The sound of silence?

•16/03/2009 • Leave a Comment

Given the following situation, as a union, what would you do?

A major university funding body enacts a draconian change to rules on eligibility on funding:

  • Three or more proposals within a two-year period ranked in the
    bottom half of a funding prioritisation list or rejected before panel
  • An overall personal success rate of less than 25%.

Notwithstanding the restriction to practice that this change brings about, there is clearly a significant problem with regards to the relative nature of the first restrictions. These changes are supposed to have the effect of making the peer review system more effective and reducing the number of poor proposals entering the system. But the current situation has proposals customarily being ranked “outstanding” across the board being rejected, and anything worse than a “very good” result in there being no chance of funding. Now imagine 90% of the “good” and lower proposals are not submitted in the first place, either by applicants falling foul of these retrospective rules or by self moderation/preservation. Since the first of these restrictions is relative – independent of the peer review judgement, just related to its relative position within the list of proposals – then those “very good” or even “outstanding” proposals will inevitably fall foul of this rule. And as far as the second condition is concerned, with an average responsive mode success rate of just 17% in the last 6 months, just about every academic will trip up.

So given this change could easily be the cause of the destruction of research in UK universities, creating an environment that will ultimately leading to a massive brain drain to the Obama administered USA irrespective of academic discipline, what would you do as a union?

Would you start a high-profile media campaign to oppose the changes, use the excellent distribution network (representation in every department in every university) to raise awareness in those disciplines not directly effected by the changes and directly lobby politicians and quango chiefs to reverse these changes? Or would you do nothing, nadda, nought, apart from pick localised fights with university management over the possibility of bringing HR lead performance management into play against those that have been “blacklisted”?

Guess which one of the two options UCU has chosen?

Bullying and the NTU

•29/01/2009 • Leave a Comment

It appears that the UCU has a problem with Nottingham Trent University (NTU). Or rather, as a result of the UCU’s bullying, NTU had a problem with the UCU’s actions. For the first time ever, the UCU “greylisted” an organisation, which has some serious consequences for NTU. For those of you that are outside the Union circles, greylisting in the words of the NTU is:

* non-attendance, speaking at or organising academic or other conferences at NTU
* not applying for jobs at NTU
* not giving lectures at NTU
* not accepting positions as visiting professors or researchers at NTU
* not writing for any academic journal which is edited from NTU
* not taking up new contracts as external examiners for taught courses.

So effectively, isolating the university from the rest of its peers such that it cannot continue to function. Action such as this is, if successfully carried out, would be the end of NTU. So of course, they caved in.

But what was so severe that the UCU felt it was necessary to take such an action against NTU? According to their propaganda, greylisting was implemented after

an announcement by the university on October 2008 that it was formally terminating recognition of UCU in a direct attack on independent trade unionism on the campus

Quite a serious allegation and if true, might warrant such a severe move. But further down the article, the UCU state exactly what NTU announced it was doing:

The university had been attempting to rewrite the recognition agreement, proposing a set of radically inferior arrangements that would see the campus unions marginalised in favour of a ‘consultation and information forum’ that would include non-union representation, while facility time for reps would be cut by a staggering 80%. 

Let’s take these points one-by-one:

1. Marginalised unions in favour of a forum that includes non-union members
Presently, the union is the only realistic representative body of the members of university staff (both academic and non-academic) outside of the direct management chain. Therefore, having a forum would be beneficial to those employees who do not wish to join the union. Personally, if non-union members were only a very small minority, I could understand the union’s position here. By reducing the union’s representation, one would reduce the representation of the entire body of employees, biasing the  representation in the favour of the minority. However, are union members in the majority? Of course, the union as far as I know does not publish proportion of members to non-members (although it probably has this information, kept private, of course). However, in my very subjective experience, it is the exact opposite; there are fewer members than non-members. However, occasionally the UCU makes a mistake or two and publishes individual branch statistics. Bristol have recently done this, where it is clearly stated that there are “3215 members and non-members who were eligible to join UCU” and that they only have “1000 members”. In other words, approximately 30% of eligible employees. It is quite reasonable to assume this statistic is at least representative, as there are 120,000 members of the UCU and around 150 higher education institutes – if each employs 3000 people (as Bristol does), that makes 450,000 (and then there are all of the FE colleges too….). So the conclusion is that the UCU does NOT represent the majority of university employees – quite the reverse – and therefore they are not justified in their attempts to be the only representative body of university employees. NTU even tried to explain this to the UCU – their justification for introducing this forum was to  ‘introduce an inclusive model of employee relations with its entire staff’

