subtext | Truth: lies open to all

Issue 155 - “red and grey subtext”



Fortnightly during term time.

Letters, contributions, & comments:

Back issues & subscription details:

In this issue: editorial, triple staff survey, DIY annual leave, euro-legality, reading weeks, tree cull, glass action, scrutinising the scrutineers, shart attack, buses, letter.



Calling all democrats - if any subtext readers are taking first year lectures this afternoon (Thursday 8th), do remind people about the city council by-election today for University & Scotforth Rural Ward. Turnout at the Chaplaincy Centre at 11am was less than a quarter of one per cent. Almost all campus residents are now on the electoral roll, following much work by University House, so let's give our students some friendly encouragement. Polls close at 10pm.



In this last issue of the annus horribilis of 2016, subtext readers may wish to reflect in a seasonally appropriate manner on why turkeys are yet again being asked to vote for Christmas. Or to put a more academic spin on it, why on Earth someone thought it would be a good idea to link the following three things: 1) the National Student Survey, the annual rate-fest that Universities ask their students to complete in increasingly shrill tones as the year goes on because their results influence league table positions, among other things; 2) the forthcoming Teaching Excellence Framework; and 3) the ability of HE institutions to raise their tuition fees yet further. What this means effectively is that students who give their institutions high scores in the NSS will be, err, increasing the fees at said institution. Unsurprisingly, the National Union of Students has smelt a rat, and has recently agreed on a policy of boycotting the NSS unless the Government scraps TEF. The lecturers’ union, UCU, has no position (yet) on whether to encourage or discourage students in their boycott, though they strongly oppose the link between the NSS and TEF. The university employers and various HE professional bodies such as the HE Academy seem to be playing a double game whereby they have apparently strongly criticised aspects of the TEF in consultations and various lobbying opportunities, but at the same time seem to have rolled over and capitulated, if their recent communications on the subject are anything to go by (for instance, one page on the HE Academy’s website is entitled “Are you TEF ready?”, and encourages readers to make use of their consultancy services).

Whatever readers may think of the principle of having some form of assessment of teaching, it is clear that the whole thing will turn into another farcical target-chasing exercise if it is based only on self-reported metrics designed for a wholly different purpose, such as the NSS and the Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education survey. This creates multiple perverse incentives for students and staff, and “rewarding” institutions by letting them charge their students even more is beneath contempt.

Some university staff at Lancaster are said to be quite enthusiastic about the NUS boycott, because if it is successful it would render the TEF in its present form entirely unworkable. Unfortunately it seems this enthusiasm is not entirely shared by LUSU, who are reportedly planning to encourage students to complete the NSS in direct opposition of the national boycott. But perhaps they are onto something - on past form, it seems likely that if the TEF in its present iteration fails, the Government would think of something even worse.



Contributed article by Lucy Suchman

In response to repeated entreaties from my department administration plus the Dean of my Faculty, I finally made my painful way through this year’s Staff Survey, which I hadn’t been ignoring, but rather deliberately (if equivocally) boycotting. From the first question, I found myself deploying the strategies of neutralisation that I had learned during my many years working at Xerox PARC, the industrial research center of a US-based multinational corporation. In the corporate setting a preponderance of responses of ‘disagree’ to the variant on the proposition ‘I understand the mission of the corporation/university’ would result in a cascade of new management communiqués. The most noteworthy of these responses from management during my later years at Xerox (with the intensifying corporatism of the corporation in the 1990s) was the issue to every employee of a ‘kit’ that included among other things a small wallet-sized laminated card, on which were imprinted the corporate Mission Statement and Primary Objectives. The appearance of this swag in response to our attempt to indicate the inscrutability of the corporate-speak messages coming to us from management in relation to our everyday working lives taught me, from that year forward, that ticking the ‘agree’ box was the most sanity-preserving strategy.

