Jock's Backroom Blog

Views from the Backroom, and the Classroom, at Oxford Brookes University

Gubernatorial gubbins

Posted by Jock Coats on 10th February 2011

So, my term as governor is over, and today sees the first board meeting at which the two new staff governors, Pete Toomer of the student accommodation office in Estates and Facilities Management from the non-teaching staff and Megan Crawford of the Westminster Institute of Education from the teaching staff, will take their places.  Congratulations to them on their election and commiserations to all those (and there were a fair few) who stood in the elections and were not successful this time.

Pete Toomer, new non-teaching staff elected governor

Megan Crawford, new teaching staff elected governor

I have very much enjoyed my time as a governor, and have learned a lot.  But I am hoping that by this time next year I will be in my second semester as an undergraduate student, on the new Economics, Politics and International Relations course being introduced by the School of Business.  With my long interest in housing issues, I shall particularly regret not being on the board with Lesley Morphy, a newly appointed governor and Chief Executive of the Crisis housing charity.

There is lots going on in the university, with the fees debate moving ahead (of which more later no doubt), the building work now getting up to full speed, and, or so it seems, staff reorganisations everywhere, including my own department in what is now “Oxford Brookes Information Solutions”.

I hope also over the next few weeks then to start to bring together ideas for the Brookes Staff Association to try and create a social focus for staff especially now that many may begin to feel a little dislocated through such reorganisations.  This will not – repeat NOT – be an alternative to the trades unions, and I am fully committed to being a UNISON member in any case, but more like, say, the Oxford University Club but without a multi-million pound clubhouse, or any physical location at all in fact.

So, as far as governors are concerned it is, as someone used to say “goodbye from him” and I wish these two well in what will no doubt prove to be a difficult time for the university and UK Higher Education as a whole.

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Discretion and valour

Posted by Jock Coats on 5th February 2010

The eagle eyed amongst you may have noticed that the post from a couple of days ago about some of the details of the reorganisation of schools has disappeared.  The relevant people for whom it was primarily intended – the heads of the departments in the School of the Built Environment – had seen it (I can tell from the server logs!) as had many colleagues in the School.

But I notice today, having received paperwork for next week’s governors meeting that the issue is still marked down as part of the confidential section of the agenda.  Personally I am no fan of “confidential agendas” – though I can see why in certain cases where some kind of commercial contract is involved that could jeopardise our position in a proposed deal if it got out may need to be confidential.  It happened at the city council as well – though I seem to recall that “confidential” there did not apply to staff of the council, only the public’s presence at the meeting.

Anyway, I have got into a bit of hot water previously about discussing confidential items, albeit more publicly than on this blog, so for the moment, and until I clarify the situation, I have taken the post down.  On 19th January I did ask the V-C whether I could now talk more openly about the reorganisation and she said at that time “give it another couple of weeks” in order for Executive Board and the Deans to have a chance to see the proposals first.  Two weeks was up on Tuesday of this week, but although I think I have covered myself, I want to get further clarification given its appearance on the confidential agenda for next week.

That said, if you want to discuss it, or read the piece for yourself (and it really does mostly apply to SBE rather than the whole university), mail me or call me and I’ll forward it to you: I just feel it might be best not in such a public arena as a blog that anyone on the planet can find!

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Musical chairs, or the great game of reorganisation, round 3 1/2

Posted by Jock Coats on 3rd February 2010

Ever since I’ve been at Brookes it has felt like there is constant reorganisation going on (thankfully, usually, around me rather than involving me directly).  And so there should be, in many respects.  A large organisation does not grow, breathe, develop, without change; without constantly re-evaluating itself and the ebb and flow of outside influences and how we react to them.  So, as most of you are probably now at least dimly aware, there is another round of reorganisations in the works.

