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Our response to the VC’s most recent statement

Dear Staff and Students,

 

The UCU@UEA committee wished to respond to the most recent message from our Vice-Chancellor.  In his correspondence this morning, Professor Richardson claimed that he was ‘in regular contact with the lead negotiator at Universities UK (UUK) emphasising the need for talks with UCU to resume, in order to avoid the damaging strikes scheduled to start next week’.  However, in the same message – sent to staff – he directed colleagues towards the open letter from UUK and UCEA.  This hostile letter reprints a number of half-truths, such as:

  • The claim that employers have made ‘huge efforts’ to negotiate which includes ‘abandoning previous proposals to reform [pension] benefits’ without mentioning that this only happened because colleagues took an unprecedented 14 days of unpaid strike action to force UUK to accept the Joint Expert Panel, which subsequently exposed ‘wide-ranging flaws’ in the methodology used to create the large deficit in the 2017 valuation and justified our action and our anger last year.
  • Claiming that their commitment to ‘paying 65p in every pound of increased cost’ was in order ‘to protect member benefits in full’ rather than the legally mandated backstop position that is reached whenever UCU and UUK cannot agree a fair distribution of contributions.  The failure of UUK to agree to shoulder increases in pension contributions – which UCU maintains is unnecessary – until the second report from the Joint Expert Panel is published is the reason that this backstop was automatically triggered.
  • UUK claim to have committed ‘to work jointly with UCU and USS to develop and deliver greater transparency, governance reforms and to agree shared valuation principles’, but they have failed to join UCU in calling for the reinstatement of whistleblower Prof Jane Hutton, who was sacked from the USS Board of Trustees when she raised concerns about the Board’s transparency and the approach it was taking to the valuation of our scheme.  They have also failed to join UCU in calling for the full publication of any evidence against Prof Hutton so she can be afforded the opportunity to defend herself against all charges.

 

We do not believe that an individual can both call for meaningful negotiation and accept the numerous flaws contained within this open letter.  We call on Prof Richardson to reject the open letter and join UCU and the Vice Chancellor of Essex University in calling for meaningful, positive discussions on how to manage the transition to a new and more transparent valuation process for the USS scheme.

 

There are also a number of factual errors or misstatements within the FAQs published for students.  For instance:

  • The fact that contributions are ‘less than they would otherwise have been under the original proposals’ is once again the result of hard lobbying and negotiation by UCU and not the generosity of UEA as an employer or UUK as the employer’s representative body.  UCU continues to believe that the original proposals were flawed and that a full implementation of the proposals laid out by the Joint Expert Panel would further reduce the contribution increases we and our employers are being asked to make.
  • The FAQs also claim that the University is ‘mindful of the need to maintain a good long-term relationship with UCU members at UEA’.  However, the Executive Team has consistently negotiated with UCU@UEA in bad faith during the run up to this action, promising certain positions within meetings and then circulating written guidance that directly contradicts those positions.  The UEA UCU branch has also had to rewrite elements of the employer’s own FAQs on the strike and challenge threats of disproportionate deductions from staff members who participate in lawful industrial action.  Indeed, these threats were so severe that the Branch overwhelmingly passed a motion on Monday that will call on UCU to introduce academic boycotts of all institutions that take disproportionate deductions from members participating in action short of strike (ASOS).
  • In section 11, the VC laments that we are striking after ‘there have been lengthy negotiations already’.  We lament this too.  Having been forced to take 14 days of unpaid strike action last year to prove that the attack on our pensions was the result of poor valuation calculations – since vindicated by the first report of the Joint Expert Panel – those of us who voted to suspend the action in 2018 are filled with more than just ‘very much regret’.  We would like to make it clear that no member of UCU wishes to lose more pay to refight the same battle.  We are tired of having to defend ourselves against unfair attacks on our deferred pay.  This is why UCU has called on UUK to meet with us in good faith to find a way to avert this action.  They have refused to do so.
  • Section 11 also states that the increase in our pension contributions is only ‘a small increase in cost to staff’.  The increases forced on members of the USS pension scheme this year means that they will, on average, lose more than £500 a year for no increase in retirement benefit.  £500 may be a small amount of money to the VC, whose total benefits package for the year is over £300,000 (p. 28), but it means a lot to our members.  Indeed, for those joining the scheme, this contribution increase means losing well over £15,000 during the lifetime of their scheme, rising to over £30,000 if the proposed increase in contribution levels to 11% happens in 2021.
  • Section 11 also asks that UCU call off the strike action and join UUK to ‘work towards governance reforms of USS and alternative options for future valuations’.  To do so, however, we would need to have faith that UUK intends to engage in meaningful and positive discussion.  Unfortunately, their behaviour over the past 18 months has not assured UCU members that this will be the case.  For instance, if UUK wished UCU to accept the offer, recently referred to in the Lasdun, to reduce employee contributions from 9.6% to 9.1% for two years, then why did they ask union members to forfeit their right to strike during the same period?  If we can trust UUK to handle the second JEP report (due to be published in late 2019/early 2020), then why would they ask us to remove the only tool that we have at our disposal to challenge their recent attacks on our pensions? The notion that we would halt strike action for a period of two years would have been unprecedented, essentially asking union members to disarm themselves as the Union prepares to enter negotiations on the long-term structure of the scheme.  To do so, we would need to have full faith in UUK.  We do not.  To present that offer without the context in which it was made is highly disingenuous and we wish to assure colleagues and students that UCU is willing to accept any proposal which we believe has the best interests of our members at heart.

