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24 Hours in HE: winter pressures


Ivory Tower: our fly-on-the-wall documentary is back on campus in the run up to Christmas

Narrator: Royal Dalton University, formerly the North by North West Midlands Institute and Technical College, is one of Britain’s busiest higher education providers. After a return to in-person teaching and what passes for normal, the staff and students are looking forward to the most wonderful time of the year. Vice-chancellor Sir Malcolm Baxter is making a start on the over 3,000 Christmas cards he has to sign.

Sir Malcolm: It’s the personal touch, you see. In an institution as sprawling as ours it’s easy to feel disconnected. I don’t think I’ve visited the science park on the ring road for, maybe, three, four, no five… anyway, it’s not good to appear remote, so that’s why I sign everyone’s Christmas card myself. It does take me most of December. 

In fact, to get a head start this year, we began after bonfire night. If you look round, you’ll see the piles that we have done already. Those are for academics, those are for professional staff, that big pile is for key stakeholders: local government, local businesses, schools, and colleges and so on. 

This one? It looks big but it’s quite small really. They are to err… policy influencers—you know, like members of the golf club, the Rotary, the local Conservative club. It’s mostly members of the Conservative Party really. Look, there’s one for the minister—she’s obviously too busy to send one back—and this one is for our very supportive local MP, Sir Godfrey Waterloo-Tannhauser. 

He’s been a real god send, lobbying… err… speaking up for the university at Westminster. He is very committed to higher education, especially since we made him a professor in our social mobility think tank, FLAT, the Foundation for Levelling And Training. 

Sir Godfrey joins us on Teams whenever he can to give us his wisdom from his beach house in the Cayman Islands. He’s helped us see all the upsides of Brexit. Yes, we have lost students from the European Union, and we are short staffed in most academic and service departments, and we don’t know what is going to happen with our infrastructure and research funding, but as a university we are embracing global opportunities. 

Next week we have a twinning ceremony with our new educational partners, the University of British Antarctica. We will be validating courses for UBA in herring management and salmon farming. Of course, there are the moaning Minnies who say we should be focused on what is on our own doorstep, like the skills agenda and building back better. 

So, just let me say that I am a big fan of adult education. During lockdown I did Swedish on Duolingo. I got all the way to level three, on some of it. And mother is taking a floral art course at our partner institution, Spode College. 

We’ve even taken on an apprentice here in the vice-chancellor’s office. Brenda, she’s called, I think. She’s absolutely marvellous. She signed most of that pile there for the academics… Sorry, she assisted me as part of her training to categorise the different envelopes. Anyway, carry on, haven’t you got someone else to speak to?

Narrator: It has been a winter of discontent across the higher education sector. Staff at Royal Dalton were recently balloted on strike action over pay and conditions. Bill MacAllistair the head of the local union branch reflects on the experience.

MacAllistair: Yes, it is very disappointing not to be on strike. There is nothing I wanted more than to scrape the frost off the car at 6.00am, fill up a thermos of hot tea and join our comrades on the picket line in the sleet and snow. Instead, I’ve had to come in for an 11.30 meeting, on some days. But we were hamstrung by these Tory anti-union rules. 

We did not reach the 50 per cent threshold of membership participation for our strike to be recognised as legal. The good news is that the union has said that it is going to re-ballot us since we were so close. I know it might sound crazy that a place like Royal Dalton in fact has one of the lowest levels of union membership in the country.

There are only ten of us, in fact. I think it’s a hangover from our local government days when most people were members of NALGO or NUPE or COHSE, glorious names that ring down the decades. Lots of the new people haven’t joined a union—well, have you seen the subs? Even though there are only ten of us in the branch, it was really difficult to get the vote out. 

Brian and Steve in computing said that they would probably be out of the country when the strikes would be called—I think they are at a conference in Wales. 

Laura in the Business School said she was on sabbatical, or Christmas shopping, or something like that. Ian and Beth in the Humanities department—that’s really the only arts provision we’ve got left now—said their ballot papers didn’t arrive. 

John in Estates said he wasn’t sure if he was still a member of the union or not, and Mary in engineering said she lost more money in strike days last year than she received in the pay award so would doing her own thing this time. I think she is in Newcastle visiting her daughter. 

It’s a real pity because there is so much at stake. I’ve been at Royal Dalton for 40 years and I’ve never seen it so bad, what with all the precarity and cuts to pensions that young people are having to put up with. You know, some days I just want to pack it all in and retire. 

I’ve checked my numbers, they are looking good after four decades in the Teachers’ Pension, and my house next to the university is worth a fortune now, or I could just rent it out to students. Really, if it wasn’t for the facilities money that buys me out of all teaching to be full time union rep, I would definitely pack it in. 

Maybe, it’s time for me to make way for some of the young people coming through. You know, it’s good to give something back.

Narrator: Margaret Blackwood used to be head of wellbeing and safe spaces. Now she is spearheading the university’s strategic response to winter. As Royal Dalton’s first ever head of winter, she is responsible for oversight of the seasonal pressures affecting the university. She has a title and new office, but her budget is modest.

Blackwood: It’s been a challenge to be honest because when I became head of winter, I was really expecting to be able to commit myself to the role. But the university has not yet back filled my old job so I’m still doing all the wellbeing stuff as well. 

HR say there should be somebody in place by March-April time, which technically is when winter is over, but it should give me time to really get my winter pressures campaign up and running for June and July. Obviously, the big one we’ve all been thinking about is what is going to happen with Covid. 

Last year, it was terrible. No sooner had the first-year students arrived on campus than they found themselves locked up, sorry self-isolating, in Barbara Cartland. It’s our biggest halls of residence, twinned with Fred Dinenage in the city centre. We put up fencing and employed security guards and all sorts, but they still insisted on trying to get out, so selfish. 

This year is obviously different, with the vaccines and the Downing Street parties, it means that anything goes really. And it’s not just Covid, we’ve had our flu campaign, even though supplies were limited. I was first in line to get my jab—well you’ve got to lead from the front on something like this. But I’m telling you, it knocked me sideways, I was off work for a fortnight—worse than having the flu or something. 

There’s also the testing. We are encouraging all staff and students to take a test twice a week. In our office, the team do it every day for good practice. My deputy, Betty, says she’s had more up her nose recently than Michael Gove. I think he must be testing himself a lot as well. 

Doing the two jobs, it’s been exhausting really. I’m looking forward to getting away for Christmas, especially since in the summer we only had two weeks in a caravan in Ryhl. We are going to Cape Town for some sun, I can’t wait. 

Sorry, that’s the winter pressures WhatsApp group pinging, a few of us like to keep in touch with news. What’s this? Omicron? Oh, you are kidding me. Immediate ban on flights to… No! No! No! Sorry, I’ve got to go check my travel insurance.

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