My reading of these now massively standardised employee surveys is that they are oriented overwhelmingly towards the interests of senior management, contributing to their ranking tables and either validating various top down ‘communications’ initiatives, or triggering new ones. There is of course no way to question the presuppositions behind the questions, nor is there any way for survey analysts to actually know what we intend by our answers. The main operation that the surveys enable is a comparison between this year and last (further entrenching the standardisation), and between one University’s results and another, read as signs of the relative effectiveness of senior management. These surveys are, in other words, another weapon in the arsenal of the competitive, neoliberal organisation. The premise that survey responses are the only means that University management has to get ‘feedback’ from us belies the continuous efforts of Lancaster University staff and students to communicate their views and concerns through other fora, including departmental meetings, conversations with department Heads and Deans, and the like. These fora need strengthening, and there may well be a small, more carefully crafted set of questions that should be administered across the university in the form of an anonymous survey. But the current instrument is not fit for the purpose of actually generating information useful for improving the working lives of University employees.

Having trawled my way through the Likert scales and the ‘next’ buttons, here’s what I said in the open comments field regarding the ‘one’ thing that I would like to see done differently at the University:

“I would like to see Lancaster University management take the lead in resisting the trend towards managerialism and privatisation in HE. The latter includes increasing reliance on precarious labour, and orientation to surveys like this one, adapted only slightly from corporate models and oriented primarily to concerns of management with showing well in ranking tables. Lancaster University should strengthen its commitment to an HE sector dedicated to learning, independent critical thought, and social justice.”



Speaking of the staff survey - are student staff afforded the opportunity to spend a lunch-hour with Likert? subtext hears that many student staffers from a range of departments (the bars, professional services, etc) do not. In which case, are there any fora available to them to express their views on how they are managed? You would think, after all, that providing a healthy work/academic balance (among many other student specific aspects) would be something that the University ought to keep tabs on. It certainly doesn’t figure in the NSS.



So how did the staff survey turnout vary across the campus? Well, the update sent to "survey champions" in the last week of November shows some interesting patterns. The response rate in the academic departments generally varied between the mid-thirties and the mid-fifties, percentage-wise, with the two outliers being PPR (26% with a week to go) and OWT (94% with a week to go). In professional services divisions, the response rate was generally much higher - unsurprisingly, perhaps - with percentages ranging from 48% to 127%.

Hang on - what? Surely a typo?

Apparently not - fully five of the divisions within professional services showed response rates well above 100%, with the alumni office leading the way.

subtext has been trying to work this one out - maybe it reflects a discrepancy between headcount and full-time equivalent count, maybe it points to the staff turnover in some areas being a darn sight greater than even we suspected, or maybe it turns out that there are rather more staff in this place than HR originally realised.

Or maybe the desperate pleas to respond have driven some staff into delirium, endlessly completing and re-completing the survey, while quietly sobbing "will you make it go away now?"

If any subtext readers can offer a sensible answer to this conundrum - do tell us.



Last week the university put on the first of the Brexit-related legal briefing sessions, on applying for proof of permanent residency and indefinite leave to remain, marking the first concrete help that the University has provided for its newly precarious Eurostaff (leaving aside the very modest financial assistance in the form of interest-free loans, see subtext 154). The immigration lawyer who led the session seemed to know his stuff, unsurprisingly. He seemed rather unfazed by the whole thing, and reassured those present that they weren’t just going to be deported from one day to the next; though given the fate of thousands of international students, a number of whom were detained before being deported, under the previous Home Secretary (and now Prime Minister, dontchaknow) Theresa May’s Home Office, it may have been hard for some of the participants to be as sanguine.

One reassuring message was that he felt that most of those present would be able to complete the 85-page form required for the permanent residency documentation without additional legal advice. Less reassuring was, for instance, the need to document every single trip abroad during the 5-or-more year period which would qualify applicants for said permanent residency. For many Euracademics, taking into account conferences and other work travel, visiting family and friends and holidays, this is undoubtedly a challenging task! Even for this subtext correspondent, who has fortunately documented all his travel (there’s an app for that!), it will probably take several days of work to complete the form. A first world problem, perhaps, but this is just one small hurdle. Staff who have families, who might have spent time abroad on research or teaching exchanges, who started out as students before becoming staff, or any number of complicating factors, will face greater difficulties, and are likely to need expensive legal advice. And of course there have been recent media reports that as more and more non-British EU citizens apply for this documentation, the Home Office is facing a huge backlog which would take years to sort out at current processing rates.

