26 / 02 / 20

Message to Colleagues from the Vice-Chancellor and President - sent on 20 November 2019

Dear colleagues

As we move closer to the prospect of another period of industrial action starting on Monday 25th, I wanted to be clear about the University’s position in relation to the issues on which the University and College Union (UCU) is in dispute and to highlight the progress we have made in several areas. I also want to outline the measures we are taking to mitigate the impact of the industrial action on our students.

I am saddened that we find ourselves once again in this situation. I am also very concerned, as I am sure all of you are, about the disruption that yet another period of industrial action will have on our students. This is why I really do hope we can reach a resolution to the situation with UCU. Just this morning, I met again with our UCU Branch president to keep the dialogue going and see if we can find common ground.

With this message I want to be clear about those aspects of the dispute where we have local control, and those aspects where we operate as part of a national collective of universities that need to act together in order to protect the longer-term interests of the sector, its colleagues and students.

In relation to pay, we are in a national collective pay bargaining agreement with 147 other UK universities and so we are not able to make our own arrangements. We conduct these national pay discussions through our membership body, the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA). In the 2019 pay negotiations UCEA, acting collectively for all employers, advised universities to implement a final pay offer increase of 1.8% that we paid to all colleagues from August 1st 2019, with those on the lower pay bands paid up to 3.65% more. In addition, many colleagues will have received increments generally worth an additional 3%.

We cannot negotiate a pay increase at Newcastle without reopening these national pay negotiations which would require agreement from the majority of the 147 universities. The current dispute on pay only affects 1/3rd of universities in this national pay bargaining collective as it is only at these universities that UCU gained sufficient votes to mandate strike action on pay. Newcastle was one of them. This means that with 2/3rds of the rest of our collective of universities not facing strike action, it is difficult to see how an agreement with the majority of employers to reopen the pay negotiations could be reached.

In addition to overall pay, the gender pay gap, casualisation and excessive working, are also part of UCU’s ‘pay and equality’ dispute and we are working at the local level to address all of these issues.

To recap on gender pay, in 2018, our mean pay gap was 20% and the median pay gap was 18.1%. The 2019 data will be available in the New Year and this will show that the pay gap is continuing to decrease. Furthermore, we are looking more broadly at pay gaps to include ethnicity, disability and intersectionality.

Other positive developments, during the last year, have included working on aligning the promotion process for the T&S pathway to that of our T&R pathway which will also benefit predominantly female colleagues (62%). Last week, we became the first University in the region to be recognised as a Real Living Wage Employer, a decision which has benefited 680 colleagues, 56% of whom are female. Of course we realise more action needs to take place and the pace increased to help us to continue to close the gender pay gap.

On the topic of casualisation, we are working with local UCU colleagues to review processes and practices including the introduction of a new Fixed Term Contracts Policy and also a new Student Employment Policy.

We are also addressing issues of workload through a Workload Allocation Model Task and Finish Group, which I chair, and which is updating policy and practices with consistency and fairness. The focus for the Group is on collaboration and ensuring any concerns are dealt with a timely manner. Allied to this is the publication of a health & wellbeing strategic plan and stress management standard.

I believe we have, with support from our union colleagues, made real improvements to working conditions and will continue to do so here at Newcastle.

At the national level, it is encouraging to hear that UCU and UCEA have agreed to meet to discuss the possibility of developing some national guidelines to address these local issues.

With regards to pensions, we do have some ability to make our own local decisions. However, we also have to work at a national level with Universities UK (UUK) representing employers and UCU representing members. It was this arrangement at the national level that agreed to establish a Joint Expert Panel (JEP) as a way forwards following last year’s industrial action. The main aim of JEP is to find a sustainable, longer-term solution to the problems faced by the USS Pensions Scheme. We are expecting the JEP to publish its second report next month which will include recommendations on USS governance and the valuation methodology, areas where both employers and UCU want to see reforms. That is why it is disappointing that UCU has called strike action ahead of the publication of this important report.

Unlike the pay negotiations, we have the autonomy to pay or reimburse members for their increase in contribution to the pension scheme. While this would respond to one of UCU’s demands as part of this latest dispute on pensions, it would not resolve the dispute on other aspects of the USS or on pay and related issues and so the industrial action would, more than likely, still go ahead. Moreover, it is unclear if this offer would be accepted by our local UCU branch and Newcastle “going it alone” would have consequences that would play out over the longer term which could affect the affordability and sustainability of the scheme for the wider sector. Yesterday, UUK and UCEA published a joint letter setting out the national position. The cost of the University’s own additional contribution to the pension scheme resulting from the conclusion of the 2017 and 2018 valuations will be more than £5 million p.a.

I would now like to turn to the most pressing issue of minimising the impact on our students. Today, the University’s Senate agreed formally that the industrial action constitutes an emergency situation.

Senate is the governing body which oversees academic matters at the University and its decision today means that the University can now put in place procedures which can be applied in the event of an emergency.

I am grateful to our Senate for agreeing to this, as it will allow a number of steps to be taken to help in reducing, where possible, disruption to students.

The emphasis in this contingency guidance is to ensure fair treatment of all students, to maintain academic standards and to protect those affected by the industrial action from detriment in terms of their academic progress and achievements. Whilst normal practice should be followed where possible, the guidance will enable the University to take a number of steps, including, for example:

  • Considering alternative ways to enable students to achieve the learning outcomes of their programme if classes cannot be rescheduled (this might include provision of materials in alternative formats, supported self-study, online materials or other options)
  • Adjustments to submission and/or feedback deadlines
  • Determining which subject topics could reasonably be included in assessments and examinations, to reflect the impact of the strike action and associated mitigations
  • Considering alternative forms or revised schedules of assessment where appropriate
  • Taking account of the impact of the emergency situation on individuals and groups of students as notified through existing and additional mechanisms
  • Making suitably flexible decisions about progression decisions with an understanding of the impact of the emergency, including progression and assessment arrangements for postgraduate research students

Finally, while I am clearly disappointed that we have reached this position at our University, I do acknowledge that the decision to strike will not have been taken lightly by our staff. My focus now is to do all I can to ensure we find a way forward for the benefit of our whole community at Newcastle.

Best wishes

Chris

Professor Chris Day FMedSCi
Vice-Chancellor and President

 

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