‘Anything but Empowering’
VC Live, 30th June 2022
De Montfort’s executive managers seem to have taken on a new role – making our editors’ lives easier by writing Unionise headlines. The full context of this remark was a response to a question about career development and workload, in which the VC agreed that ‘where we are at the moment is anything but empowering’.
An obvious follow-up would be to ask how empowerment can ever be achieved, now or in the future, when so many processes lack transparency: in this regard, the answer seems to be a ‘bonfire of the committees’ and streamlined decision-making.
This is exactly what Dominic Shellard said upon arrival in 2010, but the outcome was not some kind of enhanced democracy, but rather a mass departure of staff through VS, followed by a marked concentration of power in the hands of new cliques. Is the current VC’s intention in any way similar to that associated with the previous regime? At this stage, it’s difficult to say with any certainty, but the answer to another question, on Professors placed ‘at risk’, might provide a clue.
A Secret Review with no agreed criteria
This remarkable intervention was framed as follows: since the Central Professorial Review was conducted without telling the Professoriate, and therefore run without agreed criteria, how did this square with the claim that the university was dedicated to empowerment? The reply was one of those ripostes that will long be remembered by those who witnessed it. The question could not be answered, apparently, because the redundancy process had yet to reach a conclusion.
This argument seizes upon the understandable need to exercise reasonable discretion (about an ongoing and painful procedure), and uses it to smother the substantive issue – the existence of an autocratic secrecy that has cost decent people their jobs. There is no rhyme or reason to any of the redundancies, other than the desire to restructure the university as a sub-prime venture, and to clear out those groups that brought real prestige to the institution (just in case they make us look too serious). All this from a ‘leadership’ that wants to bring De Montfort into the top half of research HEIs by 2028!
Research time under threat
The VC was certainly quite frank about the difficulty of using any research time that staff had managed to secure, noting that some individuals had complained that they had ‘very rarely’ received that time. The reason? Here we can agree – it is the imposition of other duties and pressures. In this respect, the VC’s analysis was on track: research was not something that one can do ‘in an hour after lunch’ on one day, and then again in a spare moment on another.
The problem is that the much-vaunted ‘block sabbatical’ is not the solution. A seven week block is insufficient, and sounds like the lucky few would, in effect, receive their own ‘break’ between sessions, if such exists when there are two parallel timetables (the current system and the block) to be serviced from this Autumn. To make things even worse, we have heard that some managers intend to break up any sabbaticals into bite-sized chunks and scatter the hours throughout a semester, exactly what the VC sees as the problem.
Finances: how long is a piece of string?
The VC Live presentation was full of detailed and useful data except, crucially, when it came to the usual rather vague account of financial plans and commitments. This gaping hole in the overall rationale was accompanied by the appearance of some ominous euphemisms about ‘continuous improvement’ (aka increased workloads) and ‘further review’ (i.e. the proposals already drawn up for the next wave of redundancies, which the rumour mill says is due to hit professional services any day now, and academics yet again in the very near future).
Perhaps now would be the time for management to play this one with a straight bat, and reveal their plans for future staffing. That might be a start, because at the moment no-one (whatever their exact allegiance or disposition), believes a word of the ‘empowering agenda’ – not even, it seems, the prominent figures tasked with recommending it.
DMUnionise 26 (text version)
‘The university needs to maintain its cash levels to support around six months of its operating activities (£105m) with a minimum requirement of four months (£70m)’
All Staff email, May 2022
By far the weakest aspect of the inconsistent arguments used to justify the latest round of cuts, is the one that underpins the whole exercise – the notion that the university is under financial duress, and subject to external obligations that limit its room for manoeuvre.
Take the May statement, reproduced above: in reality, four months is not the minimum requirement for a healthy institution. If we are talking about the governance of the sector, and the expectations of the OfS, dropping down to one month in reserves would trigger a ‘reportable event’, while the Charity Commission suggests that holding three months’worth of cash is prudent. De Montfort, with approximately £120m stashed away, massively exceeds the OfS baseline and the amount of money recommended by the Commission: so why does executive management insist that it needs to retain such high levels of liquidity?