 

It is clear to UCU that UUK wishes to undermine and belittle our concerns about the future of our own pension scheme.  We refute the notion that over £500 a year is a “small increase”.  We resent the implication that members are taking action – and losing pay – because we are unwilling to enter in to good faith negotiation with our employers.  Finally, we thoroughly reject the implication that we do not have the best interests of our students at heart.  We do not believe that students are a “unit of resource”. We do not agree that any 20-year plan at UEA can be achieved if it comes at the expense of the staff who make this University what it is. Let’s Do Different and encourage our VC to do the same.

 

With best wishes,

 

The UCU Committee.

Why are we striking?

Dear student,

Have you heard?

Beginning Monday Nov. 25th, staff at nearly 60 universities in the UK will be going on an 8-day strike. UEA is one of those. The strike action is being taken by members of the Trade Union UCU (University and College Union).

Your lecturers, tutors and support staff DO NOT want to strike or to cause upset and worry to students. Striking always and only ever a last resort. Our working conditions are your learning conditions, so the things we are fighting for affect your future and the future of Higher education.

Why the strike?

First, let’s get the elephant out of the way. No, this is not a paid holiday.

All striking members will lose pay for every day they strike.

If the strike lasts all 8 days, striking employees would lose about 40% of their monthly income. The sacrifice and stakes for striking employees are high.

So why bear this hit?

 

The strike at UEA is about Pensions:

Sadly, this is a continuation from the 2018 strike. As one of the outcomes of the last strike, it was agreed between the Union and the Pension Scheme Provider that a Joint Expert Panel would be set up to determine a fair level of contribution from employers and employees. Both sets of negotiators agreed to abide by the evaluation of this panel. However, despite the conclusions from the Joint Expert Panel that the increases in payment that the pension scheme has imposed are unnecessary and unfair, they – along with support from university management teams – have decided to press ahead anyway. Despite attempts to resolve the issues since the last strike, we have lost faith in the leaders of our universities to put people before profit. We’ve lost faith in Universities UK (the organisation who represents all UK Universities) to engage in good-faith negotiation with our union UCU on the future of our pension scheme.

All UK employers are required, by law, to provide a workplace pension plan to their employees. This is a way to help people save a sufficient amount of retirement income. Without adequate savings, people are required to stay in employment longer and/or are likely to face financial hardship if and when they do retire. This situation may also have a detrimental effect on overall employment rates.

Pensions are not a freebie or an arbitrary perk. They are part of earned income. Pension savings are made up of direct contributions from employee pay as well as contributions from the employer as earned benefit.

All UK universities have a responsibility to ensure staff have a decent pension for when they retire. Our last strike action was to do with to the UUK’s attempt to restructure the pension scheme from a defined benefit to a defined contribution scheme. This means that our Employers want to end guaranteed pension income, so our final pensions would depend on how the stock market performs. That means huge uncertainty and a reduced retirement income for all.

Having now rolled back that proposition, the UUK has demanded that employees bear a substantial increase in contribution to keep defined benefits – despite an evaluation by a Joint Expert Panel that such an increase was unnecessary and unfair. This is especially true for younger and newer employees who stand to pay £40,000 more in contributions for £200,000 less in retirement. Higher contributions from employees also means that staff on insecure contracts and/or lower pay will be priced out of the pension scheme. We have to take action again now, to protect our pension scheme for all levels of staff now and in the future.

