Motion on online teaching as default during pandemic

The following motion was passed at the Wednesday 14th October branch meeting.

Over the past few months, University of Nottingham staff have been consistently reassured by senior management that the question of “face to face” (f2f) teaching would be handled in a flexible and safe manner. However, facts on the ground have contradicted this. ​Many schools across the University report that they are still being forced by senior management to push staff into f2fteaching against their wishes​. The Motion passed by the Sept general meeting sought to address this by recognizing management’s assurance that no member of staff would be “compelled” to teach f2f.It has since become apparent this assurance has not been kept by management, who have refused to clarify what this phrasing actually means. This ambiguity has resulted in individual members of staff having to negotiate their way out of f2f with their line managers. Consequently, many staff continue to feel they are being compelled to deliver f2f teaching.

Nottingham’s student community, at the time of writing, has the ​second highest rates​ of Covid in the country, only behind Manchester. As of Oct. 6​th​, Manchester University, Manchester Metropolitan University, and University of Sheffield have suspended all non-necessary f2f teaching. To carry out discretionary (non-lab/performance based) f2f teaching when community infections rates are so high, and even higher amongst the student population, is to knowingly and willfully expose students and staff to a life-threatening and potentially long-term health hazard. That is unacceptable.

The current situation not only poses a direct threat to staff health but also imposes immense stress on them and their households and families. The requirements to shuffle students between online and f2f as they move in and out of isolation is degrading the capacity to teach effectively across the board, as well as generating huge additional workloads for staff from all job families.

This motion reaffirms the local branch’s support for the national UCU position, and that of Independent SAGE, in line with widely accepted scientific evidence, namely that online working – for both teaching and support activities – should be the default mode of delivery, other than in those cases where this is practically impossible (such as labs, performing arts, etc).

We demand that senior management urgently enter into negotiations with the union on the following points:

  1. Recognize the expertise of staff in digital learning by assuming online teaching as the default method of delivery (with exceptions as above).
  2. Only continue discretionary f2f teaching ​on the basis of staff opt in,​ free from compulsion in any form. This applies equally to fixed term and hourly-paid workers, as it does to permanent staff.
  3. These arrangements should continue until it can be agreed with the local branch that it is safe to resume f2f.

Covid Impacts on UoN Student Community

The following motion was passed at the Wednesday 14th October branch meeting.

This branch notes the high number of UoN students currently required to isolate due to Covid infections or exposure. It also notes the unacceptable consequences this is having for our student community, as reported here and here, as well as the huge reputational damage this is doing to the HE sector.

In the immediate term, it is apparent that students have in many cases been poorly treated by a management that seems to have devoted its efforts to getting things back to normal, and has subsequently been wrong-footed by the reality that things are not. Students have variously been left without support, virtually imprisoned, on the receiving end of communications completely lacking in compassion or understanding, blamed for simply pursuing the “student experience” they were repeatedly promised and, alongside frontline staff, been left scrambling for relevant information.

Beyond these most pressing issues, it is now apparent that a sustainable solution to the situation we find ourselves in must include students being given the opportunity to leave their accommodation and continue this semester from their homes, should they choose to. We as a university community cannot continue to act like these problems will just go away.

In passing this motion we declare our support for the students of UoN. We echo the Student Union’s key demands in their letter to the UEB, that students:

  • Be empowered to make their own choices; to remain on an online only course, to defer to a future year, or to leave their course entirely
  • Suffer no financial detriment, including in relation to private accommodation
  • Be treated fairly and proportionately as members of a civil society

Additionally, we call on the university to ensure the following:

  • That the immediate crisis referred to above is addressed urgently, not only in terms of the logistics of supporting and managing students having to isolate, but also the human side of the challenge – in terms of communications which are compassionate and prompt, and do not rely on personal tutors working all hours as welfare officers.
  • That management reconsider their approach to preparing for Covid crises, which to date has been marked by considerable attention to technical matters, and an almost complete absence of such attention to human questions. The scramble to deal with isolating students need never have happened – it was entirely predictable. We should expect further challenges ahead. We call for management to build on its existing working arrangements with the local branch, and go even further, by consulting the whole university community in order to draw on the depth and diversity of its expertise.
  • That management take account of the huge workload demand on staff which is being generated by having large numbers of students switching in and out of isolation, and so switching between online and face-to-face teaching, and urgently put forward a plan for dealing with this which is sustainable.
  • Finally, we demand that the university work alongside its fellow institutions and use UUK to push aggressively for the Government to step in and address the funding crisis underpinning these problems. We note that UUK has been almost entirely absent from the debate, as all sides – including government! – have lined up to criticise the sector in recent weeks. UUK must be willing to represent the whole sector in times such as these, and not just be a vehicle for attacking staff during industrial disputes.