First, the ‘obligation’ argument is supposed to nullify the suggestion that we should use reserves to cushion the deficit (itself a convenient excuse for cuts). Next, it allows senior management to tell two different stories: staff are offered the worst-case scenario, in the belief that this will help persuade them to accept redundancies, while a more balanced, upbeat assessment – emphasising stability – is reserved for external assessors like Moody’s agency.
Although no one is suggesting that HEIs should not hold cash in the bank, the constraints placed on the institution are essentially self-imposed: this means that redundancies, and the general degradation of our staff base and morale, are being pushed through for an entirely different reason than the cautionary tale spun to education workers.
Before we get into that, and the VC’s latest targets, we should note that capital spending at De Montfort does not seem to have been reined in (which might be expected in an institution worried about financial liabilities), and that the numbers of staff placed at risk are easily matched by the numbers of new posts advertised. So how does that save money? The mass exodus of teachers and researchers does not seem to be factored into the savings that redundancies were supposed to secure, adding more weight to the argument that the actual motivation lies elsewhere.
Redundancies and market manoeuvres
If we all agree on one thing it is probably the unseemly haste and confusion that marked the redundancy process. Rank and file HR staff were forced, at short notice, to chase data sets that should have been in place long before the procedure began. Those placed ‘at risk’ found that their roles had been mis-described and their achievements downplayed. Compounding these difficulties was the lamentable lack of consistency across Faculties, as though they were operating without coherent central direction. In some cases, senior managers did their best to treat staff concerns seriously, while others seemed bewildered, bored or disinclined to engage.
This is what happens in any industrial, commercial, or charitable sector, when there is no credible reason for making cuts – in lieu of clear criteria, institutions fall back on the judgement of people who are, understandably, not very keen to take personal responsibility for the ensuing mess.
This brings us to the real purpose of the whole enterprise, which began with the hollow myth of empowerment, before moving on to the imposition of block teaching, pay and recruitment freezes, research cuts, voluntary severance, and now what is obviously just the first round of redundancies.
It looks like the intention is to gather resources for the move to sub-prime education, and to impress prospective partners in the private sector. Hence the high level of reserves and the creation of DMU London. To those who suffer from debilitating impatience, we can see the attraction: instead of dealing with long-term challenges in Leicester, why not start afresh, but this time without the inconveniences of heavy duty, world-leading research, highly motivated professional services, dedicated manual workers, capable lecturers, and committed trade unionists?
It would be unfair, perhaps, to suggest that DMU London means that the quest for improvement has been entirely abandoned. The question is how we might fulfil the latest set of ambitious targets, just announced in the VC Weekly email. Two examples will suffice.
One major goal is that, for REF 2028, the university should produce outputs of sufficient quality to secure a place in the top half of UK HEIs. All well and good, but if this is a serious aim, then it might not be best served by ridding ourselves of prestigious research staff and offering the ‘risible RISA’ as a low-grade substitute for a decent scheme.
Another challenge is to move, within five years, from a total of 54% of staff (or survey respondents?) who are prepared to recommend DMU as a good place to work, to 90% of the cohort. In this case, then the fervent hope must be that this will not be achieved by ‘managing out’ anyone who disagrees with the sub-prime trajectory favoured by the current regime, thus boosting the percentage of those who think it wise to keep their heads down and go with the flow.
As the current round of compulsory redundancy reaches its chaotic dénouement, the collective experiences of affected staff provide quite a worrying insight into the structural weaknesses that continue to affect our ability to maintain basic functions. Solving the fundamental problems faced in our working lives would be the first sensible step in developing the ‘long-lasting excellence’ that we have just been told is an essential prerequisite for future success. Demoralising staff and downgrading our offer will probably lead in the opposite direction.
Resist Redundancy Round One
What We Were Told: jobs must be protected
‘Dead centre, is protecting jobs, that was made clear … and that’s why we put in place that recovery plan, and we’re sticking to that recovery plan … I mean, look around the sector, jobs are going, but we’re not going to do that. We are thankfully, we’re in a good financial position, and we’re just going to, you know, cut our cloth for this year, and hopefully bypass this’.
PVCR David Mba, De Montfort University, 4th May, 2021
Recovery (aka Redundancy)
The ‘recovery plan’ mentioned above included deep cuts to research time, the removal of funding for centres, a freeze on appointments, and the instruction to concentrate on teaching: for the duration of the pandemic, we were told, research would have to be put on hold, apart from preparations for the REF.