I remember literally the very first day of being a governor, the day after the election count, was a “Governor’s Strategy Day” which is an opportunity, usually once a year, for governors to meet slightly less formally than in a “business meeting” to hear from a variety of people about plans for the university and to discuss, without having to make immediate decisions, various options for the future.  Working in a team that supports desktop computing need from directors to admin assistants in all non-academic areas of the university, and having a background in business analysis and so knowing how to pick up vibes and information about how people and departments work, as well as living onsite to boot, I always thought I was reasonably well “plugged in” to how Brookes worked.

But when in the first presentation on that Strategy Day it became clear that far from being the dominant manager class, SMT actually had to “ask” this panel of more or less independent experts whether their idea of the direction of travel seemed appropriate.  They had to ask what we thought of their ideas, effectively ask permission to develop them and so on, and that was the very first time that I really felt like I could see the direction of travel of the entire machine, rather than the sometimes confusing apparent changes in the arrangement of the cogs inside that machine.  And it was comforting in a strange way…

I don’t want to appear to have “sold my soul” to the managerial classes, because I haven’t.  I retain a very healthy scepticism about management in academia, and about academics who give up their life’s passion to become part of “management”.  But I do always feel reassured that management always act in what they feel are the best interests of the institution and its mission.  In the underbelly we often hear murmurings about, for example, everything becoming too “corporate” or “commercial”, but from the governance perspective, many of these real world pressures upon us do become clear.

Now, none of that is to say that there are not opportunities to argue with management.  One of the best things I have found, even when I was an unknown, junior techie, about working at Brookes is that, by comparison with my experience of “big business”, even the most senior management are much more approachable with ideas, much more willing to re-evaluate after feedback than often extremely dictatorial corporate management.

We all recognise that we are a quintessentially “social enterprise”.  This has implications not just for what the “ends” of the institution as a whole are (i.e. that “profit” is not the only, or even the predominant, consideration in the “bottom line” except where it allows us to do more of what we think will be a greater social benefit).  But that unlike the corporate world where the shareholders are ultimately the primary interest in a business, we recognise much more the place of all our “stakeholders” (to use one of the most overused but ill-defined neologisms of contemporary “market politics”).  Management are not the explicit, legal agents of a class of interests (the owners) that is often fundamentally opposed to other interests such as staff but much more obviously have to co-ordinate those varying interests.

Anyway, a lot of this is really by way of introduction to my next post – as we are at one of those points where a little bit of arguing back to management might well be appropriate.  The proposal to reorganise the university into four, instead of the current eight, academic “groupings” – call them “schools”, “faculties” or whatever you will, is probably pretty well public knowledge by now (I know, to some personal frustration at not being able to discuss it terribly openly, the rumour mill has been going for months now about it).  And I believe I have kept my word as a governor to keep my silence until Deans and Executive Board and so on had had an opportunity to hear the plans, so now I think I can address some of the issues more publicly and directly.

Whilst in many areas, the synergies are obvious, and indeed welcomed amongst some colleagues looking forward to working more closely with new “school mates”, there is one area in particular, the School of the Built Environment, where the current unit is not going to be a “partner” in a merger but split apart into several different new schools.  So this deserves a post of its own as Mitch and I grapple with some of the issues that you would like us to take up on your behalf over the next couple of weeks before the plans become completely set in concrete…

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See amid the winter snow…

Posted by Jock Coats on 6th January 2010

So the university has decided to be closed tomorrow, Thursday 7th January, except for “essential staff”.  This presents a nice little irony for those intent on evicting live-in warden staff from halls of residence.  Because of course, although it is not term time and we don’t have that many people about even in halls at the moment, what we do have are wardens, who, under the previous system of marketing the role primarily to university staff would, almost by definition, be stuck, tomorrow…in halls of residence.

Snow at Morrell Hall last night

Snow at Morrell Hall last night

What, one might ask, would have happened in halls if this snow had fallen on Friday night?  Would instant arrangements have been made to make lots of staff come in on an otherwise weekend day off to clear snow and so on?  No, wardens, coupled with security at night and on call back up where necessary would have had to have coped.