UoN Must Save Our PGR Teachers

At the end of April 2020, the Faculty of Arts announced that it was cutting all postgraduate teaching opportunities from its 2020/21 budget, and since then the Faculty of Social Sciences has followed suit. In some departments, it is standard for teaching posts to only be offered to final year PhDs; colleagues who have gone through a year-long unpaid training programme and interview process, only now to be facing no chance of getting this essential career experience.  We are clear that these cuts are a choice; the UCU has recently learned that the combined cost of cutting PGR teaching in both Faculties could be recovered with money to spare, if the University simply stopped running one of its managerial training programmes for a year. 

It has been two months since this announcement, and the situation is still unclear. PGRs have been told since the cuts were announced that the only alternative was to be (unpaid) teaching training via the Graduate School (now Researcher Academy), though we were never given details about what this would look like, how it could possibly compensate for classroom experience and how it would be accredited. We have since learned that these questions have no answers, because the Researcher Academy does not currently have the provisions to provide such training. Following collective action from PGRs and pressure from both the UCU and the UoN Anti-Casualisation Campaign, some headway is starting to be made in discussions, but the genuine alternatives we are suggesting are still in competition with unpaid, unaccredited, unsatisfactory ones (e.g. shadowing contracted staff teaching, attending one-off teaching conferences).   

PGRs should be teaching in classrooms in the 2020/21 academic year. In addition to helping reduce the workload on contract staff, who have already taken part in strike action twice in the past year because of overwork and underpay, postgraduate teachers bring enthusiasm and excellence to teaching at Nottingham.  Two of the five recipients of the Tri-Campus Postgraduate Teaching Awards 2020 were from the Faculty of Arts, including myself, as were two of the five postgraduate teachers who were highly commended in the category. Despite this, our contracts are casualised and outsourced to a temp work agency, and we have been among the first to be placed under the axe. 

I have been fortunate enough to have taught for two years, and it’s a genuine pleasure that I want all of my colleagues to be able to experience. But it’s not just enjoyable, it’s necessary. On June 17th, required training for current final year PhDs in the Faculty of Arts repeatedly stressed the necessity of teaching experience in applying for academic careers, while making some small mention of how this will not be possible for those coming to the end of their studies next year. Schools and Faculties know this, which is why we’re still hearing talk about PhDs ‘volunteering’ their teaching next year to gain experience, despite insistence from Faculty management that this will not be allowed. It must not be; it would be asking us to set a dangerous precedent by agreeing to do unpaid work. Such ideas are particularly troubling, as teaching is not just career development; for some PGRs (particularly those who are marginalised in academia and/or who self-fund) it can be an indispensable means of generating additional income.

Daniel, PGR Teacher / Teaching Affiliate

Stories from the picket line

Thank you all for your incredible solidarity over the 14 days of the strike. With your teach-outs, baked goods, music, conversations, and picketing in the rain / hail/ wind/ occasional sunshine, we have stood together and have made our voices heard.

We continue to fight the dispute, but as a committee we are massively impressed and inspired by the support and determination of our branch members over the last few months.

Check out this video made by Sophie Chester-Nash, ‘Stories from the picket line’

And this video made by Mark Jago to mark our branch’s celebration of International Women’s Day, ‘Striking is a feminist issue’

POSTPONED: Rally at Jubilee, Friday 13th March

Our end-of-strike rally will be postponed until the risks posed by coronavirus have abated. The decision of whether or not to continue with pickets has been devolved to the Branch and these will proceed as planned, though individual members are encouraged to use their judgment before joining a picket line. In particular, if you have a cough that is persistent or new, or have a temperature of 37.8 degrees or higher, please follow the Chief Medical Officer’s advice and stay at home for at least seven days.


