Covid-negotiations – update in writing

14 August 2020

Dear University of Birmingham Provost,

Following the JNCC meeting that was held on 27 July 2020, we write to confirm in writing our concerns regarding a number of matters discussed in that meeting. In many cases this amounts to a failure to reach an agreement and as such, in accordance with our procedure agreement, the University should not take action on those points before an agreement has been reached with UCU. We request that you confirm in writing for each item how you intend to respond.

As follows:

Equalities issues

We sought greater clarity and action from the University management on how it will avoid the risk of discrimination arising from the re-opening of campus, and associated “Resilience plans”, with particular focus on BAME/Black members and women.

We understand the University response to be that no special measures will be put in place regarding health and safety for Black/BAME staff; and that the University might consider an equality impact assessment.

We believe that to do nothing on Black/BAME members ignores the disproportionate impact of Covid-19. We have therefore failed to agree on this point and we seek further negotiations with a view to agreeing a position whereby the University has an institution-wide framework in place that mitigates the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 for Black/BAME members.

We welcome the University’s recognition that some of the arrangements regarding Covid might have gendered implications. For this reason, we repeat our request that an equality impact assessment would be more reassuring still.

Resilience plans/teaching and curriculum reform

We sought a commitment that the Workload Allocation Model used to calculate workload under the “Resilience plans” will be negotiated with, and agreed to by, BUCU before it is implemented.

We understand that the University’s response was to reject this and instead to inform us that staff should discuss their workloads in our PDR meetings.

This is very disappointing. Surely the purpose of the workload model is to standardise workload. Why would it exist if we are now told to deal with all workload issues through the PDR meeting? We have failed to agree on this point and for that reason we believe that any Covid-related workload model introduced by the University will be done without the agreement of BUCU. As such, there is a failure to agree on this point and the University should not implement the new workload model until we have had a chance to exhaust our procedure agreement.

We also sought a commitment that, for all 3-legged academic staff, any reduction in research time below 33% of the workload, and any cancellation of study leave, will be compensated for in future years.

We understand that the University’s response to this was to reject this.

We therefore continue to seek a compensation for lost research time. As such, there is a failure to agree on this point and the University should not implement the new workload allocation regarding research until we have had a chance to exhaust our procedure agreement.

On the question of online recording of lectures, we were satisfied that the University confirms its commitment to this Code of Practice. In particular these sections respond largely to the points that we have raised:

“Lecturers retain performance rights and a lecturer therefore has the right to prevent the recording from taking place in the first place, or to remove recorded content that has previously been made available.”

“Where a lecturer declines to record a taught session that would otherwise be appropriate for lecture capture, they should provide an ‘acceptable alternative’ […] This alternative support could, for example, take the form of detailed lecture notes, enhanced notes supporting slides; a podcast that provides a commentary on the lecture slides; or a video explaining the session.”

As we have failed in the past to reach an agreement on online recording with the University, BUCU advice on this matter will be that any staff member concerned about the implications of producing recorded lectures should choose not to record lectures or to allow students to record their lectures, as the University’s Code of Practice sets out.

We also sought a commitment that all modules put ‘in abeyance’ for academic year 2019-20 will be re-introduced into the curriculum for academic year 2020-21.

We understand that the University’s position on this was to reject it.

We are concerned that this amounts to a unilateral change to staff duties, done without the agreement of UCU as the recognised representative of the relevant workforce. This therefore has the potential to amount to a breach of contract. We reiterate that there is a failure to agree on this point and the University should not impose these new teaching arrangements until an agreement has been reached on the matter with BUCU.

Health and Safety

We sought a commitment from the University management that the University will not re-open until UCU’s 5 key tests have been met, to the satisfaction of UCU Health and Safety reps.

We understand that the University’s response on this was to say that some of the 5 tests are excessively vague but that ongoing dialogue will continue.

We welcome the ongoing dialogue and engagement on Health and Safety, but we continue to insist on the 5 tests, and our reps’ satisfaction that these are met is crucial.

