Open letter to the Vice-Chancellor, University of Bristol
Dear Hugh Brady
I am writing this letter as we go back after 14 days on strike. You might be surprised to hear that I am not desperate to return to work. You recently said that this strike has been a ‘lightening rod’ for so many other issues. I entirely agree with you. While the main dispute remains about pensions, so many other issues have come to the surface over the last four weeks. Above all, there is a sense that staff at all levels in our university are over-worked, suffer from stress, taken for granted and – in many cases – entirely ignored. Ever since the fees were introduced at such a high level, the entire focus of the university has been on students. This has made staff and their work almost entirely invisible. We have been loaded up with more and more tasks, with no extra reward or even acknowledgement of who we are apart from spin around REF and TEF results.
I would like to provide you with two concrete examples of this trend. First, staff collective spaces – these have been systematically removed without any consultation or discussion – common rooms, the Hawthorns, etc etc. There is nowhere for humanities staff to go for lunch within our structures beyond one, cold, common room, and our timetables are often scheduled for us to teach at lunchtime. Lunch, discussion, the chance to meet other colleagues – all these things have been abolished. Meanwhile, previous collective or staff spaces have been covered with generic and extremely ugly ‘student study spaces’… What about staff study spaces?
A second issue is staff mental health. There is counselling provision for staff, but very little ongoing or directed mental health support. A student in our department committed suicide last year. This was a horrible and tragic event, above all, of course, for the family of the person involved. But it was also traumatic for staff in our department many of whom knew the student well. Yet no support whatsover was provided for staff involved in this tragedy. We are expected to be at the front line in terms of pastoral care for our students, but no support is even contemplated for us and the mental health training we receive is, I’m afraid, laughable. This is an urgent issue which needs addressing immediately.
I’d like to tell you a small story about my professional life, if I may. I am a relatively senior academic and was recently involved in a major bid which would benefit – if successful – not just our university but 9 other institutions. This bid took more than 18 months to complete, and was put together in addition to my normal job – teaching, research, administration. It involved over 60 physical meetings. During certain key periods I worked through weekends and late into the evening. The stress of the bid process put strain on my family and private life and affected my research activities. Yet, I was happy to put this time in. Why? Because I care about this university, I care about post-graduate research and I want to do a job well.
However, what I have discovered in this strike (this was something which was obvious to me before, but which I couldn’t see) is that the university doesn’t care about me – or about staff – at all. All we got for the first three weeks of the strike was a hostile email from HR. There was nothing from you, no offer to meet the union or the strikers, no acknowledgement of our demands and the depth of feeling.
It has been on the picket lines and in meetings and in teach outs that I have (re) discovered the ‘community’ and ‘collegiality’ of which you so often speak. I have chatted to colleagues for the first time in years, met colleagues who I had only seen on email, laughed and joked and sang songs with them, marched with them down to college green. Without your staff, no class gets taught, no essay gets marked, no book gets catalogued, no email gets written. We are the university, and I hope that – finally – this message has reached the upper echelons of Senate House (it took the students occupying that space to finally get you to listen to us). I sincerely hope that things will change from now on. For sure, we have changed – and the old ways of doing things will not be acceptable to us any longer…
Professor John Foot
Director, South West and Wales Doctoral Training Partnership
Bid Lead, SWWDTP2
Subject Lead, Department of Italian
UCU Rep, Department of Italian