members) a Negotiating Committee to conduct negotiations”.
  7. This issue was raised as a point of order during the EGM, in accordance with local rules (Appendix 1, point 9). This was ignored and no points of order were taken throughout the meeting, in contravention of branch rules.
  8. On 21/07/20, the Branch President unilaterally removed two members of the branch negotiating team without consulting the branch committee. This not only broke local branch rules but resulted in the removal of the only BAME member of staff from the negotiating team.
  9. The ‘Jobs First’ motion mandated the Branch President to design and implement a programme of consultation with members to identify members’ priorities in respect to the threats to their livelihoods. Point 2e specifically states that the design and implementation of this programme “will not be subject to further review”, meaning that neither branch committee nor union members would have any say in the programme design. On Tuesday 28/07/20 a survey was circulated to all RUCU members, which closed at 5pm on Friday 31/07/20. The majority of committee members had not seen nor were consulted in the creation of this survey. (See Statement of Issues with UCU Survey).
  10. The ‘Jobs First’ motion mandated the Branch President to seek to move to “direct negotiations” with senior management, which will take a ‘Jobs First’ approach to reduce redundancies and minimise the cuts to pay, terms and conditions. Serious questions have been raised about the university’s financial modelling, which over-estimates the deficit by circa £50million. (See Explanatory Letter to All Staff). Despite repeated requests by members of branch committee to share this analysis with all RUCU members, the Branch President instead moved to “consult” with members without providing them with the information required to make an informed decision on whether cuts to pay, terms and conditions are really necessary.

In response to these serious infringements of UCU democratic process, we call for:

  • The immediate circulation of the two motions (‘Alternative Negotiating Strategy’ and ‘Branch Democracy’) to all RUCU members, alongside the ‘Explanatory Letter to All Staff’, which details the flaws in the university’s financial modelling.
  • The reinstatement of the two recently removed members of the negotiating team to ensure that the UCU negotiating team better represents all staff and the diversity of the workforce.
  • The review of any consultation of RUCU members by Branch Committee and membership.
  • Regular meetings between negotiators and RUCU members in which negotiators report on the progress of negotiations and members can inform this. Information and key documents should be provided to members ahead of these meetings.
  • Extension of the consultation until student numbers are known.

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.

Statement of Issues with RUCU Survey

Issues and concerns regarding RUCU all-member survey 28-31 July 2020 

On Tuesday 28 July, ReadingUCU issued an all-member survey closing on 31 July 2020. The survey which was NOT approved by the branch committee, and which the majority of branch committee members neither reviewed nor contributed to before circulation, purported to inform the RUCU negotiators’ position. As ReadingUCU members, we have FIVE serious areas of concern about the design and deployment of this survey. We offer this analysis in good faith, in the hope that the RUCU branch committee will recognise and address the serious flaws we highlight: 

1. Misleading framing 

The preamble to the RUCU all-member survey of 28th-31st July 2020 stated: 

The University has estimated the losses it expects to incur compared to its expected income over the next three academic years (20-21, 21-22 and 22-23). It estimates these losses are over £100 million and plans to attempt to recover around £60 million of those losses from its staffing. RUCU remains highly sceptical about these estimates, which seem unnecessarily pessimistic and increasingly implausible in light of more recent data. However, it is possible that the University will have significantly fewer students in the autumn than it had expected before the COVID-19 outbreak and it remains determined to recover some of the associated expected losses from its staff.” 

Thus, the framing of the survey suggests that the proposed cuts are in response to losses associated with a reduction in student numbers. However, the University’s ‘Post-Covid-19 response – proposed restructuring process’ (dated 23/05/20 – UOR staff login required) says in Section 9: 

“If the University finds itself in a more positive position in the Autumn Term e.g. 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, the University’s plan will be to go ahead with the cuts to staff and protect their investments. The preamble to the RUCU all-member survey gave the opposite impression and, unless the University’s position had changed, was dangerously misleading. Neither the position of the University quoted above, nor any updated position, had been clearly communicated to all members at the time of the survey. 

2. Short timeframe for completion 

Members were given less than 4 days to complete the survey. Some will have been on leave and missed the email or simply not had enough time to carefully consider the very important decisions being asked of them. There was not enough time for the committee to fully answer all the questions and concerns being emailed to them from members before the survey closed. The Vice Chancellor has expressed his willingness to extend the consultation if there is hope of an agreement being reached. One would expect him to have been open to an extension to enable proper consultation of UCU members, if this had been requested by the UCU negotiating team. 

3. Relevant information not made easily accessible 

Q1 should have included a link to the proposal it referred to. It seemed that we were being asked here whether we would accept a specific proposal in order to avoid redundancies, but the content of the proposal was not readily available to members. 

