HealthyUCD and the University as public relations machine

The HealthyUCD strategy was launched by UCD HR in March 2016 as both a ‘Health Promotion Strategic Plan’ and a public relations campaign and accompanied by a lot of high-flown and inspiring rhetoric. The objective? Nothing less than to ‘change the mind-set, culture and attitude of our community towards positive and beneficial health promoting structures, practices and policies across the full spectrum of physical, mental, spiritual and emotional wellbeing.’ And if that seems ambitious, well, how about this?: ‘UCD as a health promoting university will enhance the success of our institution, create a campus culture of compassion, wellbeing, equity and social justice.’ Cures for all known diseases are apparently only just outside the scope of the strategy...While a measure of cynicism toward some of is justified—when has UCD management ever concerned itself with equity and social justice?—when you cut through the pea soup of managerial Newspeak in which the strategy parts of the strategy document are written, the general ambitions of the project are good ones. UCD did lack any kind of coordinated approach to staff and student health and it was a good idea to take steps to acknowledge the importance of staff and student health and to put such an approach in place. Every enlightened workplace should provide opportunities and encouragement for their staff to maintain and improve their health. Even in the narrow economic terms in which so much policy at UCD is cast, it makes sense to improve the health of the workforce if only because healthy workers cost less. Or, to put it another way, there are costs involved in neglecting the health of one’s workforce. In a university, the mental and physical well-being of students must obviously also be a top priority.However, this high-minded strategy had one enormous and glaring omission: the role of the Sports Centre in the health of staff. Where for students, ‘usage of sports and fitness facilities’ is one of the strategy’s Key Performance Indicators, when it comes to staff, those facilities are not mentioned. Imagine: the very new state-of-the-art sports facility with its 50-metre pool and dozens of fitness machines and other shiny equipment hardly features in the Health Promotion Strategic Plan. UCD Sport and Fitness (which controls the pool and the fitness equipment) is mentioned exactly once in the document but seems to have no role in the strategy for staff health. Why would this be the case?The reason is that UCD Sport and Fitness (UCDSF) is being run as a private company, wholly owned by UCD. Despite UCDSF being headed by the same person who heads HealthyUCD, nothing about the way it is run would lead anyone to believe that concern for the well-being of UCD staff plays any part in its operations. It is run as if its sole purpose were to generate as much revenue as possible for the university. Not surprisingly, the prices charged to staff are, by far, the highest charged by any university in the Republic to its own staff to use on-campus facilities, almost 55% more expensive than Trinity when paid for on a month-to-month basis.UCDSF charges staff €450 per annum, payable in advance. For staff who don’t happen to have €450 lying around or are worried about injury or not using the facility enough to justify that kind of outlay, there is a monthly rolling direct debit option of €45 per month (€540 per annum), each and every month. Over the course of a 40-year career, that comes to over €21,000 of after-tax income. Unlike UL, UCDSF offers no pay-as-you-go option for the use of either the pool or the gym. Those who are just starting out, those who are injured or recovering from injury, those on modest incomes: none of these people have any option suitable for them or that represents value for money. Keep in mind that a great many salaries at UCD remain quite modest. For example, Library Assistants start at €24,000. It is simply not within reach of most of those on such wages to pay €45 every month out of their after tax pay packet, especially while living in Dublin. Effectively, what this pricing policy (high prices and zero flexibility) achieves is to segregate UCD staff by income in their access to fitness facilities. On the one hand are those who make enough money to pay such prices. Their fitness needs are catered for (although even many of them may decide that it is difficult to get value for money from a membership that costs €45 per month). On the other hand are those who are lower paid: they are effectively excluded from the use of any campus-based fitness equipment. Yes, they can take spinning classes for a fee and they can run around the campus for free. But that is it: not a treadmill, not a weight machine is available to them. And don’t even think about using the pool.Meanwhile, UCDSF makes great efforts to attract outside punters who pay princely sums for membership: they are given a dedicated car park (!), towel service, dedicated changing rooms so they don’t have to mingle with actual members of the UCD community. These people need not have any connection to the