But why should students suffer?’

You shouldn’t!!

The ‘suffering’ argument relies on pitting the wellbeing of students against the wellbeing of staff – as if the two are in conflict. Employers continually appeal to, or question our sense of duty towards students while simultaneously eroding the conditions under which we can fulfil these duties. 

It also assumes that students have narrow interests – that they care only about classes and grades; that they don’t think about the world outside and beyond their role as students, or that they are uninterested in and unaffected by the wider social and political world. We know this isn’t true. If we allow unfair and unreasonable conduct by employers to go unchallenged, then this also affects your experience and rights as future workers too.

 

So what can you do as students before the strike?

There is another way. UUK can chose to change its position before our strike action takes place. Our VC feeds directly in to UUK. If you wish to support our action and avoid this strike, please email D.Richardson@uea.ac.uk and let him know that you support our cause and want pension justice for UEA employees. Our employment conditions are your learning conditions. Whatever happens in the upcoming weeks, we want you all to know that we have the long-term interests of this University at heart. People make UEA, not buildings. We understand the difficulties that universities are facing in the current climate, but we do not believe that students are a “unit of resource”. We do not agree that any 20-year plan at UEA can be achieved if it comes at the expense of the staff who make this University what it is. Let’s Do Different and encourage our VC to do the same.

What can you do if strike action does go ahead?

The most important thing students can do in the event of strike action is to send messages of solidarity to staff members who have chosen to take action. Staff on strike will not be reading their University emails, but messages of solidarity can be sent to ucu.office@uea.ac.uk, tweeted to @UEA_UCU, or passed on in person to those who attend the daily pickets. Choosing to go on strike is often an agonizing decision, and the support we received last year from students was invaluable in raising morale and keeping our minds focussed on the end goal – to improve learning conditions at UEA.

 

With our thanks and best wishes,

 

The UCU@UEA Committee

The results are out!

Dear UEA@UCU Members,

It’s time to Get The Vote Out

UEA, and UCU nationally, has consistently voted in favour of industrial action to preserve our pensions and fight for fair pay.  Unfortunately, due to regressive legislation aimed at impeding the work of trade unions, we have been unable to take action when this mandate has come from less than 50% of our membership.  It is vital, therefore, that members take part in the current ballots that have been circulated on USS and the national pay dispute.

To this end, UCU@UEA is holding a series of events and will also be knocking on doors, sending emails, and ringing members to encourage everyone to have their say in one of the largest democratic exercises in our Union’s recent history.

GTVO Events

9th October: UCU@UEA Ordinary General Meeting (LT3, 13:00-14:00): This is a general meeting of all UCU members that will focus on aspects of the current disputes.  If members would like to propose motions to the OGM or raise matters for discussion, please contact ucu.office@uea.ac.uk for advice on how to do so.

14th October: Anti-Casualisation GTVO Meeting (Arts 0.29, 16:00-17:00): This meeting is open to all members on RA, AT, and Fixed Term contracts who would like to discuss issues of particular relevance to casualised staff with members of the Anti-Casualisation working group.

28th October: Discussion with Jo Grady (LT3, 13:00-14:00): The General Secretary of UCU, Jo Grady, will be at UEA to discuss a range of issues with members and take questions about what might come next for UCU and the sector more broadly.

For more information about the 2019/20 pay dispute, check out our section on Pay Inequality in HE.  Similarly, if you want to know more about the USS ballot, check out our pages and resources on the USS Dispute.

If you have already voted, please let us know via this link and make sure to encourage other members to vote too.  If you need to request a new ballot because your’s has been lost or gone to an old address, the last chance to do so is the 23rd October.  You can request a new ballot here.

If you would like to help the local committee to get the vote out here at UEA, please contact the branch office (ucu.office@uea.ac.uk) or reach out to your rep.  If you do not know who your rep is, email the office and we can make sure that they get in touch with you directly.

