Campaigning on Workloads

Campaigning on workloads: we need membership education, good workload agreements, negotiations and industrial action

 Sally Hunt, UCU General Secretary, spotlighted workloads as an issue in her November 2012 update to members.  Many of us have recognised for a long time that UCU needs to do more to tackle work intensification.  The current pressures on the post-16 education sector in terms of league tables and related performance measures have exacerbated workloads.  Moreover the marketization and privatisation of the education sector, as a result of neo-liberal economics, are reducing professional autonomy and scope for academic judgement.  Academic and academic-related staff are increasingly subject to micro-management which damages academic standards, imperils academic freedom and leads to work intensification, stress and illness.


This paper on workloads addresses the following themes:

  1. Why workload protection matters
  2. HE negotiating guide on workload agreements
  3. Negotiating workload allocation models in pre-92 Universities
  4. Defence of post-92 contract in HE and of contracts in FE
  5. The post-92 contract at Sheffield Hallam University
  6. FE workloads
  7. The terms we use (to talk about workloads and work plans)
  8. Membership education on contracts and workload agreements (why it must be an essential part of union activity over workloads)
  9. Tuition fees (and how they may impact upon workloads)
  10. Performance management
  11. An organising union
  12. Industrial action over workloads – what sort of demands do we raise?
    1. Defensive targets
    2. Cultural change targets
    3. Extending contractual protection targets

Appendix: diagram: the building blocks of workload protection

It is hoped that this paper will be a useful contribution to taking forward UCU organising and negotiating work on this subject, which is of vital importance to members.  Please do contact me if you would like to discuss the ideas in this paper.


Elizabeth Lawrence

1. Why workload protection matters

Tackling excessive workloads should be central to UCU’s work for the following reasons:

  • Many members experience excessive workloads as the number one problem of working life.  They want to see their union doing something about this problem.
  • It is not in the interests of our students if their lecturers and academic-related staff who support students are tired and stressed with excessive workloads.  This is not the basis on which to build a good quality learning experience.
  • Excessive workloads, especially when accompanied by micro-management, undermine academic freedom and critical thinking within universities and colleges.
  • The health of some members is being seriously affected by over-working.  This can be a life and death issue.  Some of our members operate dangerous equipment in laboratories and workshops or handle hazardous substances.  These members particularly need protection from fatigue and over-work.
  • Long work hours and a long working hours’ culture undermine our equality agenda, particularly our gender equality work.
  • We should not negotiate reasonable adjustments to a job for a disabled member, without first checking that the job itself is a reasonable job.  If we negotiate reasonable adjustments to an unreasonable job, we imply the problem rests with the disabled member not the design of the job or an excessive workload which makes the job tiring and difficult for anyone to do.
  • Excessive workloads, whether in the form of overlong working hours or too intense a working day impact negatively on the rights of our members to spend time with family and friends and on our capacity to be active citizens.
  • Union facility agreements do not work effectively unless there is union control over the overall size and shape of the job.  If a union representative has some hours off an infinite workload, they still have an infinite workload and no facility time.  If a union representative has real hours, including teaching hours for those with teaching jobs, off a defined work plan, they have meaningful facility time.
  • If we can get meaningful union action and agreements on workloads, which actually make things better for our members in the workplace, this is one of the best answers we can give to the questions: ‘Why should I join a union?’ ‘Does having a union make a difference in the workplaces?’  Yes it can, and yes everyone should join the union.

I have been involved at local and national levels of the union in work on workload protection.  This work has involved local negotiations, chairing an HEC working party, and local campaigning and membership education.


2. HE negotiating guide on workload agreements

Soon after UCU was formed in 2006 I chaired an HEC working party which produced a local negotiating guide on workloads.  It also produced a workload calculator.  We organised a number of well attended seminars around workload protection.  The materials from this project are now included in the UCU local negotiating handbook and are available on the UCU website, under ‘HE conditions of service- workload protection’.

The working group adopted an approach to workload protection based on recognition of the diversity of the HE sector and of the range of jobs our members do.  We deliberately avoided a ‘one size fits all’ approach and recognised that in different employment contexts members might want more or less tightly specified work plans, as the best mechanism for protection against overloading.  Some members want everything nailed down in contractual agreements, because they regard this as the best means of protection against overloading.  Others may prefer some more flexibility, if flexibility is genuinely a two-way street.  There is a need to keep under review who is benefiting from flexibility.


