Open Letter


  • Open Letter

    Dear Sir Steve Smith and University of Exeter Senior Management Team, 

    We, the undersigned, are writing to express our concerns around the impact of strikes on current students’ education and experience. Furthermore, on behalf of the 78% of respondents to the Students’ Guild poll, we express support for the UCU members who feel that their pay, working conditions and pensions are being undervalued or diminished by this institution and universities across the sector. As a university, we should aim to be sector leading as an equitable institution where everyone can work, learn and study to their highest potential. However, poor working conditions like these only set us back. 

    In addition to the poll, the Students’ Guild has received to date nearly 300 responses from students to a survey regarding what impacts the strike is having on their studies and welfare, and what support they need from the institution. By far the biggest concern is missing teaching contact hours, and therefore missing out on assessment content. Impact on their degree classification and concern over lack of support from lecturers made up most of the remaining responses. Over half of the respondents also expected a negative impact on their welfare, mostly related to stress. 

    There were numerous ways that students wanted support from the University, with the majority being around mitigation, including how exams and deadlines will be adjusted to counter the impact of the strikes, and what measures are being put in place as alternatives for them to learn the content of their course. Students also want the University to engage in the recommencement of national negotiations as well as play a part locally, in good faith. We understand that the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA) have engaged in negotiation with the UCU and that UCEA will consult with university leaders on what may be offered to resolve the dispute [1]. We encourage this institution to play a part in this and we encourage you to listen to the needs of your staff members.  

    We are extremely concerned that surveillance measures forced onto universities via the Hostile Environment Policy are undermining students’ political freedom, which has been highlighted by emails sent by other institutions such as Liverpool and Goldsmiths [2]. Students have directly expressed concerns regarding the repercussions to their attendance record that may arise if they miss lectures [3], and visa precarity must not be used against students to pressure them to cross the picket line against their personal choice. 

    We are happy to see that University of Exeter has provided clarification that students’ attendance will not be monitored during the strike, as detailed in your online FAQs. However, we encourage you, with utmost urgency, to share this further to ensure all students, particularly international students, understand they have a right to support the strike of which you must honour.

    We sincerely hope that home students are also not punished, in any way, for supporting the strike by not crossing the picket line. We know that currently not crossing the picket line does not qualify as ground for mitigation application, but this policy will disadvantage a lot of vulnerable students. There is no way for students to reliably find out whether their lecturers are striking or not. For students who must commute a long distance to campus, it does not financially make sense for them to risk travelling in only to find out their classes are not on. Moreover, for students with disabilities, specifically those who experience sensory overload, crossing the picket line has damaging effects on their welfare. You may argue that the attendance of students with disabilities would be mitigated and covered by their Individual Learning Plan (ILP), but not all disabled students declare their disabilities (because of the stigma around it, for example) and therefore may not have an ILP. Therefore, we insist that the University allow not crossing the picket line as a valid ground for mitigation, to honour and uphold all students’ rights to support the strike. 

    We hope that the problems that have caused this dispute are reconciled as soon as possible. Please use your influence to engage in national negotiation with the UCU, and please engage with our local union branch to offer resolution to the dispute. We will continue to gather feedback from our students and work together with our community to make sure they feel supported throughout the dispute. We trust that you will make this your highest priority and work towards a solution to limit the negative impact on students’ education and experience any further.  

    Yours sincerely, 

    Patrick Hoyle – Students' Guild President 

    Penny Dinh – Students' Guild VP Education 

    Katie Heard – Students' Guild VP Welfare and Diversity 

    Olivia Harvey – Students' Guild VP Activities 

    Sunday Blake – Students' Guild VP Postgraduate 

    Ginny Thomas – Pro-Vice-President Postgraduate Research  

    Co-signed by: 

    View Co-signatories 

    Co-sign this Letter 

    References 

    1. https://www.ucea.ac.uk/news-releases/26nov19/  
    2. https://www.theguardian.com/education/2019/nov/24/universities-accused-of-using-strong-arm-tactics-to-stop-strike-action 
    3. https://www.theguardian.com/education/2019/nov/27/international-students-crossing-picket-lines-out-of-fear-of-losing-visas  
  • Response - Sir Steve Smith (29 November 2019)

