May 29, 2014

WE TOLD YOU SO! - "Employment disputes cost sector £19m over four years" - THE TIP OF THE ICEBERG

Seventy of the UK’s universities spent a total of nearly £19 million over four years on settling employment disputes, with a lawyer warning that higher education was spending more than employers in many other sectors in defending claims.

Figures obtained by Times Higher Education under the Freedom of Information Act show that, in addition, 50 universities spent £10.4 million over four years on external lawyers’ fees to fight employment claims.

THE asked 125 UK universities how many employment disputes and tribunals they had been involved in between 2010 and 2013, and how much they had paid to settle or fight those cases. The 75 universities that provided figures on dispute numbers had been involved in a total of 1,331 disputes and 210 tribunals across the four years: an average of 4.3 disputes and 0.7 tribunal cases per institution per year.

The 70 universities that provided figures on the cost of settling claims, either before or after a tribunal hearing, had paid a total of £18.6 million: an average of £66,400 per institution per year. The average payout was £15,600 per case.

Cranfield University paid out the largest total amount over the four years: £1.44 million. It also had the fourth highest number of disputes – 52. The university declined to comment when contacted by THE.

The University of Gloucestershire paid out £1.17 million, including £707,000 in 2012 alone. A spokesman for the university said: “This was a period of restructuring. The majority of the [payments] related to contractual redundancy and pay in lieu of notice entitlements.” Three institutions were not involved in any disputes, and five paid out no compensation. The University of Oxford was involved in the largest number of disputes – 67 – but just one employment tribunal. Its total settlement payment of £210,000 was only the 29th highest. Loughborough University was involved in the most tribunal cases, 15, but paid out only £5,000 in total.

Rob Cuthbert, emeritus professor of higher education management at the University of the West of England and chair of the Improving Dispute Resolution Advisory Service for Further and Higher Education (Idras), cautioned that those institutions reporting the highest numbers might just be “the most assiduous” about classifying “disputes”.

“In particular, I would want to know more about the large institutions reporting little or no spending, which seems improbable,” he said.

THE also asked universities how much employment disputes had cost them in terms of the time of legal and human resources staff. No university was able to provide an internal breakdown, but 50 reported spending on external lawyers totalling £10.4 million. The average spending was £12,200 per case, although four institutions did not spend anything on lawyers’ fees.

The highest average cost per case – £69,200 – was incurred by Royal Holloway, University of London. Manchester Metropolitan University spent the highest total amount on lawyers: £1.84 million, amounting to £41,700 per case.

Helen Scott, executive officer of Universities HR, the professional organisation for universities’ human resources staff, said: “The level of disputes and payouts remains low compared with many other sectors. The higher education sector accounted for only 0.06 per cent of employment tribunal cases in the past four years.”

But Christopher Mordue, a partner at Pinsent Masons and head of its university employment team, said the statistics suggested that the average total cost of employment disputes within higher education was greater than in other sectors.

He noted that the average total cost per dispute – including both settlement and legal fees – was in excess of £25,000. “That looks on the high side…and is certainly much higher than the median awards made by tribunals even in discrimination cases,” he said.

He suggested this may be a result of the complexity of higher education claims – which frequently involve various categories of discrimination – and the fact that many occur while the claimant is still employed. These were often settled by the employee agreeing to resign, requiring “a higher settlement figure than would be needed simply to settle the claim in isolation”.

Mr Mordue also noted that the proportion of dispute cases in higher education that proceed to a tribunal – 16 per cent – is significantly lower than the 27 per cent figure for all tribunal cases in 2011-12: “That could indicate that universities are more risk-averse than other employers…However, it is just as likely that [it] reflects the fact that…the cost of defending the claim is often disproportionate to what is really at stake if you lose, making it more cost-effective to settle.”

But he added that there are “cases where, despite the cost, the right thing to do is to fight the claim – for example, on a point of principle, or to defend the managers involved or to avoid creating a claims culture”.

He advised universities to decide early on a fixed total of how much they were willing to spend defending claims and make a “robust assessment of the likely outcome of the case”, including how much compensation might be awarded.