3. Negotiating workload allocation models in pre-92 Universities

In pre-92 universities some employers have sought to introduce workload allocation models.  This is taking place in a context of privatisation and marketization of the sector in which university workers are being affected by more performance measures and pressure to do well in league tables.  Sometimes these workload allocation models have built upon or replaced existing departmental workload allocation models.  The better of these local/departmental models were often ones which emerged from the departmental level upwards, based upon what members regarded as fair and equitable.  Pre-92 LAs/branches have had to decide how to respond to these managerial initiatives.  Some have chosen to enter into negotiations over workload allocation models, in order to utilise them for workload protection and to prevent employer using them as a means of overloading.  Others have felt it more appropriate to resist, since they view them simply as a vehicle for work intensification.  The decision on how to respond must lie with the LA/branch, taking into account the interests of all its members.  What has been noticeable in the pre-92 sector, compared with the earlier (1990-94) local negotiations over the introduction of the post-92 national contract in the post-92 sector, has been the extent to which workload procedures have been tied up with performance management.  In my view this is an unhelpful linkage, since I think performance management should be confined to matters such as capability and discipline.


4. Defence of post 92 contract in HE and of contracts in FE

The foundation of work load protection is a clear contract covering annual leave, working hours, teaching hours and range of duties.  Contractual protection does not fix all problems of over-loading, but it is the basis on which we must build.  Contractual limits enable members to say to managers ‘thus far and no further’.

For members in teaching-focused institutions, we need clear contractual limits on:

  • Weekly teaching hours
  • Number of teaching weeks
  • Annual teaching hours
  • Evening and weekend teaching
  • Total working hours

We also need agreements on class size, marking loads, preparation and marking time and email contact with students.  Agreements also need to protect new staff by ensuring they have more preparation time.  Agreements also need to provide for reduction in teaching duties for research projects, academic management roles, such as year tutor, course leader, admissions tutor etc. and for trade union work and university or college committee service.

In post-92 HE the national contract provides for contractual maxima on teaching hours (weekly and annually) and on the length of the academic year.  Some local agreements also address the length of the total working week.  We need to defend this contract vigorously.

In FE far too many of our members teach excessive contact hours without sufficient time for preparation and scholarship within working hours.  We need to defend the better local FE contracts and try to negotiate improvements.


5. The post 92 contract at Sheffield Hallam University

At Sheffield Hallam University I was one of the local negotiators who negotiated the local version of the post-92 contract.  Our local contract has some beneficial features.  These include:

  • An annual maximum of 462 not 550 contact hours;
  • A comprehensive definition of teaching contact time, including all scheduled tutorials, distance-learning, dissertations etc.;
  • At least one hour of additional time for marking and assessment is credited against each hour of teaching when calculating total working hours;
  • Recognition that teaching duties should be reduced when staff are undertaking academic management roles;
  • A 37 hour normal working week;
  • No probationary period for academic posts.

There was major union (NATFHE) input into the design of the SHU current work planning template and work planning handbook.


6. FE workloads

In FE colleges one of the consequences of restructuring, attacks on contracts, voluntary redundancy trawls and funding cuts has been rapidly rising staff workloads and huge increases in the number of disciplinary and capability procedures being brought against those staff who buckle under the strain.  Workload is a major source of anger and concern among UCU’s FE members, closely associated with rising levels of management bullying  by programme managers in particular who seek to achieve their market-derived targets at whatever costs to staff wellbeing and health.

FE negotiators have made the achievement of a binding workload agreement a key part of our annual pay claims.  Nonetheless, the employers in the Association of Colleges constantly use the excuse that they have no authority to negotiate anything which would be binding on member colleges.  This is only as true as it is true about pay rises, and most colleges abide by whatever pay increases are eventually achieved.

As part of developing an effective campaign on workloads, which the 2012 Annual FE Sector Conference decided should be pursued, the FEC has authorised a national strategy of contacting college managements asking them to endorse and implement the model FE workloads agreement. Those that refuse to do so or fail to respond can then be considered as appropriate targets for ballots and an industrial action campaign.  FEC has decided, at this point, that such action will be action short of strike action (ASOS), and careful consideration needs to be given to the nature of such action in order to maximise its effectiveness.

Further consideration is to be given by the FEC to the inclusion of a question on strike action on any ballot form (as well as ASOS) to enable a branch to respond with strike action should victimisations of any sort result from a campaign of ASOS.  FE branches would not want to find themselves without this potential sanction.

It would be crucially important to include as many colleges as possible in any aggregated ballot and resulting coordinated action and not to approach this issue only as a series of local campaigns and disputes.  UCU Regions could play a crucial coordinating role in this.


