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Morale is a question of trust

Jo Grady from the University of Sheffield reflects on the state of industrial relations in the sector.
This article is more than 5 years old

Jo Grady is general secretary of the University and College Union.

Recently I took to Twitter calling for university staff to tell me about their low morale and what they judge to be the cause of it. The response was overwhelming.

It was heart-breaking in its consistency. Overwhelmingly they said their employers openly held them in disregard and that marketisation of HE was destroying the culture of collegiality. I’m not going to reproduce their comments here, but I do urge you to go to my Twitter account and read them. It’s interesting and revealing that a Sunday afternoon tweet led to such an outpouring, which likely reflects why the disconnect between average staff members and management is so large – there isn’t another forum through which these discussions can be had.

14 days of strike action

February’s USS dispute provides an excellent contextual analysis to discuss low morale on campus and why this is unlikely to change. The scale and impact of the USS dispute was unprecedented. Fourteen days of action over four weeks saw thousands of staff from 61 UK universities go on strike. This surprised many people, not least of all their employers. Picket lines, which often had a carnival atmosphere and were accompanied by a programme of teach outs, grew in size over the course of the dispute. In many cases they were supported by students and student unions.

While the picket lines might have been a source of fun, the strike was not. Staff were subjected to accusations they didn’t care about their students. They forfeited hundreds of pounds in salary to defend their pension against an attack that we now know was based on false pretences. 

The strike occurred because attempts by university staff to negotiate with their employers had failed. Managers insisted that the pension scheme was in deficit and argued that reform was essential. They vehemently criticised the decision to strike. Hostile emails from HR with threatening language are cited often in that twitter thread as a contributing to low morale.

The strike began in response to the issue of pensions but quickly became much broader – marketisation, metrics, over-loaded and overworked staff, high rates of casualisation, and the impression that HE is increasingly driven by profit.

Disreputable threats

During the dispute one Scottish university threatened the closure of its nursery and inferred that equality programmes would have to cease if selfish academics insisted on holding their employer to ransom over pension costs. Similar stories of ugly threats from bullish managers emerged on a daily basis. These were discussed on picket lines as more information emerged that USS was not actually in deficit. The mounting evidence went ignored by managers who mostly did not seem concerned about resolving the dispute. The push to downgrade pensions seemed to be fuelled more by employers desire to disavow themselves of their commitment to staff, and not because it needed doing.

Everything we spent several weeks discussing on the picket line about pensions has been shown to be true. The deficit does not exist outside of a flawed methodology that was used by the pension scheme. Rather than stand with their staff and question the use of this valuation regime based on evidence that university staff produced (vindicated by an independent joint expert panel), employers instead chose to insist that detrimental changes that would cost staff up to £200,000 in retirement must be implemented.

The precarious position

The USS dispute quickly came to symbolise much larger concerns about the degradation of HE as a result of a metrics-driven, marketised, hostile environment. Pensions were just the latest target of the precariousness that characterises the experience of working in UK universities. This environment erodes morale on a daily basis via micro-aggressions that present staff with ever-growing and irreconcilable duties which mean we cannot enjoy our jobs or feel good about what we do.

It’s awful for everyone involved – contract staff, teaching staff, research, professional support, and the permanent staff trying to keep teams together and retain excellent people who will likely to go elsewhere to secure more permanent employment. Morale is low because universities are forcing people to internalise a marketised environment that corrodes any genuine enjoyment they can take from their jobs. The USS strike demonstrated that when we then take steps to protect ourselves against unfair attacks, we are accused of seeking to harm our students for self-gain.


There is increasing evidence from staff surveys that a target-driven approach to management is fuelling a toxic culture of harassment and bullying. Reportedly, in the last staff survey at the University of Sussex, one in five members of staff claimed to have experienced bullying or harassment. Women are more often the victims of bullying than men.

Universities must stop acting as though staff are a cost to be minimised if they wish to see any return of healthy morale on campus. Right now there is little trust in the ability of university leadership teams to do that. Senior managers were unambiguously wrong about the USS strike. And yet the strike still happened and was allowed to continue for four weeks because managers were either wedded to a cost minimising plan or lacked the political nous and expertise to spot what was evident to staff.

Focusing on how staff feel is not going to address this issue. The only way that trust can be repaired is for those that have lost it to begin to behave in a trustworthy manner.

2 responses to “Morale is a question of trust

  1. I totally agree. Managerialism in our universities is a toxic cult staffed by those who cannot write, cannot research and cannot teach. In fact, university managers cannot even manage staff. All they can manage is to embroil their university in more and more toxic debt (just study the annual accounts of your institution to see the proof). Consequently, a bunch of neerdowell incompetents have found in the new marketization structure in HE that has provided for them a niche that they can exploit to feel good about their useless selves by spending their working lives dreaming up as many things as possible to measure, just like 7 year olds in a primary school. The situation is a disgrace. We need to root these sociopaths out for good.

  2. Great summary although not unbiased. Mind you, in the current conditions of UK HE, it is right to be biased. Biased against structural changes that clearly don’t work, biased against ever increasing high-stakes that put our students under risk of stress, biased against shoddy methodologies and biased against work cultures that are more ‘cults’ of overwork than cultures of work.

    The introduction of a market to something that cannot be marketised is a problem. As is New public management approaches – the (Harvard) MBA informed approaches (that have been long discredited even in business) that management in HE can be some sort of Taylorist exercise. Most surprising for me as someone who came to academia late though, was the lack of awareness in academia of the game it had become involved in. This is at every level – staff who still think somehow that the old days of academic autonomy exists, managers who think that ‘pragmatism’ is a legitimate strategic choice (it is not even in the most marketized business, it is a recipe for failure because its…err…not a strategy) and – most surprisingly – a lack of trust in (true) expertise of actual experts but massive expenditure on consultants

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