As yet, there is no sign that the University will provide further individual legal advice, despite the clear return on investment of retaining EU staff who might otherwise get fed up with all the form-filling and above all be emotionally and practically affected by their newfound status as seemingly unwanted outsiders. Why would Eurostaff bother, when we don’t even know whether it’s going to be necessary, or make a difference at all? Perhaps because it feels like doing something is better than doing nothing at all, when nobody seems to know what’s happening.



Rumours are afoot that there is unrest among the undergraduates in certain FASS departments. Is it about tuition fees? The TEF? The price of a caramel latte at Costa? No, it is about the absence of a reading week in some departments, when others still have them. When reading weeks were scrapped in said departments, staff were assured that students had asked for more contact time, it was going to be a University-wide measure, and in any case the government’s comparisons between institutions via “Key Information Sets” (a.k.a. “Metrics for Dummies”) meant we would be at a terrible disadvantage if our poor students were to receive an hour or two per term fewer than those lucky enough to be at a university that didn’t have reading weeks. Who would want to have a week where students can catch up or get ahead with on their reading, reflect on their studies, or even just have some downtime to get enough sleep before the end-of-term bustle begins. It’s almost as if University isn’t about helping students to become confident, independent individuals who are capable of managing their own time and work anymore! Who’d’ve thunk it? Whether the students’ initiative to get their reading weeks back will succeed remains to be seen; in the rough waters of the TEF ahead, it is unlikely to be plain sailing for anything that might put our precious teaching metrics (whether they actually tell us anything about teaching or not!) at risk.



Contributed article

If you change your contracted hours and ask HR to recalculate your leave entitlement, they point you to the annual leave calculator and tell you to do it yourself.
OK, then...

A search for the leave calculator from the University homepage takes you to a basic Excel driven calculator... which there are no instructions for. Fine if your working pattern is straightforward, hopeless if your hours have changed mid-cycle.

Back you go to HR, receiving further instructions on use. You follow the instructions, bugger about trying to nail down what the University closure days etc are, subtract them from the totals provided by the calculator (because it doesn't do it for you), convert everything into hours (because it doesn't do that for you either) and, you’re sorted.

You send your calculations on to HR for a double check... and they tell you they get a different number! It transpires that there are two versions of the calculator, and you've used the wrong one. What? Why are there two versions? 'One is an old one'. Why is it live on the website? 'In case someone wants to calculate last year’s allowance'. Why would anyone want to do that?! More importantly, why is it not obvious in the calculator itself which year it is for?

The poor folks at HR are clearly working within a structure that is, at best, nonsensical. The annual leave guidelines web page does not link to the calculator, although it mentions it. The calculator (if you actually find the right one) spits out numbers from which you have subtract closure days and banks holidays, but it doesn’t tell you what they are, nor is there a link to a page that tells you what they are. The page that does tell you what they are is buried elsewhere in the HR website and is not exactly easy to find.

Is there any other institution or profession in which HR do not take responsibility for calculating annual leave entitlement? Because there's a reason that HR departments in other areas fulfil this task. Had your correspondent thought about it, he would have calculated his own leave entitlement, said nothing, and would now be enjoying the whole of December on holiday!



For colleagues attempting to cross Alexandra Square, a combination of leather soled shoes and glass panels may prove to be more slippery than an MP’s expense account.

When the University originally conceived the notion of strips of lights set into Alex Square, it seemed like a great idea, and a good way to liven up an otherwise fairly dull expanse of paving. Then the contractors started work. At least, we might assume they were a contractor rather than a cleverly disguised breakout from the local muppet sanctuary.

Far be it from the subtext collective to claim expertise in building work (at least if the design of the subtext warehouse is anything to go by), but it was clear from the outset that they did not know what they were doing. It’s OK, readers might have thought at the time, someone from Facilities will be all over this and at some point they will be forced to pull up these sectional glass panels covering poorly designed lighting channels (so obviously a greenhouse for algae and a trap for any passing dirt), and do the job properly. We waited a rather long time.

