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Is this a conversation or a monologue?

October 14, 2016

Billed as ‘conversations’, VC Paddy Nixon will visit Ulster’s 4 campuses on Tuesday to meet staff in the wake of the publication of UU’s Strategic Plan – Five & Fifty. But we might ask, is this a conversation or a monologue? Is the VC listening?

He certainly didn’t listen to the campus unions as management implemented cuts to jobs last year. Had he done so, some of the ill-conceived decisions that damaged the work and reputation of the institution might have been avoided, such as the loss of Maths and Modern Languages. Also UU might not be forcing three colleagues out of Irish at the moment.

In this instance, the VC ignored the pleas of UCU to save the three colleagues and look for savings elsewhere. He also dismissed the pleas of the broader academic who petitioned him, in particular those of Ralph O’Connor, Professor in the Literature and Culture of Britain, Ireland and Iceland, from the University of Aberdeen, and the 161 academics from 18 countries who signed a petition asking him to reconsider the decision to press ahead with the 3 redundancies. Prof O’Connor wrote:

We are writing as supporters of your university and especially of its continuing contributions to Celtic studies. Whatever the financial calculations behind this exercise may be, it would greatly damage your international reputation for both research and teaching if you were seen to have ‘let go’ three capable and versatile staff from a world-leading unit. Coming so soon after your success in Celtic in REF 2014, such a move will seem tragically counterproductive, and its repercussions would be unlikely to be restricted to our own field. It is also hard to imagine a more potent disincentive for your own staff in other units to perform their best for the next REF. We urge you in the strongest terms to reconsider.

Others made their representations: research partners like those at Centre de Recherche Bretonne et Celtique expressed their ‘dismay’. PhD students and graduates of Irish voiced their concerns in a letter to the VC and a public online petition with over 500 signatories, all feel on deaf ears.

It’s not a conversation if you don’t listen, or if you hear only the things you want to. Conversation where one (or both) refuse to engage meaningfully with the points of view of the other is worthless.

UCU is the democratic, collective voice of our profession. It is the most effect way of making your voice heard in any conversation. Use it. Make this a conversation, not a monologue. Attend the meetings, question the direction the VC is taking us. Demand accountability.

Contact us here: Tracy Irwin (President of UCU Ulster) or Stephen Baker (Vice President)


Ulster University management ignores plea from global academic community regarding Irish jobs

September 8, 2016

Ulster University is risking its international reputation by pressing ahead with controversial redundancies in the School of Irish, despite an unprecedented level of objection from the academic community globally in addition to trade unions and politicians locally.

Ralph O’Connor, Professor in the Literature and Culture of Britain, Ireland and Iceland, from the University of Aberdeen, instigated a petition signed by 161 academics from 18 countries following the University’s official confirmation of the three redundancies last week. Representing some of the most prestigious scholars in the Irish and Celtic Studies field, Professor O’Connor issued a letter to Professor Paddy Nixon, the current Vice-Chancellor at Ulster stating that ‘whether intentionally or not, to make these staff redundant … would send out a clear message that Ulster no longer considers itself a serious player in this field’. ‘It ‘beggars belief’, says Professor O’Connor, that Ulster would seek to ‘let go three capable and versatile staff from a world-leading [research] unit’.

The letter also questions the University’s ‘adherence to the principle of equality and diversity’ given the staff targeted for redundancy include non-catholic staff and the only woman in the school. In a follow up letter to Professor Cathy Gormley-Heenan, Pro-Vice Chancellor for Research and Impact at Ulster, Professor O’Connor warns ‘your university is about to start dismantling one of its own strongest and most prestigious research areas’. Celtic at Ulster was awarded 5* grading in the Research Assessment Exercise in 2001, and has performed strongly in every subsequent grading.

In a separate communication to Paddy Nixon, Professors Jarnoux and German of the Centre de Recherche Bretonne et Celtique (Centre of Breton and Celtic Research), Rennes, an organization heavily involved in collaborative research across the world, state that the Ulster academics now earmarked for redundancy are ‘one of the key reasons we sought to work with Ulster rather than other universities.’ They question the value of continued co-operation if the redundancy plan goes ahead.