He also noted that the total cost of disputes fell significantly in 2013, and he expected that trend to continue given recent changes to the tribunal system, such as the introduction of fees for claimants.
Gill Evans, emeritus professor of medieval theology and intellectual history at the University of Cambridge and chief executive of Idras, said lodging a tribunal case had previously been the standard negotiating tactic for disgruntled staff, but the new administration fee and the risk that they might become liable for costs if they lost – which was the most common outcome – no longer made it advisable.

“There is not much correlation between what the employee ‘deserves’ and what happens to them,” she said. “The ones who win and stay [employed] are the few with a lot of resilience and some supportive advice.”


At last somebody exposed the extent of the waste. Note that the above refers only to the period between 2010 and 2013, and only to 75 universities in the UK. What would the figure be if all universities declared what happened the last ten years? What did the union ever do about it? What will the government do about it?

Suggestion: Protect from legal action all those who signed a compromise agreement and let them state openly a) the conditions under which they were victimised, and b) what they were paid for compensation.

We are truly only looking at the tip of the iceberg...

May 22, 2014

Critical sculpture of Canadian university president is removed: Because it’s ‘harassment and bullying’

From the statement by Capilano University (a public university in North Vancouver, British Columbia):

Late last week, an effigy of the University President, produced by George Rammell, was removed from campus on my direction.

The effigy has been repeatedly displayed on and off campus and online over the last year. The decision to remove the effigy was not taken lightly, but rather was the result of endeavouring to find the right balance among many competing values.

Our University is committed to the open and vigorous discourse that is essential in an academic community, the inherent value of artistic expression, and the rights to free speech and protest that all Canadians enjoy. No one wants Capilano to be a place where art is arbitrarily removed or censored.

We must also be mindful of the University’s obligations to cultivate and protect a respectful workplace in which personal harassment and bullying are prohibited. These obligations are reflected in our employment policies, as well as legislation. Our policies are intended to protect the interests of all individuals in our community — including our president, as well as our faculty and all others.

I am satisfied that recently the effigy has been used in a manner amounting to workplace harassment of an individual employee, intended to belittle and humiliate the President. This led me, as Board Chair, to take action.

I understand that the University’s Administration has offered to give Mr. Rammell the effigy. The condition attached to this is that it not be returned to campus, and I fully support that position.
Inside Higher Ed has more:

At British Columbia’s Capilano University, the administration seized a sculpture [titled Blathering On in Krisendom] caricaturing the university president on the grounds that it constituted “harassment” of President Kris Bulcroft.

The Capilano instructor who created the sculpture, George Rammell, said that the artwork, which depicts Bulcroft and her poodle as ventriloquist dolls wrapped in an American flag, was removed from the university’s studio art building without his knowledge on the night of May 7….

President Bulcroft has come under heavy criticism for her decision last year to cut several programs, including the studio arts program, for which Rammell teaches, and textile arts. British Columbia’s Supreme Court ruled in April that the Capilano administration had acted contrary to the province’s University Act in making the cuts to courses and programs without seeking the advice of the Capilano Senate. The university is considering an appeal.

“The sculpture was really made out of a need to respond to my feeling of being violated,” said Rammell. “In Canada we used to be able to make caricatures of politicians and they would have a good laugh over their morning coffee.” …

Steven C. Dubin, a professor of arts administration at Columbia University’s Teachers College who studies art and censorship, described the Capilano administration’s decision to remove the sculpture as “pathetic.”

I think universities should have considerable discretion about what is displayed at the university, at least in places where only a few things get to be displayed (as opposed to places deliberately open to all students or all student groups to display their own views) — just as universities should have considerable discretion over whom they invite to give lectures (as opposed to whom student groups invite). I don’t know enough about the nature of this particular space to opine further.

But the claim that this is legally required to prevent “harassment” — and indeed the very labeling of such speech as “harassment,” a term with legal consequences — strikes me as much more troubling; it suggests, for instance, that a university that chose to tolerated such speech was acting illegally, or perhaps even that an individual who engages in such speech could be sued or prosecuted. And unfortunately, the vague and potentially broad term “harassment” has indeed been at times read to cover such political criticism, whether we’re talking about workplace harassment or criminal harassment, even in the United States, with our considerably more forceful free-speech protections. Argument such as Capilano University’s therefore pave the way for suppression of speech far beyond just a university’s decision about which sculptures to have displayed on campus.

