Featured image: Interim vice-chancellor Steve Bradley (left) with former vice-chancellor Mark E. Smith (right). Via Lucy-Lamb, licensed CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Steve Bradley has had a tough six months as interim vice-chancellor of Lancaster University. The Caton Court disaster, lecture theatre overcrowding, the Sugarhouse Scandal, and the emerging bullying scandal on the verge of the second UCU strike. In his short spell at the helm, he seems determined to establish a holistic legacy of failure, disaster and scandal that less able university managers are usually only able to establish after years on the job.

Determined to cement this legacy, on the morning of Wednesday 5th February, Professor Bradley sent an email to the inbox of every student to talk about the second wave of UCU strike action. Spineless finds it necessary to correct a number of inaccuracies in the vice-chancellor's narrative.

National talks

Professor Bradley says that national-level talks are ‘positive’ and making ‘significant progress’. The reality is not quite so rosy. Two sets of talks are ongoing based on the two mandates for the strike – one on USS and the other for the Four Fights.

UCU is in negotiations with the Universities & Colleges Employers Association (UCEA) over the Four Fights of casualisation, equality, pay, and workloads. These have been ongoing since July 2019. UCU negotiators have argued for a sector-wide, UK-level agreement on pay-related issues. This agreement would contain a set of expectations for universities on workloads, precarity, and equality, which could then be implemented on a local level and re-assessed annually.

This has been broadly accepted by UCEA, but according to UCU negotiators, 'gaps in the current offer would allow bad practice to continue across the sector, and must be closed for UCU members to be able to have faith in any proposed agreement with UCEA.' Furthermore, the UCU team lament that 'their offer does not move on pay at all.' They write, 'We believe that we can achieve more in further negotiations, and that this offer does not yet meet our members’ justified demands, nor progress for the HE sector.'

UCU is also part of ongoing negotiations over the pension scheme USS, which also include universities advocacy group Universities UK (UUK). But they're not good enough, either. Dr Jo Grady has released a statement saying:

Employers have indicated a willingness to work with us to help influence the governance and valuation methodology of USS, but so far nothing concrete has been offered that would make it worth calling off our action. Most importantly, employers have not yet offered to cover the unfair contribution increases that are pricing members out of the scheme.

Impact on staff and students

Professor Bradley laments the impact of strike action on students and staff who are not on strike, which is very nice of him, but also a little disingenuous. Not only because his inaction has helped cause the strike, but it also paints him as some sort of benevolent boss, when there is really no such thing (especially when you are on £300,000+ a year).

Steve Bradley lamenting the impact on students is like a factory boss lamenting the impact on consumers when his workers go on strike over institutional racism and sexism, or on being priced out of their pensions, or on being forced to work unpaid hours. In the strikes, Professor Bradley is anything but a neutral party, and he will do everything he can to manipulate students to his side.

Limited control?

According to Professor Bradley, the strike has arisen exclusively from the national negotiations, and 'we are limited in the amount of control we have at Lancaster.' If this had been 2018, this argument may be given more credence, but in a strike about issues such as pay, casualisation, workloads, and equality, this is nothing but an excuse for inaction.

In fact, we are not the only ones who think this. On campus last week for a book launch, King's College London principal Ed Byrne said that universities 'can and should' do more about casualisation, pay gaps, and bullying, independently of the national picture. The University can't claim to be ignorant as Dame Sue Black, the Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Engagement, was in the room at the time. How come KCL can do it but Lancaster can't?

Addressing racial and gender pay gaps, or issues such as the BAME attainment gap, appears to be pretty far down the list of priorities for Lancaster as it struggles to attain Athena SWAN Bronze (a nice shiny badge for HR to wave around). It can't even convene a working group to draw up a trans equality policy, how is it going to address institutional inequality?

On workloads, even LUSU thinks the University has been excessive, having recently passed a policy to boycott open days and applicant visit days until unsustainable growth (and the pressure on staff) is addressed. And on casualisation, time and again the University has shown that it sees PhD students as cheap labour, not even paying them for a good proportion of the hours they end up working.

Staff satisfaction

Professor Bradley's slightly misleading line towards the end is that 'over 90% of staff think the University is a good place to work.' The data is from the 2016 Staff Survey, where, according to the University website, 73% of staff completed the survey and 92% of those said it was a good place to work. Another picture is presented by the Senior Management Survey, which found an average satisfaction with senior management of just 10.54% in academics across the UK.

Lancaster's Staff Survey is completed every two years by the University. Curiously, the 2018 results are not available on the website anywhere. The survey was met with a UCU boycott in 2018 as the University refused to cooperate in any way with constructive criticism during the consultation process. As subtext wrote at the time, 'Consultation is not a difficult word to understand but it obviously has a very different meaning on D Floor than anywhere else.'

Spineless understands that significant pressure is put on staff to complete the Staff Survey, and line managers are informed how many (but not which) of their staff have yet to complete it. This is a little different to the National Student Survey (NSS), where students are practically bribed to complete it.

As with the NSS, it's very easy to misconstrue and manipulate standardised survey results, and benchmark them against totally different institutions, to avoid enacting any real changes, and to justify whatever new policies management has already decided to introduce.

LUSU is often the organisation criticised for its 'performative consultation' when its officers stand in Alexandra Square holding whiteboards rather than passing policy through legitimate democratic structures. For Lancaster University senior management, it seems to come just as naturally.