University of Birmingham's Aston Webb Great Hall

University of Birmingham UCU: Annual Review 2021

It’s been a busy and demanding year for our union branch. We have seen a number of challenges, especially related to the pandemic and our ongoing attempts to protect the health and safety of our members, as well as seeking to ensure the pandemic isn’t used as an opportunity to undermine our conditions of employment, or to introduce changes that erode our professional or pedagogical autonomy.

We have held a large number of members’ meetings over the past year. These have informed our key priorities and activities, as follows:

Health and Safety during the pandemic

We engaged in ongoing and intense negotiations over the health and safety implications of the University’s return to campus-based teaching and working, which took place for all of term one. Throughout this time we repeatedly insisted on UCU’s position: that the return to campus was highly likely to ensure a spike in Covid-19 transmissions. Any review of the past 12 months will be clear that the return of students to universities in September 2020 was a major factor in the second wave of Covid. This is now irrefutable. We consistently held the University management to account on this point, including organising a ballot for industrial action which took place between November 2020 and January 2021. While we were unsuccessful in reaching the 50% threshold (missing out by only 12 votes), it is clear that our sustained pressure ensured that the University management were repeatedly forced to consider the health implications of their actions. Negotiations did get to a point in January 2021 where it was agreed that, at least in principle, teaching/working on-campus could be done on a voluntary basis – although as events transpired the second lockdown which occurred in 2021 ensured that most teaching/working was moved off-campus.

UCU members who failed to vote in the ballot do need to consider the impact that their failure to participate in the ballot had on our capacity for industrial action. This put vulnerable members at risk of returning to campus and undermined our ability to act as a union on behalf of our members. In all official ballots for industrial action it is essential that members vote, in order to avoid undermining our union.

Redundancies

We have faced a round of restructures which have included proposals for redundancies, including in Creative Media, Conferences/Events, and Catering. This saw well over 100 members of staff put at risk of redundancy over the past 12 months. In each case, we sought to put together a counter-proposal that highlighted the rushed and unnecessary nature of the proposals for redundancies. We also supported our affected members throughout this process, accompanying members in their one-to-one discussions with the University. We are pleased that as a result of these negotiations, no UCU members were made compulsorily redundant. As we have recently highlighted, however, this was partly due to the high-pressure tactics of the current University management, in which we have seen a unilateral breach our longstanding UoB-UCU Agreement on Avoiding Compulsory Redundancies. We need to consider how best to respond to this move, and especially how we can ensure a reinstatement by the University management of their commitment to avoiding compulsory redundancies.

Curriculum reforms

We have consistently highlighted the impact that the so-called Framework for Educating Resilience (FER) has had upon the curriculum and the academic freedom of staff. We are adamant that the pandemic must not be used as an opportunity to impose changes such as forced team-teaching, rationalisation of teaching resources and reductions in teaching staff, or changes to workload. The new PROFF initiative is equally concerning in this regard. We have also made it clear that once the FER is ended in spring 2022, staff must be provided with the opportunity to re-start teaching those modules that were put “in abeyance” as part of the emergency Covid measures.

Birmingham Academic Career Framework

We raised substantial objections to the proposed Birmingham Academic Career Framework (BACF). As a result of sustained BUCU campaigning and negotiations with the University management, a considerably improved version of the scheme was adopted. The main improvements secured were to: remove the planned 1-year stage of the probation system; introduce an automatic extension of the 5-year stage of the probation system, by one year; reduce the total number of points required for promotion from Assistant Professor to Associate Professor (from 19 points to 18 points); and provide staff who take leave during the probation with an additional length of time to achieve promotion from Assistant Professor to Associate Professor, by an amount of 150% of the time during which the leave occurred.

