Monthly Archives: March 2018

USS Strikes and Brexit

The current wave of industrial action, in which academics across the UK’s higher education sector are striking in order to defend their pensions, has, to use the words of our Vice Chancellor, acted as ‘a lightning rod’, exposing a range of concerns around the ‘marketization of higher education’. It has shown that academic citizenship and engagement is alive and well. Colleagues care intensely about the direction of travel in universities and are resistant to commodification, in its many guises.

The UCU, in particular the Bristol branch, has done fantastic work. Many students have made common cause with academics and members of support staff, creating new spaces for collegiality and solidarity. This feels like an important moment. Senior management must respond to the concerns which are being aired, and support the creation of appropriate democratic forums which allow universities better to reflect the views (and there is no doubt that those views will be some or all of the following: inchoate, based on partial understandings and information, mutual incompatible, and impractical) of those who work and study within them.

The dispute has also seen an outpouring of creativity. All the evidence suggests that the university staff is overworked. When we have time on their hands the results are both unexpected and impressive. Within the Law School alone, we have made banners, composed limericks, made cakes, brownies and industrial quantities of sausages, arranged teach-outs, and participation in the student-staff solidarity group. We have marched, picketed, chanted, and made lots of noise with repurposed kitchen equipment. We have explored the legal status of UUK, and sought to inform ourselves and others about the powers and responsibilities of the USS trustees and the pensions regulator. Emails threads have become long and unwieldy. We have lobbied the VC, UUK, students and alumni, engaged in new ways with the UCU, and sought to reach out to non-striking staff.

On a more personal note, I have, rather glibly, said on more than one occasion that one of the unexpected benefits of the strike is that it has allowed me to spend some time thinking about things other than Brexit. But, on reflection, and to judge by the length of this, it is more true to say that the USS strikes have allowed me to see the Brexit process through a new lens. There are, it turns out, all too many connections between the two battles (the one, to defend fair pensions; the other, to shape and prevent and/or attenuate the adverse economic and socio-political effects of Brexit). Some are significant, others no doubt less so. As I’m not working today, I thought I’d compile a few of them. I’m hoping to generate some pause for thought and, perhaps, to entertain. The register is, but only in places, somewhere close to academic. But it is a strike day, and I don’t feel the need to maintain that register throughout. Obviously these are personal reflections. I would be very interested to hear what, if anything, others think of all this.

The rightness of the cause

In both battles, I, and many others, have become convinced of the rightness of our cause. We can see the flaws in the November valuation and the assumptions on which it was based, we can see the need for employers and employees to share the risks inherent in pensions provision, we can see the fact that actions of senior management and the government are jeopardising the standing of higher education in a time of crisis, and we can see the need to democratise our universities. Similarly, we can see the economic consequences of Brexit, we can see the incompetence and abdication of responsibility on the part of the government, we can see the intolerable strain facing EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens in the EU-27, and we can see the need to strengthen, not to sever, our connections with our neighbours. We are finding it difficult to understand how there could be some (within our own institutions, and among our fellow citizens) who take the different view. We know that they are there, and that they exist in large numbers, and in powerful positions. One response is to pretend that they are not really there. Another is to mock and sneer. The result is that positions become entrenched and that much needed dialogue does not occur. We must learn to do things differently. The key is to explain the reasons underlying our convictions. The aim should be to persuade others of the rightness of our cause. To show, in detail if needed, what the consequences of particular changes might be. To make a case for the sort of university, and the sort of country, we believe in. As academics, we should be good at this sort of thing. Shouldn’t we?

Economic Data

Both battles rely on complex economic calculations. Much of the data required to analyse the effects of changes to pension schemes, and the economic effects of a major change in the relationship between the UK and its closest partners, lies in the hands of those whose decisions and policies we are fighting against. Some is withheld; so the data which does emerge is partial. Nevertheless, in both battles, we have fought, using legal and other means, to uncover information (for example, institutional responses to the UUK consultation survey, and the Brexit impact assessments). We have shared the information we have unearthed widely. That work is crucial, and it has revealed much about the way in which the other thinks and acts. We have also made our own studies of the likely effects of change, which have been shown to be robust. And, to reinforce the sense of rightness mentioned above, we have seen that the evidence all points the same way. It says that the UUK could and should have provided university staff with a significantly better pensions offer, and that Brexit will have significant, negative economic effects.

The need for clear narratives

Clear narratives are effective. The Leave campaign was critical of the status quo, and, throughout the referendum campaign, was not forced to articulate any ‘vision’ of what a post-Brexit Britain might look like, or to indicate how improvements to the status quo might come about. Supporters with mutually incompatible visions of post-Brexit Britain campaigned together. Similarly, the UCU found it easy to create support for a strike. The deal based on the November valuation was the last in a long line of negative changes to our pensions, it would have huge economic effects (especially on younger staff), and was driven by Vice Chancellors and UUK, whose commitment to universities’ ‘human capital’ is, at best, unproven.

