Pending UCU Strike Action 

Alternative FAQ for students

Dear Student

We thought you would appreciate a bit more information on why your lecturers are planning strike action between 25 Nov to 4 Dec inclusive.

We hope you can find the time to read this and that it helps to put the situation into context for you, your families and loved ones.

If there are any further questions you’d like answering then please email UCU Hallam mailbox and we will add your question and a response here.

What Strike?

After 3 years of unsuccessful negotiations with management at Sheffield Hallam University, regarding the imposition of a new academic work planning system (AWP), we were left with no option but to ballot our trade union (UCU) members for strike action to force management to take seriously our concerns about the impact the new system is having on the health and well-being of our members.

At the same time the UCU, our trade union, balloted members nationally for strike action and action short of a strike over a number of issues, all closely interlinked and symptomatic of the widespread disinvestment of the UK Higher Education sector by university management teams across the UK.

What is a trade union?

A trade union is an officially recognised body that represents workers with a common trade or that work in a specific industry or organisation.  The purpose of a trade union is to secure improvements in pay, benefits, working conditions, or social and political status through collective bargaining.  It also works to ensure that employers follow the law and enforce their own policies and procedures fairly and equitably across the employer organisation. 

Trade unions are democratic entities that work by committee.  Decisions taken are agreed by majority vote in branch meetings. 

Universities and Colleges Union (UCU) is the only union recognised by universities to represent academic staff members. 

It’s common for there to be members of different trade unions represented within an organisation.  At Sheffield Hallam University, as well as having members who belong to UCU, we also have representation from other unions.

When a trade union fails to get agreement with an employer over changes to working conditions it is allowed by law, under the Trade Unions Act 2016, to ballot its members to obtain a legal mandate to take action.

Why do we feel compelled to take action?

We expect the dispute to disrupt your studies and cause uncertainty for management; that is exactly the purpose of taking strike action.  However, that doesn’t mean that we don’t care that it will affect your learning.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  We care very much and we are extremely sorry that the management team at SHU think it’s acceptable to allow the situation to escalate to this point, and hasn’t worked much harder to resolve our differences before now.  There have been many opportunities to do so over the past three years.

We are also extremely sorry that you are caught in the middle of this dispute but we believe the health and well-being of our members is not something that can be ignored. 

We had two options.  We could either admit defeat and accept that we must now all work an extra day a week for free, with all that this would mean for the health of our members, and knowing that we would be setting an unhealthy precedent for future academics at SHU, or we could withdraw our labour.   

Whilst we accept that this will affect your learning experience we also need you to realise that your learning experience is already being adversely affected.   We could and can do much better, as proved recently by being awarded The 2019 University of the Year for Teaching Quality from The Good University Guide.  This was in recognition of all the hard work and dedication of the staff at SHU.  This level of quality is not possible to achieve under the new AWP system so we can only assume that teaching quality is not a priority for the management at SHU.

Every week that this new system is in place is a week when the members of staff providing you with your education have had to work on average an extra 10 hours FOR FREE.  We already had very full, busy working weeks and having extra teaching to do and more administrative tasks, means we have even less time to spend on preparing teaching materials, marking assessments and, more importantly, supporting you in all the other ways that you need, including helping you to look after your own health and well-being.

So you see this dispute is not about us refusing to work harder.  We already work as hard as we can.  If it was possible for us to work harder and we thought it would improve your learning experience by doing so then, contrary to what management must think, we would.  One thing unites teachers; we love what we do.  We love working with you, seeing you flourish and thrive under our guidance and tutelage.  We’re proud of you, of our graduates, our alumni.  We also care very much about your well-being. What we are being asked to do is detrimental to teachers and students alike; the time we have to spend with you outside of class has all but disappeared in the new AWP system.  Our working conditions are your learning conditions.  This “bottom-line, profit-driven” approach to your education has to stop!

What is the strike about?

Our members voted overwhelmingly for strike action in both industrial action ballots.

This means that the local UCU branch will be negotiating with management at SHU to reverse the academic work planning changes while at the same time national UCU representatives will be negotiating with University and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA), to reach a collective agreement on behalf of all UK universities.

National Action

In the new HE business model of financial targets YOU are a product.  Our role as academics is to produce as many graduates as possible and management’s role is to reduce the costs of production.