The current importance of the work of these three academics and their school is clear from a petition signed by over 40 current PhD students and recent graduates from the discipline of Celtic Studies and neighbouring fields around the world.

Despite these representations, and those previously reported from the University and College Union (UCU) which has been supporting the three academics throughout the process, Paddy Nixon says in his response to Professor O’Connor that he will not abandon these decisions. He cites financial cuts for the decision. Ulster University has recently advertised and recruited to a number of posts, including at the highest levels of management. Nixon’s letter does not mention Celtic Studies at all and provides no recognition of the global reach and significance of the Irish and Celtic Studies field, focusing instead only on the British and Irish context.

Tracy Irwin, president of UCU at Ulster, says ‘These redundancies are completely unnecessary. They are neither financially nor academically justified. Substantial cost savings have already been made with the loss of 148 posts earlier in the year, yet the University is sacking three internationally renowned and hard working lecturers while simultaneously seeing fit to appoint three new officers at senior level, each with an estimated 6 figure salary, as well as advertising a number of other posts’. She continues ‘It is absolutely disgraceful for the Vice-Chancellor to disregard the views of the global academic community, international research partners, students and the Unions in this way. Paddy Nixon fails to understand the work that his colleagues do, and blatantly contradicts the University’s internationalization agenda by defining the discipline in such a narrow, insular manner. UCU continues to stand alongside our colleagues to fight these unnecessary redundancies’.

The redundancies are currently at appeal stage and the three colleagues will leave Ulster on 16th November if there is no shift from the University’s current position.

You can read the letters and petitions of support by clicking the links below.

Text of the letter from Professor Ralph O’Connor, Professor in the Literature and Culture of Britain, Ireland and Iceland, from the University of Aberdeen

Letter from Professors Philippe Jarnoux and Gary German or Centre de Recherche Brettonne et Celtique

Three face redundancy in Irish at UU

August 11, 2016

Today, three of our colleagues in the School of Irish Language and Literature will meet with redundancy panels.

All of them have already been informed that they are ‘provisionally’ on a list of staff whose jobs will be axed.

These meetings take place after UCU has written to the University outlining the union’s objections to these redundancies, stating: ‘The cost savings of these posts is negligible in terms of the overall University budget and the Union believes cost savings can be achieved through natural wastage and other strategies. UCU believe the axing of these posts and the livelihoods of the individuals who hold them is unwarranted and not financially justified.’

We are awaiting a response from University management on this issue.

The process by which our three colleagues in Irish have been earmarked for redundancy has been humiliating and demoralising for them.

Over the summer, staff within the School were forced to compete against one another to keep their jobs and eventually invited to sit before a redundancy panel where they were scored according to how they met certain criteria – like contestants in some tasteless talent contest.

As a consequence of this process Irish looks set to lose its only female colleague. The other two colleagues earmarked to lose their jobs are the School’s only members of staff from designated non-Catholic backgrounds. The two colleagues in question are also the only two members of the school who do not originate from Ireland.

These redundancies, should they be confirmed today, put into question Ulster University’s commitment to equality and diversity – and not for the first time during these cuts.

Although the university claims to have screened for inequality under their Section 75 duties, the outcome of this process demonstrates that they have not taken their obligations as a public authority seriously. UCU has already discovered through Freedom of Information requests that a disproportionate number of staff lost during the most recent cuts were identified as black or minority ethnic.

As Steve Baker, UCU’s vice chair at Ulster said yesterday: This is a terrible blow for the colleagues facing redundancy and a blow for equality and diversity in the university, at a time when both social inclusion and internationalisation are so important in higher education.’

The three job losses in Irish are another awful consequence of a flawed process that began as a so-called voluntary severance scheme last year. There was in truth nothing voluntary about it. The cuts were targeted. The severance package was not open to all. And where it was made available, staff were left feeling vulnerable. Some, no doubt, jumped for fear of being pushed, while colleagues in a number of areas were simply told their courses were closing and put on notice.