Indeed, today, just as soon as it was decided to close Gipsy Lane I made my way back to the hall and offered to take the warden bag and remain on site, on call, so that staff could be allowed to go home as staff on other sites had been allowed to do for their own safety.

But other problems will remain, indeed probably be exacerbated, by getting rid of wardens as proposed if this happens next year, even if this is repeated on a week night when the hall office and staff may have been around during the day.  For it is even less likely that concierge staff due to start at 10pm each night will be able to make it in (though to do justice to our current security staff, both of mine made their way in on time last night and even helped to clear snow during the night), and there will be no officially responsible person living on site to cope in such a situation, whereas wardens, well, assuming we’re not actually stuck somewhere else, we’d be stuck here, with nothing to do but help care for the security and welfare of our home community.

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Office parties…

Posted by Jock Coats on 21st December 2009

…’Tis the season for office parties, and on Friday we welcomed the return of the Brookes staff Christmas “event” down at Morals Bar. The group I was with was somewhat late so missed the advertised carol singing (hint – don’t advertise such participatory things up front in future, just surprise us with them when we arrive!) but when we did get there there were a good few left, from Finance, Learning Resources and other departments.

Morals Bar (but not the staff party!)

Morals Bar (but not the staff party!)

The lack of anything remotely resembling beer was a bit of a disappointment, but then as it is my local at least I was expecting it and managed to bags the only four bottles of Old Speckled Hen at the knock down price of £2.50 a bottle (500ml) which are usually £3.50!

But I was thinking, perhaps, if we have another one, and if we have something like an SCR Association going, just perhaps, we could persuade Steve to get a little polypin of some decent ale in, just for Christmas? I’m sure if it had not all been drunk by staff that when they let the “customers” in later at 10pm, they would have polished it off for us – after all, they’ve been starved of beer all semester!).

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Locked out!

Posted by Jock Coats on 21st December 2009

Further to my moan about the new staff facilities, or lack of them, at Gipsy Lane the other day, I noticed that even the new staff dining area was today all locked up, and, or so it seems, there’s no prospect of it being opened again before the Christmas break, not even for us to get our food in the main food court and go an eat it in the staff area.

Funny thing – after the last exams today it is really just the staff who are about, and we have to stay here until 24th December. Still, the Waitrose desktop picnic will suffice for today and tomorrow, but such a shame I had to go on a foraging expedition to Headington to get it, and still missed wherever this fabulous new chocolatier is.

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Mandatory retirement age: what do you think?

Posted by Jock Coats on 14th December 2009

I’m accompanying a colleague to an appeal hearing on Thursday to review a decision not to allow them to continue working after their 65th birthday. So I’ve been doing some reading around the subject. I went into it believing that there should not be a mandatory retirement age at all; that the default position ought to be that people should be able to work for as long as they like and are able to do so. The discovery process has not changed my mind one bit, but some of the information I’ve gleaned helps to make that case more strongly.

I’ve always felt that one area in which Higher Education Institutions have been quite good at, indeed “ahead of the curve” is in employment rights – maybe more experienced UNISON negotiators would disagree? But in this case, I think they are lagging behind at least opinion, if not general practice in the rest of the labour market. Anyone who has paid any attention to the issue will be able to rehearse some of the problems we are stoking up for the future:

  • that we are living longer and healthier;
  • that the proportion of older people in the population is now greater than the younger generations in future can probably sustain on pensions;
  • that our savings rate as a nation is abysmally low which means many people, even a generation after the rise of private pension provision, are still as reliant as ever on the one state pension and credits; and
  • that at this particular time at least, the economic crash, coupled with the earlier government decision to raid pension schemes for spending money means that even those who have saved in private, or indeed occupational, schemes are now facing much lower pay-outs than they expected.