Now, a year after Mba offered this bogus guarantee, some academics note that they are being placed at risk on the basis that they haven’t produced enough research. This accusation is wide of the mark, based as it is on the usual absence of accurate data: but the point is that staff acted in good faith, and should not be punished for following management’s advice.
Pandemic, Block Delivery and ‘Vision’
If we think back to the pandemic and its aftermath, DMU’s executive class has used the same blunt instrument for quite some time: make an unreasonable request, accompanied by a ridiculously short deadline, then sit back and watch the chaos that ensues. No sooner had staff mastered, and delivered, hybrid forms of delivery, than the Block debacle was imposed. Exhausted individuals, many recovering from Covid, were now expected to squeeze 30-credits’ worth of content into a seven week bracket.
When the horribly mis-named Education 2030 was announced, Unionise described it as a ‘redundancy exercise’ rather than some kind of pedagogical innovation. In other words, it has always been a form of restructuring designed to shake out staff, reduce the cost of delivery, and create the basis for sub-prime education and multiple franchises (see below). The consultation sham that heralded E2030, framed as a Quest for a better system, was little more than a distraction technique, using DMU workers, instead of consultants, to help create the empty rhetoric of empowerment.
Going negative: executive ‘messaging’ at De Montfort
Once the bulk of Block had been validated, De Montfort staff began to receive quite cheery, upbeat ‘Marcommed’ emails, and might have been forgiven for thinking that the immediate crisis had passed. These messages were, however, accompanied by some of the most downbeat and breathtakingly negative internal briefings in the history of the university. During one of these events, it took just one remark to set the hares running – that staff who did not share the new vision, might be better off going elsewhere.
If this meant that the executive had ducked the challenge of maintaining a healthy research culture, and that commercial income was now the sole measure of success, the exodus of experienced academics was inevitable. Their departure was followed by Voluntary Severance, which further reduced institutional capacity. Now, hard on the heels of these losses, we encounter what looks like the first phase of a rolling programme of redundancy.
A Feeble Excuse: strapped for cash
All the chaos is supposed to be the consequence of a perilous financial position – but this is not the case. Although many senior figures continue to make this argument, few seem genuinely convinced that some hypothetical solvency crisis is responsible for placing 58 posts at risk.
Why then does this empty mantra still reverberate throughout an institution that was, until very recently, more focussed on promoting the public good, than breaking apart the professional services teams, research groups and teaching collectives that helped create what the VC recently called “DMU-ness”?
Despite the fact that the university is relatively wealthy (with £120m in reserves), and despite the fact that it recently advertised 36 new posts (at a yearly outlay of approximately £1m), and despite the fact that it seems perfectly able to add ‘DMU London’ to its portfolio of franchises in Dubai and Kazakhstan, the same rationale does the rounds – we’re strapped for cash.
It’s pretty obvious that the prestigious areas under threat (tellingly, some of the many activities that help qualify an institution as a university) could be reprieved: they should be ring-fenced for extra support and given time to recover, instead of being sacrificed to a poorly articulated ‘commercial’ ideology.
A Rush to Judgement
There is the starkest possible contrast between the hurried implementation of the redundancy process, and the excruciatingly slow circulation of the logic that is supposed to justify the whole exercise. Instead of scrabbling around to find the relevant data (SSRs, course numbers, staffing, EIAs, records of research income, etc.), this information should have been available from the very beginning.
None of it makes any sense: weren’t we always told, for instance, that we must address the staggeringly high SSRs? Now it seems that staff across the university are placed at risk because some ratios are too low! Why should education workers pay for this abject failure to act? When recruitment drops, it’s meant to be the fault of teaching teams, and when it rises, it’s chalked up to good marketing.
Secrecy at Work
In other cases, especially among the Professoriate, the reason for being placed at risk seemed to be linked to ‘performance’. This suggestion not only maligns individuals, but also ignores the fact that redundancy proper has nothing to do with individual appraisal.
As an excuse for cutting posts, it was not even always accurate, based as it often was on incomplete data. The ‘Central Professorial Review’ that gathered this defective information, was carried out in total secrecy, using criteria that have never been revealed.
This deficiency was repeated across the university: in some cases, staff received ‘at risk’ letters that misrepresented their roles, or that failed to mention the research income they had secured. Others have gone to meetings in which managers seem completely baffled by straightforward questions: supervisors are themselves forced to admit that they, too, are at a loss to understand the executive’s motives.
