Friday, 9 March 2018

Deadline Extension Request: Open Letter to Chief Executive of EPSRC.

Dear Professor Nelson

I write to you as Chief Executive of EPSRC, and ask you to immediately make sensible deadline extensions to EPSRC closing dates. This is of course because of the disruption across the University sector.  For example, given the strikes to date, a blanket extension of two weeks to all deadlines within the next month might be appropriate, but I naturally leave the details to you.

For example, I am currently working on a proposal for the UKRI CDT call on the new theme of "Applications and Implications of AI". This was announced only on February 5, with a deadline of March 28.  In the worst case, almost half the duration of the call will be taken up by strike action. I have written about the dilemma this places me under at this address:

Many other staff will be working on this and other calls with looming deadlines. The interaction of the deadlines with the strike could have any and all of the following negative effects:

  • Fewer and lower quality submissions to EPSRC calls than you have a right to expect.
  • Stress on staff at affected institutions under pressure (both from others and themselves) to do the right thing in their view by striking but also to obtain funding for the benefit both of their employer and their career.
  • Overwork at danger to their health by staff who are committed to both strikes and submitting amazing proposals to EPSRC.
  • Potential conflict between staff at a striking university between collaborators on a grant taking different stances.
  • Potential conflict between staff at different universities collaborating on proposals, where one is striking and the other is unaffected (e.g. a post-92 university). 
By making an appropriate extension urgently, EPSRC would not be taking any position on the strikes except that they are happening and are having a massive impact on the work of many thousands of staff. I believe that such a blanket deadline extension would massively foster goodwill across the sector. 

While I deeply disagree with the management at my university about the strike, I do want to emphasise that I have come under no pressure at all from anyone at the University of St Andrews to change my stance because it might help the university obtain such a large grant, and I thank everyone involved for that.

With very best wishes

Ian Gent
Professor of Computer Science
University of St Andrews

Note to anyone reading this.  Please feel free to cut and paste any and all parts of this letter if you wish to recycle for other people who might help.  Also note the petition on this issue here:

Thursday, 8 March 2018

Guest post: Message from an EU Colleague

I do this quite often at Depressed Academics, but this is the first time I have had a guest post on my personal blog. Since I have spoken so vocally about various aspects of the ongoing USS pensions dispute, this person asked me to post this anonymously. All I will tell you is that the person writing this is an EU colleague of mine at this University. Following text unedited that they sent me:

As an instructor and academic at St Andrews I have never put money over  my students or my work. I've sacrificed much of my personal time for the quality of my lectures, practicals and supervision, often working off hours and weekends. In my calculation, I've (happily) overworked to the tune of about 10 to 20 extra hours a week on average, and systematically failed to take all my holidays. I'm not alone here, a large proportion of my colleagues do the same, helping deal with the increasing work load that we have been observing in the last few years.

But the University and UUK now seem to be asking us to, besides the years of increased load ("we have to do more with less", as put by the Head of School) and of lower-than-inflation increases, put in jeopardy a reasonable retirement and make us take most of the risk, without any compensation for that loss, and with weak arguments as to the whys or hows of the situation. Just the fact that UUK has allowed the industrial action to happen, forcing us to go on strike is, in itself, a great disappointment and it has been even more disappointing to see that St Andrews has been one of the institutions vocally defending this position.

The previous principal, Louise Richardson, put it quite eloquently at one of the meetings I attended when she was the principal. She expressed that if she had to make a career decision at the current time (a few years ago) regarding being an early career academic, she would probably do something else. Well, for me it is becoming more clear that, were I to accept the new retirement plan, I would simply be accepting the chance that my retirement would not be enough for me and my family to sustain a decent life in the mid and long term (I'm not talking about luxury here). I cannot accept that risk on top of a salary that, quite frankly, is quite low compared to colleagues of similar standing in similar countries, and an increased workload.

I realise that this is not only the fault of the University or UUK. Successive governments and the overall direction of the country all seem to be conspiring towards transforming this country's higher education sector into a money making machine at the cost of the employees' financial security in old age. But instead of trying to ameliorate the effects, the University and UUK seem to have other priorities and be ready to pass on this enormous cost to us.

