UCU UoY Statement on UEB decisions – May 2024

UCU University of York Branch Statement of 28th May 2024, regarding the University Executive Board’s decisions in relation to Voluntary Severance and proposals to change the way we work in the university.

Our Song

The sheer awfulness of the actions of UEB have inspired us to create a song. We have reworked a classic to explain and tell everybody about what our UEB, led by our VC is up to. Have a listen and spread it far and wide! UEB, leave our York alone! https://youtu.be/2RrUrze0Mk8

A Statement to staff and the wider world

In April 2024 UCU, along with UNISON and UNITE were informed that there would be a large-scale Voluntary Severance Scheme in the University of York. The justification for this scheme is that the University Executive Board claims that on top of circa £30 million saved already this year and next, there is a need for a further £34 million of savings and that the majority of this needs to be found from reducing the staff budget.

Having queried if there is a target number for VS losses, we have been told ‘no there isn’t’, but fairly simple mathematics confirms that somewhere between 300 and 700 staff would have to leave if the aimed for savings are to be achieved. As it stands, the majority of staff who leave through VS will do so on the 31st of October. That is, mid-semester one, in the middle of teaching and at a time that will inevitably cause disruption to staff and students and affect the university’s ability to deliver contracted teaching to students.

Losing so many staff at once will inevitably result in higher workloads and considerable risk to the health and wellbeing of the staff who remain. It will inevitably result in a diminished teaching and learning environment for students, and it will damage our community. There has also been a lack of any engagement with Equality, Diversity and Inclusion in the planning of these changes, which is a glaring omission and one that we have really asked about. 

As a way of mitigating this possible future, the UEB has put forward a document called ‘changing the way we work’, which amounts to a ragtag list of changes that senior managers wish to implement, and in many cases have wished to do for some time. Some are obvious empire building changes, like getting rid of Boards of Studies, which would act to centralise power and remove what some, including the PVC for Teaching and Learning, see as unnecessary barriers to changes in the formation and delivery of degree courses. Others, like the removal of double-blind marking, speak to a race to the bottom and ditching proper academic standards in the pursuit of ‘efficiency’.

As for moving to a ‘hub and spoke unified model of central services’ for professional services staff, this is adding insult to the injury of the largely failed attempt at change in professional services in the last 4 years. All three unions have sat through painful hours of meetings as senior managers tried to impose a ‘hub and spoke model’ with imagined and mythical efficiencies. The proposed changes of the last four years, which can be most kindly described as incoherent, were thankfully largely abandoned as it became clear to even those who imagined such change that it was impractical and unworkable. What we see in this latest ‘thinking’ is a naked attempt to push through such flawed abandoned changes to become our new reality, but this time with no consultation with staff or unions, no consideration of the implications, and ‘at pace’, whatever that means.

All in all, as a branch, UCU at the University of York is not against voluntary severance as a means of trying to reduce the staff budget, IF that is what is required. We are also very mindful that it may benefit some of our members to leave, particularly if they are subject to the type of line management and/or unmanageable workloads that we know is making members ill and that leads to much of our casework. What we object to in the case of VS is how it is being done and the lack of meaningful consultation with staff representatives. There is a clear and articulated attempt to make the future look as bleak as possible so as many people as possible will leave. There is deliberately no plan for November when VS leavers will have gone; we have asked and no department or unit has a plan for operation in place for when those who take VS leave. We also know that members of UEB are telling managers to make the future look especially grim in order to encourage VS applications. What an appalling way to operate and it is this type of deliberate harm to our members that we cannot stand for.

We are similarly not against changing how we work. Indeed, in the last five years we have done more engagement with change, with a view in most cases to transforming back of the envelope UEB thinking into something that might work or at the very least, not do harm, than almost any other UCU branch. What we cannot accept is a top-down mish mash of ideas that will make the working conditions of our members demonstrably and irreversibly worse. The full plethora of changes, if implemented, would decimate academic standards, increase workload, reduce the quality and academic rigour of our degree courses, reduce the university’s capacity for research and to secure research funding and would drive a coach and horses through the idea that we have a university community. In putting forward such a list, UEB has shown that it has completely lost touch with reality. When we have challenged their thinking, we are told that they will ‘listen’, but must ‘move at pace’. Moving at pace towards a degraded university is not what we want and it is not what we can accept.

So, what is the answer? Our UCU branch passed a motion recently that opposed the changes being proposed and demanded consultation, clarity, transparency, and honesty from UEB. The Branch Executive has tried to secure this, including at our most recent Joint Negotiation and Consultative Committee meeting. We have so far failed. The UEB is unwilling or unable to really listen and consult with us and our sister unions. We think it is important to tell our university community, the City of York, the wider region and anyone else who has an interest just how our UEB is threatening the future of our university. In doing this we note and support UNISON in the letter they have sent recently to the VC, detailing their many concerns. 

In plain and simple terms, UEB has made a series of decisions since 2008 that have resulted in the university being indebted. To avoid the covenant conditions of the debt that successive UEBs have incurred, they are now asking that our members and all staff and students deal with the consequences of an uncontrolled voluntary severance scheme and the incoherent proposals to change how the university operates. We know it is a tough financial and political environment for universities just now, but we also know that every university has an invaluable and irreplaceable asset in its staff. The UEB of the University of York have embarked on actions that will decimate and depreciate this asset and leave us unable to be a leading research university. Crucially, in doing this UEB has not asked staff for ideas, they have not consulted the unions and they have not asked students what they think of having their university trashed. UEB is in the wrong and they must reverse course, consult with unions and staff, consult with students, and make decisions that will be good for the university in the long term, not just those that overcome the UEB’s self-made crisis. After all, when UEB members are off, in just a few months/years, sunning themselves on beaches, living off inflated pensions and savings that they earned while decimating our university, there will be staff still here and as yet unknown students, all living the consequences.