Over the following weeks several colleagues reported finding these panels to be a slip hazard, and the glass was lifted. Hooray... Only to then return shortly afterwards having been etched to make them less slippery. Over the coming months a number of these panels inevitably broke, and were replaced with tasteful strips of plywood, which then decayed to create a brand new hazard – which might be affectionately nicknamed the heel trap-door.

This year the University decided to replace some of the steps and the drainage (those not having been done right in the first place either), and there was the vain hope that we might at last see the lights. It was not to be. The decomposing plywood was lifted, and replaced with more strips of glass, the same as the others, except shiny like the original panels. No etching. Back is the slip hazard, and back we go to the start of our sorry tale.

The question is this: why are we still putting up with poorly designed, ill-fitting, slip and trip hazard-generating lighting features in Alex Square, when they have never worked and are, quite frankly, an eyesore?



Guardian readers among our subscribers may be aware of the community struggle to preserve the trees that line the roads and avenues of the fair city of Sheffield. They are under threat from the local council’s contracted-out road maintenance service, which argues that their removal will save money on future road and footpath repairs. The response from the local communities has been impressive, and has drawn the praise of a Guardian editorial, no less, for the lengths Sheffield people are prepared to go to protect their arboreal heritage. Given that many of the streets affected are inhabited by staff and students from Sheffield’s two huge universities, it is no surprise that it is university people who have taken the lead in preserving their flora, with some of them now risking imprisonment for their continuing defiance.

One would hope that if something similar was to happen to Lancaster, then our own university community would also be forthright in its opposition. Except that something similar has already happened, here on campus, and the response from our community has been a resounding silence. As part of the Spine Remodelling Project, the five mature trees that used to grace the green area outside the Great Hall were chopped down in September and their stumps grubbed out. These trees were planted soon after the Great Hall was opened in 1968 and over the years have provided some natural relief to what is an architecturally dreary part of campus (there is a photograph of the young saplings in Marion McClintock’s excellent university history Quest for Innovation). We might have expected at least some sign of protest but so far there has been nothing, even from the various environmental groups on campus.

There was no prior consultation with staff and students and there was no indication in the slick Design the Spine presentations that this was on the cards. And the felling took place in vacation time, a good three months before work was to start on this part of the project. The authorities in Sheffield at least can claim that they were trying to save council-taxpayers’ money. Our university has no such justification. There were no financial implications of preserving those trees where they have stood for over 40 years. It was simply a case of the trees not fitting the designer’s plan.



LUSU is currently advertising for two roles within the Union. One is for a student to join LUSU Board of Trustees, the other is for an unspecified number of students to join the newly established Student Scrutiny Panel. The latter is a new “accountability” mechanism whereby ordinary students can scrutinise the activities and performance of the LUSU full-time officers. The role description provides a list of five “essential” requirements that potential Scrutinisers will have to meet, and goes on to state that “there is no reason why any current student would be excluded from serving on the Scrutiny Panel if they are unable to satisfy all of the criteria”. Which is an idiosyncratic interpretation of ‘essential criteria’, but okay.

The Student Scrutiny Panel is one of the outcomes of LUSU’s much-trumpeted “Democratic Review” which took place last year. The purpose of this was to find ways in which LUSU structures and activities would become more open, democratic and accessible to students. So we would expect that the new Scrutiny Panel would be in keeping with this laudable aim. Not so. It turns out that the members of the Panel will not be elected by their fellow students, but appointed by LUSU. Surely the full-time officers and senior management of LUSU will not be involved in deciding who will scrutinise them? You never know with LUSU, which seems to prefer appointment to election in other areas. Consider, for example, proposed changes to Statutes and Ordinances due to go before Senate next term. The four student Senators, previously elected by the now-abolished LUSU Council, will now be appointed, “to reflect the changes in the Student Union’s constitution”. Finally, there is that other LUSU position recently advertised; the student representative on the Trustees’ Board. This is a very important and responsible role as it involves, among other things, contributing to the recruitment, appraising and management of the LUSU Chief Executive. This will be – yes, you’ve guessed it - an appointed position.



