An AUT delegation including the President and General Secretary and local representatives met with Sean Farren in early January to set out AUT’s stall. The main points raised were: (i) the need for a local Funding Council for Higher Education, (ii) the need for additional higher education places in NI — depending on how it is calculated the shortfall is between 12,000 and 17,000; (iii) student support; and (iv) research funding — since 1992, block research grant funding to the NI universities has fallen 30% in real terms while it has increased by 9% in GB. On the whole, we received a sympathetic hearing. While there was no commitment to a funding Council, the other issues were clearly important priorities for the minister. There were warnings, however, that both increases in local provision and the restoration of research funding would take time. On student support, Mr Farren made clear his intention to carry out a review. This was announced on 9th February.
At the invitation of our colleague and BAUT member, Esmond Birnie, a Northern Ireland AUT delegation made a presentation to the Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment Committee of the Assembly on 3rd February. In addition to the issues raised with the minister, we also raised university salaries and casualisation. The questions from committee members indicated that they were very interested in the issue of research and its relationship with economic development. They were also interested in salaries and in access to third level education for those with non-standard qualifications.
Some of us were due to meet the minister again on 17th February, this time, as members of the NIC ICTU Tertiary Education, Training and Employment Group. In the event, we met instead with the Alan Shannon, the Permanent Secretary of the Department. It is clear that the department intends to press ahead with a review of student support. A discussion document will be issued shortly with a view to finalising proposals by the end of June. It was indicated to us that this document will offer choices between increasing student numbers locally and additional student support. On the research front, it was indicated to us that an additional £9M was being made available to the NI universities under the terms of the Comprehensive Spending Review. This was in line with increases across the water, and did nothing to redress the cuts that had taken place in the 1990s. It was reported that the Universities had been successful in securing additional funds from The University Challenge Fund and The Science Enterprise Fund, and that they had also been successful in securing substantial funding from private sources.
On the Research Council front, a new discussion document is planned. It is acknowledged that a strategic plan is necessary for FE and training and it is likely that the new discussion document would consider the appropriateness of separate councils for training and FE on the one hand and HE on the other. On the whole though, one got the impression that the department was not keen to spend much of its resources on support for funding councils.
Mr Farren had been keen that the universities and FE colleges should be designated as Public Bodies for the purposes of the Fair Treatment guidelines, and it looks as if the department will press ahead with this although it recognises that the universities may worry about the implications of this for their independence. From AUT’s point of view, designation as a Public Body is no bad thing as it imposes greater obligations in terms of equality legislation, but there implications for student recruitment.
Finally, it is worth mentioning that the Vice-Chancellors of the two universities have been joining forces to make the public case for additional funding and for expansion of the two local universities. They have been doing an excellent job so far (i.e. satisfactory by QUB standards).
Before Christmas, we reported on the unsatisfactory nature of the new accommodation being offered to our colleagues in the School of Nursing and Midwifery. By the time we got involved, there was very little room for manoeuvre: heating, ventilation, cabling, sockets and even desks had all been installed. Following seemingly endless negotiations, we have been able to secure some improvements including the relocation of seven staff to the middle floor of the building, a redesign of the open plan office on the top floor, and various undertakings with regard to a review and further action where necessary. After lengthy debate, staff are due to move to the new accommodation later this month.
Our inquiries with regard to nursing staff in other Universities reveals a mixed picture. Some have single office accommodation, some shared accommodation and a few had open plan. We know of no other university which has decided to put virtually all its teaching staff into a single open plan office. Conditions of service and contracts of employment vary considerable between institutions but, on the whole, nursing staff have less job security than other academics. Much, but not all, of this is due to the fact that nursing is not funded in the normal way, but by means of contracts which have to be bid for every few years. This is forcing down the unit of resource and produces continual uncertainty
The Belfast AUT will be putting forward motions to the annual women’s meeting of the AUT and to May Council calling for an investigation into conditions of service of nursing staff in the Universities. This is particularly important in light of the Bett report and the emphasis AUT has recently been placing on the need to address gender discrimination in the Universities.
AUT Council met in London on the 15th December and unfortunately induced in many of those present a deep feeling of depression. The main business was the recent pay campaign, and a number of members of the Executive argued that the low pay of academics was the result of gender discrimination and casualisation in the profession. They appeared almost to argue that if these issues were addressed the pay issue would resolve itself. Given that our employers have graciously agreed to discuss these two issues with AUT, then some Executive members almost appeared to argue that the recent campaign was a success! This was patently nothing more than a ploy by elements of this union’s leadership to exculpate themselves from responsibility for the recent disastrous campaign. Gender discrimination and casualisation are very important issues, but to suggest that they are the main reason for the long-term erosion of academic pay is nonsense. The conduct and general tenor of the meeting indicated that the Executive and full-time officers of AUT are increasingly cut-off from the membership. Executive speakers at times patronised the Council delegates and at least one individual has since expressed the opinion that it was time Council was ‘put in its place’. It was quite clear that many members of Executive were insensitive to the anger of many Council members at not being consulted on the decision to call-off the pay action.