    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 industrialaction@exeter.ac.uk 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,

    Steve

    Professor Sir Steve Smith FAcSS
    Vice-Chancellor and Chief Executive
    University of Exeter
    Northcote House
    Queen's Drive
    EXETER
    EX4 4PD
    United Kingdom

  • Our Response (3 December 2019)

    3rd December 2019

    Re: Open letter regarding Industrial Action

    Dear Professor Sir Steve Smith and the Senior Management Team,

    Thank you for your response, we appreciate your consideration of our many points and for clarifying much of the information we were asking for. However, as this dispute has progressed, we believe there are still some significant challenges that have not been addressed through your response. In consideration of the 78% of our polled students who stated they were supportive of UCU’s cause, we would welcome the opportunity to talk these through in more detail with the aim of trying to find a compromised way forward if possible.

    In our open letter we expressed how, as a university, we should aim to be sector leading as an equitable institution where everyone can work, learn and study to their highest potential. Therefore, the issues we would specifically like to discuss finding a local way forward on are:

    1. Casualisation of the workforce, which potentially affects a significant number of our PGR students.

    2. Gender and BAME pay gap which, again, potentially impacts many of our PGR students as well as the wider academic community and its impact on our inclusive university community.

    3. Create a ‘compassionate campus’ type approach, listen to feedback from staff about their feelings of pressure at work, and aim to improve general working conditions and the campus community for the benefit of all.

    4. How withheld staff wages are being utilised to benefit the student body impacted by the industrial action (to ensure the University are not benefitting from Industrial Action).

    5. Clarification of how University Senior Management are working towards resolving the issues that have led to the industrial action both locally and nationally.

    We would very much appreciate an opportunity to discuss the above issues, to gain some movement on these, and would be happy to meet with representatives from the Senior Management Team at your earliest convenience.

    With best wishes,

    University of Exeter Students’ Guild Students Leadership Team

  • Response - Sir Steve Smith (February 2020)

    Dear University of Exeter Students’ Guild Students Leadership Team,

    Many thanks for your open letter of the 3rd December. We do appreciate that there are still some significant challenges for us to address and we are really keen for your continued involvement and engagement so we can co-create solutions. I appreciate you raising several issues and I would now like to address each of these in turn: Casualisation of the workforce, which potentially affects a significant number of our PGR students Both myself and the University senior team appreciate the employment arrangements under which some teachers, including our PGR students, are employed have contributed to industrial action both locally and nationally, and we have agreed actions to address this. As you will know from what I have stated publicly on many occasions, I am committed to ending the use of casual contracts to undertake teaching in the University.

    I have also done my utmost to reassure staff that while some of the issues involved in the strike are national (pensions and pay) others can be resolved through proactive local bargaining (such as contract standardisation and working conditions). This means that together we can make changes without a national agreement.

    As you are aware, I have now established a Fair Employment For All working group which has been commissioned to decide what our priorities should be, and what future actions we should take in this regard. The background to the work of the group is important context and demonstrates, I believe, our continued commitment to improve the working conditions of colleagues working here at the University. I truly believe we can make significant progress by identifying positive changes in the following areas:

    • Ensuring all of our regularly timetabled teaching is delivered by colleagues employed on standard contracts of employment;
    • Significantly increasing our use of open-ended contracts of employment, recognising that fixed term contracts will be appropriate in a limited range of circumstances, such as cover for study leave and family leave; ? Working towards standard paid time allowances for preparation, marking and associated activities, which we recognise is a concern for members of our PGR community working as PTAs.

    This working group, which includes representation from the Students’ Guild and the Students Union, will meet monthly from now until May when it will report to the Vice-Chancellor’s Executive Group and the Joint Committee for Consultation and Negotiation in June 2020. The recommendations will also be reported to Senate and Council.

    Gender and BAME pay gap which, again, potentially impacts many of our PGR students as well as the wider academic community and its impact on our inclusive university community You will be aware from the Guild’s involvement with the University’s equality groups and equality initiatives, including the new EDI Vision, that the senior management of the University has a strong commitment to improving equality. We have outlined in our Gender Pay Gap reports for 2017 and 2018 and in our Athena Swan submissions and action plans, the steps we are taking to improve gender equality. In particular we are looking at women’s progression in academic roles, recognising that the primary reason for the gender pay gap is the over-representation of women in grades B to E and the under-representation of women in more senior roles. While progress has been made, we
    recognise that there are further steps we can take and I have asked the Provost, the Director of College Operations and the Director of People Services to lead on this.