Anti-racism

We have continued our anti-racism work, including through the consultation of Black members over their key concerns (which included recruitment processes within the University; support for migrant members; Health and Safety issues arising from Covid-19 that have a disproportionate impact on BAME staff; to draw attention to the lack of racial diversity at the higher levels of the University, particularly at the level of the University senior management; and to ensure our members are fully aware of the key legal rights they can use to challenge discrimination).

In addition to taking up these priorities, we have also created a new anti-racism working group, created the new post of Anti-Racism Officer, and supported the campaign group, Unis Resist Border Controls.

Next week we have our first anti-racism workshop, on Monday 21st June 1pm-2.30pm. Sign up here: https://cpd.web.ucu.org.uk/events/bucu-anti-racism-workshop-monday-21-june-1-00pm

Anti-casualisation

We continue to challenge the University’s move towards casualisation. In particular, we are seeking to provide additional support to members who fall foul of the University’s bizarrely-named “Permanent with a Fixed End Date” contracts – which do not exist in employment law and seek to simply “re-brand” staff contracts for those who have a fixed-term contract but have a legal entitlement to be moved onto a permanent contract. These staff regularly find themselves treated as second-class citizens within the University and discarded through redundancies in ways that are far more onerous than staff with permanent contracts. This needs to be ended and we are doing our best to highlight the potentially unlawful nature of this practice.

In addition, the branch supported the University of Birmingham Mutual Support Fund.

We also continued to provide casualised staff with a range of arguments to seek furlough rather than dismissal.

We are currently pressing the University to provide facilities time so that staff on fixed-term or part-time contracts are entitled to take part in UCU trade union activities in the same way as permanent staff are.

Casework

Finally, much of our ongoing casework continues to occur in the background. Much of this sees our members provide support for fellow members when problems arise as a result of working at the University of Birmingham. We rely for volunteers to provide this support, and over the past year we have handled at least 100 requests for advice and support. Please consider volunteering to be a caseworker – our casework admins can always be contacted here: casework@birminghamucu.org



ON THE HORIZON

While the branch will need to decide on its priorities over the year, through both ongoing members’ meetings and through deliberation within the branch committee, we can nevertheless identify some key areas where activities will need to be focused:

  • USS dispute – there are clear moves towards a national dispute over the reforms proposed to the USS pension scheme. We will need to mobilise for any ballot that happens relating to this dispute, and then participate in the dispute.
  • Pay dispute – in addition to the USS dispute, the national pay negotiations have also been progressing poorly, suggesting that a dispute over pay might also be on the horizon.
  • Redundancies – we urgently need to defend the earlier commitment that we won from the University to seek to avoid compulsory redundancies – we need to insist that earlier commitments are upheld by the current University managers.
  • Post-FER teaching – once the Framework for Educating Resilience is ended in spring 2022, staff must be provided with the opportunity to re-start teaching those modules that were put “in abeyance” as emergency Covid measures.
  • Climate change/sustainability campaign: we plan to push the university on making significant progress towards addressing the challenges posed by the Climate Emergency. This will be done in collaboration with the other unions on campus.
  • Flexible working – we continue to pressure the University to agree to flexible working as part of the post-lockdown working conditions. See our petition and letter to the University managers. Full details here: https://birminghamucu.org/2021/06/09/update-on-petition-for-flexibility-for-home-working/

Finally, ways YOU can contribute…

There is a mountain of work involved in organising and mobilising our trade union branch. This is rewarding but it’s also challenging. We have over 1400 members in our branch, which gives us considerable influence within the University – and the more that members volunteer and contribute, the stronger we can be in our influence and negotiations. We are always seeking new volunteers. Please make sure you contribute to our collective efforts – this can take a range of forms with a range of different levels of input – just attending branch meetings represents a significant contribution to the branch, we also have a number of ad hoc working groups, and we have a range of additional duties that can be done, all of which have opportunities for training – this can take as little as a few hours per term. Contact our branch administrator if you want more information on the contribution you can make: admin@birminghamucu.org

Onwards to academic year 2021-22!

BUCU committee

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