Assessment and feedback: the 20 day fallacy

As we struggle with making sense of home or remote working for the foreseeable future, as well as focusing upon the anxieties of our students and our peers, our friends in professional services, and beyond that our friends, families and loved ones, we are also having to grapple with the idea of business-as-usual.

Since we returned from our strike action today, we have been approached by members concerned about the changes to the University Assessment and Feedback Policy, which were passed by Academic Board on 26 February 2020. Our members have noted the additional stress this has given them at this time.

These changes will come into force from next academic session. Whilst the University did not give UCU a response to our comments on the draft policy in the consultation process, they did take into account most of our concerns, with one significant exception.

The new policy includes a requirement to get the work both marked and moderated within 20 days:

“Once internal moderation has taken place, the agreed indicative marks will be provided to students. This should be completed within the 20 working day turnaround period.”

For the avoidance of doubt, UCU has categorically not agreed to this change in policy. We believe that the requirement get work moderated as well as marked within 20 days is a critical workload issue, which connects to the reasons why we have been struggling over workload in our #fourfights action.

The change poses logistical challenges, as it introduces an element which is out of the control of the marker. How much time should be reserved for moderation? What if the moderator can’t moderate the full range of work in time? How will this be applied on modules with large cohorts? How will this affect the huge amounts of overtime that staff are ploughing into the institution, in order to meet arbitrary deadlines? We are also concerned about maintaining academic quality, and speed-up tends to generate errors or a worsening of standards, including where people become fatigued.

In spite of our absolute opposition to this decision, we have no power to stop it. Academic Board, which also includes academic colleagues who do not represent the Union’s membership, approved it. It is their prerogative to do so. We note that this change reverses (by the back door) a prior Joint Negotiating Committee (JNC) agreement.

In the middle of an industrial dispute about workloads, it is hugely disappointing that the University is choosing to bring in a policy which obviously worsens workloads. We will raise this policy in the JNC, which management have agreed would be the correct forum to discuss that matter (the policy was approved by Academic Board subject to the outcome of the JNC discussions).

There are two formal forms of dialogue that management can have with UCU.

  1. Consultation. It can be mandatory (e.g. redundancies) or voluntary but either way they do not have to have our agreement to go ahead.
  2. Negotiation. Applies only to contractual collective agreements (e.g. disciplinary, change to contract). Here we have to agree.

Just like the MLF, this takes the form of consultation, so any change we get is a hard fought win.

Keep safe.

Covid-19: consultation with management

Ahead of this update about UCU engagement with management, the Branch Committee hopes that you, and your friends, relatives, and loved ones are taking care. Your health and safety, and physical and mental well-being must be centred.

NB there are a range of local, regional and national mutual aid and assistance groups being set-up. The Leicester, Clarendon Park and Leicestershire mutual aid groups are linked from the freedom news site.

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Negotiating Committee update

We met with HR, virtually, this morning. We also had a verbal update from the Chief Operating Officer. Having regular scheduled meetings and an open communications channel is a very positive development.

We believe that our positive pressure and engagement as a union is contributing to changes in institutional approach, and we will continue to centre health and safety, and well-being of our staff and student communities.

In the meeting we discussed the following points, some of which have been reiterated in institutional and Faculty-based emails.

Learning and teaching

  • Almost all labs will shut tomorrow, Wednesday 18/03/20.
  • Our negotiators made the point that module leaders are experts in curriculum design, delivery and assessment, and should be given the lead for what can and cannot go online. We will continue to stress this expertise of our academic and professional services staff (many of whom hold teaching excellence awards).
  • We are mindful of the work of Decolonising DMU, and its work on the attainment gap, and of the established literature which suggests that certain communities and individuals suffer when learning and teaching is moved online. This piece from Audrey Watters is useful.
  • The University reconfirmed the emphasis that any remaining practical work to be undertaken this week is 3rd year only.

Staffing

  • The institution will give details of how staff with underlying conditions and who are socially-isolating are to report in. This will include having no detriment in terms of pay.
  • Our negotiators made the point that technical demonstrators in ADH perform direct student teaching and should be treated the same as academics.
  • We are pleased that the institution has indicated to us that part-time hourly paid staff will suffer no detriment compared to permanent staff. The logistics are being finalised but that is the intent.
  • We had a verbal statement that there have been no lay-offs where staff have no work due to actions taken (for instance, closing all sports facilities).

A duty of care

Our negotiators made the point that the balance between the duty-of-care to staff and students vs keeping activity going was imbalanced toward continuity, when much of the advice is that we need to accept we are in this for the long haul. We are seeing data that would indicate disruption until mid-2021. We made this point directly to the COO. For more on this, see this paper from Imperial College published on 16/03/20.

Principles

  • We also stated that the University should have a principle-of-no-detriment statement published, albeit with details that will almost certainly change. We feel that this principle is crucial, and we are pleased up there has been some willingness to engage on this. We note that one has been negotiated University College London UCU with their management.
  • We agreed twice-weekly consultation at formalised times and left the door open for ad hoc meetings.