The decision of whether or not to proceed with picketing has not been taken lightly, but collectively we have been through heck of a lot over these past four weeks and it is important that we are able, as much as individual circumstance allows, to come together on the picket line for the last day of strike action. It is also important for us to publicly mark our strike action given that the University remains open.

On being the #runningpicket, the #knittingpicket and an APM UCU member: Strike Diary Entry, March 9, 2020

IWD Rally at UP South. Photo by @ThomDavies

Today’s entry comes from Lisa Rull, Specialist Study Support Tutor (Disabilities)

When the dates came around for this current period of strike action, I knew what I wanted to do. With a half marathon coming up, I wanted to use some of the time to get miles on my legs in daylight. As a crafting addict, I also wanted to get a few extra rows on my knitting projects! Activism and craftivism!

Our Running picket at UP South

I started the strike as the #knittingpicket on West Gate on Thursday 20 February – this worked well until the skies opened (imperfectly timed for the rally and speeches!) and along with all those there I became a #soggypicket. I decided the next day would be running so I headed out taking a long route from home to North Gate, then East Gate and South Gate and West Gate. What I have loved about visiting the different picket lines is getting to say hello and chat to colleagues, students and fellow striking staff with whom I might never normally get chance to converse. So far across my various picket runs and walks I’ve clocked up approximately 45.5 km (28.2 miles). I know that distance could take me to Sutton Bonington and back, but apologies to SB I’ve not made it to you along the country roads! (I’ve been to all the other gates, including KMC and the three at Jubilee). I’ve interspersed being #runningpicket with both #knittingpicket days and also much needed rest days.

KMC

I’ve learnt through hard experience that I need to listen to my body and my mind and take care of both. (Cancer does that to you). Our #fourfights strike action is at the heart of how being a UCU member supports me to do this, even when my work at the University makes that so difficult. We need to break the gender pay gap, address inequality, make workloads manageable, challenge casualisation and precarity, and seek fair pay for all. It is also key to our #USS strike action for fair pensions. We have paid into it. It is deferred pay. We deserve it.

UP West

We’ve broken ourselves with our labour for University, and we don’t want to see it disappear at the point we need it most. We need our next generation of staff to have the opportunity for a fair pension, not one subjected to active destruction tactics by USS and UUK, whose valuations and resulting rising contributions are making it impossible for our precarious colleagues to join (pension or rent is not a choice anyone should have to make).

I’ve been around University of Nottingham since early 2000, first as a PhD student and then for the last 16 and a half years working to support the learning of disabled students at UoN. Although I teach, mostly but not exclusively 1-1, I’m therefore in the slightly odd position of being APM but involved in teaching; am part of professional services, but intimately involved with the learning experience of our students.

UP North

This is a #notjustlecturers strike but the challenges of taking strike action from within Student Services should not be underestimated. So many staff have been on the frontline of the chaos wrought by Project Transform and its ongoing effects on our colleagues and students. I want my colleagues to join UCU and support the union in challenging the way HE has behaved in recent years (and thank you to those who have).

IWD at UP North

There is a better way. Solidarity to all, for all!

Teach-outs and events this week: 9 – 13 March

Monday 9th March

Rally for International Women’s Day (IWD)

South Entrance Picket, 10.30am. All other pickets will pack up around 10. There will be short speeches and we’ll be filming a short video to highlight our feminist strike. Please bring ideas/make signs in response to ‘This IWD I’m calling on the UoN to…” [equal pay/an end to casualisation/fair pensions] etc.

Teachout: Casualisation and the University

Join the University of Nottingham Anti-Casualisation campaign group for an open discussion on how outsourcing and precarious working conditions are affecting many of us across campus, and how we can organise to fight against it!

1 – 3 pm. Dunkirk Community Centre, Montpelier Road NG7 2JW

Tuesday 10th March

Poetry Reading: Peter Gizzi, Sarah Hayden, and Alan Baker

Acclaimed US poet Peter Gizzi reads his latest work, alongside two poets based in Nottinghamshire, Sarah Hayden and Alan Baker.

7pm, Five Leaves Bookshop, 14a Long Row W, NG1 2DH

Event is free for striking UCU members. Otherwise £4/£2 students. Admission includes refreshments.