I love my job, I love my colleagues, I like St Andrews as an institution. St Andrews has been welcoming to me and offered much opportunity, contributing to my professional development. I am ready "Ever to Excel". I am ready to continue the virtuous cycle of good will and keep putting into the job my 130% percent, but not if I feel short-changed by the institution's management and a fair pension is not prioritised. Perhaps the University of St Andrews has overlooked our situation and taken for granted this good will, from my colleagues and I, that is most likely one of the factors that keep the university in such high regard and at the top of the rankings.

Many of us have other options. I want to stay and this is why I am on strike. However, without a reasonable pension that will help me sustain my family I will just try to go elsewhere where the best and brightest of my colleagues are going, especially in these Brexit times, and where I can have better prospects for a retirement remotely comparable to the kind of retirement that my most senior colleagues are getting now.

Postscript: Many thanks to this person. Two quick reactions. 

First, just as with those who post on Depressed Academics or talk to me in person, I am deeply honoured and moved by the trust that people place in me. Things like this are not always easy to say and the fact that people believe I am the kind of person they can say them to means an awful lot to me. Academia is about lots of things but it is at its best when it is about companionship and collegiality.

Second, I find it almost as sad that people feel the need to put this kind of comment out anonymously. My personal opinion is that, at this University, no harm would befall them for speaking out. But I quite understand the fact that the culture here is not encouraging enough of criticism to ensure that everyone knows that criticism is welcome. And even if my optimistic view is right, I am very sad about the failure to make it clear that unpleasant truths are welcome, 

Wednesday, 7 March 2018

Resignation from University Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Committee

A few moments ago I resigned from the University of St Andrews' Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Committee. Here is my email to the Principal explaining this decision.

Dear Sally 

I write to you for three reasons.
First, I write to thank you for your change of position on ASOS deductions. I completely agree with this decision and you deserve full credit for changing your mind and the University position on it.
Second, I write to urge you to move urgently to help resolve the current pensions dispute.  It is entirely clear what the University community's view is, so I would urge you to follow the lead of many others, including (moments ago as I write) our former colleague Louise Richardson, and reverse the position of the University.

Third, I write to resign as a member of the University's Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (ED&I) Committee. 

Too many of us, including me, have failed to "speak truth to power".  I intend to correct this mistake in the future so will start now.  I do not doubt your personal commitment to equality and sincerity of your efforts to enhance it in St Andrews. But the truth is that your efforts to make this University a beacon of equality are doomed to failure without a dramatic change of approach.  

In your email of Monday you said that it is up to the University community to decide our priorities.  The University community has been making this choice for 605 years and for every one of those years has decided that equality is not a high priority.  Yet it should be no more up to the community to decide that equality is a priority than it is for the community to decide that we should care about fire safety.  Equality is a legal and moral imperative that must underlie every decision made in the university, just as (quite rightly) financial imperatives already do.
Pensions are an equality issue. Changes to pensions are likely to differentially detriment workers such as lower paid staff, casual workers, part time workers, those who have taken career gaps, all categories of immense concern in themselves and also more likely to be women than men. Yet the pensions issue has not been discussed in any way by the ED&I Committee. The University should not have considered writing a response to the UUK consultation without consulting this committee. When the University has an ED&I committee that is consulted on key equality issues and whose opinions are listened to, I will naturally be happy to serve on it.

I pay tribute to all the amazing work done by so many talented people in the area of equality at this University. Many of them are colleagues from the ED&I committee and will feel that it is right to continue working on that committee, and I will not attempt to change their minds.  But for me, it is a relief to stop the public pretence that all is well in equality at this University, and that we have any hope of achieving meaningful equality without a dramatic change in approach.

With very best wishes

Ian Gent

Note added 5pm same day: been rushing around all day but wanted to be sure to do two things.

Credit to Mark Pendleton for the phrase "pensions are an equality issue"

And separately wanted to emphasise that my decision is in no way an imputation of bad professionalism or commitment on behalf of the E&DI staff at St Andrews.