June update

Redundancies, severances, more course closures and no dignity at work: the Corporate machinery in top form and full swing

The past few weeks (months, years...) have been difficult for many colleagues at Northumbria University. Sadly, this is business as usual: the divisive, ruthless and counterproductive transformation of what once was a good employer into an antisocial and antagonistic corporation is well under way. Our University, immersed in a permanent identity crisis brought about by its top down, dogmatic strategists, seems a world apart from the inspirational enhancer of social mobility, creativity, knowledge, and human and economic growth in the North East that it could be; it also seems another world apart from its desired destination. We are, decidedly, in no man's land.

In the midst of a national dispute on fair pay, your local union has been busier than ever because of an unprecedented set of unsettling moves that have made many members vulnerable to the side effects of Vision 2025, with their courses, their livelihoods and their health becoming collateral damage, when not a fully intended target, in the pursuit of savings, synergies and streamlines, pawns in a managerial chess board.

 

This might seem, and might be, an anecdotal and unintentional oversight but, for months now, your local branch has been asking for the immediate reinstatement of the Dignity at Work policy, which was removed from the University's Mission Statement without any consultation. This is some of what the policy used to explicitly defend:

The University's MISSION STATEMENT includes the (...) determination to create equal opportunities and a harmonious and satisfactory learning and working environment for its students and staff.

(...) In order to achieve this aspect of its Mission this relationship must, in practice, be conducted in a manner which values, unconditionally, a respect for the dignity of staff as human beings.

As such it will be expected that the University, through its managers, will behave towards staff in a manner which respects the value of each
individual as an end in itself, rather than treating staff solely as units of labour employed to provide a particular service.

(...) Eradicating behaviour that undermines an individual's self esteem, confidence or mental health.

(...) Being honest in communications with employees and open in sharing information limited only by legal and commercial constraints.

(...) Listening to and, where possible, acting on employees' ideas and requests.

(...) Engaging in negotiations, in good faith, when conflicts arise.

One could be forgiven for raising an eyebrow when considering the mysterious disappearance of this statement in the light of current developments at Northumbria, with staff morale lower than ever, complaints against ignorant, arrogant and / or threatening management soaring, and hard-working employees reporting credible examples of being treated like mere, and actively overworked and underappreciated, units of labour.

 

A Brave New World: the FADSS leads the way to Dystopia 2025

Your Union officers have found it difficult to keep up with the sheer number of complaints coming our way regarding the very top of the managerial structure in the Faculty of Arts, Design and Social Sciences. This has become close to unmanageable in recent weeks and months, in particular after the departure of
Prof Steven Kyffin to a ProVC role and his replacement with an Acting Executive Dean whose position is close to becoming untenable as far as our industrial relations are concerned.

First of all, as a constructive, collegial, realistic and responsible Union, we are enthusiastic about working together, overcoming difficulties, reaching
agreements and facilitating smooth industrial relations. However, as a self-respecting union, we take your rights very seriously, and we are deeply worried, and angered, about the many recent instances of damaging decisions being made without appropriate engagement of union, members, students, and academic colleagues. The FADSS seems to have reached the conclusion that consultation, collegiality and negotiation are signs of weakness, and presses on with initiatives that leave subject specialists completely baffled, their feedback ignored, and their views treated with contempt. This simply cannot go on any
longer.

The closure of Modern Languages and Cultures programmes continues to bear fruit, in the shape of an unviable provision, as UCU, the subject team and an overwhelming number of external stakeholders had predicted, now ripe for constructive closure on financial grounds. A recent study (paradoxically commissioned by a prestigious external body to colleagues at Northumbria) shows that Northumbria's restrictive framework is not just unique to this institution but also underpins the dubious record of being the HEI with the lowest engagement with languages in the UK, both as part of degree studies or in institution-wide languages provision: in other words, and through no fault of their own, we now have the most monolingual student base in the country.

They said that "lessons had been learned" following the "admittedly paradoxical" results of this review, as well as the communication errors that managers are always ready to admit in an insincere attempt to protect the equally damaging "core" of the content of the decisions they have made against the better judgement of all subject specialists. However, the lesson that seems to have been learned by FADSS management is the following: just don't bother with review frameworks, don't bother with consultation, don't bother with paying lip service to staff engagement, and, last but not least, do not engage with UCU; we know better.

In the space of only a few weeks we have seen the closures of BA Advertising, BSc Communication and PR, and the demise of the entire Department of Media Communication Design, with colleagues now being scattered across other disciplines, often without much of a say as to which department these units of labour are joining, and burdened with a heavy suitcase and a few crates full of uncertainty, anxiety, lowered self-esteem and worries about the present, nevermind the future. Decisions are made without any sense of honest transparency, and evidence presented by those who genuinely engage with the consultation process is discarded. Certain academic profiles, and certain subject areas, all of them easy to identify, are referred to in a worrying or derogatory manner, increasing the sense of vulnerability that hard working colleagues already have. Fear is never conducive to a positively motivated workforce.

