Dear Vice Chancellor,

We welcome the clear commitments made in your recent letter to all staff (6/12/2019), as a first gesture towards constructive discussions/actions around “fair employment” conditions. It was disappointing that prior to the recent strike action, we were only given 10 minutes to explain all the current issues affecting our working conditions to Council. This was a missed opportunity, as it would have been helpful to start to build up meaningful discussions on local issues with Council and senior management earlier on. Staff have since walked out for 8 days of strike (25 November – 4 December 2019) and are continuing an Action Short of a Strike.

Moving forward and in response to the new, more inclusive and constructive tone in your letter, we are willing to enter into local discussions on these issues, provided that there is a reciprocal assurance that the University will be working actively to persuade UUK and UCEA to address these issues at national level. Indeed, as you will be aware, many of our staff on short-term contracts will be seeking employment in other universities, so they need the reassurance of a national improvement, not just a local one. It is vitally important that the University shows leadership and is transparent with staff about what measures it is proposing that UUK and UCEA should take to address these issues.

Although we have not been consulted, we accept the principle of a “Fair Employment working group” which will consider Exeter-specific measures, but we can only consider this if it is clearly understood that this group will be reporting directly to the Joint Committee for Consultation and Negotiation (JCCN), as the official place where discussions/negotiations between the University and the recognised unions (not just the University and College Union (UCU)) take place, and from which proposals affecting employment conditions are made to Council, etc. Also, it must be clearly understood that this working group is not seen as an alternate mechanism to change of conditions of employment, undermining the role of JCCN.

We therefore request that, the establishment of the working group should be a joint exercise, perhaps overseen by the Chair of JCCN, involving all parties to JCCN and with agreed terms of reference. It is important to note that this does not prevent in any way the group from having a broad membership and an open remit to consult and consider all sorts of ideas, but it means that they must all be brought under the JCCN framework. 

It is vital that the proposed working group is established under the recognised framework of the JCCN and that the recognised unions are fully involved. We have active and vibrant union/s on campus. The Exeter branch of UCU is a fast growing Union – currently approaching 1200 members, having doubled in membership in less than 2 years.  We are constantly in touch with our members and their concerns, we deal daily with issues that affect all staff, such as health and safety, and our case work and our work around redundancies, etc., is highly valued. All staff (including non-members) look to us to lead discussions on employment issues, this support being evidenced by our increasing membership. We want to encourage all staff who are not yet members of the Union/s to join their local branch, as working collectively together gives us real voice and can bring about real change.

It is important that we work collaboratively with the University to solve some very concerning long term structural problems surrounding the conditions in which we work, and which stand in the way of us providing the world class education to our students and world class research that we all want; this is really important to all of us as professionals.

As the University will know, the UCU is working hard on the anti-casualisation agenda, with a formal union claim being submitted to the University in September 2019, with the formal negotiations starting in the new year 2020, which we hope will be productive. It was a UCU-led initiative to tackle the problems of casualisation which resulted in the big changes to PTA contracts that you referred to in 2018, so we are very keen to build on this work.  Our work on this campaign has been/is very important to all staff working on short-term and precarious contracts and those currently working outside of any contract, such as occasional teachers. The firm commitments made in your letter are particularly welcome in this respect, as these commitments will provide a great framework within which we can negotiate to make real change.

There are many concerns around pay and conditions (including workloads) which are well known, but also issues around our management culture, staff voice and practical problems associated with systems we have to work with such as T1, that have all compounded the general sense of unhappiness/discontent that so many staff are feeling. Therefore, any future working group should be seeking to resolve a broader range of issues.

Very importantly, in order to do this, the principle of staff representation on such working groups and Committees via the recognised trade-unions is paramount. For UCU members (or others) to be involved, they need to be properly valued for the corresponding workload that this will entail. Despite our rapidly growing numbers this has not been fully recognised: our branch has still no adequate facilities (or facility-time). Members are paying a local membership fee for this branch to be supported by an Administrator, and yet this University has not provided the requested office space to allow us to recruit such a person. And many case-workers are struggling with their workloads as adequate time has not been given in workloads.

We will expect this open response to be included in any further University communications about the Fair Employment working group, so that all staff are aware of how we have responded and our commitment to work in their interests.

Sharon Strawbridge

(Exeter UCU President)

and the Exeter UCU Committee

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