The targeted nature of the cuts was emphasised when some colleagues who made ‘expressions of interest’ in redundancy packages were told they could not leave because the university had a ‘strategic interest’ in their area or work.

Management failed to consult with the UCU throughout this process. Had they done so they would have been able to draw upon the considerable expertise and knowledge of staff within the institution, and ways might have been found to mitigate these cuts. Certainly the university wouldn’t be in the ignominious position of undermining its reputation for equality and diversity.

This has been a bruising period for staff at Ulster University and UCU appreciates how stressed, undervalued and demoralised colleagues are feeling. But we would ask you to give your full support to the union. Get involved in the branch activities. Feedback to the committee and union officials about what’s happening in your area. Encourage colleagues who aren’t already members to join.

Get in touch here: Tracy Irwin  or Stephen Baker

Follow UCU@Ulster on Facebook and Twitter @UCU_Ulster

UCU at Ulster declare a dispute with employer

September 24, 2015

Press release

The University and Colleges Union at Ulster University have this morning declared a dispute with the employer because of a failure to properly consult over collective redundancies.

In a redundancy situation, employers are required to consult meaningfully with the recognised trade unions with a view to reaching agreement on a set of proposals that are fair and equitable. The trade unions must be consulted on avoiding dismissals, reducing the number of dismissals and mitigating the consequences of dismissals.

Ulster University Management has presented its proposals, which include course closures and the loss of significant proportions of staff in targeted areas, as a fait accompli. Immediately after the proposals were announced, rather than enter a period of statutory consultation, courses were removed from the UCAS application system. An unagreed ‘voluntary’ severance scheme was opened to some but not all staff in targeted areas and was done so before the University published its business case to the trade union. UCU does not believe this constitutes meaningful consultation.

The closing date for applications to the voluntary severance scheme time is 30th October 2015. It has been offered to selected staff simultaneous to public announcements of course and departmental closures. Individuals have been placed in an invidious position of either applying for an enhanced package ahead of and parallel to consultation, or risk a compulsory redundancy on materially worse terms. The UCU believes the employer is bullying our members and is doing so with deliberate intention of undermining a meaningful consultation process.

Anthea Irwin, president of the local association of UCU at Ulster, said, ‘UCU are deeply saddened to have been forced into declaring a dispute with the University but we cannot stand by and allow our management to steamroller through a set of proposals that lack rationale, unfairly target colleagues in particular areas, and threaten the breadth of education we offer to our young people.

‘This should be a time of vibrancy and excitement at Ulster, as our students embark upon their new year of studies with talented and dedicated staff who inspire them, support them, and prepare them to make an impact on our society. But all of this is overshadowed by the fact that our management have demonstrated that they do not respect and value us, in the way our students and their future employers do. If they did, they would have worked with us to find a better way to deal with the Stormont budget cuts.

‘UCU have repeatedly asked management to consult meaningfully with us, they have not done so, and we have been forced to declare a dispute as a last resort. It is ironic that at the time the Minister for Employment and Learning is launching his ‘big conversation’ about higher education, Ulster University management refuse to have any meaningful conversation with their employees about how to best protect and nurture that education through difficult times.

‘UCU are ready and waiting to have that conversation, but we can only do so if our management halt their unacceptable process and start again in meaningful consultation with the trade unions.’

Contact: Anthea Irwin 07742889802

Cuts lead to lost opportunities for students

September 23, 2015

A colleague highlights one of the less publicised costs of cutting courses.

“When I was shopping in a retail park on Saturday the checkout person recognized me as a member of staff from Magee. She is currently on the third year of the BSc Psychology at Magee. She said she had been hoping to apply for the post-graduate Applied Psychology at Magee next year. But when the course moves to Coleraine her part time job and child care responsibilities would mean she wouldn’t be able to do this. She and some other students were angry at this.

