A Local Victory of National Significance: Branch secretary’s report, 2015-6

This year, the branch secretary’s work has been principally concerned with our campaign against quantified research expectations that were elaborated in Research and Innovation Performance Expectations (RIPE/RTB) documents. All academic staff with a research element in their contract were to be measured against research outputs, grant income and PhD completion. It became apparent from our members in various schools that this would be a punitive process and opened the door to bullying with the ‘encouragement’ to accept teaching and scholarship contracts, more frequent performance meetings, retirement or capability procedures.

After discussion at our extended UCU Committee meeting on 7 October, we solicited members’ views, and Joan Harvey (our branch president) received around 200 responses. Most were negative about, afraid of, or angry at RTB; several offering biting critiques. The comments provided quotes for the posters that we then circulated. The Vice-Chancellor at this time organised a series of Town Hall meetings to explain RTB. These were well attended with voices of criticism being raised at each.

The Campaign Begins: The Grassroots Speak

An action committee encouraged members to participate in the campaign. This helped to encourage a creative grassroots response from our membership and beyond. One example of this creative approach beyond usual trade union practice was the launch of a major research project about the effects of RIPE. This project passed the University’s ethical approval process and constructed an impressive international advisory board. There were too many initiatives to be mentioned here and nobody has the full picture of what was done. I think there was lots of behind the scenes lobbying done and we ought to pay tribute to those at Head of School level and above who did this.

In late October-November, we organised meetings in at least a dozen schools to discuss RIPE, and these meetings generally drew at least half of the academics in the schools and often more. We circulated newsletters and posters against RIPE. Branch recruitment surged at this point. From late October, at least half a dozen Schools submitted open letters to the Vice-Chancellor against RIPE signed by a majority of school members, likewise Early Career Staff wrote their own open letter and over a hundred of the University’s professors signed a protest letter. The VC felt it necessary to meet with the Professors to explain his case. We gained favourable coverage for the campaign in The Courier and in the THES.

Our autumn General Meeting on 28 October 2015 had the largest turnout for such a meeting in this branch in memory. We overwhelmingly passed a motionfor the immediate withdrawal of the RIPE documents, the organisation of a vote of no confidence in the Vice-Chancellor, an indicative ballot for industrial action over the RIPE policy. The branch then organised a well-attended public meeting inviting Liz Morrish (Nottingham Trent University) to speak on ‘Raising the Bar? Why we should resist target culture’. In December, we lobbied Council about RIPE and received a fairly positive response from several Council members who were unaware of the opposition that the policy had created. There were also spirited interventions from our sympathisers at Senate.

Negotiations, Thorough Consultation and a Democratic Mandate for Action

Days after the General Meeting of 28 October, the university management, though hitherto uncommunicative, requested talks with the union over RTB/RIPE. Between November and February (10 November, 30 November, 11 January, 24 February), four sessions of talks took place with the management elaborating a Memorandum of Understanding to attempt to mitigate the effects of the RIPE documents given management refusal to withdraw RIPE.

The result of our indicative ballot for industrial action was announced on 3 February: 77.9% voted for action short of strike and 63.8% voted in favour of strike. This provided a strong mandate to consider to a formal ballot for industrial action.

A General Meeting on 9 March resolved to reject the Memorandum of Understanding in its entirety, to call for a formal ballot for industrial action over the management’s refusal to withdraw this policy, to call for a vote of no confidence in the University’s Executive Board, and to put a motion to national UCU Congress to designate our campaign a local dispute of national significance. This General Meeting was as well attended as the one in October, with staff members from across all the faculties of the University, and that no more than five people voted against any of these motions.

The UCU National Executive Committee sanctioned the ballot for industrial action during the last week in April. The ballot opened on 3 May for a fortnight. Posters and leafletting sessions sought to maximize the vote. A resounding 65.1% voted for strike action and 71.7% voted for action short of a strike. The turnout was 40.6% of members (higher than the national dispute).

On 23 May, our Emergency General Meeting voted to reject the MoU (that had been arrived at in ACAS negotiations on 11 May), and to move immediately to an assessment boycott, roughly 2 to 1. The NEC approved the marking boycott on Tuesday 24 May, and the local UCU branch gave University management official notification.

The marking boycott was set to begin on Friday 3 June. In late May-early June, another wave of school meetings took place for members as well as meetings for students to explain how a marking boycott would affect them. Engaging with students was vital and we tried to diffuse their anxieties about the boycott based on our past experience of such action. We produced a Youtube video for students and a leaflet. Generally speaking, students were supportive of our action. A student Facebook group and petition supported us. Many students emailed the VC. We kept a line of dialogue open with students throughout the campaign. The school staff meetings indicated that members were determined to carry out the marking boycott, despite the prospect of pay docking. A couple of days before the marking boycott was to begin, a petition that had branch support calling for a bottom up approach to research planning was posted on change.org. Within a couple of days, it had over 2,000 signatories: our students, staff, academics across the world. With branch committee backing, this proposed an alternate way of planning research entitled Improving Research Together.

Marking Boycott Begins

On Friday 3 June, the day that the marking boycott began, the VC held a meeting at short notice with Heads of Unit. At this meeting, an open discussion indicated the serious concerns across the university at that level about RTB. During the week before the marking boycott, the university management contacted UCU requesting talks. These talks took place on Monday 6 June and included the UCU’s senior national negotiator, Michael MacNeill. Raising the Bar and RIPE were withdrawn with management seeking to restart from scratch the research planning process along collegial, inclusive, school-level lines. We would therefore encourage members to be involved in this process in their schools to ensure that the vision of bottom-up research enhancement materialises.

RIP to RIPE, RIP to RTB: Life after RTB

This victory would not have been possible without all those in the academic community, union and non-union, staff and student. I thank all of you who made this possible. Though RTB did not directly affect academic-related or academics on T&S contracts, it was a victory for all staff against bullying and top down pressure. It allows us to move forward to address the concerns of all staff. It is giving confidence to those outside Newcastle University to resist similar pressures.

The common response to the news of the withdrawal of RTB/RIPE is that it is ‘unbelievable’. We perhaps ought to have more confidence in ourselves and our union. Equally, we should not rest on our laurels. This campaign allows an opportunity to increase our membership, to better represent staff interests and revitalise our rep and caseworker structure. We want to do more to address the concerns of the casualised, of those on T&S contracts, of academic related. We cannot do it without you. Ask your colleagues to join. Put up a union poster on your door or in your staff room. Contact us if you want to get involved.

Matt Perry, Branch Secretary, Newcastle University UCU.

Matt.perry@ncl.ac.uk

Links

How to join 03332070719 or https://join.ucu.org.uk

Working the Metricised Academy’ – www.rtbresearch.org

Liz Morrish ‘Raising the Bar? Why we should resist target culture’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1thgkQWV8t8

Her blog is Academic Irregularities: https://academicirregularities.wordpress.com/

The RTB research project: https://www.staff.ncl.ac.uk/nick.megoran/HTML/rtb.html

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