The University of Nottingham response to The Guardian

 

Some Clarifications and a Call to Open Meaningful Negotiations

UCU are calling on the University of Nottingham to make good on assurances that it will enter into meaningful discussions over precarious employment practices across the institution. The Union also challenges the University’s interpretation of HESA data and provides clarification of its own analysis of the figures.

Background:

On November 16th The Guardian ran a front page investigation into the effects of casualisation on staff in HE, “Universities accused of ‘importing Sports Direct model’ for lecturers’ pay”, together with a detailed profile of the effect of casualisation on teaching staff at the University of Nottingham: “Nottingham academic on casual contract: ‘I had more rights as a binman’”. On Sunday 20 November, the University published a response to this article, “Guardian story on casualisation in HE – a response”, which attempted to refute the claims made in the article.

 During our local campaign on casualisation, the local branch of UCU circulated links to The Guardian reports, which themselves drew upon data provided by the UCU head office. The University’s criticisms of The Guardian specifically challenge UCU’s data and make reference to the Union’s campaign on casualisation in a manner that seeks to further discredit the reliability of the report. We therefore feel it in our members’ interests to provide a full response to the University’s response to The Guardian reports.

 

Prior to the recent media attention, the University agreed to meet with UCU to discuss working conditions for casually-employed teaching staff. This was a direct result of active campaigning on these issues and we look forward to entering into constructive and meaningful negotiations. Nevertheless, the University’s response to The Guardian and its original comments when approached by the journalist, are concerning insofar as they appear to minimise the significance of the issues for affected staff and for the institution as a whole.

Specific clarifications about the use of the HESA data by UCU and The University of Nottingham are provided below, but there are several items that need to be highlighted at the outset.

The Local Campaign on Casualisation:

UCU is committed to campaigning and negotiating on this issue locally and nationally. Locally, this work sits within the Anti-casualisation/Living Wage campaign, which includes Unison and Unite as well as several student organisations.

Our preference remains to negotiate improvements for casualised staff and resolve this issue. The impact of casualisation has been worse in some parts of the University than others and we know that there are heads of school/department who have been seeking to improve conditions for hourly-paid staff. This individual work is important and laudable but we are in a position where the fairest and most effective way of tackling this issue is collectively at an institutional level.

UCU’s loyalty is to its membership and our main priority is to improve and protect the working lives of all staff in our bargaining group. In some respects and for many staff, the University’s claim to offer “a wide range of benefits, excellent pay, terms and conditions” is accurate, but the claim that all employees have access to these benefits is misleading.

While currently media attention is focused on casual contracts (and specifically casually-employed teachers), we know that for many staff the working environment has been significantly eroded over recent years. This is not only true for staff on casual contracts, but also for many staff within Project Transform and S2020 OD, as well as for those in academic departments that have been, or currently are under review and those who are feeling increasing pressure with reference to REF and PDPR.

Staff come to the Union on a daily basis with a range of concerns, but the common denominator in the majority of cases is an increased feeling of vulnerability. Most often this relates to workload and targets with members feeling unable to cope with the excessively long hours required to fulfil set tasks and therefore fearful of their future. For those on temporary contracts and especially those who are hourly paid these pressures are felt even more acutely. Moreover, there is a direct link between the treatment of hourly-paid staff and the use of casual contracts on one hand, and, on the other, the deterioration of conditions for staff on permanent contracts.

In a report presented to University Council on February 2nd 2016, UCU and our campaign partners highlighted the poor working conditions for staff on casual contracts and the evidence in that report clearly supports the concerns over working conditions highlighted by The Guardian. Our subsequent survey of casually employed teaching staff, undertaken with the support of the Student Union, likewise contains evidence highlighting the effects of casualisation on staff and students. The results of that survey are not entirely negative, but it indicates that the problems are widespread and significant.

As members of UCU we support each other on an individual level through casework and on a collective level through consultation and negotiation. Though casusalisation affects different parts of the University in various ways, and the use of casually employed teaching staff may be more prevalent in some areas rather than others, it would be a mistake to view the employment practices highlighted by The Guardian as limited to the cases profiled; equally, this is a practice that is not limited to one or two departments. Directly or indirectly casualisation affects us all.

The HESA Data

UCU is quite clear that we stand by the methodology we used and by the national report that was featured in The Guardian. We have set out the methodology we used in the Appendix to our new report here. We are comfortable that our approach is more representative of the levels of use of insecure contracts than any other being used.

The University of Nottingham’s mention of HESA’s statement is misleading as the University is doing exactly what UCU did but just using a different calculation. The University of Nottingham refers to HESA’s statement which raises issues with the way the various sets of data on contracts are collected and questions whether true comparison is possible. We have been in touch with HESA to explain why we believe our approach is sound and we believe it’s as representative of the real scale of precarious work as is possible using publicly available data. Yet having mentioned HESA’s statement, Nottingham goes on to do exactly the same thing UCU did, compare the two sets of staffing data but just applying their preferred calculation to it. You can’t have it both ways — either comparison is valid or it isn’t.

There are big issues with HESA’s data, and UCU has always been critical of its limitations, not least of these is the fact that there serious, systematic and growing underreporting by Universities of their real use of casual contracts. The sector could solve these problems by disclosing accurate workforce data which shows how much of its teaching and research is being done by people on insecure contracts. But it chooses not to.

Nottingham’s calculations based on Full Time Equivalence are a deeply misleading way of presenting hourly paid teaching which serves only to hide its use of casual contracts. In its statement the University recycles a deeply flawed methodology promoted by UCEA which attempts to show that hourly paid staff do very little work because when you add up the Full-Time Equivalence of all their contracts you get a small number. This is misleading, not to say insulting to the hourly paid staff doing frontline teaching at Nottingham.

Full-Time Equivalence is a very bad way of looking at people with part-time contracts, as HESA’s own website shows. People employed on very small ‘FTE’ contracts simply disappear within aggregations of Full-Time Equivalence. All the Universities are showing is that there are a lot of people on small contracts.

Attempting to measure the work done by thousands of hourly paid lecturers by calculating their FTE as though they were full-time lecturers distorts the extent of the University’s use of casually employed staff in teaching provision. Hourly paid teachers are contracted for a small number of teaching hours and their FTE will always look small. Full-time lecturers are contracted to teach, administer and research. One or two hourly paid lecturers may do the same amount of teaching in a week as a full-time lecturer but their ‘FTE’ will be a tiny fraction of this, maybe only one day a week.

Using FTE in this way risks concealing the amount of work being done by hourly paid lecturers. Moreover, it is essential that discussions over the HESA data not become part of a process that obscures the systematic underpayment of hourly paid lecturers relative to the work they do. If the University wishes to publicly present an accurate picture of staff contributing to the student experience, they should publish the proportion of classroom tuition hours that are taught by staff on insecure contracts.

In its response to The Guardian articles, the University of Nottingham has publicly staked its claim to be an “enlightened and progressive employer”. UCU hopes that this is the spirit with which the University will approach negotiations over casualisation and that we will see genuine improvements for staff on precarious contracts.

 

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