Achieving Brexit has, of course, proved to be rather more difficult than many leavers were pretending before the referendum. In the wake of the referendum, and the triggering of Article 50, there have also been tensions among ‘remainers’. There are splits between those seeking to stop Brexit, and those seeking to attenuate its effects. Some Brexits may be better than others; and there are different views on the acceptability of a ‘soft Brexit’. There are, it seems to me, some lessons here for the UCU campaign. We all want to see a fair pensions offer, but what would we be prepared to accept? Is CDC a viable way forward, or do we insist on DB? What about accrual rates and indexation? What changes to UUK and USS governance will we settle for? And how many other ‘marketisation’ issues are now part and parcel of the dispute? I am not meaning to suggest that these questions are as intractable as, for example, those facing Theresa May in relation to Ireland (it is, unicorn technology notwithstanding, impossible to simultaneously leave the customs union and single market, avoid a border in Ireland, and avoid a border across the Irish Sea). But I do think that the juxtaposition between Brexit and the USS dispute is interesting. The UCU is facing a difficult situation; and it can perhaps learn something by doing many of the things our government has failed to do in relation to Brexit. It should acknowledge and reconcile itself to the fact that members’ views will diverge. The nature of the choices and trade-offs ahead should be clearly signposted. And decisions should be made in an inclusive way, ensuring that dissenting voices are heard. Whether either the UCU, or those opposing Brexit, can coalesce around a clear narrative in the days, week and months ahead, may be one of the key questions which ends up deciding the way in which the battles are settled.

Negotiations

There is a lot of nonsense written about negotiations. Rather unsurprisingly, there are similarities and differences between the two sets of negotiations. Here are some.

In both negotiations, there is an ongoing relationship at stake. We will, on Monday, be back at work. The UK, whilst leaving the EU, is determined to have a(n albeit hollow) deep and special relationship with the EU. No deal is, therefore, not an option. What matters are the default rules. In both cases, they are rather complex. Contrary to what many suppose, the UK, in the event of ‘no deal’ in March 2019, will not just emerge, blinking into the light, ‘subject to WTO rules’. Some sort of deal has to be done in order to enable even that to occur. In the case of the strikes, many have assumed that in the event of ‘no deal’, we go back to the November valuation, and that there is insufficient time (before the June deadline) to make changes. But, this point is contested; many VCs (including Hugh Brady) have disowned the November methodology, and in any case (as I understand it) enforcement of the statutory June deadline by the Pensions Regulator, is, ultimately, discretionary. We need to study the default rules closely. They have or should have, a big impact on the negotiating position of each side.

In both negotiations, institutions matter. The relationship between the EU Commission (charged, on the basis of a tightly drawn, regularly revised, mandate, with conducting the detailed negotiations with the UK) and the EU-27 is, I think, a good model to follow. It makes the ‘divide and rule’ approach, so trumpeted by the UK, almost impossible. The UK’s approach, in which the government has sought to minimise the role of Parliament and the devolved administrations, and in which discussion even within Cabinet (one Chequers away-day notwithstanding) is tightly circumscribed, is I think, better avoided. The idea that showing one’s hand is a sign of weakness has been thoroughly debunked (these negotiations are not, in turns out, just like games of poker). Turning to the USS dispute, UUK has lost of the support of many of its VCs. It is unclear that UUK has a mandate to agree to anything. ‘Divide and rule’ is, in this context, easy. One urgent concern is that UCU must find a structure which enables the national leadership to take into proper account the opinions of its members. This may be difficult to achieve within the constraints agreed at ACAS, but it should be an urgent priority. Openness and transparency are important; but it is important for members to recognise that ‘red lines’ will be blurred, or crossed, by our negotiators in pursuit of agreement.

As hinted above, leverage also matters. The UK government used to trumpet ‘they need us more than we need them’ regularly, and some (including within Government) still appear to believe this to be the case. In fact, the preservation and integrity of the single market are rather more important to the EU than the maintenance of tariff free trade with the UK. The UK is more exposed to the EU than the EU is to the UK. The Article 50 process is designed to make life difficult for withdrawing states. The clock is ticking. And the EU knows that the UK cannot, notwithstanding the views of Jacob Rees-Mogg and Nadine Dorries, countenance the possibility of ‘no deal’. In the pensions dispute context, university staff have considerable leverage over Vice Chancellors. The strike hurts universities. Important work is left undone. Students can (and do) complain vociferously. But, of course, the strike also hurts university staff, and there is something about the employment relationship and the framework of legislation circumscribing the use of strike action, which means that VCs also have considerable leverage over university staff.1

