Dear Sabbatical Officers of the Students’ Guild, 29 November 2019
Thank you for taking the time to write to the University about your concerns in relation to the current UCU strike action.
As you will be aware, since the ballots were announced in June, we’ve been regularly meeting with colleagues across the University, including members of the Students’ Guild and Students’ Union, to carefully manage the potential impact any planned industrial action may have on our university community, and to ensure any measures we put in place are the right ones for our students.
We have been regularly communicating with our students to share information about how to access information about learning support for lost teaching sessions, the January exams, extensions to assignments / coursework. In addition to this, we have shared information about the variety of additional support sessions that have been organised at our Exeter and Penryn campuses, and have encouraged students to explore the online FAQs that have been developed in response to the queries we received from students during the 2018 strike action – we have added to these as and when we have received further queries from students during this period of industrial action.
We know that, during the first five days of the industrial action, there has been substantial variation in the level of disruption faced by students in different disciplines. To mitigate against some of this disruption, we have organised a number of extra academic and wellbeing support sessions that have been running throughout the planned industrial action. We have also been highlighting the Wellbeing Services at both the Exeter and Cornwall campuses and the self-help tool, SilverCloud, so that students know how to access wellbeing support should they need it. We have asked students to let us, or their SSLC representatives, know whether there is any other support they would welcome and we would appreciate any feedback that you are able to share with us too so we can ensure we have the right support in place for our students.
Like you, we remain concerned about the impact the strikes are having on our students and we want to reassure you that throughout the negotiating period on both the USS pension and the national pay negotiation disputes we have been talking to UUK and UCEA about the need to continue to discuss and find a resolution to both of these matters.
As an institution we are committed to ensuring USS remains one of the very best pension schemes in the country. We, and UUK, fully supported the JEP 1 report, and the USS Trustee (independent of the employers) accepted most of the recommendations. The current increase in employer and member contribution rates is lower than those proposed under the 2017 valuation, and these increases have resulted in an adjustment of our accounts this year by £88m, and by £4m year on year. We have given our views to UUK with regard to input into the JEP 2 review to ensure that USS is a sustainable scheme for the future and, along with other employers, are committed to working with the UCU to deliver reforms to the scheme’s funding and governance arrangements.
Alongside the on-going national pay negotiations, locally we have made a number of changes to improve the working conditions of our colleagues which include: changes to Grades B and C as part of our commitment to offer a competitive reward package, paying the voluntary Living Wage to contracted staff and casual workers, re-opening Band 4 contribution rate for members of ERSS in Spring 2019, as well as launching improved parental benefits for all colleagues.
In August this year, we also invited the UCU to carry out a joint review of occasional teachers and would also welcome your participation in these discussions so you are able to be involved in shaping this important piece of work, please do let me know if you are interested in contributing to these discussions and we will set up a suitable date and time to meet.
As you will be aware, during the period of industrial action we are encouraging students to continue to attend all of their timetabled sessions. Wherever possible, we are letting students know in advance, via text and email, if any of their teaching sessions are affected. However, colleagues do not have to let us know if they are taking strike action so we are not always able to provide students with an update. We have apologised to students for the disruptions they may have experienced and have asked students with specific concerns to contact us via firstname.lastname@example.org or face-to-face at the additional support sessions we are running at our Exeter and Penryn campuses so we can look into their concerns and contact them with an individual response.
In terms of students participating in the strike action, we are fully committed to ensuring all students are able to freely express their views and acknowledge that some students may choose not to cross picket lines. We have published information on our FAQ webpage to let students know that we will not be monitoring attendance during the period of industrial action. This means students’ attendance records, including Tier 4 visa holders’ attendance records, will not be affected by the industrial action.
As also highlighted in our online FAQs, students should be aware that their individual choice not to attend timetabled sessions which are unaffected by strike action will not result in any penalty or condemnation; however, they should also be aware that such choices would not be considered as grounds for mitigation in relation to assessments. As an institution, we will be continuing to encourage all students to attend their timetabled sessions and submit assignments as normal.
I would very much welcome the opportunity to discuss these issues with you further and would be happy to meet with you at a suitable date and time that works for you.
With best wishes,
Professor Sir Steve Smith FAcSS
Vice-Chancellor and Chief Executive
University of Exeter