We also sought a commitment that no staff member who has reasonable concerns about their health, or that of family members, dependents, and/or other people they live with or have contact with regularly, as a result of Covid-19 will be forced to physically return to work on campus.

We understand that this demand was rejected. Instead, we understand that all staff will be required to have a conversation with their line manager before returning physically to campus. Any staff can raise concerns, which will be entered into a form, and those who wish to can see Occupational Health if they think they have a reason not to return to campus. The University doesn’t accept ‘anxiety in itself’ as sufficient grounds for staying off-campus.

We believe that to individualise this process is unfair and dangerous. There should be a general health framework in place that mitigates the risk, especially for those categories of staff especially at risk due to Covid-19. It’s not clear what would happen if staff do visit Occupational Health – will this count against them? Anxiety is a serious issue and shouldn’t be simply dismissed. We continue to insist that all staff should have a risk assessment before returning to work. We also note that Section 44 of the Employment Rights Act 1996, as well as other relevant legislation, may protect staff in the event that they decide to refuse work if they reasonably believe that they would be put in danger by going to work.

Casualised and fixed-term contract staff

We sought reassurance from the University management that staff on fixed-term contracts will see their contracts renewed, where they would have expected that to be the case prior to the Covid-19 lockdown.

We understand that the University response was to reject this.

We believe it is unfair to single out the most vulnerable members of staff at the University to shoulder the initial burden of risk regarding the impact of student numbers.

We also highlighted that there are currently a wide range of vacant PGTA positions across the University that are currently affected by the recruitment freeze. We believe the University management should, at the least, commit to making the 400 hours of paid work through the Academic Skills Centre (ASC) available (as provided in previous years), as soon as possible. Likewise, other similar PGTA work that has taken place before Covid should continues in 2020/2021.

We understood the University response to be to say that nothing could be confirmed until October 2020.

We believe it is unfair to single out the most vulnerable members of staff at the University to shoulder the initial burden of risk regarding the impact of student numbers.

We also understand that there was a commitment to look into the ASC issue. We hope that you might be able to confirm whether this has been looked into, and what the University’s response on this matter is.

Redundancies

We sought reassurance from the University management that they will genuinely consult on ways to avoid the compulsory redundancies of the 20+ staff who are currently at risk, and which has triggered the current round of collective redundancy consultation.

We understand that this was largely rejected on the grounds that there was no ‘collective business case’ to add, other than that external funding had run out.

We are concerned that this is contrary to employment law regarding the University’s obligation to consult with us in an attempt to avoid, reduce or mitigate the impact of redundancies.

We also sought to ensure that staff made compulsorily redundant should benefit from the same voluntary redundancy payment as that offered through the Voluntary Leavers’ Scheme.

We understand that the University’s response was to say that the affected staff members are entitled to apply to the Voluntary Leavers’ Scheme, although there are considerable conditions that would be applied when deciding whether the relevant staff will be provided with the VLS payment. These were spelled out to us in an email sent by the Head of HR later on the day of the JNCC meeting.

We welcome the fact that staff can apply for the VLS scheme, but we believe it would be far fairer to offer this as an enhanced redundancy payment that all staff made redundant are entitled to. We are also concerned that the differentiation made between ‘core staff’ and ‘non-core staff’ is a false one and potentially discriminatory.

We also note that a collective consultation meeting for the 20+ redundancies has now been scheduled. We hope this matter can be resolved satisfactorily through that meeting and subsequent such meetings.

Issues affecting Academic-Related and Professional Services (ARPS) staff

We requested that a budget should be made available to ensure ARPS staff have adequate equipment when working from home.

We understand that this was rejected and that instead the University offers ‘click and collect’ for staff to collect equipment that is currently on-campus.

We believe that the move to long-term working off-campus has involved considerable effort and adaptation by ARPS staff especially. This should be recognised by the University management, who should be as accommodating as possible to the requirements of ARPS staff. “Click and Collect” does not solve a number of the considerable problems that many ARPS staff face in working off-campus.

Regards,
University of Birmingham branch of UCU

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