Planning is also important. It is well documented that the EU side is rather better prepared than the UK. It has published position papers, and a full legal text of the Withdrawal Agreement. The UK has not provided a coherent response. The agenda has been set by the EU, which is in a position to dictate terms. The position is simple; you stay in, you take a Norway (or Norway-type) deal, or you accept a Canada (or Canada-type) deal. No cherry-picking. Tell us what you prefer, and we will plan accordingly. The UK’s problem is that none of these outcomes is thought to command public support. We still don’t know what the Government’s preferred arrangement is. And the clock is still ticking. I am not sure that we can be reassured by the fact that we have yet to show our hand. In the USS dispute, it is not clear to me how much detailed planning has been done by either side. We know that many universities responded to UUK’s survey in a rather cavalier way. I’m afraid that I don’t know much at all about the background to the September and November valuations, and the ways in which they were arrived at. Looking forward, we do not know much about the existence or location of the ‘red lines’ of any of the key players (these include the UCU, UUK, individual VCs, the USS trustees, and the Pensions Regulator) and so it is difficult to know how they might intersect. We know that VCs are unhappy with both the November valuation, and this week’s deal. We know that UUK and UCU might be willing to concede some ground. Likewise, UUK know that we will return to work. They know that we know that pensions are under strain, and that there are genuine questions relating to affordability in the pensions context.

Transition

Both battles are complex. Both are conducted, as indicated above, under time pressure. The Article 50 clock is ticking. The June deadline for the Pensions Regulator is approaching even more quickly. The response, in both cases, has been to accept a period of transition. There are disputes relating to the length of the transition period, and indeed, in relation to its very purpose. Brexit transition was, when first mooted, said to be necessary to enable Member States, people and businesses to make plans and adjust to the new regime. Before long, it was said to be necessary in order to allow time for discussions on the new regime to conclude. ‘Conclude’ is now becoming ‘commence’. There is even doubt as to whether the transition period will be able to last until the new relationship is agreed. If it does not, or even if there are hints that it might not, I fail to see how it can serve any useful purpose, or what reassurance it can offer to anyone. As regards the substance of the transition arrangement, nothing very different to the status quo is on offer. In relation to the USS dispute, the statutory framework sets up a three year cycle. There is growing agreement that the urgent task facing the UCU and UUK is to agree a ‘quick fix’ solution, so that the Pensions Regulator can approve the scheme in June. Complex questions can be parked until next time. There is now set to be a battle in relation to the terms of transition; in particular given the vocal opposition of so many to the ‘status quo’ November valuation. Both sides seem to recognise that positions accepted at this point, even if only for a short transitional period, may be difficult to reverse. The instinct that the transition arrangement will become the default position for the next round of negotiations seems to me to be right.

The scope of the battle

Battles about one thing (staff pensions; and whether and how to leave the EU) can easily morph into battles about other things. The pensions dispute has been a ‘lightning rod’ and has brought a whole range of issues around marketization, equality, casualization and university governance to the fore. Likewise, Brexit has heralded a renewed interest in the ‘left behind’, and the UK’s standing in the world. It strikes me that the pensions dispute cannot be solved unless the solution reaches far beyond pensions. Similarly, the UK government faces not only the mammoth task of settling the withdrawal from, and the establishment of a new relationship with, the EU, but also the [insert larger animal than a mammoth, here] task of healing the social divisions and inequality which the Brexit vote has revealed. And it is interesting (if, I’m afraid, unsurprising) that the biggest losers in both battles are the already disadvantaged. I read a suggestion today that UCU had not considered the equalities dimensions of this week’s deal. Please tell me that isn’t true…

Decisions have to be made, on each side of the argument, about whether to choose to contain the dispute, or to let it grow to encompass other related issues. I am not sure what the best approach is. I am clear that there are links, and that ‘the Brexit vote’ and ‘the pensions strike’ are, for some at least, proxies for other, bigger battles. I guess I just think that we should reflect on whether and when we want a broad or a more narrow focus. Our meetings this week have suggested that there are, unsurprisingly, a range of views.

Playing the man, the ball, or both?

