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University of Leicester Staff Survey 2022:
Damage Limitation or a Time for Genuine Change?

Published: 14th September, 2022

The results of the 2022 staff survey are a cause of concern for Leicester University branch of the University and College Union (UCU)—and should be a wake-up call to the executive board and University Council. The UCU wants the university to be a thriving and inclusive learning community.

In light of this, we examine some key results and propose how the issues raised by the survey could be addressed.

Mismanaging Change?

The most striking issue to emerge from the survey was the response to the question of whether “Change in the workplace is well managed”. Just 29% of staff completing the survey responded positively, with 36% critical of change management. We are confident that this reflects the legacy of the “Shaping for Excellence” redundancy programme that saw many of our colleagues lose their jobs and the university subjected to a global academic boycott.

A majority of staff also had an “unfavourable” or “neutral” view of the quality of communication across the university and the way different parts of the university work together, and these results were worse than average at UK higher education institutions. When asked whether working at the university made staff want to do the best work they could, responses were 5% below the norm across institutions, and 4% fewer staff were proud to say they work here than the average in UK higher education.

A minority of staff felt confident in the way the university addresses bullying and harassment or felt that the university provides a working environment that genuinely promotes excellence. Only 52% of those who responded believe the university treats staff fairly, a figure we feel is far too low. We want a university where all feel that they are treated fairly.

Underpaid and Overworked

Just 41% expressed satisfaction with the reward and benefits provision at the university. This is unsurprising. Pensions for members of the USS scheme have been slashed. Our pay offer this year is, in real terms (compared to the retail price index), a 9.3% pay cut. Staff are struggling in the context of a surging cost of living.

Staff also feel overworked. By far the biggest item that respondents wanted to change was: “workload and staffing levels”. This answer had almost 100 more responses than the next highest category (“promotion and career development”, itself the source of concern highlighted by UCU). This reflects the growing workload crisis about which UCU has repeatedly warned university managers.

These issues help explain why UCU members are currently being balloted for industrial action over pay, pensions, workloads and casualisation.

What Do We Value?

The positive aspects of life at the university tended to be those where the Executive have least direct control. A huge 669 responses said that the best thing about working at the university was their “colleagues”, three times more than the next highest category. Some 93% of respondents said they had good relationships with colleagues.

Other questions with positive responses included those on efforts to improve health & safety, and to commit to equality, diversity & inclusion (EDI). These are both areas where unions have historically, and today, been able to engage most effectively to promote positive outcomes. Although, even here, our results on health & safety were worse than the norm across the sector.

Respondents also felt that the university is a good place to be a student. The approach here appears to be that staff work around the obstacles placed in our way to come together to try to secure the best outcome for our students.

Limitations of the Survey

The UCU was only involved in a testing and pilot role for the survey, and did not participate in designing it. We have requested access to the raw data so we can analyse the results in detail for ourselves and await a response on this from the Executive. The findings presented here are simply those that have been shared with staff.

The response rate was 60%, lower than in the last survey, which took place in 2017. Two in five staff did not complete the survey. We can only speculate on what their attitude to life in the university might be. We should also reflect on the difficulties of surveying staff who, all too often, are condemned to casualised contracts. Many of our members also expressed concerns about the anonymity of their responses being maintained.

There are subtle changes in the design of the 2022 survey compared to its predecessor in 2017, making direct comparison difficult. Nonetheless, the trajectory on many of the key issues identified is worrying. On almost every question there is a smaller percentage who “agree” or “strongly agree” with positive statements about the university, compared to those who said they “agreed” or “tended to agree” to comparable statements in 2017.

Finally, the only comparisons offered in the survey results are with other “higher education institutions”. Academic research shows that discontent with work in higher education has grown over recent years. We suspect the results would be even more damning when compared to employees across all sectors of the economy. Unfortunately the survey was not designed to allow such comparisons.

The Way Forward: “Damage Limitation” or Genuine Change?

In response to the survey, the executive has initiated an “action plan”. We are disappointed that the campus unions that represent staff were not invited to co-create this plan, and we fear that the plans outlined so far do not rise to the challenges highlighted by the survey. What is needed is a new approach. The UCU has repeatedly warned of the discontent around the handling of Shaping for Excellence. We have highlighted the issues of workloads, pay and non-pay reward.

Here are four things the university’s leadership could do:

1. Work with staff unions and the students’ union to develop a new strategic plan. The UCU is willing to engage in talks about transforming the university and drawing up a new strategy, to make it a place where all members of our community feel valued. Our only condition is that these are meetings of equals, where everyone’s voice is heard and nobody claims a monopoly on wisdom. This cannot be done on the basis of an “action plan” developed solely by those whose efforts at change management and communication have caused such disquiet among staff.

2. Ensure staff are rewarded. The higher education employers’ bodies—UCEA on pay and UUK on pensions—have overseen a catastrophic decline in pay and pensions. While we are committed to maintaining collective bargaining across higher education, the University of Leicester could publicly propose that these bodies work with UCU and other unions to deliver an above-inflation pay reward and to reverse the cuts to the USS pension scheme.

3. Address the workload crisis. The Workload Allocation Model (WAM), developed in 2018, supposedly used to govern the workload of academic staff, has, in many Schools, never been implemented. Action needs to be taken to ensure its fair and consistent implementation across the university without delay. We are pleased the Executive is proposing a group, involving campus trade unions, to address workloads. We are in favour of using this to reduce the burden on staff. However, this cannot be an excuse to delay implementing the existing WAM.

4. Give us a say. If the university is to become a genuine learning community, all those involved in its functioning should be represented on its leading body, the Council. We propose that elected positions on Council be created, open to staff members, to ensure that we can participate in the running of our university. Other universities have democratic representation of staff on their Councils; why can’t we?

Further Notes & Comparison with 2017 Results

This angle merits more attention.  The deterioration in staff sentiments about working at the University of Leicester is really quite dramatic for certain topics.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, the university’s own discussion of the survey results does not say anything at all about this deterioration. 

Here are some highlights (or, we might say, lowlights):

  • In 2017, 80% of respondents said they would recommend the university as a place to work (i.e., chose agree or strongly agree).  In 2022, the comparable figure was 65%.  A decline of 15 percentage points amounts to hundreds of people (respondents) who would no longer recommend the university as a place to work, despite previously having been inclined to do so.

(Total respondents: 2376.  Multiply by 0.15: result is 356.)

  • In 2017, 78% of respondents said the university respects people equally.  In 2022, the comparable figure was 52%.  The question was slightly different, pertaining to whether the university treats people fairly.  Here as well a decrease in positive views is apparent for hundreds of colleagues – perhaps more than 600.
  • Both surveys posed questions about support for balancing work and personal life.  In 2017, 65% of respondents held positive views.  In 2022, the comparable figure was 53%. 
  • Both surveys posed questions about whether colleagues have input into decisions made about their work.  In 2017, 76% of respondents held positive views.  In 2022, the comparable figure was 63%. 

The ‘action plan’ document is oriented around results where the 2022 survey showed negative views among staff.  That’s okay, as far as it goes.  But the examples above show that there’s an additional question to consider: what has been going wrong at this university, to such an extent that hundreds of colleagues have become more negative in their views about working here? 

That question requires a more frank discussion than we see in the discussion of results and the action plan.  Without it, it is hard to be optimistic that views will actually improve.