It is clear that from this analysis, the UCU are non-representative of the sector. But from this specific example, is there any evidence that the NTU are attempting to “formally terminate recognition” of the UCU? Hardly. What the NTU wanted to do was increase representation of the non-union members by re-negotiating the recognition agreement. This would have the effect of increasing the balance of representation in the sector. This does not mean that the NTU does not recognise the UCU – far from it. It means they wish to recognise the other employees are on an equal footing.

2. Facility time for reps would be cut by a staggering 80%
As anyone with half a brain can tell you, “80%” is a relative figure and extremely misleading if taken without looking into the background. What they actually mean is that the UCU at NTU can currently enjoy 2,222 “Standard Teaching Duty” hours of union activity. This is union activity that is done on university time. A “Standard Teaching Duty”, by the UCU at NTU’s own definition, is 3 hours for every one (i.e 2 hours prep plus 1 hour teaching) taking the total to 6,666 hours per year. What union activity needs “preparation” time for is beyond me, as all union work (including any preparation) is still union work, but that is a detail. There are currently 14 officers of the UCU at NTU – meaning these 14 staff are able to spend 9 hours per week on union business! Yes – NINE ENTIRE HOURS on bullying the management. Now, in fairness, the UCU even admit themselves that this is excessive, and they actually use the UCU do not use these hours every year – only 1744 “Standard Teaching Hours”. However, it still costs the NTU a staggering £190,000 in lost productivity every year – enough to employ 5 lecturers! An 80% reduction would mean they have only 850 standard hours for union duty. So what is staggering is the fact the UCU have so much paid time for causing chaos.


In reality, all this propaganda and campaigning at NTU is nothing but a disguise to ensure the union’s power increases It is not about employee representation or NTU refusing union recognition. This bullying campaign is nothing but a power grab – power for power’s sake. And we all know where that leads. It’s a shame that the union’s tactics worked – but for NTU, facing an uncertain financial future is preferable to a future certain financial failure.

Undermining “stability”

•17/12/2008 • 5 Comments


HE employers association UCEA has drawn up proposals to allow institutions to opt in or out of the nationally agreed pay rise every year. The move to allow institutions to decide each year whether they want to pay the nationally negotiated pay rise and will undermine stability across HE.  The proposed ‘opt out’ would see the end of the national system which has produced hard won pay rises for  by more than 15% since 2006.

How exactly does an individually agreed pay offer undermine stability within the sector? Presumably by prompting industrial action by the UCU. In other words, the UCU are threatening to undermine stability in the HE sector if the universities don’t do what they want. 

Sally Hunt, the UCU’s General Secretary, described the situation as

”…a tactical disaster for the sector. With the UK in recession, staff and management should be working together to provide stability. Now more than ever we need stable national bargaining supported by all parties.”

So how is a national pay structure beneficial to the sector, given the current UK recession? If anything, a national pay structure is detrimental. Those institutes/departments that are heavily reliant on private rather than state funding (e.g business schools that train our future business leaders, engineering departments that perform research for the private sector) could easily fall into financial difficulties if a pay settlement negotiated for the whole HE sector is implemented. Furthermore, those institutes that are a cut above the rest, but not quite in the premier league, may wish to attract new talent to compete on the world stage and they may lose out to their foreign rivals if they cannot pay enough. Indeed, a national pay scale results in an average pay scale for the whole country, independent of  the needs of each institution. It will result in one that the average institute can afford to pay; one that an average institute would want to pay. With the extremely disparate HE sector that we have in the UK, the national pay agreement policy can only result in increased redundancies, fewer new positions and departmental closures in these pressing times for the economy. Do the UCU honestly expect the HE sector to get an increased budget over the next few years? And what is worse, for our very best institutions, only stagnation and a reduced ability to compete on an international stage will be the result of this policy.

It’s OK, however, she went on to reassure us

“UCU is prepared to begin negotiations immediately on resolving our differences with the employers over both the future of national bargaining and the next pay increase. But it takes two to talk.”

But it only takes one to bully, and with the threats to undermine stability, that is exactly what the UCU are doing. There will be no negotiation over ceasing national pay bargaining, as the UCU will not negotiate on this point. They are simply opposed to it, as removing it would reduce their power base which is all they are interested in. Negotiations will proceed by threatening industrial action if national pay bargaining is suspended – effectively bullying the employers into submission.

I wish the UCU really would remember that it takes two to talk.

My first experience with UCU representatives

•17/12/2008 • Leave a Comment

ucu4A few weeks after I joined the UCU, I had the (dis)pleasure of meeting the officers at a university “getting to know you” bash. It was around the time that the latest “cost of living” pay rise was to be announced. Of course, this is all the officials were talking about. How lucky they were to get such a good rate (5% – timed to be exactly at the peak of RPI) without a care in the world for the university’s finances. One must remember, the university does not get a corresponding increase in its funding – this pay rise will be paid for by cut-backs elsewhere. To be honest, I can understand their glee – an extra 5% pay, only months after I started my new job, is very welcome.

And this was how the conversation went – me expressing my pleasure at getting a very generous pay rise on top of a very generous salary that I had negotiated for myself just months before. And this was the first mistake – “Negotiated yourself?” they all gasped. Apparently, negotiating ones own salary is contrary to their dogma.

To  attempt a backtrack, I told them that it was OK as I have locked into this pay scale for 3 years without progression. “Without progression?” they gasped again. This was turning into a very bad first experience. Once again, it appears inconceivable to them that I would rather start at a (much) higher grade than I should and take a 3 year pay scale progression freeze, such that the net effect is that in 3 years time I will still be some 5 points ahead on the pay scale. Even if I ignore the 5 additional points, this deal is worth many thousands of pounds to me over the 3 year lifetime of the freeze. When taking into account the additional 5 points (which would have not been possible were it not for the freeze), it’s worth several tens of thousands of pounds over these 3 years, and much more over the lifetime of my employment.

And what was their objection to my fortunate situation? After all, I believe that I deserve it – the university would not be willing to make me such an attractive offer if I didn’t. After questioning, it appears that their objection was related to the fact that I had personally negotiated a pay deal that was not commensurate with the national pay structure. Do they really believe that everyone is equal? The logic is clearly flawed – does a “Professor” of adventure tourism at Derby or make-up design at Bedford deserve the same pay as a historian or mathematician at Oxford? There is a pecking order in the university system – and that is fact. Even a trade union must acknowledge this.

So no, I truly believe that they do not think everyone is equal. Instead, I suspect that they objected to one of their members getting a much better deal because its very existence threatens their power base. Collective national pay levels are sacrosanct, based on age and/or length of tenure. After all, collective national bargaining (or bullying by another name) is where their strength lies.

My story begins

•09/12/2008 • Leave a Comment

I am newly appointed academic to a large UK university, towards the higher end of the pecking order. Since the introduction of tuition fees, increasingly the students believe that they are being provided with a service. Effectively, since students now in the UK  are paying for their degrees, they expect to come out of university with a good degree and have good prospects. This is not necessarily a good or indeed a bad thing, I simply state the facts as I see them. Of course, this means that if an academic has the tenacity to fail a student on a particular module, piece of coursework, examination or indeed their entire degree, sometimes the student feels it necessary to challenge that decision, whether rightly or wrongly. And that can get expensive.

As a consequence, I decided to become a member of the University and College Union (UCU). Not only can they offer me protection against any allegations that the students may throw at me, I also have their protection with regards to a number of other work-place issues that may arise. But let me make one thing clear.

I am Not a Union Person (NUP).

Whilst unions can, and do, offer great protection against exploitation and litigation, their historical militant tendencies are not something I was fond of. This is why I am a NUP. And since, until I joined, I had very little knowledge of the way in which the UCU operates, I had assumed that this militancy had disappeared long ago, never to be seen again. However, now that I have been a member for some time, I have realised just how naive I was. Militancy, hypocrisy and bullying are rife within the UCU.

And exposing it is the point of this blog.