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Sally Pellow, Branch Secretary, Speech to Congress 2017

We’ve had a rough couple of years at Reading. Our senior management wanted to make us ‘Effective and Efficient’.  To achieve this, they brought in PricewaterhouseCoopers, PwC, as external consultants. PwC in turn sent in quantities of shiny suits who appeared in droves on campus, calling three hour meetings with teams at short notice, and examining our processes, without explaining why. Staff were puzzled, defensive, irritated and stressed. Basic concepts – ‘what is a student’ – had to be explained over and over again. The PwC people had no previous experience of working with the HE sector.

The net result was that, as shown in the accounts, the University spent AT LEAST £36 million pounds, with most of that being pocketed by PwC. Public funds going to the private sector. The changes then introduced led to the voluntary redundancy of 200 admin staff, and at least a further 100 staff (these are rounded figures) leaving without a payoff, in many cases because they had reached the end of fixed term contracts. We calculated that on VR alone this equated to the loss of 2000 years of experience. The Branch was able to reduce the number of statutory redundancies to 3, though senior management then claimed this was a sign of caring leadership on their part.

The changes were that administration was centralised, pulling all admin staff out of departments and schools and putting them in support centres where roles were standardised across schools and staff could be interchangeable. With so many job losses, lots of these jobs were filled by temps from agencies. We were left with very few – if any – admin staff who had worked through the academic cycle. Building managers were dispensed with. Finance teams were all downgraded – and at the same time, management and control of budgets was moved from central Finance to schools. This led to problems.  Simple ordering processes which used to take two days from request to delivery now take six weeks. With no building managers, an undetected power failure in one Life Science building resulted in damage to research costing at least half a million pounds. Technicians were lost: but PwC explained that the glassware used in labs could be sent to central catering for washing up. No risk of cross-contamination there. Some of the extremely stupid decisions have now been reversed but the expertise is lost.

The warning signs, in retrospect, were clear. The University derecognised Unite and Unison a few years ago, leaving the vast majority of admin staff unrepresented by a trade union in collective negotiation. Lots of jobs were altered on fixed term contracts – all ending on the same day. As the plans became clearer, a well-honed explanation to staff emerged to hide the impact of the changes coming through. We set up and supported all-staff protests in solidarity with our unrepresented colleagues, and ran a very high profile vote of no confidence in our VC.

We know PwC are trotting round other Universities, showing slides of their work at Reading. We disagree with a lot of what we believe they are saying about the level of success. We need as a Union, to know where they are and who they are targeting next. We want to hear of what else they are getting wrong. We want to know if other staff are being demotivated, stressed, angered. We want to hear if other public funding is being paid to private sector consultants. And we feel this needs to be addressed at higher levels, at the National Audit Office.

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