university, yet they are given priority in all kinds of ways over the staff and students of UCD. One might wonder how dividing the staff into two classes, one of which is effectively excluded from using the on-campus sports facilities, is compatible with the stated desire (as expressed in the Strategy document by the Chair of HealthyUCD who just happens also to be the Head of UCDSF) to ‘create a campus culture of compassion . . . equity and social justice’. Except there’s no need to wonder: as with so much of what comes out of the UCD administration, merely talking the talk takes the place of actually walking the walk. Public relations supplants actual action and the burnishing of the reputations of the institution and its administration takes precedence over actually solving the actual problems that you want people to be convinced that you’re concerned with. It’s a cynical game, one that undermines the ability of the administration to engage its staff.Consider the rhetoric of how UCD aims to ‘define international best practice’. The university’s Strategic Plan and the Health Promotion Strategic Plan both use the phrase. It speaks volumes about what is wrong with this university. What does it mean? Well, of course, ‘define’ doesn’t mean to define as in: provide a definition. That activity would not be the sort of decisive action that they have in mind. As they are using the word, it means something more like to exemplify best practice or to instantiate best practice or, perhaps, to re-define best practice. The implication seems to be that, of all the various practices out there in the world, we have yet to discover the best one. The world is just waiting for UCD to show them what that practice is, to define it for them. Until that glorious day, ‘best practice’ will remain undefined. They nevertheless know not only that there must be a best practice, but that none of the existing practices are that best practice. That is why we are confident that there is still place for UCD to define it for the world. Except: not yet. The focus on ‘defining best practice’ sounds decisive and bold and yet allows for deferring the implementation something that might be ‘good practice’ or ‘better practice’ into the never-never. The claim is at once extremely arrogant and laughably empty. It is, in a word, nothing but hollow public relations balderdash. At UCD, ‘best practice’ apparently involves privatising the facility that has a monopoly on on-campus fitness equipment and charging completely unaffordable prices to staff for access to it. While that might wash if you’d never actually spent any time at another university, a great many UCD staff actually have been to other campuses. At Stanford, which has more and better sports facilities than UCD, all staff have free access to those facilities. That is because Stanford recognises that there are costs and inequities involved in restricting access based on ability to pay. Many other universities have the same policy. Rather than privatising the costs as UCD does, the forward-looking university takes those costs on itself. That seems like a good candidate for ‘best practice’ if one’s goals really are to promote health among the staff rather than monetising them while only seeming to take action to promote their health.UCD’s way of proceeding, though, points to broader problems of governance. As was the case with the decision to build the University Club and close the staff Common Room, policies that affect staff well-being and morale are made high-handedly and without the slightest consultation of the staff affected. At best, we get sham consultation like the bi-annual Culture and Engagement Survey. In the case of UCDSF, the pricing policy was decided without any consultation—not even a marketing survey—of UCD staff. There is no staff or trade union representation on the board of either UCDSF or the Student Centre and no way—short of a petition campaign like our own—for staff to say: ‘you’ve got this wrong’. Yet any such action is immediately treated by the UCD administration as a hostile threat to be put down, one that could do ‘reputational damage’ (there’s that PR mindset again) to the university. All forms of staff participation in governance other than a minority of positions on the Governing Authority have been eviscerated. At present there is no channel or forum in which staff can make even constructive suggestions (like: stop trying to monetise your own staff) or voice their displeasure. ‘Culture and Engagement’, eh? How are we supposed to engage when our voices aren’t listened to and, indeed, the institution itself has been expressly structured so as to make it that they are never heard? So when the Registrar and Deputy President writes in his preamble to the Health Strategy document that, ‘as the largest university in Ireland, we have the ability and indeed a duty to influence decision makers, act as catalysts for change and to encourage dialogue on health promotion’, UCD staff might well ask themselves who it is that he intends to encourage dialogue with. Because it sure isn’t us. If you agree and are UCD staff, please sign our petition.