This has manifested as some very worrying trends in HE.

  • There’s a marked rise in the number of academic staff being employed on precarious contracts with much lower salaries, fewer employment rights and no job security.
  • Levels of inequality in pay and contract type are rising with women and black and minority ethnic academics the worst hit.
  • The 1% pay cap imposed on the public sector by the Conservative government has caused a real-terms pay cut of almost 20% since 2009.  This year UCEA have generously offered to award us a further 2% pay cut!
  • The fourth issue in the national ballot is around workload intensification.  This situation is not unique to SHU.  It’s happening in universities across the UK, pushing the entire HE sector to the brink of a health and safety crisis.
  • Some universities have also been balloted on proposed changes to their pensions.  Only a small number of members at SHU are part of USS, the majority are members of the Teacher’s Pension Scheme.  As a result SHU was not balloted on this issue, although the outcome of the negotiations with employers will impact some of our members and we stand in solidarity with the other universities on this matter.

There is plenty of information on the UCU website about the national strike action and the reasons why so many of us feel so strongly about what is happening in our work places that a majority voted for strike action and action short of a strike.

Local ActionA quest for a fair, transparent and equitable work planning system

The AWP system uses a formula to calculate our work loads.  Each activity and defined role that we undertake attracts a certain number of hours on a work plan.  This is a complex system as there are many different types of courses and modes of teaching.

We have been very clear from the outset what our objections to the new AWP system are; it is failing on its own terms: to be fair, transparent and equitable.

The old AWP system used a simplified calculation with a time multiplier that staff could use relatively easily to gauge workloads. It’s changes to these tariffs and the calculations used in the new system that are at the core of our dispute with management.  What would have been an already full work plan in the old system now results in a deficit of between 10-15% “spare” capacity when transposed into the new system.

Despite constant reassurances that this new system would not lead to workload intensification, management then insisted that this “spare capacity” be filled with extra work.

The system is not being implemented uniformly equitably or transparently across the university.  The number of hours can differ greatly for members undertaking the same role. Some mangers appear to have a significant amount of discretion when allocating hours whilst others insist they have none.  More members than ever are reporting bullying and harrassment by managers to accept extra work on work plans that had until now been deemed full.  The number of members seeking our support after being placed under performance management measures is also increasing.  We believe the increase is inextricably linked to workload intensification. 

I don’t think anyone would disagree that a system could ever be classed as fair if it demanded an extra day’s work for free.  Necessary perhaps sometimes but not this time! SHU can employ more staff.  SHU can stop making more staff redundant.  SHU can reign back its Campus Masterplan vision a little and use some of the £220 million to be spent on buildings on extra staff.  

It isn’t just not fair on us, it’s also not fair on you, our students.  You deserve for us to be able to see you relatively quickly when you have a problem or need a bit of advice. You deserve us to be present in the room with you during classes, not distracted and tired.  You deserve to experience the quality teaching the university is so keen to tell everyone about.

It’s all change

However, that isn’t the full picture (and yes this part of the FAQ is already quite long but it’s not a straightforward answer … and you did ask smile) as the new system implementation is happening in the middle of many structural changes to how the university is organised, managed and administered.   

During the last three years there have been a number of change programmes at SHU, the latest of which is still under way, that we estimate has resulted in a reduction in staffing of around 10%.  We won’t fully feel the impact of the next wave of changes until September 2020 but this one is a big one.  The university is moving from 4 faculties to 3 colleges, and there will be a further round of redundancies.  This represents a significant reduction in the university’s salary bill and as far as we are aware there is no planned reciprocal reduction in the cost of fees for students!

Many administrative and departmental leadership posts have already disappeared, along with some opportunities for promotion, and there are expected to be more job losses during this current restructure.  Workloads have been steadily increasing for several years with each change programme, as the responsibility and the work undertaken by these posts was absorbed by the remaining members of staff.  

This imposition of a further 10% workload via the new AWP system has pushed us to the brink of a health and safety crisis.  It may have broken our backs but not our spirit…..

….hope to see you on the picket line!

 

 

This has created the perfect health and safety storm, leading to the where we find ourselves today, on the brink of a crisis.

 

What is being done to resolve the dispute?