    The team are working on generating robust data and have created an equality dashboard which will be launched next month. The ethnicity and BAME pay gap will be discussed at the next Race Equality Charter Mark meeting and then published more generally. We also recognise that there are further steps the University must take to improve equality for BAME staff and students, which is why we are making a priority of working towards achieving the Race Equality Charter Mark. I hope that student representatives will continue to work with the University to make progress across all our equality initiatives.

    Create a ‘compassionate campus’ type approach, listen to feedback from staff about their feelings of pressure at work, and aim to improve general working conditions and the campus community for the benefit of all.

    The notion of a ‘compassionate campus' is one that emerged from the recent Wellbeing and Welfare Review which looked at how we could create a community more aligned with the promotion of positive mental health. Naturally this would need to take account of feedback from staff, which we are already doing through the Employee Engagement Survey and the Positive Working Environment Forum. One of the key recommendations of the Wellbeing and Welfare Review was the creation of a new governance structure for this area including staff, students and external partners such as the NHS. The creation of a 'compassionate campus' will be assessed alongside the other recommendations from the Review.

    How withheld staff wages are being utilised to benefit the student body impacted by the industrial action (to ensure the University are not benefiting from industrial action). We are committed to ensuring that all withheld pay is used for the benefit of students affected by industrial action and the University will not simply use these funds as savings. We have provided a FAQ on the use of withheld wages resulting from industrial action and there is also information on how the withheld pay from the 2018 industrial action was spent. Once again we are fully committed to working with the Students' Guild and the Students' Union in Cornwall to determine the most appropriate way of spending the money from the current period of industrial action.

    Clarification of how University Senior Management are working towards resolving the issues that have led to the industrial action both locally and nationally.

    On the 17th February, I wrote to the University community clarifying what we have been doing to find a resolution to the current dispute. Our understanding is that the dispute is focussed on pensions, pay, casualisation, workload and equality. I have included the key points again here:

    1. In relation to the pension dispute, I can confirm that in response to the latest UUK consultation the University of Exeter would be willing to be put back on the table the offer of an additional 0.5% employer contribution. This offer was previously made by UUK to the UCU but was rejected by the UCU HEC without consultation with members late last summer.

    2. We remain committed to ensuring the USS pension continues to be one of the very best schemes in the country. We have been fully supportive of the recommendations of the Joint Expert Panel (JEP), as well as the recommendations outlined in the JEP2 report, which was released in December 2019.

    3. In relation to pay, we were one of only three institutions (out of 147) who proposed to increase the current pay offer. As this move was not agreed by the majority of universities and we are bound by national bargaining, UCEA had no mandate to re-open the national pay negotiations.

    4. Following my emails to all staff in September 2018 and December 2019, in which we committed ourselves to ending casualisation, we continue working together as a community to resolving these institutional dilemmas. This has led to the creation of the Fair Employment For All working group which I referenced above.

    5. We are working closely with colleagues, trade unions and student representatives on casual employment, workload, and gender and race equality through the Positive Working Environment groups alongside the Fair Employment For All working group.

    The work of these groups builds on our continued commitment to improve the working conditions of colleagues here at the University and follows on from our previous actions which have included: paying the voluntary Living Wage to contracted staff and casual workers, launching our sectorleading parental benefits for all, and improving our pay scales for Lecturers and Senior Lecturers.

    I hope this clarifies the University’s collective efforts to resolve the issues at the heart of the dispute. I also want to assure all colleagues and students that I will continue to work proactively and tirelessly with all parties and I am still hopeful that together as a community we can find a way to resolve these national disputes without the need for further strike action.

    With best wishes

    Steve


University of Exeter Students' Guild is a Charity and Company Limited by Guarantee. Registered Charity Number: 1136468 Company Number: 07217324; registered in England and Wales Registered office: Devonshire House, Stocker Road, Exeter, EX4 4PZ