And nor should any decision to work longer be forced on someone based on impending poverty or other negative reasons, but that there is compelling evidence to suggest that working longer keeps you healthier, and particularly mentally alert, and is likely to keep problems such as Alzheimer’s disease at bay for longer. Personally, I think the UK pensions system, if not the entire tax to welfare model, is fatally flawed and we are probably very lucky to have seen it last the three generations or so since it began in earnest. And if nobody has the political will radically to reform the way we provide for ourselves for times such as retirement (but also things like time off for raising a family and similar), then the least we can do is to make it easier for people to defer their pensions till a little later if they wish, accrue some more benefits and soon. And this looks like it will be the line governments will be taking over the next few years, and that exemplary employers ought to be ahead of the game on this one too.

Website of the Centre for Diversity Policy Research and Practice @ Brookes

Website of the Centre for Diversity Policy Research and Practice @ Brookes

Indeed HEFCE funded research conducted just a year ago now by our very own “Centre for Diversity Policy Research and Practice” a part of the Human Resources Directorate that makes the policy on retirement, suggests that universities as a whole are lagging behind the opinions and expectations of their own workforces. Even the “traditional” reasons for maintaining a fixed retirement age are rejected, including by staff whom they would once have been designed to benefit – younger workers at the start of their careers for whom older colleagues retiring could provide a route to faster career development and promotion. A majority of respondents, again across all age groups, believe that a mandatory retirement age is in fact discriminatory against older workers, and reject the idea that it is essential to maintain such an age in order better to manage their workforces.

As a result of the recent European and High Court decisions in a case brought by Heyday, the membership wing of Age UK, which ruled that it was not discriminatory to insist on a fixed retirement age when the most recent 2006 legislation was brought it but that it was looking increasingly unsustainable now, has prompted the government to bring forward its next scheduled review by a year to 2010. And it is long term government policy that a fixed retirement age should be scrapped completely.

Other evidence in the CDPRP report suggests that for different types of employee a one size fits all policy is not satisfactory, in that reasons for keeping on senior academic staff are often different from reasons why manual staff may want to stay on. For example, there may be no problem in recruiting replacement manual staff at a similar skills level to the retiree, and they may not have particularly precious skills we need to retain strategically, yet the same decision criteria apply. It suggests that the recent legislation granting the right to request to stay on, and the duty on employers to have a consistent policy to apply to all employees may have disadvantaged manual workers compared with the position before that legislation.

Senior respected law firms have been advising in human resources circles that employers should now be thinking ahead and changing their policies in advance of any likely government mandated change as a result of the 2010 review. It seems very unfair to force someone to retire who, within a year may be either under the default retirement age or not subject to one at all. The Higher Education sector’s “Equality Challenge Unit” is suggesting that at the very least the way policies are implemented should be reviewed so that requests to stay on are by default viewed positively. So rather than having to justify why someone ought to be allowed to remain after 65 against a bunch of potentially discriminatory criteria, institutions should perhaps look at saying that they will justify why they shouldn’t be allowed to stay on instead.

Clearly these current policies affect manual and less skilled workers more than anyone – they are more likely to be low paid, and to have insufficient pension income to live comfortably. Though this is a sad indictment of the pensions system which today sees people on a lower proportion of the average wage (16%) in retirement than even in 1908 when the first state pensions came into effect (18%). Not only that but highly skilled workers are likely to be more able to do other remunerative work even if they have to leave their main employer – self-employment, consultancy, part time roles such as directorships and so on. Manual and lower skilled workers are less likely to find anyone else to employ them (it remains legal not to employ someone who is close to or over the employer’s retirement age) or have the skills to set up on their own.

Yet ironically, Brookes must have been better at this in the past – at the last count all 12 of our over-70 employees were is Estates and Facilities Management, and over half (25/44) of those employed between 65 and 69 were likewise from this department which has the largest proportion of manual and lower skilled staff in the university.

So, what do you think? Do you expect to be retiring in a decade or two at 65? Or are you one of the many people now resigned (or just wanting) to work beyond 65? Should we be reviewing our policy now, ahead of the government, but inline with a majority of staffs’ opinions? And if so, should we make a decision now to allow all reasonable requests to stay on by default until after either we conduct a review of our policy or the government review delivers its conclusions?