7. The terms we use

In discussions with members over workloads I am aware of a number of terms in use with different nuances of meanings.  We sometimes talk about ‘work plans’, ‘workloads’, ‘workload allocation models’ and even ‘workload audit’.  Let me elaborate this point.

Work plans

This is the approach I am most familiar with from long experience of negotiating over and defending the post-92 national contract.  I like the emphasis on planning because it provides the opportunity for a negotiated agreement between individuals and their head of department or other ‘line manager’ about their work plan for the coming year.  Within the post-92 contract work planning provides for transparency within the peer group.  The focus on planning allows the development of balanced work plans, which include consideration of individual staff development needs and leave some headroom or contingency time for things that may develop during the year.  Work planning to be meaningful needs to take place in the summer term of the preceding academic year. This also helps to reduce stress, if staff know in advance what their work plan is for the next academic year.  I have also been a subject group leader for five years and a work planner and I have used this model to ensure an equitable and contract compliant division of labour for members of a subject group.  Work planning can be used properly as an instrument for fairness and justice.

Workload allocation models

The use of the term ‘workload’ has an element of honesty in it.  We do all feel loaded up like baggage animals with too much work at times!  The question is who does the allocating.  If the subject group, department or peer group has a genuinely collegial process with some agreed standards of fairness, workload allocation models can be beneficial, so long as the upshot is not simply that everyone has too much work to do.  Sometimes, however, this approach indicates more top-down management or an attempt to account for every hour of staff time.  UCU members have rightly resisted the introduction of such models.

Workload audit

This implies a retrospective exercise, checking on what people have done.  It can smack of excessive surveillance or a search for unused hours.  It links potentially with other forms of performance management, such as capability and discipline.

Models for work planning/workload allocation

It is important that models and ways of recording work plans should be negotiated with the union.  In some universities there are institution-wide models used.  In other cases they vary from department to department.  The danger of the latter is that bad practices can be introduced in departments where the union is weaker and then spread across the institution.  Local variation in the method of recording work plans also makes it harder for UCU to police conformity with contractual provisions.


8. Membership education on contracts and workload agreements

My experience as a local union officer at Sheffield Hallam University has convinced me of the great importance of local branches undertaking membership education over the contract and work planning.  It can be too easy for experienced union officers to assume members know their rights.  One thing SHU UCU branch has done to some effect has been to organise site and departmental meetings to brief members on their contractual rights.

I remember one local work planning meeting where an interesting urban myth emerged.  A manager had in all seriousness told their staff that there was no funding for cover for an absent member of staff, until that member of staff had been absent for six months and went onto half pay.  Meanwhile the existing staff would have to cover the teaching on an unpaid overtime basis!  Further teaching cover could be hired after six months of absence.  This was of course nonsense and the union was able to expose it as such.  Funding for sickness cover is not dependent on the sick member of staff losing salary.  The point of the story, however, is that managers will try it on, unless the union is vigilant.


9. Tuition fees

Staff in both FE and HE are affected by the marketization of our sectors.  In HE many members have been wondering what the impact of higher tuition fees will be.  Will managers put more pressure on staff to provide un-resourced tutorials to improve NSS scores?  We hear regularly about the importance of the student experience and how we must all enhance it.  Actually the more socially and politically aware students want to come to university to get an education, not ‘an experience’.  The union needs to ensure that the discourse around the student experience does not translate into bullying of staff to provide tutorials whenever students demand one or to answer student emails 24/7.  What we need is for union-conscious groups of staff to agree reasonable levels of service provision.


10. Performance management

Performance management should not be micro management.  How far do we want hours counted?  Sometimes we need to count the hours, as in the UCU workload calculator, to prove we are over-worked and need our duties reduced.  We have to do this in ways which avoid managers checking on where we are every minute of the day or timing comfort breaks.  We also have to challenge the current ideological emphasis on performance management.  It comes from a highly wishful school of management thinking which believes that productivity could be massively increased with more micro-management of academic staff.  In fact the opposite is true.  Real academic productivity would probably increase if there was less micro-management.   Academic staff are already over-managed.  Employers have appraisal systems, target or objective setting systems and procedures for dealing with capability, discipline and sickness absence.  There is no good case for further management.


