Season’s Greetings from UoN UCU – email to members

Sent to members 20th December 2023.

Dear UCU member

On behalf UCU Branch Officers I am writing to thank you for your commitment to the union, locally and nationally through 2023.

It has been a very tough year, with ballot campaigns and industrial action, including the Marking and Assessment Boycott. We have not achieved all that we hoped for, and on some key issues we will have to maintain our campaigns and pressure. But it is important to acknowledge the scale of the victory on USS. In two weeks time every members of USS will be paying lower contributions, and by April we will have our pensions back (with uprating for the lost years). You can see the immediate impact on your contributions here.

Make no mistake, it was our action that has achieved this win. Every member of USS will benefit, but it was our solidarity and financial sacrifice that secured this outcome. Collective action works.

In the year ahead your local branch will be focusing relentlessly on working in our own institution to improve the quality of our working lives – defending jobs, demanding equality and fighting for secure contracts and sustainable workloads.  The branch committee has been busy developing a plan to take this work forward next year, and there will be lots of opportunities to be involved in different ways. Watch this space.

Nationally the union will need to consider how its campaigns move forward. Much of this debate will take place through the election process for General Secretary (starting in earnest in the New Year).  As with all such developments, locally we will be working to provide members with the maximum opportunity to engage in debates and participate in decision-making.

Finally, as a branch we will continue to play our role in the wider trade union movement – whether that is defending public services in our own community in Nottingham City or standing in solidarity with those elsewhere in the world, for example in Ukraine and Gaza, who currently face unspeakable hardship.

There will be much to do in 2024, and there is much happening now that is a source of great anxiety, but we hope all our members get to enjoy a well earned break over the holiday period and that it will be possible to enjoy a genuine rest in the company of family and friends. Enjoy the time.

With best wishes, and in solidarity,

Howard and UoN UCU branch officers

National UCU ballot outcome – message to members at Nottingham

Dear UCU member

You will by now be aware that UCU did not meet the 50% threshold in the pay and conditions ballot that closed last week.

This result is desperately disappointing. It marks the end, for now, of the disputes that first began in early 2018 when we took strike action to defend the USS pension scheme. 

However, despite the setback of the ballot result, it is important to recognise that the battle for our pensions has been won.  It is an unprecedented victory, and our action has secured substantial benefits for every USS member in the sector.  It would not have happened unless UCU members made it happen.

Nevertheless, while proclaiming the scale of the win on USS, we also need to acknowledge that we did not make a breakthrough on pay, precarity, workload and equalities. For all our efforts, we were not able to shift our employers on these core issues.  That fight will need to continue, but realistically not until the union has collectively taken stock of our recent campaigns and assessed the implications for future strategy.  As always, your local branch will endeavour to engage with members as much as is possible, and will take every opportunity to present members’ views in national debates and decision-making processes.

For now, I would like to make two points:

First, is to make clear that your local branch will continue to make every effort to make progress on the issues that matter to you by working locally to improve the working conditions of UCU members at Nottingham. Our records indicate that over 60% of UoNUCU branch members voted in the national ballot (the national turnout was 42%). Those figures show that branch members at Nottingham remain profoundly dissatisfied with working conditions in the sector, and in our institution, and remain committed to acting collectively to address the issues. In the immediate future we will be focusing that frustration locally.  The union branch is completely committed to national bargaining, and being part of a national framework, but we know there is plenty of scope to act locally and to make real progress on core issues.  Our recent local agreement on principles for the use of casual contracts is one example of how your union branch is winning for members at the local level. The commitment of branch officers and departmental reps is to build on this success and to seek to make further progress across a wider range of issues. In the coming weeks and months we will be sharing our plans to develop these campaigns, and at every turn we will be working to engage with as many members as possible. There will be lots of opportunities to be involved!

Second, is to extend a heartfelt thanks from the branch committee to every member who has been involved in our campaigns since they began back in 2018. Whatever we may think of the outcomes, and some of the decisions that have been made along the way, the experience has been extraordinary. Here are some figures to reflect the experience.

