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Joint campus union statement on University of Sussex Financial Review Guidelines

On Wednesday 25 March, a set of ‘Financial Review Guidelines’ were emailed to all Heads of School and other budget holders at the University of Sussex, and then shared to a number of staff. This communication caused a considerable amount of anxiety to those who received it, as it contained proposals to ‘terminate’ some temporary and casual staff posts 'as soon as possible'. The information was shared on social media and sparked widespread alarm among staff, students and the wider public.


The University responded with a news item on its staff pages the following day, and said that the document had been misunderstood. The three campus unions, UCU, Unite and UNISON, had not seen these ‘Financial Review Guidelines’ before, despite the proposed measures being an iteration of a cost saving plan developed over the last six months.


We are deeply concerned about the impact these measures, if implemented, would have on the lives of those affected, particularly for some of our most precarious colleagues, and particularly at this time of global pandemic. We know that our members, students and the wider public share these concerns, so we have written this joint statement to lay out our position.


Response to the proposed financial measures


These ‘Financial Review Guidelines’ have been introduced at a time when we, as staff and students of the University, are desperately trying to cope in the current crisis while moving our teaching, learning, research and administration to remote working where possible. We are making huge efforts to do this and to preserve, as much as possible, the experience of the students we value so highly, and on whose fees the University relies.


In an email to all budget holders accompanying the Financial Review Guidelines, Adam Tickell, the Vice-Chancellor, wrote: “The effects of Covid-19 are having a far greater impact than we originally anticipated. We are simultaneously managing the immediate challenges of the health emergency and looking at our finances. We are certain that there will be major pressures on finances in both the immediate and the medium term. I know that we are no different to many other Universities and indeed the thousands of businesses, big and small, throughout the UK.”


It is worth spending some time considering this statement. First, the Vice Chancellor admits underestimating the effects of Covid-19. This is despite the open letter from Sussex UCU written on 14 March calling for action in the face of an unprecedented health crisis. Second, he considers an appropriate approach to be "simultaneously managing the immediate challenges... [while] looking at our finances". The suggestion is that accelerating financial plans is appropriate during the first week that we move to online teaching and assessment, in a period when the totals of cases and deaths are doubling every few days, with the peak an unknown time away, and during a rapidly changing international emergency with changing government guidance. Third, these moves (a) came two days after a national ‘lockdown’ when everyone is frightened for their physical safety and financial security, (b) were inhumanly worded ('terminate') and (c) are the fruit of a cost-saving project which was largely hatched in a period when there was no immediate financial emergency.


They also fly in the face (at least in spirit) of the Prime Minister’s emphatic statement on 19 March, when he said that companies should "really think very carefully before you start laying off your staff", adding "we do want to stand behind good companies, we do want to make sure people recognise that if they stand behind their staff, they should stand behind their staff, because we in the Government are going to stand behind British firms.”


Responding to the Covid-19 crisis


Communications from colleagues and Heads of Schools across campus have expressed overwhelming gratitude to staff and students for their collegiate and community-minded response to the crisis; and shared how thankful and proud they are that we have come together to work as a team. We would suggest then, that the Vice Chancellor has greatly underestimated the value of good-will, community and collegiality at the University of Sussex. We believe he has also underestimated the value of universities in society and the role we play in critical times. He has rushed to implement a financial plan, under the radar, that is ill-judged and ill-timed.


We have asked the Vice Chancellor to urgently revisit the financial guidelines document and withdraw any plans that will negatively impact precarious staff, and called for him to refrain from making rash unilateral decisions and to follow accountable processes in decision-making. We have also noted that:


1) The timescale of the crisis is unknown.


2) The Government may have proposals to support universities and other educational institutions as they are significant and necessary ‘businesses’ within the economy.


3) We do not know how many staff and students may be among those who become seriously ill, or the extent of the impact Covid-19 will have on people’s lives.


Sussex UCU has laid out how it expects the University to respond in this time of crisis, and all three campus unions urge the Vice Chancellor and his team to heed its call for compassionate leadership, that protects the most vulnerable and precarious staff, and is guided by the University's strategic aim of being an institution built on the values of kindness, dignity and respect.


Signed,


University of Sussex UCU University of Sussex UNISON University of Sussex Unite


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