26 May 2003
Email ethics: up for debate

Having recently transferred to another UCT department I was horrified to discover that an arrangement I had with my ex colleagues regarding the handling of my email account was completely overridden.

The original agreement had been to send a vacation message advising senders to direct work-related matters to a particular destination and the rest to my new email account. This was to run for a month following which the account would be closed. Three days later I received mail that had been opened by an ex-colleague advising senders to update their address books.

I was absolutely furious since as an ex-member of the Executive of the UCT Employees Union I receive sensitive mail, which was why I had made the clear agreement.

I followed up the incident with staff at the ICTS Helpdesk who told me that my ex-colleague had requested that my email account be auto-forwarded to her and that for all requests of this nature the integrity of the person logging the call was assumed.

I have since stated my displeasure in writing to senior members of staff whom I assumed would investigate the matter and consider introducing a policy with clear guidelines for email privacy. To date (almost two months later) I have not received even an acknowledgement from the recipients.

My concern is that this lack of email ethics affects us all at UCT since any member of staff can log a call with the ICTS Helpdesk without any questions being asked. It also implies that those with the power to create policy and guidelines are simply choosing to sweep the problem under the carpet rather than deal with it in a proactive way.

Is this unethical email behaviour prevalent throughout UCT or was this just an isolated incident? I would be interested to know.

Narima Panday

Response from Allan Brinckmann - Manager, Administrative Computing Services:

UCT provides its employees with a number of tools to allow them carry out the duties for which they've been employed. These tools include a desk, chair, telephone, etc. In principle, the e-mail account provided to employees is another one of these work tools. In line with this principle, the individual's email account, and its contents, are owned by the University. Note that in recent years, as a result of litigation, corporations in the USA have been forced to deliver their entire email database, including history, to their legal opponents - in effect nothing is secret.

I'm reluctant to disclose specific details, but to respond to the issues raised by Ms Panday, I will have to provide some of these details. Ms Panday was employed in ICTS and was responsible, amongst other things, for the administration of SAP R/3 training for SAP Finance and HR users. A generic email address (saptrain@its.uct.ac.za) exists to which enquiries and reservations should be sent, but in practice, Ms Panday's email address tended to be used for this purpose. It was this "official" mail, relating to an important service provided by ICTS, which was of concern to other staff members at the time that Ms Panday left ICTS on March 21, 2003.

On March 11 a handover meeting was held with her colleagues, and the following tasks were identified, and minuted in an email sent that day:

Tasks for Ms Panday:
  • Ask new department to set up email account before the end of this week."
  • Email all form owners to inform them that you are leaving and to advise them to contact [a colleague] in future (also email others like R/3 trainers etc.)."
Tasks for one of her former colleagues:

  • Help NP [Ms Panday] to set up vacation reply in email."
  • In a few weeks liaise with NP and ITS [Hhelpdesk] to close NP's email account and arrange an auto-forward to saptrain."
Regrettably, Ms Panday fell ill, and took sick leave from March 12 - 14, followed by previously arranged annual leave from March 17 - 20, before starting in her new position. Her colleagues were understandably concerned that requests for training might remain unattended during this period, and so put into effect the auto-forward agreed in the handover plan. After starting work in her new position, Ms Panday took offence to this action, and insisted that the helpdesk change the auto-forward to her new email address.

In summary, the motives of her former colleagues were entirely above-board, and were focussed on ensuring that no training request from any customer of ICTS was delayed in any way. There was no intention of prying into Ms Panday's personal mail. We merely wanted to ensure that official mail was dealt with speedily.

Additional response from Kira Chernotsky, HOD, Personal Computing Services:

As a rule, staff at the IT Helpdesk do not set auto-forwards for people, but rather talk customers through doing it themselves. Unavoidably though, there are circumstances that present exceptions. One such case would be when staff members have left their posts and aren't available to set the auto-forward themselves. Again, as a rule, we require confirmation from the line manager. In this case however, because the colleague was a known member of ICTS staff, the Helpdesk did accept that the request was legitimate. It should be noted that Ms Panday's email was not auto-forwarded to her colleagues' account as she claims, but to the generic account named SAPTRAIN.

