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Branch President: FAQs

Why is the branch not making a recommendation on how to vote?
The University’s proposal is to amend the terms and conditions of employees in a way which will mean that these are a reduction in your benefits. As a union, we cannot make a formal recommendation that you accept this. What we can do is tell you what the alternatives are, and we can confirm that we believe we cannot get a better deal through.

The student numbers were wrong at the outset
Yes, the very first projections put out by the University were wrongly calculated. Negotiators were able to force the University to abandon these projections since it was clear they were problematic. After a “light touch” review, more detailed calculations came to a similar figure, of just over £100m over the next three years: this was because in the light touch review, a further loss calculation was added in, which related to the USS payments. The negotiators stripped that figure from the University’s calculations in reaching the current proposal, as USS has nothing to do with COVID.

The University has additional resources to draw on

Yes, but not a lot. The current proposal involves the University drawing on £46m from the reserves of its Trusts before recovering COIVD-related losses from staff. It has already drawn down heavily on these Trusts and if it were to take more, would risk not being able to cover some worst-case scenarios like another lockdown.

The University could borrow money
From what the University has been willing to disclose, the current terms of borrowing with banks are such that those banks will not lend more, nor will they accept a further lender coming into the picture. If you’ve got a mortgage, and you want to borrow more, your original lender will have an opinion about that and your conditions of borrowing will have been clearly laid out. The University is in the same position. Its lenders will not allow further borrowing. Government lending is not currently an alternative: the conditions are difficult if not impossible to meet and it could leave government with a stronger hold on what we teach and how we teach it.

The University wants to make people redundant anyway
Quite possibly. But that would be in a separate stage of their restructuring process which we have not yet started to negotiate on. This ballot is in relation to the impact of COVID-19 on the finances of the University, and not in relation to ongoing financial difficulties. We have worked hard to separate these: we are not allowing the University to use COVID-19 as a cover for a wider restructure.

Student numbers are not as bad as predicted so why are we still voting?
The current proposals include concessions by the University, for example on governance, which were a priority for many members regardless of student numbers. If student numbers end up being as good as they look now, these victories for members may well be costless for them. However, we don’t know the numbers yet. We know how many people have enrolled, and how many are starting: but we don’t know (yet) how many are paying fees – and what those fees are. Obviously, international students pay more than UK/EU students: so two Home undergraduates might bring in the same income to the University as one international student. Lots of international students wait, every year, to enrol: until we have those bums on seats and their cash in the bank, we don’t know what we’ve got. This is why the point for any implementation of pay cuts is in the new year, when we know what the situation really is.

What are the terms of the voluntary severance/voluntary redundancy agreement?
We don’t know yet. We will only start to negotiate on this once we have a mandate to do so: ie if the ballot is accepted. If the ballot is rejected, it’s unlikely that there will be any option for voluntary severance.
When will the pay cuts come into effect?
This will depend on two factors: the outcome of the ballot, and the outcome of the start of term and student attendance. If the ballot is agreed, then processes will begin at which the student numbers will be assessed against predictions. By ‘student numbers’ this means, in effect, student fee income: a second lockdown or strong second wave might result in a high number of withdrawals before fees have been charged, and so it is that income which is being assessed. If student fee income is better than expected, and the ballot has been agreed, then it may be that no pay cuts come into effect at all. If student fee income is reduced, and the ballot has been agreed, then the negotiation team will agree timings of pay cuts and amounts of pay cuts with management on the basis of these proposals. They will not come into place before the February pay packet. If however the ballot is rejected then the University will decide when and if pay cuts will take place, and the worst case scenario is that they will take the absence of agreement to implement their original threat of dismissal and re-employment on a different contract. This will allow them to select the pay cuts they choose.

My contract says I’m on 6 months’ notice, so they can’t change it
Sorry, but they can. There are several ways in which this can be done, but the easiest way – from an employer’s perspective – is to dismiss and re-employ.

What will happen if we reject the proposal?

The University will decide what it wants to do, and the branch will have to decide collectively how to respond. Depending on the severity of the drop in student income, the University has the option of commencing the process of negotiation with each and every member of staff individually; or dismissing and re-employing under a new contract; or implementing redundancies. As the University would have discharged its duty to consult meaningfully it would not be obliged to recommence consultation. From a Union perspective, our option would then be to lodge a dispute with the University which would force them back to the negotiating table: to achieve this we would need a second formal ballot which would take up to three weeks. If the dispute was then unresolved, an option would be to have a further legal ballot for industrial action. We can’t refuse to work, or take other industrial action, without a formal legal mandate or else we could simply be dismissed.

The University will have to keep negotiating with us if we insist.
This is a misconception. The University has discharged its obligations under the Employment Act to consult meaningfully with staff. It is under no obligation to negotiate further, and has consistently stated that it would not do so unless there was a clear agreement to be found.

How does this affect staff who are not in the union?
Reading UCU represents all staff, collectively, who are in grades 6 to 9. This means that an agreement with Reading UCU can be applied to all staff who are in those grades, regardless of whether they are members of the union. Staff in grades 1 to 5 have no union representation and therefore the University is obliged to negotiate individually with those staff, but have made use of the Staff Forum to disseminate their plans. Staff who are in grades 1 to 5 who have joined Reading UCU can be represented by us but will still have to agree to the changes of terms and conditions as a separate agreement.

The negotiating team it was not representative of all members

No negotiating team is perfectly representative of our nearly 900 members. We differ in a whole range of ways, and no small group will capture all of them. The negotiating team was appointed after the EGM in July, and depended on being able to meet two criteria, availability and willingness to accept overwhelming endorsement by members of a ‘jobs first’ strategy at that EGM. Much of the committee opposed and continues to oppose that strategy and so were ruled out, and other committee members who accepted it were not available because of other commitments. As a result, the negotiating team was made up of the President and Treasurer, along with the Regional Officer. This meant there were no current academic staff on the negotiating team, although the Treasurer was a research-active academic before redeployment when his Department was closed. The negotiations though were not about any specifically academic issues, but about issues affecting all staff at all levels: and the purpose of any negotiating team is to reflect the issues raised by all members regardless of role, gender, type of contract, level of disability, hours worked, stage of career, age or length of contract.

The negotiating team was wrongly appointed
Branch Rule 7.4, at https://reading.web.ucu.org.uk/local-rules/, states that the negotiating team in any negotiation should be elected by the Committee. This didn’t happen when negotiations started in the previous UCU year, ie before the AGM at which there was a change of Committee and the formal election of a new President. As was then customary, the then President selected negotiators. At the most recent EGM, you, the members, were asked to approve the delegation of that authority to the new President: this was directly linked to the strategy which the majority of members wanted the negotiating team to pursue.

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