Does anybody believe that this email from Prof Lawson on 10 June 2016 is not primarily intending to "profit" from the recently induced earthquake?

"(...)
We are reopening the Voluntary Severance and Early Retirement Scheme to academic staff in ADSS for a limited period of time.

The aim of the Scheme is to produce further savings in order to underpin investment in areas of the Faculty targeted for growth and thereby help to achieve the transformation required to meet our ambitions to be a top 30-40 HEI."

If you have been here long enough, and it doesn't take more than a few weeks to understand this, FADSS management seems to have artificially created a toxic atmosphere of discontent, low self-esteem, fear and anger in order to reap the rewards in the shape of your application for voluntary severance. And in case your self esteem is immune to all of the (not very) subliminal messages and is still going strong, you are reminded that for us to be a "top
30-40 HEI", you must go. You know who you are: over 55? Employed before the Vision? Industry professional without a research background? In a "vulnerable" subject area that is not "targeted for growth"? Well, let us put it in even plainer terms to you: you are a burden.

To reinforce the message, FADSS academics have recently been sent fairly sinister emails threatening "disciplinary procedure" because of the delayed completion of online training. A rather funny twist is that one of these training programmes is devoted to "stress in the workplace", and contains claims as bizarre as "stressed employees work faster".

The courses recently closed at FADSS had invariably good quality indicators, a dedicated staff-base (albeit some of it hit by previous rounds of
voluntary redundancies), comfortably met entry targets, and were highly esteemed by external organisations and employers. Your colleagues, and your
Union, have once again been left in the dark about the rationale for such extreme, bizarre, counterproductive, and often irreversible measures, affecting
the professional credibility, the progression prospects and the job security of many of our hard working members. Dozens of testimonials have been received by your union officers ellaborating on the arrogant and ruthless way in which these changes have been decided, implemented and communicated. Highly respected industry professionals hired by the institution before the implementation phase of the Corporate Strategy are now seeing their careers under threat through no fault of their own, treated like pawns in a game whose rules they are not privy to. Given the unprecedented number and the seriousness of the complaints, it is our duty to call for the University to seriously consider its position with regards to FADSS management.

 

Solidarity with Northumbria Students' Union

We want to express our solidarity with Northumbria's Students' Union on the shocking announcement that Northumbria University plans to require teaching
by its full-time RDF studentships starting from 2016/17 academic year, meaning that students starting at Northumbria University from September 2016 onwards through an RDF funded studentship are expected to undertake teaching as part of their contract/stipend. Northumbria Students' Union has not been consulted whatsoever, and neither have we. We share NSU's views that:

• The decision has come at the end of the year with no previous discussion or consideration of impact. We've spent the last 18 months lobbying for a fair and transparent teaching scheme for all PGR students to which this proposal runs in complete contrast to. The University has explained to us that its rationale was to bring down the student staff ratio in line with other institutions who have similar practice. This ratio is a key metric in formulating league tables.

• It is in our view a clear casualisation of work, an unethical practice, and is in breach of the guidance given by both the National Union of Students (NUS) and the University and College Union (UCU)

• Students on these studentships will not be given any additional time to complete their PhD, despite the added pressure this adds. Furthermore, as students are paid at present, the writing-up fee required to extended standard duration can be compensated for – this is something that will have to be covered through existing funds under this new proposal.

• We believe there is a high risk that current students will see a significant diminishing of paid teaching opportunities due to the availability of students required to do so for free as part of their studentship contracts. While the University has indicated Deans and Heads of Departments will ensure sufficient teaching is available it is unclear how this would work in practice.

• Though it is generally accepted that one hour teaching equates one hour preparation, many PGR students spend much longer than an experienced academic would and therefore would most likely exceed the notional limit of 6 hours teaching per week, consuming much more of their research time than is anticipated.

We stand in solidarity with our students on this appalling state of affairs. The University will make itself less attractive to top postgraduates in doing this, by means of excluding research council – funded researchs from undertaking paid academic work on top of their compulsory teaching. The University will also jeopardise the UG student experience by forcing PhD candidates, many of whom might not be inclined to teaching, to undertake compulsory teaching. This move will also have obvious consequences for the workloads of UCU members and academic colleagues throughout the institution. We continue to liaise with our Students' Union in order to produce a robust joint response to this unprecedented attack by the University's management.

 

Solidarity with UNISON colleagues

On a more general note, this branch wishes to express its most sincere solidarity with our administrative colleagues, once again paying the price of this ruthlessly driven enterprise, with more than a hundred people set to lose their jobs over the coming months. We stand together with our UNISON colleagues,
and we will offer them all of our support and solidarity. What is happening to them is not the unfortunate result of "a challenging and competitive
environment" but a logical consequence of ideologically-driven managerial decisions to shrink, cut and reduce what we do, to make you run faster to stay in the same place and to ultimately get you off the wage bill.

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