As for Ms Panday's suggestion that we introduce policies with clear guidelines about email privacy, there is progress being made on this issue. Under the auspices of the Senate Executive Committee, Hugh Amoore (the Registrar) and Professor Hugh Corder (Dean of Law) are reviewing the implications of the ECT and POATIA acts, which touch on email ownership issues.

Casualisation of labour at UCT

This letter seeks to highlight the casualisation of labour within the academic sphere, more precisely the casualisation and degradation of tutors at UCT, in the hopes that this will spark a constructive discussion on the subject.

Research by the Academic Association at UCT revealed that, in May 2000, tutors constituted 67.9% of the total number of temporary academic staff at UCT. Comparatively, the amount of full-time academic staff was marginally higher. The high proportion of tutors shows what an important and invaluable role they play in delivering the overall teaching load at UCT. In terms of UCT policy, tutors are viewed as very temporary and as such their appointments are deliberately structured along T1 contracts. This means that tutors are only entitled to salaries and do not qualify for any benefits such as staff tuition rates.

While some tutors are certainly postgraduate students who supplement their income while studying, there are many tutors who do not fit neatly into this category. The UCT policy on fixed-term contracts makes no distinction. Instead, it lumps all tutors in the former category.

What would seem more equitable is evaluating each separate contract and determining the conditions of service that apply. In terms of the UCT contract policy, effective as from 2000, any person who has been employed on a fixed-term contract (example: March - October) each year for more than five years becomes eligible for a T3 contract. One questions why this policy has not been enforced.

The transformation and restructuring of the public sector universities has been part of the government's reformist strategy. This has entailed inter alia curriculum restructuring, university governance and a greater marketing strategy of universities. The restructuring has resulted in the decision by universities to concentrate on "core" functions in order to be more competitive.

In the case of UCT these "cost cutting" mechanisms meant the outsourcing of support service staff like cleaning, security and maintenance. Academic staff were not excluded from the restructuring process either. Over the past couple of years there has been a definite intensification of work and a growing gap between fixed-term contract and full-time staff. To a large extent this resulted in growing job insecurity and job dissatisfaction.

With this increased pressure, tutors have had to absorb much of the workload without the recognition or benefits of their more illustrious colleagues. I am one of those tutors.

I started tutoring in 1996 while completing my honours degree in the Department of Sociology. I have since experienced the de facto redefinition of the role of the tutor to one of a teaching assistant/lecturer. Today, tutors are key members of the academic staff, playing a vital role in academic development. However, the departments and the whole university structure do not acknowledge this.

Despite constant "reassurances" that one is a key member of the academic staff the reality is that one feels alienated, marginalised and degraded. Despite one's commitment to the department, one is treated as a second rate citizen with no job security or benefits.

The truth about tutors is they are cheap casual labour who shoulder additional teaching duties in departments. I am reminded of my childhood in the apartheid era, the feeling of being classed as a second rate citizen. I have that same feeling now.

If the transformation policy of public sector universities is designed to meet the objectives of accountability, transparency, marketability and greater skills development then it has failed. The teaching profession at university has changed yet the policy makers are oblivious.

The current conditions of employment for tutors can no longer go unchallenged and I therefore make the following proposals:
  • Tutors receive staff tuition rates as a matter of right
  • A reformulation of university policy that recognizes the actual job description of tutors in certain departments
  • Tutors who have been employed on "roll over contracts" and who have proven their commitment and competence as educators be given longer term contracts with the associated benefits
Departments and HoDs play a proactive role in identifying tutors who wish to enter into academic careers. Those individuals should be guided and supported through an appropriate academic development and mentoring structure.

Cameron Jacobs
Department of Sociology

Response from Professor Martin West, Deputy Vice-Chancellor

I would like to thank the writer for raising a number of significant issues. Tutor positions should definitely not be used as surrogate lectureships, and we clearly also need to be careful about distinguishing between short-term positions classically designed for post-graduate students, and longer-term contract appointments where conditions of service should be different. The points about appropriate career development are well-taken.

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