And this helps illustrate my concern with new American proposals — which include criminal punishments — to ban “harassment and bullying.” They of course arise in response to very bad behavior, often behavior that seems to have little or no social value. But by using such potentially broad, ill-defined terms, they risk outlawing a much broader range of speech, especially given that people who disapprove of some speech will have a strong incentive to try to shoehorn it into these broad and vague categories.


May 03, 2014

Disgruntled Scientist

Dear Bullied Academics Group,

Here is my story of academic abuse from the US. (This is in case it hasn't reached your group already).  

Research Tech:
After completing my MS, I joined a multi-investigator lab at an Ivy league Univ. I thought that only hard work would matter. I worked diligently, long hours and never questioned my PI as I was just made to feel and told that I am just a technician. I kept telling myself that my hard work/publications will show. He put me as first author on national and international presentations that only he attended while I slogged away in the lab. I generated a lot of publishable data. During the two years in the lab, my work started getting published in high impact factor journals without my knowledge or any mention of me. I was involved in at least 5 "high reward" projects during my time there. The bullying was too severe and I was young. I mustered the courage and reported this to the HR after I received no response on this issue from my immediate PI and the other investigators in the lab. I had to subsequently report this to the people high up in the institution (Dean and provost). The result of all this was "squat". I was forced to withdraw my case and left with a mere acknowledgment that couldn't justify my efforts. I was given enough threats that I had to run as far as I could from that research area and the institution. I must add that during my stay there, I witnessed a lot of other unethical situations. My friend and colleague (also a technician then) was fired for looking into other opportunities on the side. They came to know of her job hunting when someone reached out to the lead investigator for a reference. I also witnessed a long legal battle with a courageous scientist who stated that they had been publishing fabricated data. They ultimately blamed an unsuspecting foreign postdoc for it. They ruined the postdoc's career. 

Grad School:
I moved onto grad school shortly thereafter at a nearby institution. I was asked to do a couple of rotations before picking a lab. The first lab was micromanaged by the PI and had alpha female grad students. The PI offered me the position but I refused politely. Out of vengeance for being turned down by a lowly grad student, she reported my stay in her lab as "does not get along well with lab mates but very talented". The grad students in her lab left no stone unturned in ruining my reputation either. I settled down in the lab of a young and promising assistant professor's lab. I was honest and informed him of my mishap at the Ivy League Institution. In this lab everything was fine in the lab as long as the teacher's pet a sassy bully grad student was happy. Everyone feared this grad student and they watched to not offend her. Those who did were burned badly. One day, I took my chances because I had had enough. All hell broke loose when I made a minor comment to her in retaliation. Everyone isolated me in the lab for fear of being ridiculed by this high school bully. My lab mates got onto social media to ridicule me. I came to know of this and informed my PI with proof as it was unacceptable to me. My PI held a lab meeting and everyone ambushed me and my PI pretty much showed me the door. From then on, I put my head down and worked. I worked so hard that other faculty members in the dept. would stop me in the hallway and tell me that it was unethical of my PI to make me work that hard. 

My project was brand new. I built up all the techniques and guided everyone in the lab on it. My PI conducted a new lab course as part of his tenure package and got me to TA for it. It was a course structure that would have not worked from the get go. It was a genetic screen he meant to have accomplished by undergrads over a period of two months. I was the only TA. Of course the course failed and I got royally blamed for it. He did not even let me take some time off to visit my ailing mother back home in my home country as she underwent surgery with only my ailing dad by her side. His exact words were "what will happen to all the TA money you are getting for this course"? I confided in someone in the department regarding the reason for the failure of his course. Word got out and I faced my PI's wrath for the rest of my grad school. I wasn't sent to any conferences, he ensured I never published. He allowed other foreign grad students to go home but not me. He got their papers published in techniques that I taught them. I put my head down once again and worked. My project turned out to be the only successful project in the lab and the PI received his first NSF funding. Guess what? he did not even invite me for the lab grant success party. My only way out was to prove myself and my worthiness during committee meetings. I shone each time and my mentor could not play his games there. My committee and faculty members in the department saw that I was actually smarter than my PI.