·      11 industrial action ballots (six in the last year) – disaggregated, aggregated and one covering only our branch. Not only did we get over 50% every single time, but in the last disaggregated ballot UoNUCU secured the highest turnout across 150 branches nationally.  In the ballot in March 2023 our records showed a turnout of 73%!

·      69 days of strike action – whatever the weather!

·      Two marking and assessment boycotts, including throughout Summer this year when the branch called 7 branch meetings in 8 weeks during July and August!

The level of engagement by branch members has been astonishing – every vote cast, every picket line stood on, every meeting attended and throughout the MAB. It is what secured the win on pensions, and it is what needs to be mobilised across the sector to win on working conditions. That breakthrough will have to come, because although the ballot result marks the end of the current campaign, UCU’s action has made visible the flaws in the UK higher education system that employers and governments cannot ignore. The marketised and individualised model of higher education that successive governments have promoted is a busted flush – and it is action by UCU members that has exposed just how broken it is. We have refused to accept that there is no alternative to the unsustainable system currently on offer, and in so doing, we have kept alive the idea that another university is possible.

At this precise moment, with the recent ballot result, we are clearly not where we want to be as a national union. But we have much to be proud about, and locally we remain well placed to face the future. We keep going – and we look forward to working with members to make sure we secure the change the sector needs.

In solidarity,

Howard
University of Nottingham UCU Branch President (union email here)

‘Love HE, Love HE Staff’: 2022 USS Strikes Day 1

Today we March! On our way to the Trent building to show our resolve to the VC and UEB!
Picture by @Pete_Radcliff

Today marks the first day of yet another period of strike action our branch is taking. Today is also Valentine’s Day and of course we chose the theme for this day to match this day of love. We are far from the only ones to have jumped on this bandwagon. In today’s strike blog, I will reflect on this analogy and draw attention to a day of action happening in HE in my home country.

When we mention Valentine’s Day, images of bringing your significant other gifts and treating them to a special day comes to mind. Whether in pop culture, the media, advertising, and beyond, the focus is on that expression of love. However, to the close observer there is something distinctly noticeable about how one is supposed to express love on this very auspicious day. You probably know where I am going with this! If you say most, if not all, of the ways we are encouraged to spend love on this day involve spending money, you are a winner!

This link between spending, often considerable, amounts of money and Valentines Day is not an accident as a stroll through history shows. The imagery used is a call back to the minor god Cupid/Eros from Roman/Greek mythology well know for shooting arrows and making hapless humans fall head over heels. The name for the day itself derives from a Christian martyr Saint Valentine who according to some sources was executed for the crime of marrying Christian soldiers. As with many cultural customs, there are many other origin stories and variations over time and across the world. In later times, this day became one where couples would send each other a handwritten card and a small gift to express their love. In the 19th century, handicraft gave way to commercially printed cards and the well-known brand Cadbury started creating a heart-shaped box of chocolates specially for Valentine’s Day.

This abridged history shows Valentine’s Day morphing from a day about fighting for love, to expressing your love in a personal way, to doing so en-masse in a heavily marketized way. Those cards, chocolates, and trinkets we use to express our love are often produced in the very worst circumstances in global value chains. Production in low wage, less strictly regulated countries, displacement of farming benefitting the local population for higher yield cacao crop, and other practices all so we can express our love on Valentine’s Day. While we could simply say ‘I love you’ to our significant other, spend some time and effort making them something unique and special, and being present for them, we are made to feel we need to go all out and the amount of money we spend equates to how much we love them.

There are strong parallels between this trend in how we celebrate Valentine’s Day and the current state of UK higher education. We are told students want more than just to be educated by dedicated, knowledgeable academics, supported by competent librarians, student services administrators, and other staff, and do so in comfortable, well-equipped lecture halls, seminar rooms, libraries, etc. Students who we should now primarily treat as customers wielding market power through where they choose to spend their tuition fees, so we are told, want a ‘student experience’. To guarantee this student experience, ever greater amounts of the university’s funds are invested not in what makes for a good education but in all kinds of bells and whistles, like fancy sports facilities, shiny buildings, and other things that are meant to make students feel satisfied. Moreover, to let students know about this amazing student experience, significant amounts need to be spent on marketing and advertising.