A comment on Student Support Services and mental health provision at UEA

A big part of my role as a Disability Liaison Officer is talking to and supporting advisers in my department, and liaising with other colleagues across the university. I am also in contact with a lot of students who have used and continue to access the support available at Student Support Services. There is a familiar pattern to all responses that people have given me about their experiences of SSS. The following are some of my thoughts about where we are and where we need to get to if we want to improve mental health and wellbeing provision at UEA. I write this in the spirit of openness and in the hope that we can begin a university wide dialogue with staff, students and the executive team to find a new way forward in dealing with mental health and wellbeing provision at UEA.

We all acknowledge how hard the staff in Student Support Services work and work in the best interests of the students they seek to help. Staff I have worked with have been incredibly helpful and are passionate about helping students. However, it is clear to all staff and students who engage with SSS that pressures on staff have reached intolerable levels and that SSS is at breaking point. Simply put; they do not have the funding or resources to deal with the increase in demand and the mental health crisis on campus.

To deal with the increased demand, the University introduced a system with significant flaws. Students requesting support now fill in a triage form that is appraised within 24 hours. Students are told they will receive a response within 72 hours, but we are aware of a number of cases when this deadline has been missed. This triage system gives the appearance of engagement, but actually produces no tangible outcome for the student, many of whom are eventually given an appointment months after their initial request for support.

We are told that these forms are triaged according to need, but the system is impersonal and opaque. For some students, filling in a form may help them focus on the kinds of help they want and need. For other students, they need to talk to someone face to face in order to feel that they are being listened too. Metal health is complex and a one-size fits all model of accessing support is not sufficient and in some cases will act as a barrier to seeking much-needed help.

It is clear that staff in SSS are under pressure, with academic staff reporting that their attempts to chase appointments for advisees have revealed that delays are often being caused by staff sickness and colleagues leaving the University at short notice. Students have also reported being seen by staff in SSS who are not specialists in the areas they have sought help. We also know students appointments are being cancelled at the last minute, leaving them in considerable distress.

Simply put it is not clear to students or advisers what can be reasonably expected of the SSS at UEA. It is understandable why SSS say they are not a ‘crisis service’ and that in some cases students should seek help external to the university. Furthermore, it is clear that the university and SSS cannot solve all of the mental health problems students face. Nor should the wider contexts that have resulted in an increase in mental health in society at large be ignored. But the University must recognise it has a duty of care to students (and staff) and that they cannot claim student fees, whilst offering mental health and wellbeing services that are ineffective. Local community services and charities are also incredibly stretched and are not adequately funded to support the large increase in vulnerable adults that a university the size of UEA brings to Norwich.

The pressure that this situation puts on academic staff and support staff as well as those who are in daily contact with students in their accommodation must be considered. It is therefore very worrying that recent statements from SSS claim they are ‘training academics’. We should not be against academic staff having mental health first aid training and advisers should be educated about various mental health conditions that may affect their advisees, but there is a very big difference between being aware and being a qualified therapist or mental health professional. This is often what students want and when they do not get that support from SSS they come back to their advisor for help. When colleagues have raised this with SSS, the burden this places on staff is not adequately recognised.  Colleagues are told to ‘know your professional boundaries, stop the conversation and point them to SSS or their GP’. But if we do this we know they will often be lost in the system and without support for weeks or months. It is very hard for staff to simply switch off and not worry about students they see on a weekly, sometimes daily, basis. It is also very hard for this not to have serious impacts on the mental health and well being of staff being put in this position.

What is needed is an open dialogue between staff, students, and the university about what support services are needed on campus. We need the Executive Team to listen to the concerns of staff in SSS and all staff that work with students on a daily basis. We need to restore the faith of staff and students in the support that SSS can offer before this relationship is irrevocably broken.

We cannot have a SSS that adapts to the funding model it is given. We must have a SSS that adapts to student need and is funded accordingly. This is not a finger pointing exercise. It is about realising there are huge challenges and we need to come together to find solutions that will work. After all, when staff raise concerns about mental health provision on campus it is a demonstration of how much staff at UEA care about the wellbeing of their students and colleagues. When we see something is not working we must work together to find solutions and not get lost in hierarchy and defensiveness. We must act, and we must act now.

Mark Hobbs, Vice President UCU@UEA.

 

**I encourage any colleagues who have been affected by recent events to contact the staff counselling services (https://portal.uea.ac.uk/student-support-service/wellbeing/staff-counselling) or the Education Support Partnership (https://www.ucu.org.uk/educationsupportpartnership) for support. Please do get in touch with the UCU office (ucu.office@uea.ac.uk) with any comments or concerns that you may have on this issue.**