How the national strike is resolved is somewhat out of our hands although we should get a vote on accepting any deal that our national negotiating team and UCEA make.  However, we have confidence in the new leadership team at UCU HQ and their ability to strike (pardon the pun) the right deal for our members.

As for the local dispute, well now that’s a different matter.  How and when this is resolved remains entirely in our hands.

We are currently negotiating with management at SHU.  These are our outstanding demands:

  • Increase the time allocated for ‘General Academic Duties’ from 125 hours to 281. This is 20% of the work plan, which is in line with the sector average.
  • Double the time allocated for Academic Advising.
  • Increase the time allocated for marking from 10 mins (per 5 module credits) to 15 mins.
  • Implement an equitable AWP policy. Staff should be given like hours for like work.

Management have moved their position and agreed in part to some of our demands.  They’ve offered to increase the time we have for marking your assessments from 10 mins to 12.5 mins.  To put that into context for you that is the equivalent, in some cases, of moving from 20 to 25 minutes per student to mark the equivalent of one 2000-word essay.  This includes doing all of the following:

  • prepare assessment
  • write instructions and marking criteria
  • set up/amend Blackboard assessment submission
  • mark assessment
  • undertake a moderation exercise
  • provide formative and summative feedback on drafts and final submissions
  • access, download and upload submissions, marks and feedback to Blackboard.

We don’t think we’re being unreasonable to hold out for an extra two and a half minutes, especially knowing that this still nowhere near compensates for the actual time it takes to set and mark assessments. Given how much time and effort you put into completing your assessments we are disappointed that an extra 2.5 minutes is all we’re being offered.

We are only asking for adjustments to the new system that in total would amount to a 10% reduction in workloads for the majority of academics, to bring them back closer to the levels they were before the new system was introduced.  By management’s own admission in an email sent to all academic staff on 8th November, in order to meet our demands they would need to grow the staff base by…….yes you guessed it….20%!  Could this simply be a coincidence or is there a link to the volume of recent redundancies?

Now that they, and we, know that the extra work we are doing is the equivalent of 20% of the academic workforce, what is Sheffield Hallam University’s management going to do about it?  We think that if the university needs to recruit an extra 20% staff to make SHU a safe place to work then that is exactly what it should do!  As we’ve already said they could rethink the £220 million they plan to spend on Campus Masterplan.

We remain optimistic and open to discussions with management but they have not as yet expressed an interest in talks to stop this wave of strikes happening.  On the contrary, they have asked us to meet with them at some point during week commencing 16th December. 

One thing management need to know though is that the health and safety of our members is something we cannot and will not negotiate over.

When are the strike days?

The first wave of strikes are planned for the eight working days, from Monday 25 November to Wednesday 4 December 2019 inclusive.

What will happen on strike days?

Despite management telling students the university will be “open as usual” we know how strongly our members feel about this dispute so we expect there to be significant disruption to teaching activities.

Teaching will stop.  Emails will not be answered.  Assessment activities will not take place.  Each member of staff taking part in the strike will lose a full day’s pay for every day they strike. 

We are advising our members to strongly resist the pressure of management to reschedule missed classes.   There is no obligation on the part of the striking member of staff to reschedule any cancelled activities once the strike is over.  In fact, any activity that is rescheduled would constitute further workload intensification as the member will not have been paid for completing that activity.  In effect they would be working for free.

Every morning from 8-11am there will be pickets placed at all the entrances to buildings in both the City and Collegiate campuses.  Come and join us! 

Many of your peers have already told us they intend to just that.   You’ll easily be able to spot the pickets as there will be “Official UCU Picket” signs and members of UCU on the picket line will be wearing armbands.

So far the response we’ve received from students has been extremely positive and supportive.  The NUS have issued a statement offering their full support to the national action.  We also have the full support of SHU’s students’ union and many students are already active online raising awareness of the dispute.  You can help by joining us on the picket lines and adding your voice to ours.  Write to the Vice Chancellor to raise your concerns with him about the impact this action is having on your education.

SHU and University of Sheffield will be hosting a series of Teach Outs during the 8 days and we have some other activities planned, including rallies with guest speakers.  You are very welcome to join in.  Once we finalised the schedule we’ll post it on the website.

We recognise that some may be annoyed and frustrated by our action.  Please talk to us.  Let us tell you our personal stories so you understand why we are disrupting your learning and preparing to take a significant financial hit, just before the Christmas holiday.