The End Game: Asset Stripping for DMU London?
So what exactly is the underlying rationale? Should it be attributed to the usual ‘mindless vandalism’ that occurs in the sector, or is this the consequence of a more conscious plan, however poorly executed?
The current regime seems to be working backwards from a goal that was set in stone, well over a year in advance. So, based on the direction of travel, this question needs a straight answer: is the aim to create a sub-prime institution that can service the corporate sector, employ ‘partnership’ staff on inferior contacts, push students through strict training regimes, bundle up the blocks into two-year degrees, asset-strip the Leicester site to decorate DMU London, and wriggle free of the high standards expected of a university?
(It will be interesting to see just what the London campus costs to set up, what kind of partners the executive have selected, and exactly which bits of the Leicester site will be sacrificed or transferred to make it viable).
Time will tell, but the underlying purpose of the ‘recovery plan’, so heartily recommended by Mba, was to help smooth the transition to a debased hybrid form. This is what drove cuts to research funding, the vacancies embargo, the severance schemes, the increased workloads, the sale of real estate like the John Whitehead building, and now the first round of forced departures.
Common sense would dictate that this is the moment to build resistance. Unless all staff across the institution, union and non-union alike, take active measures to prevent it, ‘phase two’ of this assault – apparently already drafted by the powers that be – will employ the same mixture of negligence and wilful ignorance to destroy what has taken so many good people so many years to attain.
Addendum: Recent Articles
Petition: Save 58 jobs and support DMU’s teaching and research staff
BBC: De Montfort University job cuts will ‘damage reputation’
Leicester Mercury: De Montfort University may cut 58 jobs in bid to save money
Leicester Mercury: Unions outrage at ‘offensive’ job cuts plan
THES: Scores of jobs set to go as UK universities axe courses
The Boar: De Montfort University staff cuts will ‘damage reputation’
UCU: Open Letter to Professor Normington (background to recent events)
UCU: DMU’s Finances – An Analysis
UCU: 120m in the bank and yet more cuts
UCU: Open Letter to the Chair of Governors (background to recent events)
Not in the union yet? Sign up at ucu.org.uk/join
There’s Rather too much negativity
We know that these have been difficult times, what with the massive pandemic which we worked through together, but this is a university with one of the best inner city campuses in the country, which has come third best for teaching nationally in recent years, and even the best careers service too, and frankly we’ve had it with the negativity. We think this is a good university with fine and dedicated staff and students.
“The structure of courses is all wrong, we must go to 30 credits”
Actually, our courses have been really popular with students, and these structures have been based on improvements over many years by dedicated teaching and professional services staff. Less negativity please.
“The calendar is no good, we must go to blocks”
Some of our courses used to run that way! Then we improved things. Incrementally. That’s the key thing. We want to get even better. We sense more negativity here.
“There is a morale problem, let’s ask POD what to do”
Or you could ask the people who work and study here, approachable and we’ve got lots of helpful ideas, we are, in fact paid to think! There’s no need to be so negative about talking!
“You’re not to be trusted to buy a cheap item, you must fill out this huge form and we’ll buy an expensive item”.
Do you see? Not trusting people to buy something like a railway ticket and giving millions to preferred suppliers instead, that’s negativity too. Expensive at that.
“Research isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, let’s run it down”
We’ve got researchers of international standing, this feeds directly into our teaching too. Don’t believe those grumpy DMU webpages, check out DORA! This negativity is getting a bit relentless.
“Leicester is no good”
Whaaa? It’s one of the safest, friendliest cities for its size in the UK, and anyway, is only an hour from London, close to Birmingham, not far from Manchester or Sheffield. We’ve an almost new campus, remember the new campus? It’s nice! Relentless negativity!
So what’s the answer? Join in with the University!
There are the better part of 22 thousand staff and students who all care about our university, who don’t run it down and think we’ve all been getting it wrong. That’s because we refine, improve, work hard and are a friendly team. This is a great university!
We warmly invite management to join us in putting our students, our research, our university first. The university is what we all make it, not how some demean it and exploit it. And it’s a fine university. You should be as proud of it and as supportive of it as we are.