In regard to the establishment of a Commission of Inquiry which was perhaps one of the few positive aspects of this meeting? It can be argued that AUT has ended up with the worst of all possible compromises. It was admitted that there was a need for an enquiry but then the body charged with carrying this out was packed with the people whose actions need to be examined. The inevitable consequence of this political sleight of hand is that there can be little confidence in either the Commission or its findings. What is needed is an autopsy, but unfortunately this is impossible because the leadership of AUT refuse to pronounce the patient dead. If there is one lesson for the membership of this Association it is perhaps that we need to take greater care when electing Executive members.
Don Sykes and John Lynch
I have been elected as a member of the Commission of Inquiry and I would welcome your views on how the last salary campaign was handled both locally and nationally, and how things should be done in the future. The problem is that the issues can only be put to our employer (technically QUB Senate, but effectively the CVCP), but that the Government controls the purse-strings. Even the CVCP agrees that university staff are seriously underpaid yet, whenever we make a claim for a serious step towards reducing this salary erosion, we come into conflict with them because that type of money is not in the system and the government declines to pay. The Commission would welcome your views on the following issues:
What ideas should the AUT pursue to persuade the Government to fund decent pay levels? Letters to MP’s and campus meetings are fairly well established activities. What other methods should we use to progress our political campaign?
The Commission will be seeking legal advice on the options for industrial action (any organised action which breeches your contract of employment). The legal opinion so far is that, after a recent case, the only form of legal industrial action that is practical for AUT to undertake is strike action. This is because of the requirement to specify in advance exactly who will (not) be doing what and precisely when. Do you feel that one day strikes are effective and deliverable? Is it important in a campaign to be formally in dispute with an employer? Are there any forms of action short of formal industrial action that would be feasible?
Leafleting of graduation ceremonies and open days were highly effective in a number of institutions. What other publicity seeking initiatives should be considered?
Please send your responses to email@example.com as soon as possible and by 24 March at the latest. Alternatively you may post responses to Peter Mitchell, Assistant General Secretary, AUT, Egmont House, 25-31 Tavistock Place, London WC1H 9UT, with a copy to me.
Am I the only academic who, upon reading yet another circular from the senior management, habitually exclaims, "B****cks!"? So much that we receive seems out of touch with the practicalities of teaching and research, with the characteristics of today’s students, with the workload of academics and with their interest in form-filling. To be fair to my administrative colleagues they are often passing on the demands of that army of bodies, both external and internal, that now audit, monitor and supervise the work of universities. And many of the circulars are couched in an alien language which has been developed by those who are making a career out of administrating the RAE, TQA, QAA, ILT and all the other fashionable acronyms. For those of us who actually face the daily grind of a heavy teaching load our purpose is, apparently, not to teach our subject well, but to have "Objects and outcomes embedded in an articulated framework."
What has provoked my ire is a document which has reached me not in an AUT capacity but which has been circulated by those appalled at its contents. It is a draft of "Criteria for excellence in teaching for use in considering promotion". To achieve excellent a candidate has to score excellent in each of six domains, and necessary activities are specified in each of these domains for scores of excellent, very good, good and satisfactory. The great majority of these activities and domains involve only paper-work about teaching, or membership of teaching committees or duties and activities which are not within the choice of the individual. When the head of a school of 60 academic staff saw these criteria he said that none of the staff could qualify for excellent and only a couple for very good. Yet the school has been graded as excellent in the TQA! How can Queen’s boast about excellent in teaching while grading so few staff as excellent? Or is the hidden agenda the end of teaching as a worthwhile input for promotion?
Let me spell out the realities of teaching as seen by those who do it day in and day out. You teach the modules that are assigned to you. Often the best teachers get the worst modules and vice versa. You have no control over the quality of the students admitted to the module. Enrolments have grown without matching resources. Besides the usual student distractions, today’s students spend a lot of time earning money. Therefore you can have limited influence over their attendance, effort and motivation. At Levels 0 and 1 you have to impart basic knowledge and skills and the scope for continually redesigning the course is very limited. The same applies to all service teaching and to the higher levels in linear subjects. For the professional subjects what is taught is constrained by the recognition requirements. In short, on planet Earth the activities that dominate the promotion criteria are only a minor part of teaching.
Max Goldstrom, a Director of USS, will conduct a question and answer session on Early Retirement on Monday 20th March in room 106MR, Peter Froggatt Centre, 1 to 2 p.m. (bring sandwiches). Please ring Patricia McKnight (ext 3090) if you propose to attend.
What happened to the women I ask myself. I have just had a quick flick through the latest Queen’s Annual Review which is available as a freebie with all the local newspapers. On the whole, the review is well produced. Its interesting to know that John McCanny is the man who gave us digital TV and that Queen’s catering produces 20,000 meals per day. There are pictures of the Vice –Chancellor and the Registrar looking visionary and there are pictures of some nice blonde female students. Are there are no females over 20 on the Belfast Campus? No wonder all these guys look happy!
A look at the statistics reassures me things are changing fast. Almost 60% of full-time undergraduates and the vast majority of part-time are female. Things are not looking bad on the post-graduate side either, with the majority of the 1998-9 full-time postgraduate intake being female.