Wednesday 11th March

Teachout: ‘Black Holes and Extra Dimensions’ Antonio Padilla, School of Physics
and Astronomy

10am, South Entrance Picket

Thursday 12th March

Teachout: ‘Don’t follow your passion! Creative work, self-exploitation, and dangerous myths’ Leora Hadas, School of Cultures, Languages and Area Studies

10am, North Entrance Picket

Friday 13th March

POSTPONED! RALLY AT JUBILEE Derby Rd Picket, 11am

Bring your noisemakers and placards! A march will start from West Picket, picking up other pickets on our way to Jubilee. Estimated timings:

10.00 West Picket; South Picket 10.20; North Picket 10.40; arriving Jubilee Derby Road 11.00

The sun is out: Strike Diary Day 8

Today’s entry comes from Lila Matsumoto, Equalities Officer

Instead of taking my usual roadside route to the university, I decide this morning to cycle along the canal path. It’s before 7am and the path is not yet busy with walkers and cyclists. Instead I see coots, moorhens, mallards, swans, and pigeons partaking their morning ablutions. The light is beautiful on the water. I think of a poem by Denise Riley : ‘A cloud rose on the horizon of the morning/ with a plume like the breath of a whale at sea’.

A strike is not a holiday, but it is a pause from work. And in this pause I find my mind, freed from the relentless deluge of administrative emails and forms, becoming more expansive in its receptivity to the world. Standing on the picket line has given me new familiarity with the weather system outside of my office, and to animal life too: the herons that pass overhead South picket on their way to the boating lake, the dogwalker leading her gaggle of yapping miniature dogs at 8am. I am tuning in to the things that are happening every day, outside of the narrow margins and preoccupations of my workplace.

As other members have spoken about in their blog entries, a great perk of the picket line is meeting and speaking to people you would not have otherwise met, cloistered as we are in our departmental halls and buildings. Today I met members from Pharmacy, Maths, Psychology, and Art History (I am in English). We talked about, among other things, feelings of fragmentation and social isolation within schools and departments, as a result of exponentially increasing workloads and doing away of communal social spaces and events. Against this trend, the picket line, teach-outs and events organised during the strike are experimental spaces of learning and socialising meaningfully with our colleagues.

The sun is out today, and I am happy to be in it, rather than just as a glimpse from my office window. Standing in the sun with my colleagues gives me pause to understand the extent to which we have acclimatised, at the expense of our well-being, to the unsustainable demands and conditions of our workplace. It has created a sense of myopia about our labour – perhaps even a solipsistic sense of its utter importance – disconnecting it from other forms of engaging with the world.

Sutton Bonington Holds Strong: Strike Diary Day 6

Sunrise over Sutton Bonington

Today’s strike diary comes from Matt Green, UoN UCU Branch President

The week is off to a good start. Not only have we heard updates on new talks, not only has social media again been aflame with determined strikers, but also we’ve arrived at the point in the year when traveling to the picket line can take place in daylight hours. The day dawned frosty but bright as I stepped out the front door en route to visit our Sutton Bonington picket line.

Picketing in full view of the sun (shaded by some gorgeous trees)

For those who haven’t been out that way, the picket line at SB is a heartening experience. The picketers are a welcoming bunch. Their good will and cheer is accompanied by resolution and they have a way of cutting to the heart of what’s at stake in the current dispute.

SB West supporting the strike.

Conversation began with one longstanding picketer explaining what he saw as the heart of the four fights dispute. In short, he said that in five years time he wants to be able to offer congratulations rather than commiserations to new entrants to academia. His story, of concern for PhD students seeking to enter the profession of course resonates across disciplines. Such are the obstacles on the way to an open-ended contract, and the challenges facing new entrants to the profession, that it is becoming increasingly difficult to encourage students to pursue dreams of an University career.

Talk then turned to pensions, with picketers expressing concerns over new staff effectively being priced out of the USS by the relentless increases in contribution ratings, a state of play that harms us all.

Sunny on UP North too. Thanks to @Rullsenberg our #runningpicket for this image.

Overall, though, despite the challenges we are facing, the prospect of further talks this week and solid showings on the picket lines give much cause for optimism. We find ourselves at a turning point for Higher Education and while the risks are daunting, success will see genuine change for the better across the sector.

Picketers at Jubilee recorded record highs. What a difference crossing the A52 makes. Thanks @rolsi_journal.