Monthly Archives: July 2015

June Newsletter

Volume 2, No.1 l June 2015

Coventry University UCU Branch


What has happened so far?

On May 20 2015, staff at Coventry University were informed by an email from the VC John Latham that a reorganisation was due to take place this summer. This was sprung on the membership of the University without any consultation, and indeed was sprung on the Heads and Associate Heads of Department, who are the people most affected by these changes, also without consultation. Indeed many of the latter were in the ironic position of trying to reassure staff anxious about the changes that were taking place, when it was they whose position was most threatened. We in UCU felt this showed outright contempt for those that have worked so hard to achieve the gains that the management are so proud of: in the top 15 according to The Guardian, The Times ‘Modern University of the Year’ two years running. We wrote to the VC expressing our concern about the absence of consultation with UCU as the academic staff union, and his response made absolutely no mention of consultation, but insisted that we as staff should feel ‘excited’ about the changes as these were all about ‘growth’.

Management can legally get away with making these changes without consultation because of the way all Heads and Associate Heads are within the 2012 Framework ‘seconded’ to this role from their substantive posts (usually Principal Lecturer positions). The process now is that these Heads need to apply, competing with external applicants, for the new posts of Head or Deputy Head of the new ‘Schools’. Once this is complete the same process will then be undertaken for the Associate Heads. As well as causing major stress to all those who need to go through it, there is ongoing confusion and a complete lack of clarity about courses that are moving to new Schools, and UCU reps are currently dealing with a tranche of cases of those people who don’t ‘fit in’ with the new structure. We can also be assured Hourly Paid and Fixed Term contract staff will once again treated as expendable by the management, despite their centrality to the work of so many departments.

Why is this happening?

According to the VC these changes are all about ‘growth’, but what sort of ‘growth’ are we seeing now at Coventry University? These changes need to be seen as part of what is becoming widely known as the ‘marketisation of higher education’[1]. In the ‘VC Roadshows’ held in mid June, the Coventry University ‘group’ was repeatedly referred to as a business, as if this was now common sense. But in legal terms, the university is a registered charity, and its ‘primary purpose’ therefore is not profit, but education.

So if Coventry University is being managed as a business, then the purpose of the recent restructuring will be inevitably concerned with finding the most effective and efficient means of creating profit (or in this case ‘surplus’). Historically, this means increasing the power of management and de-skilling the workforce. This is because a skilled workforce can maintain more control over its work, and this is a problem for management if this workforce is not seen to be sufficiently focussed on maximising production, and as a result, profit. For example, one of the key features of our university restructuring is that staff are to be divided into four Faculties of equal size. Why equal size? So that faculties can be more easily measured, judged against each other in terms of performance, and disciplined according to how far they do or don’t meet the ‘corporate plan’. We can predict that our jobs will be broken down more and more into standardised, generalisable processes – it is here that we must be wary of new ideas that ‘everyone is talking about’ like the flipped classroom. Put within the context of the rationalisation of academic work, we could see a future where academic staff produce one-off digital/video lectures, the knowledge ‘transmitted’ through this online material is then consolidated by an army of casual ‘facilitators’ (de-professionalised low paid teaching assistants) through increasingly large seminars. The time saved by academics can then be spent chasing grants, which will become a contractual expectation[2]. This illustrates the dynamics of the re-organisation and the nature of the growth that management have in mind. It essentially concerns eliminating the tacit knowledge that allows staff control of over their work, we can be more easily replaced by less skilled and cheaper labour.

‘But we must make a surplus in order to survive’ – this is the kind of logic you might hear in justification of rationalisation, a plea that sounds as hollow as the ‘we are all in this together’ of Coalition/Tory austerity. In the financial reports[3] for 2012-13 and 2013-14 it was noted that the University group made a £20m surplus both years, raising the overall reserve to more than £200m. While UCU members had to hold a whole series of strikes in 2014 to obtain a 2% increase in pay, within just one academic year (2012-13), our VC was awarded a 17.9% pay-rise, a staggering £218,000 to £257,000 a year![4] As well as the quarter of a million average salary of the VC, £1.7m went to only 14 other ‘highly-paid staff’ during 2013-14.

During the VC roadshow we were also patronised as needing to understand the ‘complexity’ of the university group. As Coventry University is a registered charity with ‘exempt status’, the only way to legally make profit is to set up ‘subsidiary’ companies. This is an avenue the university group has been aggressively pursuing with mixed results. The Serious Games Institute has continued to make a loss, at £1.7m over 2 years, and CU Enterprises made a £303K loss after tax in 2013-14 after barely scraping a £38K profit the previous year. The subsidiary educational ventures are much more successful, with CU College making £300k and London Campus £1m in 2013-14. But this profit comes at great cost to those working at these subsidiary companies.

