A joint response by Cambridge UCU and Cambridge SU to the Discussion of the Supplementary Report of the Board of Scrutiny
Deputy Vice Chancellor, this statement for the Discussion the 9th February is co-written by Lorena Gazzotti, the current Secretary of the Cambridge branch of the University and Colleges Union (CUCU) and the Alice Tong Sze Research Fellow at Lucy Cavendish and Alice Gilderdale, the Welfare and Community officer of the Cambridge SU. This comment has been written on behalf of Cambridge UCU and the Cambridge SU who represent staff and students and advocate for their rights within the University.
As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the University introduced a Recruitment Protocol across the University that was initially put in place in April 2020, with the objective to pause ‘non-essential recruitment’. The University also paused a number of promotion schemes, including the Academic Career Pathways promotion exercise. These were part of a package of measures that the University put in place to to make savings across the University and ‘meet operating costs associated with the University’s COVID-19 Recovery Plan’. In July 2020, the University extended the Recruitment Protocol in an amended form until the 31st July 2021. At the same time, the contract extension scheme supporting those on fixed-term contracts was ended in July 2020.
We are writing with deep concern that the University’s Supplementary Report of the Board of Scrutiny on Allocations from the Chest for 2020-21 reveals that the University’s financial projections for the pandemic have been found to be far too pessimistic, and led to a huge financial strain on the most precarious and vulnerable members of our academic community. In the Supplementary Report, the Board notes that ‘overall it appears that the University’s Covid‑19 scenario modelling earlier in the year was, in hindsight, excessively pessimistic and did not highlight a scenario which accurately captured what has, in fact, transpired so far: little to no immediate net financial impact on the Chest’.
We would specifically like to address the report’s description of the impact of the promotion freeze on academic staff across the University. The report details how ‘many staff have had to work exceptionally hard in difficult circumstances throughout 2020 to keep the University’s operations going. Given this, the suspension of almost all reward and progression schemes, including Academic Career Pathways (previously the Senior Academic Promotions process) in 2020–21 is exceptionally disappointing to many, particularly as this was justified, in part, by the pandemic.’
Higher education as a sector was already understaffed before the pandemic, and in 2019-2020 Cambridge UCU members went on strike for 20 days over a variety of issues, including pay and workload. Hundreds of students supported the strikes, joining picket lines and occupying the Senate House in solidarity with their teachers and staff, highlighting that staff working conditions are students’ learning conditions. Introducing a promotion freeze and a recruitment protocol turned out to be excessively punitive measures for staff that have worked flat out since the beginning of the pandemic. Staff on the lowest pay scales have been particularly affected by these schemes, by cancelling the possibility of promotions, placing a larger burden of work on fewer, overworked staff, and pushing many postgraduate staff into further casualised work. In particular, early-career academics are being pushed into further insecurity due to lack of job opportunities and placements within a job market which was already becoming increasingly inaccessible for those breaking into academia, especially when they belong to marginalised communities. In the long term this will have huge financial impacts on the lowest paid in this sector, who will be facing a bottleneck where multiple years’ worth of applicants will be trying to apply for the same number of positions in the University.
Casualised teachers, researchers, and academic-related staff occupy an increasing proportion of essential roles at the University of Cambridge and its colleges. These same workers, who perform vital tasks for the University, are the first to find their jobs on the line in times of crisis. At the same time, this University employs 247 staff members on salaries above £100,000 (compared to a sector average of 42). Combined, these salaries come to approximately £43 million, while the Vice-Chancellor earned a total salary of £475,000 in 2019. Alongside the promotion freeze and the recruitment protocol, the University announced the Voluntary Pay Reduction Scheme. However, the University has not published how many staff signed up to the scheme to take a voluntary pay cut of 10% over six months and has declined to comment on this issue.
It is shocking that the lowest paid staff in this University have been forced to shoulder the financial burden of this crisis, while the highest paid have been allowed to make a choice about their financial contributions to the University’s pandemic response. These measures also contradict the expressed commitment of the University of Cambridge to review its recruitment practices with a view to address casualisation, for example through the work of the anti-casualisation subgroup of the partnership working group, set up in response to the anti-casualisation claim submitted by UCU in 2018. Maintaining the promotion freeze and the recruitment protocol would nullify the progress made in the past two years. We note, furthermore, that the University should publish comprehensive evidence about the impact that the Recruitment Protocol is having on workload and casualisation.
It is nearly one year since this University first shut down as a result of the pandemic, yet our academic and non-academic staff have been working incredibly hard, despite the huge disruption they have been forced to contend with. Looking back on the over this year we must appreciate the work that has been continuing from home: staff who have moved teaching online, worked across multiple time zones, taken on extra work, all while navigating additional caring responsibilities, school closures and working from home – just a few examples of the daily stresses, difficulties and hardships of this pandemic.
In the past year, we have relentlessly expressed our deep concern that the University’s initial response to the financial downturn has been to place the burden on those already placed in precarious positions within the University. Throughout the pandemic both UCU and the SU have called for a reversal of these measures, as they have had huge financial impacts on staff. Now that we have evidence that these measures might not have been necessary in the first place, both the promotion freeze and the recruitment protocol need to be lifted.
As a result of this revelation by the Board of Scrutiny, we are calling on the University to:
- Immediately resume the promotion schemes paused during the past academic year, with particular attention paid to issues of E&D in access to promotion;
- Immediately lift the Recruitment Protocol;
- Publish its Equality Impact Assessments for each pay progression scheme cancelled for 2020-21.
- Publish detailed financial evidence for the savings it is making from the Voluntary Pay reduction scheme for senior University staff whose total remuneration exceeds £100k annually.
Now that we know University finances are healthier than forecast, staff cannot continue paying for a tragedy that did not occur: the University needs to lift both the promotion freeze and the recruitment protocol.