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AGM Minutes 2016

AGM Minutes 2016



            Minutes: 10 May 2016, 12.30-2.00pm       Room 407, 30 Russell Square


Apologies: Alex Colas, Kerry Harman, Dimitrios Kivotidis, Paddy McDaid, Kate MacLean, Paul Watt, Julia Ireland, Andy Young.

Present: John Kelly, Jennifer Fraser, Tim Markham, Linda Etchart, Mike Berlin, Trevor Fenner, Nick Pronger, Rebecca Gumbrell-McCormick, George Tsogas, Richard Carabine, Sarah Lamble, Garmon Ap Garth,  Christina Delistathi, Aidan Smith, Linda Milbourne (all members), and Barry Jones (UCU RO)

  1. Update on HE Pay ballot

Barry Jones spoke on the outcome of the pay ballot, overwhelming rejection of the 1.1% offered, and support for strike action and action short of a strike (work to contract). Members had now been notified of strike days on 25th and 26th May, and work to contract from 25th May, and employers had been sent notification of this action. The branch needed to plan activities and may need a further meeting next week or via committee. Activities were likely to include a stall and banner outside the main building at appropriate times during the 2 days and members of the branch committee would organise members to participate and ‘person’ the stall. Other activities tbc.

Barry reminded the branch that there is a financial surplus in HE overall of some £1.9bn, undercutting the case that employers can’t afford a bigger increase. In addition vice-chancellors and principals have received on average between 3% and 5% increases. Yet the value of pay for most staff since 2009 has fallen by 14.5% when compared to the cost of living, measured by the Retail Price Index (RPI).
JK added to this picture of increasing inequities between ordinary staff and managers at highest levels and also highlighted the level of surplus held by Birkbeck.

Action - JK to draft an email to all members re strike action and activities

  1. Teaching Excellence Framework: speaker Tim Markham, Deputy Pro-Vice Master Teaching and Learning

TM outlined what the Bill proposes, its implications, what responses Birkbeck and other universities have made and likely directions, and responded to a series of questions.

 The proposed Bill is likely to be passed next week but it may be that considerable detail will be held back for later addition, so that many issues will still be ambiguous and to be resolved later, thereby avoiding confrontation at this stage.

It is clear that this is a part of an intention to marketise HE and encourage new providers into the space; consequently, teaching qualifications rather than research qualifications will be highlighted.

There will be two phases, TEF 1 and 2, the latter not likely to be introduced until 2018, and will aim not to coincide with the next REF exercise. TEF 1 is likely to be fairly light touch; the detail for TEF 2 remains ambiguous.

There are specific problems in the proposals beyond the ‘liberalisation’ of HE, including both obvious issues, for example, that the measures imposed will be inappropriate for what we’d want them to assess - and a series of unintended consequences.

 In proposals Birkbeck that has responded to: part-time students, evening students, PG students have little mention. Similarly, there is scant attention to diversity of staff and staff contracts, a particular issue for us when Birkbeck has some 600 p/t teaching staff. There has been some recognition that linking teaching excellence to pay is complicated and likely to be problematic in terms of equalities.  

The focus on retention, and the potential pressure to inflate grades or lower standards to increase student satisfaction are also problematic. For example, completions are more difficult if the student body is less conventional; and Birkbeck also has weaknesses regarding estate and facilities for students. Patterns in the US suggest that there will be pressures to mark more leniently and that colleges that do best in the US rely on good sports and social facilities.

Student employability is a further issue, often not useful for our student profile although the intention is to link measurement to tax data. TM and others highlighted some of the problems with this, including the pressures on curriculum to ‘vocationalise’ certain subject areas and the potential exclusion of international students.

Teaching intensity as a measure also poses problems, our evening teaching patterns mean we will score badly; but the tendency to over-teach and encourage teacher dependency if the priority becomes classroom oriented, seems to stifle student innovation and self-development.

