UCU 'Love our ARPS' sticker on a lamp post with street view in the background

Report back from Academic-Related Professional Services (ARPS) National Annual Meeting

On the 12th March 2020 Josh Allen, Birmingham UCU committee member and academic-related member of staff travelled to the UCU national HQ in London to be one of Birmingham’s delegates at the Academic-Related Professional Services (ARPS) National Annual Meeting. Below, Josh reports back on how he found the meeting, what he learned and shares his thoughts on what Birmingham UCU could do to recruit and support ARPS staff at Birmingham.

What are ARPS?

For the uninitiated: the term Academic Related Professional Services staff (ARPS), collectively describes the group of staff at pre-1992 universities (such as Birmingham) who whilst not directly engaged in the production and transmission of knowledge, possess specialist skills and knowledge essential to the functioning of the university. We are employed on similar contractual terms to teaching fellows, research fellows, lecturers, senior lecturers and readers, sit on the same payscale, and are eligible for membership of the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS). For these reasons UCU is recognised both locally and nationally as the trade union best placed to represent the interests of academic related staff.

At Birmingham all non-academic staff employed on Grade Six or above are considered ARPS. Traditional academic related roles include: librarians, archivists, computing officers, deputy registrars, careers officers and senior laboratory technicians. However, the category has significantly broadened in recent years as higher education institutions and the demands of running one, have become more complex. Meaning it now encompasses a diverse set of emerging roles and work areas including: e-learning technologists, impact officers, communication officers, student counselling and wellbeing professionals, marketing officers, grant writers, project managers and a whole array of senior administrative roles situated in schools, colleges and the university’s central administration.

Election of ARPS Committee

The first part of the Meeting was the national ARPS Committee AGM. Delegates heard a report (over telelink) from Jess Meacham (Sheffield) the Deputy Chair of the ARPS Committee on the work that had been undertaken since the last Meeting in 2019. After hearing the report new members of the Committee were elected to serve from 2020. With four vacancies and three nominations this election was uncontested with Derek Keenan (Strathclyde), Chloe Nast (Goldsmith’s) and Paul Siddall (Essex) being elected.

Raising ARPS concerns with UCU’s National Executive Committee

Following the elections, business turned to motions mandating the ARPS Committee to raise an array of matters of pressing concern for the union’s non-academic membership with UCU’s National Executive Committee. This included ensuring appropriate and proportionate membership for ARPS members on branch committees and in local negotiating meetings (ARPS members make up around twenty percent of UCU’s membership at pre-1992 universities) and two motions calling on the NEC to adopt and promote a campaign focused upon improving the situation of ARPS members within higher education. All of the motions passed and will be sent on to the NEC with a few minor amendments.

Better understanding the experiences and priorities of ARPS members

After the formal AGM part of the meeting, delegates heard a presentation on the results of the ARPS staff survey UCU conducted in the autumn of 2019, and the branch survey carried out in early 2020. These surveys ascertained information about the experience of ARPS staff at the coalface in their institutions and gathered information about issues local branches perceive to impact upon their ARPS members.

The three key issues facing ARPS members as uncovered in the membership survey (which was completed by the equivalent of around thirty percent of UCU’s ARPS membership) were workload, career progression and pay. Which were followed in terms of how often they were cited by work autonomy, flexible working practices and “the withdrawal of resources from… area or service”. In contrast to other sections of UCU’s membership such as those engaged in research and teaching job insecurity was ranked comparatively far down the scale of concerns, as encouragingly; were the issues relating to workplace bullying, equalities and the threat of outsourcing.

Under-representation of certain ARPS roles in UCU membership

These findings were doubtless however, conditioned by the sections of the ARPS workforce that tend to become UCU members. Collectively around a third of those who had completed the survey worked in either IT support or librarian roles, with many others who had filled it in apparently working in comparable and allied areas that are also concerned with technical work and the management of information within institutions. Likewise a great many of these workers had been employed at their current institution for over a decade. In the case of the IT workers surveyed over half had worked at their current institution for more than fifteen years, with large proportions of responding members in other work fields having served for a similar length of time.

This probably partly explains the range of concerns that the membership survey highlighted. Many respondents to the survey indicated that they were trapped at the top of the grade they were employed on (typically corresponding to Birmingham Grade Seven or Eight) and reported that their institution offered limited pathways for progression beyond this point. This suggests that ARPS staff, who are overwhelmingly university graduates, often with masters degrees and PhDs in addition to undergraduate level qualifications, frequently find themselves thwarted when it comes to opportunities to progress in their careers and receive more money for gaining in experience in the job they do.

The challenge of representing younger and more precarious ARPS staff

It is right that UCU is fighting for the longstanding members working in these fields and putting pressure, as the forthcoming “Love our ARPS staff” campaign will do, upon employer’s representatives and individual institutions to do more for staff working in these categories. However, as a younger member employed part-time on a fixed term contract, I felt that the survey also showed how UCU is currently failing to recruit and represent staff working across higher education institutions. Especially in parts of the university where staff are more likely to be younger, have a less clear sense of professional identity, and be more likely to be casualised.

Recruiting younger members, and recruiting and campaigning in parts of the workplace which are more casualised is a challenge for all unions, not just UCU. However, the exponential expansion of specialist roles in higher education related to student recruitment, wellbeing and experience, as well as jobs connected to research support and impact, as well as institutional image and reputation, alongside the general growth in university administrative labour as institutions have increased in size, offers opportunities for UCU to reach and engage with new and emerging layers of staff and work cultures. This makes the survey results interesting in terms of what they show about who UCU’s current ARPS members are, and the sections of the ARPS staff that it is currently struggling to reach.

Speaking up for ARPS members at Birmingham

As an activist within Birmingham UCU, which has good ARPS representation on its branch committee, but little recent history of campaigning extensively on exclusively ARPS related issues, the event was also a great opportunity to hear about what other institutions and branches are like. After hearing the presentation on the survey results, in groups based upon the tables where we were sat, delegates workshopped a campaign that could be run locally to demand a better deal for ARPS staff. Based upon talking to the people I was working with alone, I discovered that Southampton has a branch officer dedicated to working and campaigning on ARPS issues and that Sussex has an ongoing problem with “grade drift” and ARPS staff being downgraded from being on the academic pay scale and enrolled in USS to being on the Support Staff part of the pay spine. It was excellent to be able to share information and tips in this way with other activists, and it will inform the work that I do with Birmingham UCU in future.

Taken together, as well as having the chance to find out more about how UCU works as a national organisation to represent and campaign on issues which matter to university workers, and to help shape national policy, the real value of attending the meeting was in having the chance to listen, learning and talk with other activists about the problems and challenges we face at work and ways in which these can be successfully surmounted through collective action.

Having attended lots of political gatherings in my time, but never a UCU national event before, I was a bit worried; especially given that UCU ARPS members tend to be older, that I’d be the youngest person there by quite some way. However, it was great that in fact there was a good range of activists present (although the members in attendance were predominantly white and British) from across the age spectrum and drawn from an array of university functions. This makes me confident that both nationally and in our branches it will be possible to reach out, organise and diversify the array of ARPS staff that we represent, so as to be able to make collective progress on the issues facing both longstanding and newer members.

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