The UCU branch at QM continues to defend your interests during the COVID-19 crisis. We continue to meet with management representatives and make regular contact with them with requests for information and with proposals for an agreed response to the crisis which protects staff. However, as you will have seen from the Principal’s reply to our recent branch motion, our requests are regularly dismissed. We are therefore pursuing multiple avenues to seek reassurances and to protect jobs and working conditions , and we are calling on members – and especially permanent and more senior members of staff in academic positions – to help us.

One major area of concern for our branch is the prospect that large numbers of our colleagues on fixed-term positions will not have their contracts renewed in the new academic year. Colleagues on hourly paid contracts, including GTAs, also face a reduction or loss of teaching hours. This will not just affect casual staff. It will push higher and/or suddenly changed workloads onto permanent staff, and this risks harming our health and safety, equalities, our terms and conditions, and our students. In some cases this has already begun to happen, and members are facing increased and/ or drastically changed new teaching allocations as well as a potential reduction in research time. 

Many members have been in touch to ask what you can do if you are facing this situation, and how you can help defend the position of less secure colleagues. In the view of your union branch, if management pushes ahead with cuts to fixed-term and hourly paid staff, the resulting workload for other staff will be unsafe, unequal, undeliverable, and potentially in breach of contract. The permanent staff who will deal with the fallout need to begin to demonstrate this, so that the university is made aware of it. If members raise these issues in writing now, it will help the union to campaign against the cuts in our negotiating and consultative forums with management.

We are therefore asking permanent members of academic staff, and especially staff in more senior and professorial positions, to write collectively to Heads of School seeking clarifications and reminding them of the employer’s obligations with respect to Health and Safety, Equalities, and Terms and Conditions, and raising the issue of teaching quality and student complaints. To help members in doing this, we have drafted four key questions for you to ask, and some explanatory, text below. These can be adapted as necessary to reflect local concerns or conditions. If your discussion took place face-to-face, please follow up with an email summarising the discussion so that you are able to please retain aany paper trail created by this correspondence so that we can refer back to it at a later stage. For further information about organising these communications within Schools, please contact either your departmental union contact (list here) and/or email ucu-coordinator@qmul.ac.uk.

  1. Have you conducted a Health and Safety risk assessment?

As you know, we have been working in unprecedented conditions in recent weeks, adjusting to home-working and online teaching, and experiencing a major increase in the demands on our time. Some of us are home-schooling, suffering from illness, or caring for loved ones. Many of us are working in environments which are not suitable for the performance of our duties. We also face the uncertain prospect of a partial or full return to the workplace without full confidence that it will be safe to do so, or that it will be properly negotiated with our local union.

In this context, the prospect of an increased and/or suddenly changed workload next academic year is very worrying. We believe it could have grave implications for our mental and physical health and make the continued performance of our duties unsafe and unworkable. We would like further clarity on what steps the university will take, beyond those already announced, to keep us safe and healthy at work. We would like to know if a risk assessment of the increased workload has been or will be conducted. 

(Do not allow yourself to be fobbed off with a “yes” “no” answer. If that’s what you get, you may wish to follow up with: If one has been conducted, what does it say?)

  1. Have you conducted an Equality Impact Assessment?

The burdens of an increased workload will not fall equally. Our workplace is already highly unequal, as recent QMUL data on the race and gender pay gaps and on bullying and harassment make clear. Care work and home-schooling falls disproportionately on women, and emerging research shows that the impact of COVID-19 is unequal in terms of race, gender, age, class, and disability. When combined with an increase in workload next year, this inequality will be exacerbated. We would like to know what steps the university will take to prevent our workplace becoming less equal as a result of its planned response. 

(As above, do not allow yourself to be fobbed off with a “yes” “no” answer. If that’s what you get, you may wish to follow up with:  If an Equality Impact Assessment has been conducted, what does it say?)

  1. Is this a breach of my contractual terms and conditions?

The terms and conditions of our contracts state that our duties include either Teaching and Research or Teaching and Scholarship. Yet the prospective increase in workload resulting from the loss of colleagues on fixed-term contracts will be overwhelmingly teaching-related. Recent communications from the Principal state that research and other activities which are either “unfunded” or not “appropriately funded” should cease. They also state that the response to the current crisis will help us implement the longer-term 2030 Strategy, which envisages higher student numbers and more distance learning. Recent communications from some Heads of School in the university also suggest that expectations in terms of delivering research outputs for some staff will be decreased, and there is the additional prospect of cuts to research allowances.

We are concerned that the sudden increase in teaching load we may face next year risks either breaching our contracts or leading towards a new de facto state of affairs which risks permanently modifying our terms and conditions. Our union advises us that these prospects are potentially matters for individual or collective grievances with our employer. 

(Make sure you press your line manager on this. Perhaps by asking further: We would like clarity on the university’s intentions in this regard, and, more specifically, we would like to know whether this is being implemented in line with negotiated university policies, collective bargaining arrangements, and our contractual terms?) 

  1. What will you do when students complain about falling teaching quality?

Any significant increase in or sudden reallocation of workload risks seriously jeopardising teaching quality, especially in circumstances where we will continue online delivery. The government has claimed that students should continue to be charged full tuition fees because they will continue to receive the same high quality of teaching as normal. We are committed to our students and take pride in our teaching, but we are worried that an increased workload will make it highly unlikely that we will be able to deliver this.

In that event, we also believe there is a significant prospect of an increased number of student complaints and appeals, both to QMUL and to the Office for Students. We are concerned we could be named in complaints resulting from the unmanageable expectations placed on us. Is the university taking steps that will prevent such complaints and protect us from them in the event that they arise?