Stress / Student-Staff Ratios / National Student Survey

30th March 2015

Dear colleagues,

We hope the following additional comments relating to current events will be of interest.

Stress and Workload

Colleagues in FBL who attended the faculty meeting this Wednesday [25th March] will have heard the Vice-Chancellor refer to the University of East London as one of our competitors whose student-staff ratio is less costly than ours. This is part of the justification for the current redundancies we are threatened with (and we use the word ‘current’ with the full expectation that if we let them get away with it there will be more cuts to come, possibly in faculties/PSDs that are not so badly hit in this round).

We would like to remind you of the 2012 UCU Workload and Stress Survey (see also here). Among the results, UCU found that:

  • The University of East London topped the national league for overwork. Among full-time staff, 54% reported working over 50 hours per week;
  • Oxford Brookes University – where John Raftery was Pro Vice-Chancellor – was second highest nationally for overwork: 52% reported working over 50 hours per week;
  • UEL, Oxford Brookes, Westminster and London Met were all in the worst quartile for work demands (based on the same Health & Safety Executive questions used in London Met’s own survey last year)

By way of context, colleagues should also be aware that regularly working in excess of 40 hours per week increases the risk of heart disease.

The graphic below shows 2013-14 sickness levels at London Met (orange line, right y-axis) plotted against stress levels from last year’s stress survey. Numbers on the x-axis indicate the headcount in the various departments. Only departments with sample sizes equivalent to HR in the stress survey are included. These data suggest a considerable degree of presenteeism within the faculties (predominantly academics, though there are also academic and administrative staff). The average number of sick days per FTE in the faculties was 2.95 whereas in the PSDs it was 8.17, despite the fact that the faculties are among the most stressed parts of London Met. Wellbeing International, who conducted last year’s stress survey, stated that the HR department should be taken as the university’s benchmark for stress. The average number of sick days per FTE in the HR department is 8.19.department is 8.19.

Sickness and Stress 2013-14

During the FBL meeting someone raised the issue of Thames Valley University (now the University of West London). They don’t feature in the 2012 UCU survey, presumably due to a low response rate. As it happens, Deputy Vice-Chancellor Peter McCaffery used to work at TVU and uses it as a case study of poor change management in his book The Higher Education Manager’s Handbook. Among other things he highlights the issue of management failing to address workloads and a top-down approach to change that led to staff disaffection and a “sense of estrangement” from the institution. Sound familiar?

Student-Staff Ratios

The following graphic is a visual representation of the data that was circulated yesterday by Mark Campbell and Cliff Snaith. As you can see, there is nothing exceptional about London Met’s Student-Staff Ratio, contrary to what the Vice-Chancellor keeps telling us. What is glaringly obvious is that we are spending less than our competitors on physical infrastructure that directly affects students. Perhaps the hidden agenda is to cut staff and spend more on factors such as IT and libraries (this constitutes “academic spend”; it is not spending on academic salaries). But does anyone seriously believe that reducing frontline support for students is going to improve our NSS scores, which the VC declared was his top priority for the institution?

SSR and spending at LMU and others

UCU are all for cost-effectiveness and intend to comment further on the financial situation in due course. But we have a long history of inefficiencies at the top, notably some of the country’s most highly-paid Vice-Chancellors, and occasions where we are paying two Vice-Chancellors at the same time. There is a widely-held view that some of our properties have been sold too cheaply. UCU also have long called for a reduction in the hierarchical structure of London Met, redeploying some of our managers to teaching positions. By improving management-staff relations and reforming the HR department, the management could also cut back our exorbitant legal expenditures (among the highest in the country). Efficiencies should not begin with the frontline staff.

The National Student Survey

At the FBL meeting the Vice-Chancellor admitted that the NSS is a flawed measure, but added that it is all we have. Just how flawed has been demonstrated in a recent open-access paper in the Journal of Behavioral Decision Making. With the support of empirical data, the authors argue that student satisfaction scores represent students’ beliefs about their own institution relative to their beliefs about other institutions. Quality and satisfaction are separate things and should be assessed separately.  The key point is that beliefs can be, and often are, wrong, and may be influenced by various factors. One simple way that London Met could try to modestly improve its NSS scores is by avoiding the kind of bad publicity we have suffered from in the past. Over the last few months, UCU have held back from rushing to the press about various issues that have arisen, precisely because we felt that the Vice-Chancellor needed every opportunity to build the university we all want to see. Unfortunately, it now appears that the VC doesn’t believe in the institution that most staff advocated in the Strategic Plan consultation. And in imposing further change upon us he is generating the very bad publicity that we have sought to avoid (his ill-advised communications to our students are a case in point).

As far as is possible, we hope all our colleagues have a good Easter break.

David Hardman
For the UCU Coordinating Committee

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