“It was only speaking to this person that made me realise the human cost of this “de-duplication” of courses – our geographical spread over 4 campuses opened up opportunities for students which will now be removed by some courses being offered on just one campus.”

Care for university staff threatened with redundacy is too little too late

September 17, 2015

Carecall’s intervention is not sufficient to meet the challenge of so many and such ruthless job cuts, argues our colleague.

The presence of the Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) provider Carecall on all Campuses last week was no doubt an attempt on behalf of the University to meet its obligations in terms of minimising the impact of the redundancy scheme on employees. While efforts to increase awareness of the service will provide some consolation for colleagues during this period of uncertainty, in many ways this offering is too little too late. The Faculty announcements about the Schools and subject areas that would be targeted for redundancies came 10 weeks after the Acting VC’s briefings about pending redundancies on 18th June. That was 10 weeks wherein colleagues endured the climate of uncertainty and consequent accumulation of stress while in preparation for the new academic year. Stress is a word often used casually but stress has pathological physical, behavioural and emotional effects that pose long-term ramifications for the person, their relationships, family and ultimately the whole community. Stress increases risks of hypertension, heart attack, coronary artery disease and cardiovascular mortality. Increases in stressful life events are linked with depression, anxiety, heavy alcohol use and suicidal behaviours. Consequences for families include marital/relationship discord and even dissolution with profound repercussions for children. Employers are fully aware of the cost to their organisations when employees face insurmountable stress in terms of inability to concentrate, lack of motivation and sickness absence.

Carecall provides six sessions of counselling using a model known as Solution-Focused Brief Therapy (SFBT). While the provision is worthwhile and will no doubt provide important support to those colleagues who choose to avail of it, it is nonetheless a time-limited intervention, whereby clients and counsellors agree realistic goals to be achieved by the end of counselling, usually within six weeks. For staff members forced into accepting the severance package erroneously dressed up as voluntary, the long-term consequences of unemployment including the impact on homes and families extend well beyond six weeks. Moreover, for colleagues left behind, tasked with absorbing the excess workload in Schools faced with 25% – 40% of staff cuts, the manifold stresses are not likely to be resolved within a six week time frame. Nonetheless, the university has called upon Carecall to mop up the aftermath of negative life stresses imposed not only by the redundancies but the ways in which the university’s senior management team has managed this difficult process, by withholding information that has such profound impact on people’s lives. However hard-working and dedicated the individual counsellors of Carecall might be, they are not in a position to carry the burden of decisions of ruthless senior managers and inept members of the Stormont Executive who are not only failing the talented employees they have been fortunate to recruit but most crucially our most gifted young people and thus the already fragile future of our society.
For UCU members who want additional support, the College and University Support Network (Recourse) offers UCU members a range of services – from factsheets to counselling. Access these services online or through the 24/7 telephone support line, Freephone 0808 8020304

UU report to Assembly states case for economic importance of Modern Languages

September 16, 2015

“Graduates fluent in modern languages play an important part in Northern Ireland’s attractiveness for direct foreign investment.” So says a report submitted earlier this year (10th March) by Ulster University to the Northern Ireland Assembly’s Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment.

The report seems entirely at odds with management’s announcement that it will be cutting the provision of Modern Languages at the university.

Under the heading, ’Ulster University contribution to economic growth and job creation’, the report states:

Graduates fluent in modern languages play an important part in Northern Ireland’s attractiveness for direct foreign investment, and our credentials and leadership in teaching Chinese responds to the opportunity presented by the world’s fastest growing economy. Ulster University underpins the talent required for the new emerging industries locally, and ensures we are ready to meet the demands of the international marketplace.

The UU’s submission was received by the Assembly’s Inquiry into Economic Growth and Job Creation in a Reduced Tax Environment, which found that, “Whilst English is becoming the international language of business worldwide, competence in languages is becoming more sought after by companies looking to relocate.”

The full UU submission is available here. Modern Languages is mentioned in section 3.8.