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A Staff Common Room Association for Brookes?

Posted by Jock Coats on 14th December 2009

Image "fair use claimed" original at conferences-uk.org.uk

The soon to be demolished Lloyd Building at the Gipsy Lane campus - image "fair use claimed": original at conferences-uk.org.uk

So, to get going with something that has proven somewhat controversial recently: with the development of the new library and teaching building at Gipsy Lane campus (about which I will blog more in later posts) we are going to lose the Lloyd Building, and with it the Staff Common Room facility. Indeed, we have already more or less been evicted and this seems likely to become more firmly entrenched/enforced as the university wants to moth-ball most of the building until such time as it can be demolished.

Whilst they have carved out a new staff dining area adjacent to the JB’s Coffee Shop, it is, certainly in my opinion and looking at the faces of other regulars who use it I am not alone, a pretty desultory space. You certainly wouldn’t want to use it for any events I don’t think. The university has made it clear that there will be no provision for an SCR facility in the new building, which will also house the main catering areas on campus. And in the longer term, once the kitchens are moved to the new building, this will be just as inconvenient for food service as Lloyd ever was, never mind that the university has indicated as part of the Masterplan that much of that space towards the Gipsy Lane front of the campus will likely go the same way as Lloyd in a later phase of development.

Now, there can be little doubt that the Lloyd Common Room had problems of its own. Being the other side of the campus from the kitchens meant that lunch had to be brought a long way to be served in Lloyd for example. And it is true to say that lunch-time was its main focus, and that very little use of it was made outside the hours of about midday to 3 p.m. And it would be quite in order to say, I think, that if we are to get such a facility anywhere on site again, we need to look at how we would justify the allocation of precious space by making better use of it.

But I have searched the interwebs for evidence of what other universities provide by way of staff dedicated facilities and can find only a few places, such as controversially recently at Bath University, where they have removed all such staff facilities (or in their case opened it up to students in the name of “inclusion”). Personally, I believe that such facilities have an essential role in university life. Not all staff, particularly those in the “front line” student facing roles and departments are going to feel that they are getting a real break if they have to mix in with students. The SCR has provided in the past a space in which staff and researchers in all disciplines and directorates can mingle together, an information sharing point, and, in theory at least, pretty important to the development of inter-disciplinary working. We need a space in which we can meet and discuss things, informally and socially, that it would not be appropriate for students to overhear (not so much “hold meetings” since there are any number of spaces that can be booked for that more confidential use).

And so, one idea I’ve been mulling over these past few months is the possibility of getting a “Staff Common Room Association” going at Brookes. This seems to be a key feature of other universities where the SCR is more valued and better used. While we don’t have a dedicated space it could lobby for one, primarily by demonstrating through the events that it might organise how much better use we would make of it than Lloyd ever was. But also while we don’t have a dedicated space it could be a “virtual” facility, organising things that bring us together informally and socially. For example, if we have visiting academics from elsewhere staying over night in Oxford having done some work with an academic school it might be interesting for others to hear more about his or her work and so we could perhaps organise a staff talk and discussion with them. We might use it to promote sporting and cultural events.

The irony is, of course, that the university wants to foster a spirit of collegiality and of interdisciplinarity, yet at the same time reduce or remove the very spaces in which such things are likely to happen. Many schools on the Headington sites have already got staff bolt-holes, but these help to isolate them one from the other rather than foster co-operation and wider knowledge of the things that are going on in the university. There is also some evidence that a lack of quality staff spaces makes for greater feelings of isolation on the part of individual staff and an increased stress level as a result (with counter-productive implications for the quality of work).

So, what do colleagues think? Could we try and get an SCR Association off the ground? Do we need one? What would you envisage such a body actually doing? Would you get involved if we did have one? Would you pay, say a small annual subscription, to support it?

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