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Response to VC’s email

Published: 18th May, 2021

Email sent to all members of Leicester UCU, Tuesday 18 May 2021

On Friday, the Vice-Chancellor sent you an email expressing disappointment about aspects of UCU’s campaign to defend the livelihoods of our members. At the precise moment this message landed in your inbox, your branch negotiators were finalising an olive branch invitation to the Vice Chancellor to meet with Leicester UCU urgently to discuss how to resolve, rather than escalate, our dispute. He has agreed to that meeting on Thursday 20 May.

In the meantime, it is important to address some of the inaccuracies in the Vice-Chancellor’s statement with which we are very disappointed.

1. Meetings and negotiations with the executive board.

After attending three dispute resolution meetings, at which we consistently stated Leicester UCU’s call for either a halt or at least a pause to the redundancy consultations, it became clear that the University management would not compromise. Nor would they provide even basic information that might have enabled negotiation to take place. At the last dispute resolution meeting on 15 March, the Deputy Vice-Chancellor expressed surprise when we asked for an update on the eight business cases and actions to mitigate redundancies. He was not prepared to answer and promised to get back to us in writing. We are still waiting. We did not attend the 13 April meeting of the Joint Negotiation and Consultation Committee because he had still not provided this information four weeks later (indeed, he never did). We decided not to attend two subsequent meetings convened by the Deputy Vice-Chancellor: the purpose of these meetings was not to seek a resolution to our dispute, but to enable the Executive Board to better mitigate against and penalise employees for taking action short of a strike. On all three occasions, we explicitly stated our willingness to resume dispute resolution meetings if the Executive Board could offer any basis for negotiation. They didn’t respond.

Indeed, the University management has failed even to formally notify your union’s Regional Official that the consultation process had ceased or of the formal outcomes: namely the number of compulsory redundancies, the number of voluntary redundancies, the number of redeployments, and any rejections of alternatives that were put forward as part of the consultation. This is standard and agreed practice in any dispute. This is how meaningfully the executive board have engaged in dialogue and consultation with UCU.

We look forward to meeting with the Vice-Chancellor and other members of the Executive Board on 20 May. This will be the first time Prof. Canagarajah has met with UCU to discuss the change proposals or the redundancies dispute.

2. Social media and the Dignity and Respect policy

The Vice-Chancellor’s statement referred to social media posts his Executive Board considered to be offensive, degrading or racially offensive, highlighting one image in particular that was reported to UCU Regional Office.

The ‘racially offensive’ image was a cartoon of the Vice-Chancellor that accompanied a draft version of an LUCU webpage at the beginning of February. It wasn’t intended to be racist and it’s hard to imagine many reading it as such. The Vice-Chancellor was depicted driving a toy car labelled ‘special purpose vehicle’ referring to one of the University’s more questionable financial arrangements. Because the car happened to be yellow, the Executive Board claim it looked like a banana. The image was removed less than 3 minutes after it was published after one of our members, quite rightly, suggested that the tradition of political cartoons of non-white people was not one that we necessarily wanted to tap into. The Executive Board nevertheless raised a complaint with UCU’s Regional Office, which was – as far as UCU were concerned – resolved. (This included Leicester UCU apologising for any offence caused to the member of the Executive Board who made the complaint.) Despite this, two months later, the Executive Board used the Dignity and Respect policy to launch formal disciplinary proceedings against two members who had shared a link to the webpage – they did not share the image – on social media.

This was part of a broader pattern of invoking the Dignity and Respect policy to instigate oddly formal ‘informal’ disciplinary proceedings against UCU officers and members for publicly criticising the redundancy proposals and consultation processes. This has included senior members of the Executive Board directly contacting far more junior colleagues to summon them to meetings. Several such proceedings were unable to identify any actual individual whose dignity and respect had, in fact, been jeopardised. Instead, ‘the University’ was claimed to have considered such words as ‘jackboot’, ‘chicanery’ and ‘putsch’, along with literary allusions to Kafka, Orwell and Solzhenitsyn, to constitute offensive and derogatory language.

The Vice-Chancellor’s statement failed to acknowledge how UCU Regional Office has responded to this pattern of behaviour by the Executive Board: by raising concerns about the University management’s potential intimidation of trade union officers and members.

There is a lot more we could say about how the Executive Board’s management of the redundancy consultation has violated the dignity and respect of all colleagues, and especially those at risk of, and now earmarked for, redundancy. This includes the University’s own social media posting which has on several occasions used the research of colleagues being made redundant because of their research specialisms to build the University’s brand identity. Moreover, several of the University’s social media posts that were intended to undermine our campaign to defend the livelihoods of our members have backfired. For example, looking through the social media responses to the University’s statement of ‘disappointment’ about the academic boycott, we could find hundreds of comments criticising the Executive Board’s position, from concerned citizens and HR professionals as well as university workers. The eight comments unequivocally supporting the redundancies came from accounts littered with xenophobic, misogynistic and/or anti-“woke” posts.

3. The University’s financial position

The Vice-Chancellor’s statement alleged that UCU has released misinformation about the University’s financial position and claimed that the Executive Board has refused to share financial information with UCU because such information is not relevant. We disagree. Members of the Students Union Council have reported that the Vice-Chancellor, presumably in order to dampen their opposition to his plans, told them in early April that making staff redundant is the only option for managing the University’s debt. Reports from the University’s Audit Committee and Finance Committee show that external auditors insisted on the need for a Revolving Credit Facility to be put in place before they agreed to sign their names to a statement that the University remained a going concern (i.e., that it would not go bankrupt). The Executive Board’s aggressive approach to the redundancy consultation might be explained by their need to demonstrate that they were managing a fragile financial situation by cutting staff costs.

As a consequence of the Executive Board’s position of refusing access to what we considered to be key documents relating to the university financial position and its impact on redundancies, UCU have lodged a complaint with the government’s Central Arbitration Committee. As part of that the Executive Board and UCU have agreed to meet informally under the auspices of CAC to see if this matter can be resolved.

We go into Thursday’s meeting with the Vice Chancellor and other members of his Executive Board ready to draw a line under all the mistakes they’ve made so far if they come prepared to meaningfully negotiate a resolution to our dispute. Defending the livelihoods of all our members and repairing some of the damage done to our learning community through this process are our only priorities.