We urge you to consider that if we succeed in securing more time to complete our work this will mean more time to develop better quality materials and to spend teaching and supporting you.

If you have any questions or want to tell us what you think about the dispute, or simply want to come and say hi we would love to see you.  The more of you that support the dispute the stronger our voice becomes.

Musical instruments, colourful banners, creative costumes all very welcome as are children and dogs, big or small.

What is a picket line?

When a trade union enters into a dispute with its employer and has obtained a mandate for taking strike action it has the right to demonstrate their withdrawal of labour at their place of work.  Workers taking strike action will gather near the entrance to the workplace in an attempt to persuade others not taking action, such as dissident members of the union, members of other unions and non-unionised workers, to join the strike, and to raise awareness of the dispute.

These gatherings are called pickets.   Pickets are legally protected forms of indirect action.

We will be placing pickets at each entrance of the main buildings at both City and Collegiate campuses during this strike action.

Pickets are often loud and lively.  They provide an opportunity for the staff members to discuss the problems they are experiencing that have led to the strike being called.

They can be confrontational; members on strike lose pay every day they are on strike.  It can therefore be extremely disappointing to see colleagues continuing to work and attempts to dissuade them from doing so can sometimes get heated.  Under no circumstances however should a picket line ever become violent.  Physical contact between picketers and those choosing to cross the picket line is not acceptable and will be not be tolerated on the picket lines during this dispute.

What constitutes "crossing a picket line" and should I cross it?

Crossing a picket line refers to the act of entering into a workplace when there is an ongoing legal dispute.

Employees that are not directly involved in the industrial action may refuse to cross picket lines. These employees then, even if not members of the same union, can normally be regarded as being on strike and treated accordingly.

Members of the union that choose to cross a picket line, take annual leave or “work from home” are known as “strike breakers”.   By crossing the picket line during a dispute between an employer and their own union a member is effectively siding with management in the dispute.  A union can discipline members for breaking a strike.

This is only a picket line for our colleagues at SHU, not for students.  You are free to cross it and carry on with the “alternative arrangements” that management have planned.  However, there is dignity in not crossing a picket line.  There is honour in defending a principle.  There is courage in standing up to the powerful. There is justice in righting a wrong.  Stand alongside us and enjoy a valuable lesson in life instead.

What is "action short of a strike" and when is it taking place?

Strike action is a complete withdrawal of labour.

According to SHU’s FAQ “action short of a strike” (ASOS) COULD include the following:

  • Working to contract
  • Not covering for absent colleagues
  • Not undertaking any voluntary activities

ASOS means working to contract.  We are contracted to work the equivalent of 37.5 hours per week.  Anything over this is extra work we are doing that our employer isn’t paying us for.  Working to contract means only doing what we are being paid to do! 

Legally and morally working to contract is all anyone should ever be expected to do!

Our work patterns can vary dramatically from one week to the next.  This is why we have a work planning system; to ensure that if you have a particularly busy work period, i.e., work longer than 37.5 hours a week, at one point in the year this is offset at a different point in the year by a relatively quieter period, i.e., working a shorter week than 37.5 hours.  For us then working strictly to contract is to only undertake those activities identified on the AWP system.  In other words anything that does not attract hours on AWP will not be undertaken.

Staff that already have full work plans should never be expected to cover for absent colleagues.  This is the equivalent of working for free.  It is the responsibility of the university to provide extra staff to cover for absences; staff already stretched to maximum capacity no longer have the time to continue doing this out of good will.

The same is true for voluntary activities such as attending open days.  Members of staff are offered a day in lieu for attending open days.  However, participation in open days does not always attract hours on AWP.  Therefore, in order to take advantage of the day in lieu, another day’s worth of work needs to be taken off AWP.  As it is not yet possible to invent time (oh that we could!) if the equivalent isn’t taken off AWP then this is a fictitious day! It does not exist!  We are merely spreading that extra day’s work across the other days of the year.

So, unless contractually obliged to do so members will be advised to not engage with these types of activities as these are all examples of workload intensification and exploitation of our labour for free.

Will the university be open?

No doubt management will do its utmost to remain “open as normal”.   We noted with interest in their message to students that “alternative arrangements” will be made.  We are disappointed that management have such little regard for our award-winning teaching that they believe we are so easy to replace and so quickly.  We apologise to you on their behalf for assuming you care so little about your learning experience that any old “alternative arrangements” will do.

Will all staff be on strike?

We are expecting a significant majority of our members to be on strike.  That’s the message we are getting from across the university   Some areas will be affected more than others as some staff members belong to different unions.  But we are signing up new members and numbers are growing every day.

Anyone who chooses to cross the picket line is effectively saying that, on top of the 20% pay cut we have already had since 2009, they are willing to accept a further 20% pay cut (by management’s own admission).  They will be saying they accept the increased 6-day week workload the new AWP system imposes on us, and they won’t be getting a single penny more for it.

Our members know there is a lot at stake in this dispute.  They know the new AWP calculation model poses a real health and well-being risk to each member of staff.  They know the quality of teaching, something we have worked really hard to achieve an extremely high standard in over the last decade, will decline due to lack of time to invest in maintaining it.  They also care about your learning experience and know that we need more time outside of the timetabled activities to be able to support you. 

In essence we need more time to be able to do our jobs properly and that requires having a truly fair, transparent and equitable system that values non-contact time.

If they get all this, and we think they do, then our members will be out in force.

Will my lecturer be on strike for all 8 days?

We are expecting all members to strike every day.  It would be counter-productive for staff to strike on one day and not on another.  It would also undermine the efforts of other members who are on strike. 

Not striking on a strike day would also most likely mean crossing a picket line, which is something a member should never do.  Some non-members will book annual holidays or work from home on these days so they don’t cross a picket line.

Members are not obliged to tell management whether they intend to take strike action in advance of doing so.  In fact, we are encouraging members individually to not inform management of their intentions.  Providing advance warning allows management to make “alternative arrangements”, which negates the effect of taking strike action.  We’re sorry therefore that you won’t know in advance if your classes will be going ahead unhindered. Instead we recommend that you come along in the morning of the strike days to any of the campus buildings and join us on one of our many picket lines.  You might just spot your tutor!

What is the Trade Unions Act?

The Trade Union Act is a law that was originally passed in 1871 that gave workers the legal right to withdraw their labour in protest at changes to working conditions.

It was been revised a number of times since then.  The latest revision in 2016 imposed stricter conditions on balloting members.  In order for a trade union to have a mandate to take action on behalf of members they need to hold a postal ballot of all members.  There must be a minimum of 50% of members participating in the vote and of those who vote there must be a minimum of 50% in favour of action.

Contacts

We want to help you access information in as many ways possible.

As well as paying attention to the information provided by SHU you can also find information about the strike from the following:

Check this webpage via MyHallam for the latest information and FAQs

Email: IndustrialActionEnquiries@shu.ac.uk

We also suggest you write directly to the Vice Chancellor if you need information on SHU’s position.

You can also make a Freedom of Information request from the university if there is information that you would like regarding number of employees made redundant and associated costs, capital expenditure past and planned, consultancy fees paid for the recent change programmes, cost to university of meeting our demands.

“c/o Information Governance Officer, Sheffield Hallam University, City Campus, Howard Street, Sheffield, S1 1WB”

You can ask the SHU UCU branch committee directly by emailing ucu@shu.ac.uk 

You can speak to your Lecturer / Academic Adviser / Supervisor or other staff about the strike action.  If someone does tell you they are going to go on strike we would respectfully request that you try not to make this too easy for management by spreading the word.  We know you will want to tell your classmates but the more unexpected the disruption to more impact it will have and the sooner we can all get back to work.

We will keep posting information on this website as quickly as we can and update the front page with the latest status.

You can find out more information about the national strike from UCU main website

Further Information

Hopefully you have found these FAQs useful but we are happy to provide any further explanations and will add to this and other information as requested.

If you have questions or concerns you should continue to use your normal channels to academic staff and other services.

If you are feeling anxious as a result of this strike action you can take advantage of the University’s Student Support Services who can offer wellbeing and other support. You can also contact the Advice Centre at Hallam Students’ Union.

Alternatively, you can come and join us on the picket line and be part of the efforts to stop the disinvestment of the HE sector and to safeguard the health and well-being of your tutors.  We’d be delighted to see you.

Contact SHU UCU Branch Committee

If you have a question you’d like to ask us email us.