From: Mike M. Shart, VC, Lune Valley Enterprise University (LuVE-U)
To: Hewlett Venklinne, Conveyor of Community Clout.
Subject: Staff Survey.

Dear Hewlett,

I’ve just been looking at the turnout of staff survey submissions. I note that the Future Student Attraction Unit has a 135% turnout, so I cannot begin to describe how far above and beyond they went.

On the other hand, your department is languishing at a pitiful 99%, and given the size of your department, I have calculated that there is still one member of your team who has yet to complete it. Now, obviously, Beau has engineered the survey to ensure that all returns are anonymous, so I can’t say for certain that you have yet to do it. But I happened to notice in passing a number of behavioural patterns from you over the past week that lead me to this assumption. At 13:04 yesterday afternoon, I saw you leave your office and walk to the shop for a cress and cucumber sandwich and a blueberry smoothie. You then spent the next 23 minutes sat on the steps consuming those food items and talking to one of your underlings. Later that afternoon, I saw you emerging from the bathroom. You must have been in there for at least five minutes because at the meeting that followed you spoke extensively about an op ed in Marketing Weekly, a well thumbed copy of which you had been reading on the toilet. Another time, after the working day, I overheard you saying that you were going to get the spokes on your bike fixed.

The litany goes on and on, Hewlett, and I just have to ask you -- wouldn’t this time have been better spent filling in the staff survey? I honestly can’t think why you haven’t done it, Hewlett.

There is absolutely no pressure, of course, but I would appreciate it if you completed it soonest. You’ll be the last person in your department to complete it -- wouldn’t it be funny if the departmental median score changed after your submission! Lol.

Anyway, it’s getting on for 4AM now (and that sour-faced Part II administrator in the Musicology department ‘tends to disagree’ that I communicate effectively - ha!) so I’m off.




The daily commute to work continues to present your subtext bus correspondent with moments of mirth. A regular source of amusement is derived from watching folk trying to get off a crowded bus. A good time to catch this is around lunch-time at the Bowerham Hotel stop on route to the University. The bus is crammed full with a large scrum of people in the wheelchair/pushchair area dangling from the hanging straps. The bus pulls up at the stop and half a dozen heads pop up from their seats. Fellow passengers look aghast and somewhat perplexed that quite a number of people might want to get off the bus before it gets to the University. Viewing these newly risen folk, invariably older Lancaster residents, as extras from some sort of zombie apocalypse movie, shock gives way to a realisation that movement is required. For a moment things are frozen in time whilst travellers ponder the bus-etiquette of not touching or pushing whilst working out how to get by folk in such a tight space. This is not helped by the fact that those passengers standing are wearing backpacks or wielding oversized handbags. The alighting dance begins - a mixture of the Hokey Cokey and the Twist occasioned by a full Northern Soul spin, all accompanied by the traditional chant of ‘sorry, sorry, sorry’. Those remaining standers of course are now eyeing-up the vacant seats and in some cases attempt to plant their posteriors down before the previous occupant has fully vacated the seat. In the meantime the driver figures no one is getting off and starts to let people on....



Dear subtext,

In the light of recent events, I'm wondering if you should consider a slight change to subtext's motto. I refer, of course, to

Post-truth: lies open to all.

Best regards,
Gerry Cotter


Another term, another steady stream of subtexts. We hope very much that you have enjoyed our dispatches from the annals of university life this Michaelmas. We hope very much more that readers feel compelled to help us in some way. The editorial collective of subtext has gradually contracted over the past two years, and not all of us will be here forever (sniff!). So, if anybody keen enough to read to the very end of the issue would like to offer their services, or just to enquire as to the nature of our work, then do get in touch at We also always welcome letters, contributions, and information about what’s happening in your neck of the university.

Here’s to a merry Christmas and a better 2017.

With warm wishes, the subtext collective.


The editorial collective of subtext currently consists of (in alphabetical order): James Groves, Lizzie Houghton, Ian Paylor, Ronnie Rowlands, Joe Thornberry, and Johnny Unger.