The proposals encourage a split between teaching and research, a divide which Birkbeck staff are unlikely to find helpful – discouraging ‘research led teaching’ and consigning some staff to one or the other role. Most staff have contracts which emphasise both aspects.

There is also an emphasis on all staff having appropriate teaching qualifications. While full time academic staff in Birkbeck will be supported to achieve this, T&S staff (except for a handful) have been offered no funding or support for this, despite their numbers and widespread teaching contribution.

Some of the concerns expressed in questions and comments (in addition to above) included: worries about potential repercussions for individual careers; the linking of performance to inappropriate measures for teaching; linking successful teaching to pay; the introduction of tiers as a result of measuring outcomes leading to differential fee rates. It also seemed that student satisfaction and teaching excellence were in danger of being conflated through use of perverse measures, with negative consequences if institutions compare unfavourably once the measures are applied. This echoes some of the problems with the REF exercises.



  1. 3.      Environment and ethical investment

       Linda Etchart reported that (2015-16) UCU had been active in national and global environmental campaigns, including the fossil fuel divestment campaign, joining forces with ShareAction, People and Planet, Campaign Against Climate Change, and NUS. Birkbeck UCU has been active in these campaigns.

       Twenty UK universities have committed themselves to divest from fossil fuels, and the branch will continue with efforts to persuade Birkbeck management to join them. Birkbeck has a Carbon Management Plan, and in 2015, received £150,000 of the £300,000 necessary investment to reduce our carbon footprint, which we need to do. To reverse continuing damage to the planet, developed countries will need to achieve carbon neutrality by 2025. UCU is meeting with the Bloomsbury colleges Sustainability Manager, Ola Bankole, this week to discuss Birkbeck’s progress.

       LE, on behalf of Birkbeck UCU, will attend a joint UCU/NUS conference in Manchester on 13 May 2016, on the Role of Educational Institutions in Combating Climate Change. Conference delegates hope to discuss ways to mainstream Climate Change into all our teaching and institutions with the Shadow Energy Secretary, Lisa Nandy.

       UCU is a member of Education International, the global federation of educational unions, which will be issuing guidelines with the framework of UNESCO Global Action Programme on Education for Sustainability and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

       LE highlighted examples of areas of concern: our pensions are invested in fossil fuels: cluster bombs, BP, Shell, BHP Billiton, Rio Tinto Zinc. USS, the University Superannuation Scheme, which has £50bn in assets and 330,000 members, is one of the largest UK funds, and in the Global top 50. Even though fossil fuel stock prices have fallen, the USS investment managers have rejected the example set by Scandinavian pension funds and others to divest from fossil fuels. At a Climate Assembly on 9 May organised by UCU and Share Action, USS directors insisted that for investment funds, finance must come first legally, ethics second. This prompted challenges from lawyers and has become an ongoing debate about the legal the rights of shareholders. As USS pension-holders, we shall be consulted by USS next year on our investment preferences.  This comes after nearly 20 years of USS management being lobbied on ethical investment policies by concerned USS members. While USS directors claim to operate ethically where feasible, they argue that this depends on government regulation, such as in ensuring that alternative energy companies can be profitable, whereas any preferential policies are currently being withdrawn.

       To further environmental concerns and place increased pressure on ethical investment branch members had overwhelmingly supported the motion proposed for annual Congress, and circulated to all members by the branch committee.

  1. 4.      Annual congress motions and amendments

JF reported that LE was the branch’s delegate to the annual UCU Congress in Liverpool in June.  As the delegate, LE had researched the motions to identify areas of relevance and concern to the branch. The motions are available online:

Amendments need to be passed and submitted by noon on 11 May. None were proposed.

LE summarised the wide range of motions for debate, which include motions from the University of Oxford and others which cover the same ground as our motion, related to the USS pension scheme’s unethical investments in tobacco, cluster bombs and fossil fuels. Other Congress motions cover the government’s Trade Union bill, human rights, refugees, racism, political freedom in Turkey (imprisonment of academics and journalists), the bombing of Syria, health and safety, harassment, gender equality, overwork, excessive workloads and parents at work. Further issues include anti-casualisation, outsourcing, threats to UK academic freedom.