Casework

We also discussed the matter of casework during this period. Ongoing casework meetings already scheduled to take place in the near future can either go ahead if all involved agree, or otherwise will be postponed. New cases will be managed on a case-by-case, and person-centred basis. This is a pragmatic and very sensible approach.

We will keep you informed as our dialogue with management progresses. We reiterate that we are pleased to have twice-weekly consultation.

DMU Covid-19 update

We have now had contact with senior management via a phone call this morning, which was welcome.  The COVID-19 situation affects peoples lives and goes beyond normal Industrial Relations and as such we will maintain contact on this issue.  There were some crossed wires on Thursday regarding the purpose of a meeting on Friday where management had hoped to discuss some details of their coronavirus planning.  In a fast-evolving situation, we are pleased to be in touch by phone rather than email which can be out-of-sync and prone to misinterpretation.

What is important now is how we work through this crisis going forward.  We expect an email shortly giving answers to a lot of the questions we have asked about plans to minimised face to face contact, procedures for employees who are in high risk groups (sick and not yet sick), those who are sick or have a someone self-isolating within their household.

We also expect this email will detail plans to keep students and staff healthy, with rationales of why decisions have been made where some facilities have been kept open and the mitigating procedures that are in place to minimise risk.  The number one priority is protecting the wellbeing of our staff and students as far as possible.

Details of how teaching and assessments might be delivered without face to face contact (e.g. online, re-timed delivery etc) are being worked on and we very much hope that management will work with us to determine ways that staff who can work can be productive while protecting the wellbeing of those who cannot.

Email to DMU management about coronavirus

**UPDATE 2: 14.04pm, 15/03/20

We have still had no response from management.

We have been receiving a range of emails from staff concerned about how best to support students, their peers and their professional services’ colleagues and friends.

Every single day that management fails to act increases anxiety, and places our communities at ever increasing risk. Increasingly, commentary from WHO public health and epidemiology experts suggest that moderate social distancing is critical to enabling social and communal capacity and capability. Therefore, we requesting again publicly that as a minimum, Management cancels all face to face teaching and all non-essential meetings and events immediately. However, we would rather that Management enact the UCU National response given below, for the benefit of all our communities.

We remind members that Monday and Tuesday are still strike days. Observing the strike and social distancing are acts of self-care and communal responsibility.

* UPDATE 1: 12:02pm, 14/03/20

We have, as yet, had no response from management.

However, many members have emailed and DM’d us to raise concerns. They have also asked us to emphasise that, whilst we specifically mention academic staff below, we have UCU members who are in professional services, and we also have an institutional duty of care to our students, those who invigilate exams for us, our external examiners, community-based stakeholders, external contractors, and others.

We will continue to urge the Management to act, based upon health and safety, and the well-being of our staff and students. We have staff and students who are immunocompromised, students far from home who wish not to be penalised for wishing to return home, professional services staff who are operating triage for many concerned students and staff as well as having to undertake business as usual activities.

In this, we will be considering the implications of section 44 of the employment rights act: https://section44.co.uk/

We will also be urging the University’s managers to demonstrate its care about our students and staff based on their Visa or leave to remain status, based upon UK government immigration guidance: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/coronavirus-immigration-guidance-if-youre-unable-to-return-to-china-from-the-uk

We are aware that there is a Covid-19 working group at DMU, but we are aghast that we are having to press Management on this. There is a global public health crisis, and our leaders are not leading or communicating appropriately. We are determined to continue to press DMU management and to hold them to account. We will do all that we can as a Union to show moral leadership.

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We have just emailed the interim Vice-Chancellor About the University’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. Our email is appended below.

Sent on behalf of the DMU UCU branch committee

Dear Professor Collop,

We are writing to you about De Montfort University’s response to COVID-19. We do not believe that the Government’s response and indeed the University’s own response to COVID-19 is robust enough to protect the health and safety of our staff or students, and in particular the health and safety of our front line academic staff. Following our email yesterday, we welcome cancellation of the 14 March Open Day and varsity, however it makes little sense to cancel open days and matches but not other gatherings. Ironically, instead of taking active measures to encourage social distancing, we note that managers have been advised to schedule staff meetings and bring staff together in order to brief them about COVID-19. The documentation circulated to managers today still states that Public Health England rates the risk as ‘moderate’, while the risk to the UK was upgraded to ‘high’ yesterday.

We note that student facing academic staff, in particular, are on the front line of DMU operations, routinely in close contact with hundreds of students in relatively enclosed spaces. From large lectures, to tutorials, to individual meetings and to laboratories, academic staff are one of the most at risk categories of staff for contracting an infection during a pandemic. They are in close contact with students, and regularly have to handle equipment and hard surfaces that have been in frequent contact with large numbers of students. While so far there hasn’t been a confirmed COVID-19 case at DMU, experts believe the real number of infections vastly outnumber confirmed cases and are rising sharply each day. It is also the case that having entered into the delay phase of the Government’s action plan, contact tracing and testing of suspected cases has now effectively been stopped, and short of serious hospital cases, no agency will know the real extent of the COVID-19 infection in any given University.

