Published: 14th July, 2021
14 July 2021
Dear Professor Canagarajah
We are deeply disappointed that having attended one dispute resolution meeting – on 20 May 2021 at our express invitation – you have elected to stay away from subsequent meetings. Nevertheless, we assume that the deputy vice-chancellor is keeping you fully briefed. At the most recent such meeting, on 30 June, Professor Burke, referring to the current state of our dispute and the ongoing negotiations, used the word ‘impasse’ several times. We agree with his assessment of the situation, believing this deeply undesirable.
We are also deeply disappointed that you and your senior leadership team have, in our view, failed to make any serious proposal to overcome this impasse. We therefore feel it is incumbent upon us to make proposals that, we hope, might break the impasse and make steps towards not just alleviating, but even fully resolving the dispute.
As both sides already agreed that we are at an impasse, which neither party desires, we believe that the first thing we must do is to assess how and why we have reached that impasse.
Leicester UCU does not insist on demanding zero compulsory redundancies because we adhere to ‘dogmatic’ trade-union principles. We do so because roughly twice the number of posts the executive board thought necessary to remove to implement ‘Shaping for Excellence’ have already been lost. We also oppose the plannedcompulsory redundancies because they are unfair and unjustifiable, as we explain further below.
We offer to:
In return, we request that you:
There are various possible originary moments of the present dispute – and of the impasse in which we now find ourselves. We could point to various decisions affecting the governance and financial liabilities of the University over the last two to six years. Instead, here we will restrict our attention to the period of the COVID-19 pandemic (i.e. from March 2020), which coincidentally overlaps to a large extent with your tenure as president and vice-chancellor.
Your decision to essentially abandon more than 150 of our colleagues on casualised contracts in spring 2020 revealed the strapline ‘We are Citizens of Change’ to be no more than a hollow marketing slogan. Similarly, your executive board’s approach to health-and-safety issues around on-campus and shared-air activities demonstrated a disregard for the health and wellbeing of University staff and students and the wider communities of which we are members.
Consequently, when ‘Shaping for Excellence’ was launched via pre-change engagement in October 2020, and proceeded with compulsory redundancy proposals in January 2021, many staff were already distrustful of executive board plans. To give just one example of how the disingenuous conduct of this process has compounded the breakdown in trust:
Twice, in executive board Q&A sessions on 20 January and 24 February, you have denied the role of external consultants such as dataHE in shaping the ‘Shaping for Excellence’ proposals, and denied trade union access to these reports on this basis. Yet managers cited dataHE findings as evidence of the need for change in pre-change consultation meetings. These assumptions – which staff and trade union representatives have never been allowed to scrutinise – underpinned at least part of the premise of ‘Shaping for Excellence’, even if they were not subsequently cited in the business cases for change.
Other examples are available here.
Even if one accepts that – due to the pandemic – ‘difficult decisions had to be taken’, leading to a net loss of jobs, one cannot explain your insistence on compulsory redundancies now, given that our colleagues who have already accepted VSS or resigned are many more than the net loss of posts that you were seeking originally. In this sense, your current position cannot be justified.
We understand that you have insisted that the changes you are calling ‘Shaping for Excellence’ are not financially motivated. Rather, you claim, they are ‘strategic’, part of a reorientation of the institution’s strategy. If this is the case, then we are very concerned by the vague and apparently incomplete nature of this strategy. On the University’s public-facing website, for instance, we still find the Strategic Plan that was published six years ago under your predecessor as vice-chancellor Paul Boyle.
In March this year, in a dispute resolution meeting, we pointed out to the deputy vice-chancellor that the lack of any University-level strategy made it very hard for colleagues at risk of redundancy to develop counter-proposals. How can one align oneself with a strategy that does not yet exist – or which has not been shared with you? Professor Burke conceded the point, but it was not until mid-April – almost three months after 145 colleagues were put at risk of redundancy and only days before the formal consultation period closed – that a ‘new strategy’, with its accompanying Strategic Diagram, was published on the University’s intranet. This new strategy is only 912 words long and our description of it on publication was scathing: three months on, we see no reason to revise our opinion and certainly it is a poor basis on which to separate so many people from their livelihoods.
We understand that you might claim that the relevant strategy is contained within the eight business cases. But you must understand each of these cases is itself deeply flawed on its own terms and, taken together, they are incoherent and even contradictory.
Accepting for a moment, the reality of the University’s strategy and the various Cases for Change, we contend that our colleagues at risk of redundancy are perfectly capable of implementing the new strategy. All are versatile personalities, possessing an extensive array of qualifications and abilities. The staff of this University are proud of being able to draw upon a wide range of transferrable skills in order to make possible a first-class student experience and innovative and respected research. For example, staff at risk of redundancy in the School of Business made a formal proposal to conduct future research in areas aligned with the projected future research strategy of that School. Their proposal was summarily rejected. Managers’ claims that some colleagues (with recognised contribution) are not able to adapt to a new strategy is deeply offensive towards everyone working at this institution: we find it completely unacceptable.
The above can be summarised in just two points:
As you should be aware the University of Leicester is currently subject to a global academic boycott. This is an extremely serious sanction, only used rarely (though the University of Liverpool has just joined the institution you lead in being censured in this way). Our national union decided to apply this sanction because of your and your executives’ exceptionally egregious behaviour in prosecuting your ‘Shaping for Excellence’ programme.
We understand that you possess the formal power to persevere with phase-1 redundancies and then turn your attention to the compulsory redundancies associated with ‘phase 2’. However, you do not have the power to lift the global academic boycott or in any other way to reverse the attendant reputational damage to our University.
As you should be aware, many scores of external examiners have resigned, thousands of scholars and alumni have expressed their opposition to your plans, thousands of current students are dissatisfied. Students’ discontent is only likely to become more explosive as details emerge of your executives’ opaque endeavours to circumvent Leicester UCU members’ marking and assessment boycott that have had a detrimental impact on marks and degree classifications.
There have been many reports in local, national and international media, universally critical of the institution you lead. You possess the formal power to press ahead with compulsory redundancies associated with your plan, but how do you plan to repair the University’s reputation?
Your current position – by further undermining staff morale and by undermining the University’s reputation – is making our University less resilient. After 15 months of working tirelessly in the face of COVID-19 and now six months of ‘Shaping for Excellence’, staff morale is at an all-time low.
Your current position is undermining the sustainability of our University.
Whilst you may retain formal power over the employees of University of Leicester, you will remain powerless if you cannot persuade us – and other stakeholders – of the justness and wisdom of your plans. This you have manifestly failed to do. In short, Professor Canagarajah, you need us!
We recommend that you and your executive board:return to reason and morality;negotiate sincerely;listen to our voice; and work with us to find solutions to the real challenges facing our University.
To reiterate, we offer to:
In return, we request that you: