All posts by Colette Maxfield

Open Letter from the Campus Trade Unions to the Chair of Council 10.06.24


Dear Mr Geffen,


We, the undersigned, are members of the University of Surrey community, and are writing to you in respect of your role as Chair of Council, in which you hold a key role as a governor of our academic institution.


We are well aware of the challenges facing the Higher Education sector, and that there are a number of institutions having to make cuts to save money. Our concerns regarding the financial situation at the University of Surrey, however, extend beyond this general situation.


Our concerns are focussed on a series of expensive (and it turns out, unaffordable) projects in the lead-up to the ‘Financial Resilience Programme’ – projects such as £10M+ on the Surrey Future Fellows Scheme; a loan of £20M to purchase a building which remains largely unused; a rebranding exercise, and exorbitant Executive Board expenses claims, well above sector averages. There are examples of many projects costing tens of millions of pounds. Surrey’s rate of borrowing against income has been one of the highest in the sector, with debt amounting to approx £300M. We note that the Financial Resilience Programme was preceded by the sudden departure of the University’s Chief Finance Officer and Chief Operating Officer in 2023, with very little explanation to the University community for the reasons behind this.


A deep analysis of the University’s financial situation by a sector analyst on behalf of the UCU, indicates that the dwindling levels of cash reserves places the institution in a vulnerable position in terms of ‘liquidity days’: we are amongst the lowest in the sector. Clearly, the executive board (EB), with Council’s agreement, has ‘maxed out’ the University’s lines of credit resulting in the coercion of scores of colleagues to leave Surrey in order to balance the books. In addition to the 140 or so that are leaving over the summer, there are dozens of unfilled posts that were previously frozen, which will put a huge strain on the colleagues that remain. We note that this situation has arisen despite many of the financial challenges affecting the sector being entirely foreseeable.


The Minutes of Council meetings are devoid of any explanation about the background to why these financial decisions were approved – in some cases, redacted to the point of being meaningless. There remains a lack of transparency on what further spending is planned for the future, and a “Phase 3” of restructuring has not been ruled out. If Council and EB are confident of the quality and probity of their governance decisions then why not publish them for all to see?


The University Council’s Terms of Reference make clear its responsibilities in terms of finances, administration, property and management and general control over the affairs of the University. Indeed a consistent line from senior managers and EB members has been that their unpopular decisions are based on being instructed by Council. We are therefore keen to hear more from you about the background to Council’s rationale for approving the financial decisions that have led up to the current desperate measures being undertaken. We are also keen to hear your strategy for leading Council through the difficult times that will result from these decisions.


You will have seen that a large number of staff and students have taken part in a ‘vote of no confidence’ against the Vice Chancellor, Provost and Executive Board, where the outcome was 97% no confidence. This is only five years after the last Vote of No Confidence – the University is pursuing a pattern of debt and large-scale staff loss, causing huge internal damage.


Given the responsibilities of Council and the current state of the University, we close by extending an invitation for you to an open staff meeting, hosted by the three recognised Trade Unions to discuss the matters outlined above, to report back on how money has been spent, and what has been achieved by these projects.


Yours sincerely,


UCU, Unite, and Unison Committees

University of Surrey management given vote of no confidence

https://www.ucu.org.uk/article/13602/University-of-Surrey-management-given-vote-of-no-confidence-by-staff

Staff and students have called on the University of Surrey management to stop the threat of job cuts after staff and students delivered an overwhelming vote of no confidence in the University’s Vice-Chancellor, Provost and the Executive Board.

Over nine in ten voters (97%), in a ballot organised by the University and College Union (UCU) and other campus unions at the University of Surrey, said they have no confidence in Surrey’s Vice-Chancellor, Prof GQ Max Lu, its Provost, Prof Tim Dunne (the architect of the cuts programme) and the Executive Board.  
  
Staff are furious at the axing of more than 140 jobs as part of a radical programme of cuts. The unions, staff and students fear these moves are merely the thin end of the wedge, with further cuts to jobs, provisions, and course content likely in the future, which may lead to closure of some degree programmes. Although they are yet to embark on mass compulsory redundancies, over 140 staff have accepted Voluntary Severance. Feedback from members and union caseworkers shows that many staff felt pressured into accepting voluntary severance. 

The University and College Union said it wants management to take note of the strength of feeling and commit to working with staff, students, and other campus unions to build a better university for all, rather than tearing down the bedrock of the institution by making staff redundant.  There has been no meaningful interaction with the unions, rather, releasing fait accompli measures at the 11th hour under the badge of ‘consultation’.   
  
UCU regional official, Michael Moran, said: ‘It is little surprise that staff confidence is at an all-time low given the cuts that Surrey is implementing. We believe there is no business or educational case for further cuts and ask that the VC and Provost rule out any future plans for redundancies and that management listen to staff concerns and commit to building a better university rather than sacking staff. We fear these cuts are the thin end of the wedge and, unless urgent action is taken now, Surrey staff and students will suffer further in the future.’  

Vote of No Confidence in the University Leadership

45 staff are now ‘at risk’ of compulsory redundancy. The calls from all three campus unions for no compulsory redundancies have been ignored: [see open letters: 11.03.24 / 14.03.24 / 11.04.24 / 19.04.24 / UCU comments re 19.04.24]

The process has been clouded in secrecy and compulsory redundancies declared with no realistic opportunities for consultation, pressurising affected staff into making rushed decisions. There is a real threat of a third phase of compulsory redundancies being declared in September 2024. 

As a result, campus trade unions (UCU, UNISON and Unite) have received overwhelming calls to facilitate a Vote of No Confidence.


University of Surrey finances – a flawed ‘sector norm’ argument

University of Surrey has repeatedly justified its actions using the ‘sector norm’ argument, repeating the same line to the press: BBC / BBC / Surrey Live / Times Higher. UCU expertise, via a sector analyst, challenges this premise as the sole cause as further finance metrics place the University of Surrey well outside of the sector average. There are of course sector pressures affecting our University, but the analysis shows that the predicament at UoS is very far from ‘normal’, that the University is a financial outlier, and that there has been long-term irresponsible financial planning despite the sector trajectory and pressures being well known.

The amount of borrowing against income has been one of the highest in the country, the latest reported HESA figures show University of Surrey second only to Oxford Brookeshttps://surrey-ucu.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2024/04/Debt-to-income-HESA-data.png. The evidence suggests that in addition to reckless spending, the Executive Board have also borrowed recklessly to the point where the ‘deficit’ appears to have been planned rather than arising from circumstances outside of anyone’s control. The debt repayments are not imminent (and so would not be causing immediate pressure to reduce staff numbers), but the debt levels mean that further loans are unlikely to be secured. Rather than scale back ambitions for further capital expenditure the current leadership seem prepared to fund these through job cuts, generating a high student to staff ratio and high workloads for remaining staff.

Although the University has not been open with us about its finances, the VC has made it clear in his recent all-staff message and open letter response, that future spending is intended for buildings and refurbishment, not staff.

University communications blackout – management have deliberately kept people uninformed 

After the previous Votes of no Confidence in the Vice-Chancellor and Executive Board in 2019, Council sent an email to all-staff stating ‘’What is very clear from these votes – and the feedback in the town hall meetings – is that collectively we need to get much better at communicating, particularly in difficult times’’. So it is with great concern that at this time of unease and precarity, there has been sparse all-staff communication from the University leadership on the details of the Financial Resilience Plan since the initial announcement in March 2024. 

Summary of concerns

 Overall, the concerns expressed by members that have led to such financial instability include:

  • The volume of borrowing against income, which surpasses nearly every institution in the sector, with the exception of only two with comparable or more borrowing.
  • The millions of pounds spent on projects that are not necessary to finance, which has substantially lowered the University’s cash reserves leading to weak financial sustainability.
  • The ongoing concern that staff are regarded as a cost and not as an asset 
  • The threatening of course closures without due process 
  • The serious implications for staff well-being, including stress and workload concerns as a result of staff reductions. 
  • Recruitment continuing, despite a recruitment freeze, and alongside large scale redundancy processes.

VOTE OF NO CONFIDENCE

In light of the above issues regarding the conduct of the University in relation to the Financial Resilience Plan, we would like to invite the University of Surrey community to participate in a Vote of No Confidence. Membership of a campus trade union is not a requirement. The vote relates to the Vice Chancellor, the Provost, and the Executive Board, based on the substantial concerns expressed by staff about their handling of the current situation.

This vote closes: 12 noon 17th May 2024

240411 Open Letter from the Campus Trade Unions

Dear Vice Chancellor,


We are writing to express our ongoing concerns about your Financial Resilience Programme here at the University of Surrey.


In your response, dated the 14th of March 2024, to our previous Open Letter, you claimed that staff cuts were being made because of sector-wide problems. As we knew at the time, historical borrowing and significant spending on multi-million-pound projects undermined your claim.


In the intervening weeks since our previous Open Letter, scores of staff have now accepted voluntary redundancy and it is unfortunate that we hear in some cases this has happened through coercion, or through people feeling that their hand has been forced given that you refused to remove the possibility of compulsory redundancies.


We now face a summer where many valued and experienced colleagues will leave the University of Surrey, and no all-staff communication has been forthcoming about onward plans for staff and students in the wake of such high staff losses. Neither has there been any all-staff meeting to update about your progress towards your financial goals. We only know that if you decide to make redundancies before the end of the University Financial Year on July the 31st, these will have already been planned and will need to be announced soon.


Our principal concern now relates to your future capital plans. The amount of institutional debt (an outlier in the sector) appears to be forcing you to pursue your substantial investment plans by running down cash reserves beyond a point which is sensible and then having to make cuts to free up cash to compensate and mitigate this. If the Executive Board and University Council were to dial back on substantial investment plans, then there could be a more prudent approach to the projected level of surpluses. You have not justified why staff need to lose their jobs, you have not clarified or outlined the future capital plans which are deemed so essential that they warrant targeting staff as part of an irrevocable institutional loss. Staff cuts of this magnitude and the cutting of courses will affect the
University’s reputation both in the short and medium term and would mean applicants will not be confident in applying.


In light of such lack of transparency, we therefore request:

  • An explanation as to why all-staff communication has ceased even though we are heading for significant changes across the university.
  • That the university therefore update staff on progress towards financial ambitions, specifically: i) whether VS has been sufficient for your aims, and ii) whether further measures will be needed, and if so, what these are.
  • That all programme and module changes be discussed openly and transparently with those staff and students who will be impacted and voted through at quorate Boards of Studies meetings in line with the University’s regulations.
  • That the University Executive Board make public the scale of University capital investment plans.
  • That you supply the detailed financial information which we requested, and which was promised in your 14th March letter response.

We look forward to a speedy response.


Yours sincerely,


UCU, Unite, and Unison Committees

Open Letter from the Campus Trade Unions 11.03.24

Dear Vice Chancellor,

UCU members and the wider University community are extremely concerned at the content of the message delivered in your recent all-staff meeting on the 6th of March 2024. You are calling for voluntary redundancies alongside the sale of University assets, and range of vague cost cutting exercises that involve “working in a different way” in an attempt to transform your £10M deficit into a £10M surplus in a year. Consequently, job security, increased workloads, and lack of financial transparency are many areas of concern highlighted to us by our members and other colleagues.

Your justification for the programme of voluntary severance and other cost cuts includes an ever more competitive student recruitment environment, tuition fees that have not risen with inflation, and increased energy costs. With the exception of the last point, these are the same reasons that attempted to justify the swingeing cuts five years ago as part of the Continuous Improvement Programme that resulted in a Vote of No Confidence in University Leadership. We note the lack of progress in managing these challenges, and furthermore, the incongruous investment in several multi-million-pound projects that University managers were either unaware the institution could not afford, or perhaps worse, went ahead anyway in the knowledge that they were beyond the means of the institution.

We note, as we noted in 2019, a tendency towards an Executive Board that regards staff as “costs and not assets”, with the focus entirely on crude financial savings and without any obvious consideration of the unforeseen costs in losing experience, knowledge, and expertise across a body of staff that underpin all that the University does, and that you should regard as your greatest resource. Clearly, many areas are already significantly understaffed.

However, the main purpose of this letter is to seek some early assurances so that staff do not have the spectre of uncertainty hanging over them. You raised the issue of the potential for ‘compulsory redundancies’. We therefore request:-

1. That you provide a categorical assurance that no member of staff that the recognised trade unions have bargaining rights for will be subjected to compulsory redundancy this calendar year.

2. That a VS scheme must fully incentivise applicants in order to reduce the risk of compulsory redundancies. As this is our paramount goal, we ask that you keep the VS application process open until at least the end of this academic year. This would allow those considering this option the time to make financial decisions which could involve checking pension data, considering reducing hours on a permanent or temporary basis, unpaid sabbatical etc. A 10-day period is not long enough for such life changing decisions nor to get the feedback required on the various options.

3. That you provide assurances that where “different ways of working” are planned, and where this may significantly change someone’s role, (especially where people may be outsourced or directed to sign new contracts that they may feel are on less attractive terms), then VS will be re-opened for those individuals, on the same terms as currently offered.

4. That the period, after which an employee can be made compulsorily redundant without an unsuccessful application for EVS being honoured, should be at least a year.

5. That UoS respond in detail to the UCU request for full financial transparency (formal request made to the Interim Chief Financial Officer Finance: Tuesday 5th March 2024).

We look forward to a positive reply from yourself that is sufficiently timely to allow our members an opportunity to consider your response, given the very short 10-day window that you have set for Voluntary Severance applications.

Yours sincerely

Surrey Unite, UNISON and UCU Committees

Open Letter to the Vice Chancellor regarding the 2023 ‘Not the Staff Survey’

Dear Vice Chancellor (Cc Karen Raymer, acting Chief People Officer),


As you may have been aware, we had once again this year carried out a “Not the staff survey” at a similar time to the University’s own staff survey, or People Survey as it is known, since we continue to identify the need to seek feedback from members and their colleagues on matters that we find are otherwise not picked up. There are a number of observations we can draw attention to on the way the University’s survey was carried out in relation to this one, which we will outline here.

The first observation from members and others participating in our survey is that they had more assured anonymity to submit their written comments than they did on the University’s survey. While the University’s survey was ensured to be anonymous, it is clear that a trace indicator was present to ensure each person completed the survey only once. Despite this and that an outside agency was handling the survey, there was still discomfort among staff to be honest in their viewpoints. Our survey on the other hand was completely open for anyone to complete. The nature of the comments from each individual do give us the assurance that the people responding were genuinely staff of the University while the unique responses give us some confidence in there being sufficient accuracy in the numerical results to reflect the opinions of our members and their colleagues.

With regard to the numerical results, we have repeatedly said that the change made in the 2022 People Survey regarding one of the questions set should be reversed. The original question was written as “My views are considered when the University makes significant decisions”, which existed up to 2021 and was replaced with “I have the opportunity to feed into my department/faculty when significant decisions are being made”. These two questions are distinctively different and indeed the positive scores dramatically increased in 2022 due to the change, when previously there was a substantially low score. Despite our insistence that both questions should be in the 2023 survey, this did not happen and therefore we brought out the ‘Not the staff survey’ partly to determine a difference of opinion between these two questions. The results below clearly show a difference of opinion between the two where confidence at University level is somewhat lower, though any degree of confidence in both cases this year is very low.

My views are considered when the University makes significant decisions
Agree (19%) Disagree (81%)

*The Neutral score was 0% in this result.

I have the opportunity to feed into my department/faculty when significant decisions are being made
Agree (19%) Neutral (36%) Disagree (45%)

A final point we will make on the conduct of the survey is that we have for many years argued for allowing unlimited length free text written comments. From our observation this appears to have been honoured in the latest survey which we welcome, though members and others do express concern about the lack of anonymity if they go into too much detail with their comments. We therefore hope that due to the difference in approach in this survey, that all points of concern will be taken on board and enable actions which could not be grasped from the University’s own survey. Attached to this letter is the free form comments from our respondents, which as we had declared at the start would only be visible to the UCU Surrey committee and recipients in Senior Management. Therefore, those reading this open letter externally will not see the attachment.

We will though highlight the following points that were found to occur significantly in the written feedback that we wish to draw to your attention:

– Consultations are meaningless because the so called consultation is with regard to decisions already made and then the questions are about how staff are going to adapt to them. Consultations should be about whether the leadership decisions are sensible.
– Staff turnover is intense in some parts of the University while also there are reported some abrupt fast handled restructurings over the past year that clearly had an effect on morale and momentum of the work those people are doing. It is more concerning for us as a union
that these restructurings were not brought to out attention.
– Substantial workloads imposing on staff due to the knock on effects of the recruitment freeze but also some great concern about the micro management and inappropriate, inconsistent or even hidden workload models.
– There are mixed views of the professional development review, which is often down to the reviewer and how well they are conducting it. Nonetheless there is a clear certainty, as we expected, that many reviewers and reviewees just did not know about or understand the process as it was weakly communicated. There are clearly also concerns about the operational side with the form used and improvements are necessary.

We hope that the feedback we have gathered from this survey will be taken on board and considered with due care along with the feedback from the other staff survey and are happy as ever to discuss any other details coming about from our findings.


Kind regards


The UCU Surrey Committee

240129 Open letter to the Chair of Council concerning SSC

Dear Mr Geffen,


First of all this is the first time that we have made contact with you that we are aware of as the University College Union (UCU) branch committee. We hope that you will wish to engage with us on important matters of deep concern to our members and the wider academic community that should be brought to your attention as chair of the University Council.


You will see that we have attached the following open letter to the executive board following a motion that was passed on 27th November 2023 regarding a very abrupt move of Surrey Space Centre (SSC) to the school of Maths and Physics. We hope you appreciate the impact that this had given the long-standing reputation of SSC and how this has played an important role to staff and students in Electronic Engineering and beyond.


Within the motion we had resolved that one of the actions would be to write to you and invite you to a branch meeting where you would be able to hear from members, not only on this matter specifically but also our wider concerns about the approaches taken by the University leadership that have severe consequences. It is very important in any academic community to uphold the need for academic freedom and democracy so that it will shape a University to best support the needs of the wider society. We therefore hope that you would want to share in our support for this need and come to discuss how this can be better sustained in our academic community.


Yours Sincerely,


The UCU Surrey Committee

240129 Open Letter from the Surrey UCU Committee concerning SSC

Dear Vice Chancellor (Cc the Provost)


We are writing this open letter as a resolution of a motion (appended to the end of this letter for reference) passed by members at a UCU Surrey branch meeting on 27th November 2023. It regards the very abrupt action in September 2023 where it was suddenly announced that it would be proposed to move Surrey Space Centre (SSC) to the School of Maths and Physics, followed by a very short consultation period for such a significant decision on course of direction. The rationale was shallow and did not include a detailed long-term plan for how the move would assure SSC’s long term sustainability and growth.

It is clear to us, both among members and many others in the staff body that the manner in which the move has been handled is not to anyone’s approval. This has to be acknowledged and lessons should be learned from such a mistake. We believe that the reasons for the move of SSC have not been made known and are a result of a knee jerk reaction to recent circumstances. Rather a more detailed and wider consultative approach should have been taken to determine why the move would be the best option long term for the research centre over at least the next ten years. This did not take place.

A move as significant as this will have substantial impact on the long term reputation of SSC and Electronic Engineering at the University. It is well known that Surrey has a substantial historical record of space engineering research, with a unique contribution to the space sector that cannot be found at other institutions. This has led to the delivery of our highly successful MSc programme in Space Engineering, and now the recently launched undergraduate programme in Astronautics. However, the success of those cannot be sustained without a clear link to the wide breadth engineering we deliver in the Faculty of Engineering and Physical Sciences (FEPS).

We ask that by acknowledging the clear errors in this process a mistake of this nature will not be encountered again. Furthermore, we demand the FEPS Executive Board work with members and staff through deeper consultation and negotiation on the best solution for long term sustainability and growth of SSC and other research and teaching activity within the Faculty.


Yours sincerely,


The UCU Surrey Branch


Motion passed on Surrey Space Centre – 27th November 2023


UCU Surrey Notes:

· The proposal to move Surrey Space Centre (SSC) to the School of Maths and Physics was announced in September 2023 with a very short consultation period.
· The rationale was shallow and did not include a detailed long term plan for how the move would assure SSC’s long term sustainability and growth.
· The manner in which the move has been handled is not to anyone’s approval.

UCU Surrey Believes:

· The reasons for the move of SSC have not been made known and are a result of a knee jerk reaction to recent circumstances.
· The move will have substantial impact on the long term reputation of SSC and Electronic Engineering at the University.
· The move will not best support the delivery and development of our courses in Astronautics and Space Engineering at undergraduate and postgraduate level.

UCU Surrey Resolves:

· To form an open letter to the executive board expressing concern about the mishandling of the process.
· To write to the Chair of Council and invite them to a meeting to discuss concerns raised.
· To demand that the FEPS Executive Board work with members and staff through deeper consultation and negotiation on the best solution for long term sustainability and growth of SSC

Motion: Surrey Space Centre (SSC)

UCU Surrey Notes:

  • The proposal to move Surrey Space Centre (SSC) to the School of Maths and Physics was announced in September 2023 with a very short consultation period.
  • The rationale was shallow and did not include a detailed long term plan for how the move would assure SSC’s long term sustainability and growth.
  • The manner in which the move has been handled is not to anyone’s approval.

UCU Surrey Believes:

  • The reasons for the move of SSC have not been made known and are a result of a knee jerk reaction to recent circumstances.
  • The move will have substantial impact on the long term reputation of SSC and Electronic Engineering at the University.
  • The move will not best support the delivery and development of our courses in Astronautics and Space Engineering at undergraduate and postgraduate level.

UCU Surrey Resolves:

  • To form an open letter to the executive board expressing concern about the mishandling of the process.
  • To write to the chair of council and invite them to a meeting to discuss concerns raised.
  • To demand that the FEPS Executive Board work with members and staff through deeper consultation and negotiation on the best solution for long term sustainability and growth of SSC.
  • To submit a Freedom of Information request for minutes of meetings and communications regarding the proposed move prior to consultation.

[Passed at a quorate branch meeting 27.11.23]

Marking and Assessment Boycott – MAB

UCU’s higher education committee (HEC) voted to begin a marking and assessment boycott (MAB) from Thursday 20 April 2023. This means that from Thursday 20 April 2023, we are asking all UCU members in universities which are part of the UCU Rising disputes to cease undertaking all summative marking and associated assessment activities/duties. The boycott also covers assessment-related work such as exam invigilation and the processing of marks.

UCU HQ MAB FAQs: UCU – Marking and assessment boycott FAQs

UCU HQ Recorded MAB Training session, delivery notes and slides: UCU – Marking and assessment boycott 2023

UCU Branch Resources:

UCU University of Liverpool MAB video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U5yNG7Fwew8

UCU Goldsmiths University MAB notes https://notesfrombelow.org/article/notes-marking-and-assessment-boycott

Notes From Below MAB Road Map https://notesfrombelow.org/article/road-map-branch-activists-organising-successful-ma

UCU QMUL 2022 notes on strikes and MABs https://qmucu.org/2022/05/03/guidance-for-participating-in-the-strike-marking-boycott/

UCU QMUL 2022 MAB advice for students https://qmucu.org/2022/05/03/letter-to-students-on-strike-action-and-marking-assessment-boycott/

UCU University of Leeds FAQs on MABs for students https://www.leedsucu.org.uk/marking-and-assessment-boycott-guidelines/