What can you do? If you are a staff member and belong to a union, let your reps and Exec know your concerns, thoughts and what is happening in your unit/department. All staff should also consider asking HR any questions you may have, and emailing UEB members, including the VC to express your concerns. 

If you are part of the alumni and are concerned, do write into the alumni office, to the Chair of Council or to the VC to tell them what is concerning you. Your degree is from York and York’s reputation will be trashed by these changes. 

If you are a politician, policy maker or journalist. Please take an interest, do contact our branch and we will happily talk to you and do use your voice to tell everybody concerned what is happening in the University of York. We know that our UEB does not like scrutiny, but much like a child that needs to take its medicine, sometimes you have to be cruel to be kind. 

If you are a UEB member and you are reading this, how about thinking again? You are suffering from groupthink, a bunker mentality, or it may be that you share our concerns but cannot speak out. There is really no excuse not to speak out and it is you that is being tarnished by these decisions. This also applies to members of the Senate and the University Council; you are the custodians and you are there precisely to prevent this sort of madness overtaking our institution. 

We have a limited window of time to slow down, reconsider and save our University from its management. The headlong rush that UEB has chosen is a high risk one; a multi-year strategy is the only way to achieve an outcome that will serve students well and protect the university’s reputation. Let us all do what we can to ensure this happens. 

UCU UoY Executive Committee

A statement for current and prospective students

To all students and prospective students at the University of York we, the UCU University of York branch write to inform you of what is currently happening to the staff who teach, administer and create all aspects of your degree programmes.

We are, to put it mildly, concerned about the future of the institution that will form part of your reputation for decades to come. Your degree is a gateway to jobs, study and a better life, but it will be worth much less to you over time if the current decisions of our University Executive Board, led by the Vice Chancellor, go ahead unchallenged.

Your VC and UEB plan to disrupt your learning in October and November 2024. They are planning for 300-700 staff to leave mid-semester. There is currently no plan as to how degrees will be taught, assessed or managed following these departures. This is deliberate. The VC and UEB wish to make the future for staff look like it is filled with higher workloads, constant change and uncertainty. They wish this because they want as many staff as possible to take voluntary severance. They don’t care if staff bring in research money, or have research expertise. They don’t care if staff are really good at teaching first years, or if they are a key part of our pastoral teams that look after you when you have times of need. They equally don’t care if a person who is central to a module that students enjoy leaves. They, in short, don’t care.

What they do care about is cutting the budget. Why? Since 2008 UEB embarked on a growth model that assumed endless numbers of international students would come along and bankroll their ambition for expansion. The loans they took in 2008 and 2018 have conditions attached. This means they have to have a certain level of free cash so the banks don’t panic about being paid. This year they predicted that 4000 international students would study at York. This would have been an increase of 1200 over the course of just two years. Does this sound realistic to you? It did not to us either, but they planned for this despite many staff thinking it was madness to do so. Now, they have a black hole in their finances.

Their answer is to get lots of staff to leave through voluntary severance. This can be anyone and the more the better. They then want to change the way the university works. Amongst the ‘highlights’ is a plan to get rid of boards of studies. These are committees of all academics in a department that decide what degree programmes are running, what content they can have and that make sure that academic standards in each department are maintained. They also stop silly ideas by money grabbing senior managers from going ahead. For example, back in 2019, there was a plan to bring in a new online only MBA. The Management School Board of Studies stopped this plan as it would have damaged York’s reputation and would not have worked. In the future, there would be decision making at faculty level and by the Pro Vice Chancellor for Teaching and Learning. Do you think that removing local decision making will improve and maintain the standards in degree courses? We don’t.

They also want to get rid of proper marking, so that in future, your work would be marked by just one person. In many subjects, having double marking is essential to keep up standards and removing this will result in your degree having less value. If you put the effort in as a student, we think the least the university can do is ensure that the marking of your academic work is done properly.

They think that there are lots of efficiencies to be had in removing lots of administrative support from departments and relocating it ‘centrally’. We know that the efficiencies are mythical, existing only in the heads of our senior management,  and that our UEB sounds like government ministers chasing imaginary savings by stopping ‘duplication and unnecessary work’. It is common sense that you need an office team that knows your academics, that knows about your degree programmes and that are in your department community. UEB thinks anyone can support your degrees, that it is a generic exercise. We disagree.

What can you do? If you are concerned about the ideas in this statement, you can firstly contact YUSU officers and ask them what they are doing. You can speak to your department staff, including your head of department, to ask how degrees will be delivered in November. You can speak to your student reps who attend teaching and learning committees and boards of studies and raise your concerns through them. We think you should be part of resisting these potentially disastrous changes. Sadly, if these changes go ahead, your degrees will have less worth and the reputation of our university will be greatly diminished.

We would not be writing this unless absolutely necessary. We, along with UNISON and UNITE have tried to ask UEB to think again, but they have told us that they will listen, but will not change course. They want to move ‘at pace’ to what we think is a dystopian future. We encourage you to act now so we can all have a better tomorrow.

If you contact ucu@york.ac.uk we will be happy to take any questions you may have. 

In solidarity, 

UCU UoY Executive

Our Song

The sheer awfulness of the actions of UEB have inspired us to create a song. We have reworked a classic to explain and tell everybody about what our UEB, led by our VC is up to. Have a listen and spread it far and wide! UEB, leave our York alone! https://youtu.be/2RrUrze0Mk8