Contracts and terms and conditions for staff in the new entities are considerably inferior to the University; indeed the vast bulk of teaching and tutoring at all of these is done by people on Hourly paid or Fixed Term contracts. In the new Scarborough campus these staff are now not even referred to as Lecturers, but have the new title Hourly Paid Teacher (HPT). Not many people may be aware of this, but our international students who bring in much needed extra tuition fee income for the university, are also now being taught by staff who have been moved to the subsidiary company CU Services. Pre-sessional English ‘tutors’ who have been re-employed (having been on fixed-term contracts for years) no longer qualify for the Teacher’s Pension Scheme (pension is with Aviva instead, resulting in a significant effective pay cut), and often do not work long enough to complete their probationary period (as they will be required to reapply after each 20/15/10/5 week provision), thus never accruing the benefits of permanent staff.

It is within this context that Coventry University’s rise in the league tables and business ‘growth’ must be understood. But it is important to remember who created this success and growth. Who is it that is earning the ever-increasing and much hallowed ‘student satisfaction’? It is hard, front-line work of the teaching and support staff, not management. If all the academic staff suddenly left in the middle of the academic year, what would happen? The university would grind to a halt. No teaching, no marking, unhappy students, bad NSS ratings, no ‘world leading’ research, no grant applications. What would happen if the management suddenly left?

The assumption that highly qualified, intelligent, hard-working, conscientious, responsible academic staff have no idea how to run a university is frankly insulting. But the ‘democratic deficit’ we are now seeing at the University is not an accident, or one driven by simply by uncaring people. It is part and parcel of Coventry University’s development from an educational institution into a business, which is just one part of the way the current government is transforming higher education more generally into a market. Universities used to be governed collegially, and this was seen to be essential for the pursuit of quality research, itself judged by a ‘community of experts’. Now teaching and research is becoming standardised and judged according to how much they are worth in pound-signs.

What can we do about it?

It’s not all doom and gloom, and it is important to realise that if we are organised and working collectively, we can be powerful. In any situation it is important to understand the reality of the situation at hand, but also remain positive in the knowledge that everything is always changing and with that new possibilities are always emerging.

A good example of the latter is the recent victory at Warwick University over their sinister Teach Higher experiment. The intention was to create a temping agency for the provision of casual academic staff. If successful, this would then provide a business model for similar provisions at other universities, or perhaps the expansion of this Warwick University (profit making) ‘subsidiary’ across the UK. However, this move was defeated by a grass-roots campaign bringing together UCU activists, the Student’s Union, postgraduate students and of course those graduate teaching assistants (GTAs) affected. One of the key strategies that lead directly to the success was the collaboration between casual and full-time/permanent staff at the departmental level – after much persuasion and often with the threat of strike (in this case GTAs refusing to teach the coming academic year), department after department boycotted Teach Higher. This growing internal movement combined in the last instance with an acute fear of ‘reputational damage’ as the campaign organised a large, nationally supported protest on one of Warwick University’s most important Open Days. This last step was too much for management and Teach Higher was officially scrapped after drawing too much (bad) attention.

We all want to work in a thriving university, one in which students are happy and that we can represent proudly to the world. But we want to be treated fairly, which means paid for the work we do (all of it, not just the hours we spend in classrooms), and we want to be respected, which above all means that we want to be involved in the decisions that affect us and our future. At a time when management seems to be making all the decisions for us, the only way to make your voice heard and your work respected is through your union.

Your union is changing. We have a new committee, which will be formalised in our next annual general meeting, and across the country new blood is being injected into UCU from a rising strata of early career researchers, graduate teaching assistants and hourly-paid lecturers who are taking on more and more of the teaching responsibilities and have turned to the union to fight for their shrinking rights and recognition.

Join us, support us, talk to us. We need your support now more than ever, and we are absolutely committed to representing you and your issues, your views and your vision for a fairer and more respectful Coventry University and higher education sector.                                                      Join:       Email us:

[1] See for example Andrew McGettigan’s The Great University Gamble (2013) for an excellent summary

[2] This contractual expectation of ‘grant capture’ is now standard practice at Russell Group universities, and is being currently contested by respective UCU branches. It is such ‘grant capture’ expectations that led to the suicide of Stefan Grimm last year, who was a researcher at Imperial College London.

[3] (Financial reports up to 2012-2013) (click on the ‘financial brochure’ link in ‘How We Spend Our Money’ section for 2013-14 Financial Statement)


Link to our June edition of our newsletter is below…

UCU Newsletter – June 2015-5 3