We are dismayed not to have been included in any subgroups of the Coronavirus planning group, especially given the legal requirements for the employer to consult with us on all matters concerning health and safety of employees. We are also disappointed that copies of relevant risk assessments have not been provided to us.

We have been contacted by many of our members expressing their concerns about the ‘business as usual’ approach. As increasingly reported in the press, other UK Universities are taking significant active steps to protect their staff and student bodies. Given the high risk nature of on-campus teaching (due to its density and close proximity nature), on-campus teaching has been suspended by many UK universities. We recommend that DMU join the vanguard in the sector and suspend on-campus teaching too.

We are calling on DMU’s management to work with UCU and staff on their plans for managing this crisis, in terms of the full range of teaching and non-teaching activities, including contact time activities, assessment activities, interviewing, personal tutoring, open days, research networking, and so on. Although we have ongoing industrial action, we have consistently indicated a willingness to talk and negotiate: this remains our position.

We are in particular very disappointed that the advice issued today does not go far enough to discourage presenteeism, by unambiguously instructing all staff and students who exhibit any cold and flu symptoms to self-isolate and not to attend the University, while making it clear in the case of staff that they will not suffer any detriment for acting like responsible employees and citizens in the interest of the public good. It is recognised that the severity of a COVID-19 case would be greater for any individual who’s immunity system is already compromised due to contracting a cold or the normal season flu, or worse still, in cases of a combined infection.

The situation is developing rapidly, and we are in the process of developing our position ourselves. At this moment we would like to seek assurances to include the following, with due regard to the fact that different staff groups will be differently affected and may need different forms of support.

  • We ask that the University instructs as a matter of urgency and in no uncertain terms all staff and students who exhibit any cold and flu symptoms to self-isolate and not to attend the University to avoid putting themselves and any of their peers at risk.
  • The widespread provision of hand sanitiser across the University, including in labs and all staff accommodation areas.
  • Time off for staff requiring self-isolation due to the coronavirus should be treated as special leave and not form part of the usual sickness absence policy or associated procedures, including performance management or disciplinary processes.
  • Consideration should be given to those staff who are more vulnerable by virtue of either their own underlying health conditions or those of their dependents or other close contacts, and self-isolation as a preventative measure should be allowed in those cases.
  • Encourage social distancing by cancelling all non-essential meetings and events.
  • Casual workers whose work has been affected should receive pay in line with their normal working patterns where that work is disrupted.
  • Staff should not suffer any detriment, regardless of their contract.
  • Advice should be provided to staff around the various visa types, with details of how the university will seek to avoid detriment to them.
  • We expect that the University will not be requiring ‘fit notes’ for staff absent due to self-isolation, and we also expect that this information will be communicated clearly to all staff.
  • Encourage working from home for all staff groups, wherever possible.

We have concerns about the differential impact this is likely to have on different staff groups, and we request that particular attention is paid to supporting those staff on lower grades.

We recognise that this is an emergency situation and that measures in place to protect the health and safety of staff and students are ad hoc and might raise matters of principle that may need to be further discussed in due course. 

Best wishes,

DMU UCU branch committee

Workers’ inquiry is back

You may remember that we launched a worker’s inquiry last year to collect the experiences of working at DMU from all staff. Unfortunately, for GDPR reasons we have had to remove the survey and destroy any collected data. We have now sought further advice from UCU central office and are ready to re-launch to members and any other staff who wish to contribute though the web link and QR code below. It can take as little as 5 minutes to complete. All responses are anonymous.


Traditionally, academics have not taken steps to understand their own experience collectively, rather this has been shaped through management questionnaires. Whilst management at DMU have instigated a listening exercise and a culture review, issues have arisen in terms of trust in the process, in particular where structural issues in relation to dignity at work are not perceived to have been addressed.

In this way, we wish to use our inquiry as a means of self-empowerment, in taking our everyday experiences as our object of research. This is an academic workers’ self-inquiry into their working conditions, and not a listening exercise for DMU.



1. The process of inquiry begins from our own experiences of working in the University. It will be conducted and owned by the workers, rather than by management.

2. The inquiry will be based on the values of self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, equity, and solidarity. Its conduct will be governed by ethical values of honesty, openness, social responsibility and caring for others.

3. The inquiry will be respectful of the stories and positions of all who wish to contribute. Dignity will be at the centre of this work and responses will remain anonymous

4. The inquiry is designed to enable individuals to share their stories in a safe space. It aims to describe and then analyse individual and collective experiences, in order to propose meaningful transformation of the governance and management of the University.


If you as a UCU member know anyone who would like to add their thoughts to the inquiry please forward them the weblink below. As a trade union we can only forward to our members directly.

Weblink:    https://yoursay.ucu.org.uk/s3/DMU-Worker-Inquiry-February-2020

QR Code to DMU Workers Inquiry