Sometime in between years two and three with my mentor, we ran into bad luck with a PI from a competing lab who was doing the exact same thing but using a route "B". So we decided to "join hands"/"collaborate". This has had its fair share of issues with the competing PI bullying my own advisor! This paper got rejected twice already from a top and mid-impact factor journal (but of course!). I fulfilled everything I could and tried to wrap up and managed to receive his blessings. During this time, I reported another unfortunate incident to my PI that he should have acted on immediately based on the nature of the incident. He chose to look the other way. I informed the next in command in the department regarding this incident and alarms were raised immediately. It was such a serious issue that the school did everything to fix the situation and in due course of investigation my PI got pulled up. Of course my PI was saved and forgiven. So there goes my relationship with him yet again! I had to find a postdoc soon and graduate. This was going to be difficult with my profile as there is years of training and still no publication!

I was finally filled with excitement to receive a postdoc position in a cutting-edge research area. It was too good to be true and I was overjoyed. I did everything in that lab right. The PI turned out to be the worst form of micromanager. Everyone was involved with reporting everything to him when pushed against the wall. What we did, what we said, where we went and for how long. It was a no sitting, no reading and all work kind of a lab. It was slowly revealed to me that this PI had a bad reputation and I was advised by some senior postdocs from other labs to leave. I didn't pay attention to these warnings until it happened to me! I tried to report to him the misconduct from a grad student. My postdoc PI looked the other way too because he worked in close collaboration with the PI of the grad student in question. What I got in turn was hours worth of verbal abuse behind close doors because I had heard and knew way too much about him and I was getting in way of his collaboration. I kept quiet went through the whole ordeal and left for home. The PI realized probably he shouldn't done what he did, out of saving his face, he contacted my PhD mentor and all my committee members to ruin my reputation and said "she did not get along with lab members and is not fit for collaborative research" and "please do not give her a good reference". She is not as good as I was told she would be. He personally wrote to me barring me from future employment with the center as well. I found out later that my PhD mentor had been in constant touch with my postdoc PI for the three weeks that I served as my postdoc in his lab. I ran back to my PhD mentor knowing everything he had done and did in the past, begging him to not sit on the manuscripts I already wrote. I was told that my manuscripts were the last of his pile of things to read!!!! I was advised by him to take time off and have a family or move on to the industry. 

Please advise:
Should I still stay in academia? Is this happening to only me? How should I have handled situations in the past? Should I continue with my postdoc search given that my publication record does not exactly indicate my productivity and I cannot attach my story as a separate document with my CV. The abuse in academia has broken me. Is there any hope?

Disgruntled Scientist

Dark thoughts: Why mental illness is on the rise in academia

Mental health issues among academics in UK universities are on the rise.

Mental health problems are on the rise among UK academics amid the pressures of greater job insecurity, constant demand for results and an increasingly marketised higher education system.

University counselling staff and workplace health experts have seen a steady increase in numbers seeking help for mental health problems over the past decade, with research indicating nearly half of academics show symptoms of psychological distress.

Culture of acceptance
A recent blog on the Guardian Higher Education Network blog, which highlighted a "culture of acceptance" in universities around mental health issues, has received an unprecedented response, pointing to high levels of distress among academics.

The article, which reported instances of depression, sleep issues, eating disorders, alcoholism, self-harming, and even suicide attempts among PhD students, has been shared hundreds of thousands of times and elicited comments outlining similar personal experiences from students and academics. But while anecdotal accounts multiply, mental health issues in academia are little-researched and hard data is thin on the ground.

However, a study published in 2013 by the University and College Union (UCU) used health and safety executive measures, assessed against a large sample of over 14,000 university employees, to reveal growing stress levels among academics prompted by heavy workloads, a long hours culture and conflicting management demands. Academics experience higher stress than those in the wider population, the survey revealed.

Tackling perfectionism

Pat Hunt, head of Nottingham University's counselling service for staff and students and a member of the UK body for heads of university counselling services, said all universities were experiencing an increase in mental health problems.

"There are increasing levels of anxiety, both generalised and acute, levels of stress, of depression and levels of what I would call perfectionism," she says.

"By that I mean when someone is aiming for and constantly expecting really high standards, so that even when there is a positive outcome they feel they have fallen short. So instead of internal aspiration helping them to do well it actually hinders them."