11. An organising union

Members need an organising union to defend workloads, not a servicing union.  UCU can negotiate good local and national agreements on workloads.  We cannot supply members with a union rep to keep in their briefcase to tell managers to get lost whenever they ask members to work outside contract.  Members need to learn to say ‘no’.  Some find it difficult.  We need to encourage members to say ‘no’ collectively when asked to work beyond contract or to take on unreasonable loads.  We need strong union groups in departments, colleges and universities.  If we can make workload protection a central focus of our union organising at local level this is one of the best ways to build up union membership and a strong local network of union representatives.


12. Industrial action on workloads

We can campaign, negotiate and organise around workloads, but we also need to be prepared to take industrial action.

We should be prepared to ballot for industrial action if employers try to break contractual provisions over workloads.  This may be the focus of both national and local disputes.  Any encroachment on the post-92 contract must be resisted.

We need to demand of the employers locally and nationally that they take the problems of stress and over-loading seriously.  This means raising issues about patterns of work allocation, pressure of work, timetables and unreasonable deadlines and similar matters.  If remedial action can be agreed via the local Joint Negotiating Committee, and then implemented on the ground, this is excellent.  If, however, senior management is dismissive of the problem, there is the need for action to obtain meaningful negotiations.

In institutions where workloads are way out of control we should ballot for a work to contract around a set of carefully targeted demands for both meaningful negotiation and specific remedies against over-loading.

The success of an industrial action strategy around workloads depends upon our ability to set clear, realistic and measurable negotiating targets, which members feel are worth fighting for.  What might these be:


12.a Defensive targets

Sometimes the focus of negotiation and industrial action, particularly at a local level, may be to get management to withdraw an attack on our existing contractual rights or some policy which is making life more difficult for our members.  Some branches may wish to challenge ‘entitlements’ proclaimed (unilaterally by management) in student charters, which set unreasonable standards for service delivery.  Some HE branches have managed to persuade the employer to abandon a policy of a three- week turnaround time for marking and feedback, something which could only be achieved by staff working well over hours.  These are all examples of necessary defensive actions which stop more being loaded on to staff.  There may also be a need for defensive targets around the introduction of new technologies and changing patterns of teaching delivery, if they will lead to work intensification.  In the case of defensive targets the negotiating demand may be that contracts are respected and that no changes or new duties are introduced without negotiation.  It may also be a matter of reminding managers that if staff are taking on some new duties, some other ones should be reduced or removed in order to maintain a reasonable working week.


12.b Anti-stress, work/life balance and cultural change targets

Sometimes members experience problems of work intensification when the underlying contract stays the same.  The pressure comes from increasing marketization of the education sector, a discourse of students as customers, who must be kept happy at all times, and pressure to take on more duties, such as more weekend open days, marketing work, extra administration etc.  Pressure can also come from workaholic crazy (or bullied) managers who ostentatiously send emails at all hours of night or day, do not take their holidays, work through lunch breaks and rush from meeting to meeting (with their sandwiches in their pocket and their blood sugar levels in a mess) or schedule meetings early in the morning or late in the afternoon.

How do we tackle these problems?  We may in negotiations seek to get the employer to commit publicly to statements and policies around stopping bullying and harassment and respecting work-life balance.  These need to be followed up with a clear dissemination strategy and management education for managers who bully without accepting they are doing so.  Managers should be given clear responsibilities for ensuring that staff can and do take their holidays.  Action must be taken to curtail the holding of work meetings at unreasonable hours.


12.c Extending contractual protection targets

Sometimes a local branch or the union nationally might decide to set negotiating targets around extending contractual protection or creating new contractual protection in areas where it does not already exist, e.g. class size, use of IT etc.  Different sectors have different starting points in this regard.  The selection of reasonable and measurable targets and the building of support among members for these targets are necessary conditions for the success of local negotiation and action over workload protection.  Local union officers have an important role to play in developing these negotiating targets.  Experiences from casework can be fed into formulating negotiating demands.  We should remember the saying that the wearer knows best where the shoe pinches.  UCU needs to root its negotiating strategy over workload protection in the reality of members’ day-to-day work experiences.



Notes on diagram – The Building Blocks of Workload Protection

  • An earlier version of this diagram was presented at a talk to Westminster University UCU Branch on Thursday 24h January.  I thank the branch officers for their invitation and their hospitality.  It was welcome to have an opportunity to discuss this topic with branch members.
  • The diagram identifies three levels: contractual, procedural and cultural around which the union can organise to protect reasonable workloads.
  • Not all parts of this diagram will apply to all sectors of the union.  There are considerable variations in the extent to which members experience, contractual limits on workloads and  have to deal with local variation in procedures related to workloads.
  • ‘Local’ can refer to departmental, school or faculty or university-wide.

 The building blocks of workload protec


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