Echoing the HE pay discussions, there is also a motion on  salaries of vice-chancellors and senior managers, rising at higher percentages than those lower down the scale, with 24 universities refusing to provide information on pay and perks of vice-chancellors under the Freedom of Information requests; and 20 institutions had more than 100 employees on more than £100,000 per year.

       Many of the motions were areas which the branch clearly supported or on which it already had policies or positions, which made LE’s voting role more straightforward. She stressed that if members wanted to ask questions on any motions or regarded any as problematic she was happy to respond. BJ suggested that branch committee members could advise her further on voting regarding any controversial issues, if needed, at the next committee on 24 May.

  1. 5.      Business of the AGM

Minutes of 14 May 2015 – See branch website:   The minutes agreed as correct record.


  1. 6.      6.1 Presidents’ and membership report

Mike Berlin reported on key issues on which branch officers had focused work over the last 12 months, including the College’s attempts to impose academic reviews on staff, and the PREVENT strategy, on which UCU had exerted pressure on the College alongside members of other unions. While Birkbeck appears to be implementing PREVENT with a light touch in so far as it affects academic staff, members are still being compromised in their work. The College’s attempts to construct a policy also appear problematic as some of the detail and the language used suggests that it will impinge on academic freedom.


MB also reported that casework also took up a considerable amount of time but he considered overall that UCU’s representation of individual members as well as pressure on collective issues had made an appreciable difference to some outcomes.

JK added to this, reporting the considerable progress that branch officers had achieved on academic review, securing an agreement that the process would be reviewed by a panel which would include union representatives.


6.2 Treasurer's report

Trevor Fenner presented and explained the accounts (attached) and reported on healthy branch funds, despite a deficit.


  1. 7.      Election of officers/reps:

JF indicated that she would be standing down.

She read out the nominations received and encouraged further members to come forward. The following were elected:

7.1  The president: Mike Berlin, John Kelly, one vacancy (academic related staff)

7.2  The vice-president : Alex Colas

7.3  The secretary and membership secretary: Linda Milbourne

7.4  The treasurer: John Kelly (covering role until permanent replacement)

7.5  The equality officer: George Tsogas

7.6  The health and safety officer: Richard Carabine

7.7  The environment officer: Linda Etchart

7.8  The welfare officer: Rebecca Gumbrell-McCormick (also encouraged job-share)

7.9  The learning rep: Rebecca Gumbrell-McCormick

7.10                      The part-time and hourly paid rep: Linda Etchart

7.11                      The pensions rep: Nick Pronger


RGM applauded George Tsogas for the work he had already done on equalities, having joined the committee recently.


  1. 8.      Election of other Committee members

There were 3 nominations: JF read these out and encouraged others, as there were still vacancies. The following were elected: Paul Watt, Dimitrios Kivotidis, Trevor Fenner.

  1. 9.      A.O.B.

9.1  Mike Berlin moved a vote of thanks to Jennifer Fraser, the outgoing President, who had worked tirelessly for the branch, including over a number of difficult negotiations and campaigns - supported by all.

9.2 Grunwick commemoration: MB identified this as celebrating a historical movement and time when TUs came under threat – also reflecting a need to remember lessons from the past as warnings for the current attacks on TUs and democracy. The committee had proposed a collection but in view of the few people present, it was suggested that AC brings a collecting box to the strike day stalls and other relevant meetings.

9.3 Aidan Smith applauded branch officers for achieving a good settlement on London Weighting, which he felt made a difference for a lot of staff. 

9.4 George Tsogas reported on the staff equalities chartermark survey and expressed concerns about questions which were obscured in the online version.  He had participated in the pilot survey offline and could see the implications of omissions if certain options were chosen online.