While many of these extras benefit the primary aim of educating students, their main aim and consequence is to make the student feel like they are getting ‘value for money’. In fact, as some of the bells and whistles are comparatively more cost-effective at the latter as compared to improving the actual education students enjoy, ever greater sums are diverted to such expenditures. Moreover, and unlike investment in knowledge and skills academics, librarians, and other staff can make given the opportunity, such bells and whistles are easily copied by competing universities exactly because they require little more than throwing a lot of money at it. So, these investments in bells and whistles at best maintain competitive parity.

As the number of prospective students, and thus the value of their tuition fees, kept increasing due to widening participation and ever stronger interest from international students in a UK education, universities were able to match the investments in bells and whistles with greater receipts from tuition fees. Unfortunately, investments in the academics and other staff to deliver the product these students bought has certainly not kept pace. As happened to Valentine’s Day, HE has become commoditized. To maintain the illusion that the ‘student experience’ is a premium product despite fierce competition in the sector, ever more bells and whistles need to be tacked onto this product to make it ‘stand out in the market’ and convey ‘value for money’.

The real costs of maintaining this illusion are borne not by those at the helm of the universities justifying ever greater pay packets as universities balloon in size with record student numbers and annual budgets including all those bells and whistles, but by academics, librarians, student services administrators, and other staff. Staff numbers have not kept pace with the growth of the HE sector. The proportion of university budgets devoted to them have even declined. Staff are asked to make space for additional students in their increasingly overflowing lecture halls, seminar rooms, and other venues, to mark more essays and exams, to provide services to ever more students within the same amount of time. Where the limits of what additional work can be squeezed out of these academic and staff are reached, universities solve the issue by drawing in an ever greater casualized workforce to do the same work, or even a standardized, lower quality version, at a bargain.

The costs of our marketized HE system are borne most of all by the shoulders of our casualized colleagues. They are employed at the very worst of terms, if at all, since they are in many cases technically not even an employee of the university. Amongst other difficulties, that means they do not even get to be in the USS and thus make a contribution towards their pension nor are they allowed to join UCU strike action and fight for better terms and conditions.

To turn the tide, and for the many other reasons why we are on strike today and for a further nine, we are calling on the management of our university to show us some love. They claim they love HE, but if they continue to give their staff the cold shoulder, more hearts will break.

UoN UCU at the VC’s and UEB’s doorstep. Will they hear us know?
Picture by @yarn_wytch

Across the North Sea, our colleagues at Dutch Universities are also taking action today, with the tagline ‘The University won’t love you back’. This follows a long campaign against casualization spear-headed by the 0.7 organization in which they have repeatedly asked universities to put their money where their mouth is and offer better terms and conditions. They are fighting for staff employed on one short term contract after the other only to be discarded the moment they would legally be entitled to a permanent one. Those contracts are usually 0.7 FTE since the amount of work ones needs to complete as part of such a contract is already a full-time workload. As in the UK, those on short term, casualized contracts are no stranger a lack of recognition for their unpaid research, inequality of opportunity, pay gaps, unsafe work environments, and more. Send them some solidarity @0pointseven!

The 0.7 campaign logo for today’s action

Volunteers wanted for the strike blog!

Do you have any reflections on the theme of one of the strike days? Had amazing conversations at the picket line or enjoyed a teach out, and want to tell all about it? Want to share something about how you think the university can become a better place for staff and students?

If so, please send us your suggestion or draft contribution at uonucubranch@gmail.com or talk to Gertjan Lucas (bottom left on the below picture), Equality Officer, at the Jubilee Campus picket on Derby Road.

Pickets going strong at Derby Road entrance on Jubilee Campus.
Picture by @hstevenson10