Health and Safety Update
Against a backdrop of the furore at Number 10, the idea that Covid safety was ignored by policymakers themselves is still painful for much of the public. Closer to home, DMU has a very good track record in the sector for Covid safety. It wasn’t easy to achieve this, some students and staff needed reminding about safety. But ultimately this is something that everyone at the university should take credit for.
The UK has had a death toll of around 150,000, the seventh highest Worldwide, plus all of the cases of serious illness which were not treated in time. The Omicron variant appears to herald a phase of less dangerous Coronavirus. Notwithstanding variants of concern continue to emerge, the Health Security Agency is preparing to focus now on vulnerable groups only. DMU is scrapping it’s Coronavirus Risk Assssment. UCUs view was that this document was a work in progress, but we did at least have a risk assessment. We can see no reason why it should be discontinued, since future waves of Covid in Winter, including new variants, are likely. Indeed, new variants are not always less dangerous.
It is the view of the branch that the precautionary principle should apply, and that the full Covid Risk Assessment should stay in place for at least one further Winter. After all, it doesn’t cost the University a penny to keep it in place.
WHO Coronavirus (COVID-19) Dashboard https://covid19.who.int/
Good ideas Corner
Since there isn’t any sort of proper conduit to management about all of the great ideas our members have, we’re sharing some of them here in Good Ideas Corner. A Staff suggestion box was promised in about 2009. Remember that? We trust it’s in progress. In the meantime, if you have any ideas you’d like to share, please send them in!
A VLE that integrates. As the university is promised a new VLE. You’ve had to mark on Blackboard, transpose some of those to a moderation form, and copy some others on to SAP. This good idea is some IT that talks to other IT.
As per current policy there are supposed to be 20 Days for marking including moderation. So, you tell your Faculty Office and the Tile and some forms when your student deadlines will be. Then the internal
marking deadline is announced. It’s something like three days after your students hand in for 100 scripts! In every faculty, every year, the 20 day policy is being ignored. By the people who invented it. This good idea is to use your 20 days for marking as per the policy, insist on it. If there is a problem with this, then the internal marking deadlines can be shared first.
Removal of the ex VC from DMU’s Youtube Channel. Dominic Shellard is not the Vice Chancellor. Seriously. DMU explained it, UCU explained it. The national press explained it. Think of the reputational ambiguity because some executives don’t feel like updating the university’s video content. Stop affecting the University’s reputation like this. Let’s update DMU’s video content at long last. We’ve had Professor Normington as Vice Chancellor for some time now, who has made many professional and helpful videos. There is more than enough good content from current university leadership.
Dear UCU Members,
You will have seen the email from the VC, formally announcing a new programme of restructuring, which includes the prospect of compulsory redundancies for 58 roles (across academic, professional services, and Professorial roles)…
De Montfort UCU contests, as a matter of principle, the need for any job losses, but we are particularly opposed to this most recent decision because the financial rationale for taking action is unclear, lacks granular detail, and is based on questionable projections.
Even as recently as last year, we were assured that the measures taken to reduce expenditure were needed to save jobs, and that this determination distinguished us from rival institutions. Staff at this institution worked tirelessly on the REF and TEF submissions, and supported our students throughout the pandemic: the very people who saved the university from collapse should not pay the price for the mismanagement of resource.
Moreover, the suggestion that this is a limited exercise, and not the precursor of further reductions in staffing, should be treated with caution – we all need to support those under threat, because this may be just the first phase of a process that ushers in a terminal decline.
The rallying cry for the recent round of national UCU action was #oneofusallofus and solidarity is central to our response.
The DMU UCU Committee is calling an Emergency General Meeting for next Tuesday (virtual), 10 May from 13.00-14.30. The link to the meeting is in your email.
Please do all that you can to attend, so that we can discuss management’s rationale and our response to support our threatened members (including through casework).
If any current members of the branch have been identified by their line managers as being at risk and wish to raise any particular issues or the need for representation, then please let us know and we will do our utmost to support you.
If any current members of the branch are willing to act as caseworkers, please let us know about that.
In the meantime please note that as well as the University’s own Employee Assistance Programme (https://www.pamwellbeing.co.uk/), UCU has its own support available at the Education Support Partnership (https://www.ucu.org.uk/educationsupportpartnership).
Please direct all queries to email@example.com