Academics are also caught up in a range of cycles, from league tables and student satisfaction surveys to research league tables, that dominate thinking, she adds. In one case, a department's top position in a research profile "became a poisonous thing because everyone then fights to maintain that". Hunt said higher education should not be stigmatised for the increase in mental health issues, since it reflected a similar increase in wider society. Figures show more working days are now lost to the mental health problems than any other health issue.

Nottingham offers one-to-one and group help to students and staff, including support specifically targeted at men, who make up only a third of those seeking help, a figure likely to reflect the continuing stigma over seeking help for mental illness.

Increased workloads partly to blame

Dr Alan Swann of Imperial College London, chair of the higher education occupational physicians committee, blamed "demands for increased product and productivity" for rising levels of mental health problems among academics.

He says: "They all have to produce results – you are only as good as your research rating or as good as your ability to bring in funding for research."

Swann says most academics are stressed rather than mentally unwell: "They are thinking about their work and the consequences of not being as good as they should be; they're having difficulty switching off and feeling guilty if they're not working seven days a week."

Academics and researchers can become isolated and not realise how "out of kilter" their working lives are, he says.

The intense pressure of doctoral and post-doctoral study, and early-career academia can also reveal existing mental health problems, he adds. Universities, including Imperial, have improved systems to help, yet academia remains "pretty macho".

Uncaring academic environment

"There's still a degree of 'if you can't stand the heat, you shouldn't be here'," says Swann. He says there are "still people in senior positions in academia who actually don't care".

He adds: "But there are measures to counter that and there has been a lot of change for the good. What we have not been able to get rid of are the external pressures from government funding and the academic marketplace."

Research by Gail Kinman, professor of occupational health psychology at the University of Bedfordshire, on behalf of the UCU, offers one of the few pieces of data on mental health problems among academics.

Kinman used the health and safety executive's health and safety at work framework to assess the views of some 20,000 academics, and found "considerably higher" levels of psychological distress than in the population as a whole.

She points to poor work-life balance as a key factor, with academics putting in increasing hours as they attempt to respond to high levels of internal and external scrutiny, a fast pace of change and the notion of students as customers – leading to demands such as 24-hour limit for responses to student queries.

Internalised values hard to shake

There are examples of good practice within universities which could be shared across the sector, Kinman says, but, as an independently-minded group who are strongly committed to their work, academics are not always straightforward to support. "We don't like being told 'you can't email at two in the morning'. You can't impose solutions from other sectors – academics are quite different and there's no 'one size fits all'."

And internalised values are hard to shake. Nadine Muller, lecturer in English literature and cultural history at Liverpool John Moores University, suggests that academia promotes the blurring of lines between the personal and the professional – often described as "doing what you love".

"This means that doctoral and early-career scholars are seldom trained in how to firmly draw that line and value themselves beyond their work," says Muller.

UCU says issues relating to mental health are frequently encountered by its representatives. General secretary Sally Hunt says sufferers experience particular prejudice at work. "Further and higher education workers who experience issues relating to mental health face ignorance, discrimination and stigma from their managers and colleagues.

"Negative and inflexible attitudes can often exclude those with mental health conditions from being able to do their job. Often these attitudes can intimidate a person away from feeling able to disclose their mental health condition at all."

John Hamilton, head of safety, health and wellbeing at Leeds Metropolitan University, says academics' problems are often a question of burnout, which he defines as a "significant disengagement" with an employer, in which a staff member no longer feels in charge of their role. Some universities, including his own, are working hard to offer support, he says, but while many could "definitely do more", there remains a fundamental problem that some academics simply do not like the changes in their sector that have taken place over the last 20 years. "For some, it's going to be a case of 'I'm sorry, but this is the way it is, this is the political landscape'. So there's an element of putting up with it."

If academics already in post must wrestle with the stresses of fast change, what of their successors? Edward Pinkney, a mental health consultant working in education, says: "Institutions have a broader civic duty to educate potential academics about the university environment, so that prospective academics can make a more informed decision about whether or not to proceed.

"As universities become increasingly businesslike, there's a growing need for them to be independently monitored to ensure that they are not just meeting basic standards of support for their members, but also that they are providing an accurate representation of academic life and not misselling it."