4. Unclear, confusing and imprecise questions 

(a) It should have been clarified that the pay cuts referred to are (presumably) cuts to gross pay, meaning that staff on lower pay will suffer a larger percentage cut to their take home pay. An illustration of the cut to take home pay for members on different grades should have been provided. 

(b) It should have been made clear to members that any pay cut without a corresponding reduction in hours will take us out of JNCHES national pay negotiations, and what the dangers of that course of action are. In particular, we were being asked about temporary pay cuts but if those cuts are likely to have a long-term impact on pay, that should have been made clear to members. This was mentioned by the Regional Official at the EGM but not all members were able to take part and may have missed this important piece of information.

(c) The constant changing between positively-framed and negatively-framed questions was confusing and likely to lead to erroneous responses. For example, Q2 asked members to choose what they preferred and Q3 asked them to choose what they wanted to rule out. Moreover, both Q2 and Q3 were framed as if pay cuts are inevitable, with the scope of consultation restricted to what type of cut is preferable. 

5. No clear commitment to transparency and accountability 

The Branch President has stated she wants to be a funnel for members’ views. Transparency and accountability are an important part of that. The data from this survey, including collated anonymised free text comments should be made available to all members so that they can see that they are being fairly represented. 

The Branch President has said that she will take views in a variety of different ways: emails from individual members, emails from departmental representatives and the survey. Wide consultation through different means is all well and good but one must be careful to establish a robust and transparent methodology for balancing the views obtained. How does one balance the results of the survey against the emails from departmental representatives, for example? What about departments that don’t have a representative? Without a pre-determined methodology there is a danger that one will balance the different inputs so as to support the conclusion that best fits one’s own personal views, either consciously or unconsciously. We have many experts on qualitative research in this university who could have given expert advice on the methodology for this consultation, and perhaps they have. Members should be informed of the methodology being used here so that they can have confidence in the process. 

The Branch President may point to point (1e) of the motion passed at the EGM on 20th July 2020, which states “In order to ensure this happens, the design and implementation of this programme, including any plan of communications associated with it, will not be subject to further review.” The question is why is there such a need to avoid scrutiny, transparency and accountability that this was included in the motion in the first place? Again, it seems that the justification is her haste to meet the 31st July deadline but this is not convincing: see (2) above. 

Conclusion 

Early on in the survey period, we asked for these issues to be recognised and for the survey to be paused and corrected, before further deployment. Our concerns were noted by the branch secretary and President but nothing was done to address the serious flaws. Our concerns remain that the negotiations are being informed by this biased and misleading framing. As members of ReadingUCU, and as staff seriously affected by the outcome of negotiations, we ask that this survey be set aside, that those involved in organising such a survey outside the purview of the branch committee recognise its weaknesses and that any future survey: 

a) be approved by the committee; b) and not be restricted to options as determined by management already. 

Motion to Reading UCU: Branch Democracy

RUCU (representing grades 6 and above in collective consultation) is the recognised trade union that can come to agreement with the University in relation to the proposed cuts. We are concerned there have been serious breaches of process within RUCU, that undermine democracy because they present members with misleading, incorrect and incomplete information on which to base democratic decisions. We present some such recent breaches, in good faith in the expectation that their exposure will allow the serious democratic deficit to be rectified.

This branch thanks and supports branch negotiators and recognises their appointment under local rule 7.4 “Where there is one Branch/LA in the institution, the committee shall elect (from among its own members) a Negotiating Committee to conduct negotiations.”

This branch notes that management have previously presented misleading modelling as the basis for the consultation and recognises the need for extended consultation to avoid premature changes to pay, terms and conditions. In a couple of months, student numbers for 2020/21 will be known. Members wish to be kept informed of different viewpoints, discuss these viewpoints and help inform the progress on negotiations. In the past, when meetings were in person, informal discussions often began before, and continued after, the official meeting had taken place and this was a good thing for democracy and building consensus.

The University management is at an advantage while staff are working from home and have no forum for communication and discussion. Online meetings should be used to increase the ability for members to discuss amongst themselves.

This branch requests that

1) Branch meetings are held on a fortnightly basis and negotiators should report on progress of negotiations. There should be sufficient time and information provided to members ahead of these meetings.

2) The timing, duration and agenda of such meetings should be determined by the committee as a whole.

3) During the summer period, any decisions that may be taken by committee should be reviewed by the branch meeting.

4) Members have an opportunity to speak during all meetings to question as part of an open discussion. They are also entitled to make suggestions to amend motions.

5) The chat function should be available to all members at all branch meetings, including the current one.

6) The Zoom meetings should be open to members for informal discussion for half an hour before and half an hour after the official meeting slot.

Proposed: Cherilyn Elston

Seconded: Rachel Newton