Both battles have become multi-dimensional. Yes, there is a great deal of detail, and painstaking, economic argument. There are valiant attempts to place Brexit, and the USS dispute in broad theoretical landscapes. But there are also personal attacks. We have heard a lot about pornstar martinis, ‘shady Brady’, and the remuneration of VCs and USS staff. We have also heard a lot about the tax affairs of the Eton-educated David Cameron, Boris Johnson, and Jacob Rees Mogg, and seen the ‘bad boys of Brexit’ exposed. They are, it has to be said, easy targets. I find it difficult to avoid playing the man; but do wonder whether it risks being counter-productive. It is not, I think, the way to change minds, and it makes future relationships more difficult. On the other hand, it may help with regard to the next point…

Mobilisation

Both battles require a wide support base. I concur with the view that political opinion on Brexit would have to shift dramatically in order for some of the available legal routes, which might enable Brexit to be stopped or delayed, to be used. Were opinion polls to be registering a 60/40 split in favour of remain (instead of the current figure, which is (ironically; well, for Alanis) 52/48 in favour of remain), we might see very different political constellations emerging. There are some key figures who might tip the balance. Just as Boris Johnson was significant during the referendum campaign, it may be that it will be Jeremy Corbyn whose moves become decisive in the months ahead. Similarly, there is no doubt that the dynamic of the USS dispute was changed by the fact that the UCU campaign attracted high profile support, both among the majority of students (whose support we should never devalue) and a raft of politicians, newspapers, and other opinion formers. Moreover, we obtained the support of many VCs, undermining the UUK position. But, there is now a risk that some of the UCU’s support may be beginning to wane. The news coverage of the rejection of this week’s deal was mixed, and there are reports that some striking staff have returned to work. Maintaining student support is key; we should endeavour to engage directly with students, both about the causes of the dispute, and about arrangements (which will be difficult to formulate) to ensure that they do not suffer adverse consequences in their assessments. In addition, it is important to maintain the pressure on VCs (and in particular those who look like they have the potential to make the ‘Johnson/Corbyn’ moves), and seek to convince more academic staff to participate in the action.

Any strategy relies on a range of approaches. The case against Brexit involves groups within the major political parties making common cause (for example coordinating their efforts in tabling amendments to the EU (Withdrawal) Bill), and the mobilisation of young and new voters. It involves making arguments which might appeal to those who have voted leave (though the polling rather suggests that their views have been entrenched). It involves an array of campaigns: on doorsteps, in the media, and on social media. In the USS dispute, there are again, a range of tools at our disposal, and a range of constituencies to try to convince. In my view there is space for strike action, for militant activism, for petitions, and for letters and communications to VCs and students setting out both individual and coordinated views about various aspects of the dispute. As an aside, I confess to finding it difficult to understand the way in which ‘converts’ are treated. Leavers disenchanted with the mismanagement of Brexit and signalling a willingness to change tack are treated like heroes. So too are academics who, 10 or more days into the strike, have been persuaded to join the union, and join the picket. Don’t get me wrong; a key task is to try to convert the sceptical, and it is good (and important in relation to the dynamic of the negotiation) to boost numbers. But I am not sure that ‘the converts’ deserve greater praise than those who have been involved in the dispute from the start. To go back to the initial observation, we all know that we are right, and I cannot help but wonder about those who are late/reluctant converts to the cause.

The power of social media

This has to be in here, to justify the hours I spend on twitter. Detailed information, forensic analysis, and inspiring solidarity are all easily accessible. Views are aired which do not find their way into the mainstream media. Connections and alliances are created in double-quick time. There is also a lot of humour (and how the fight against Brexit could do with a dinosaur of solidarity… I’ve had a couple of twitter exchanges with her already, and if I’m ever feeling brave enough, I might ask the question). There are, however, a lot of idiots. Some of them, it appears, have access to the UUK twitter account, and others are on the European Research Group’s WhatsApp group. We are grateful for their insights. Overall, the level of debate is uneven. People can choose to inhabit echo-chambers, and can avoid the views of those with whom they disagree. It is all too easy to get carried away. I guess social media is just one part of the tool-kit at our disposal, and that we have to learn how to use it to its full potential.

Conclusion

I hope that those of you who have persevered have enjoyed the long read. For my part, I feel as though the last couple of years have been something of a rollercoaster ride. The UK’s relationship with the EU, which I have spent my professional life analysing, is in the process of being transformed and dismantled. And, it looks inevitable that the transformation will be done badly, with catastrophic economic and social effects. The pensions crisis shows that the university sector too is on the edge of crisis. Livelihoods are affected, incentives for those looking to enter higher education are reducing, and, to widen the gaze, marketization and commodification are changing the nature of work (and relationships with managers, colleagues, and students) in the sector. It is heartening to see that there is resistance; but, as things stand, I think it is more likely that Brexit will go ahead and damage the UK, and that terms and conditions in the university sector will be further eroded, than that the momentum of change will be halted. One of the problems (think ‘project fear’) is that too many people are sitting back, hoping against hope that things will not turn out as badly as some (including me) are predicting (there must be obvious connections here with campaigns which focus on the effects of climate change etc). The economic effects of Brexit, and of the USS reforms, will only be felt in the medium to long term, and it is easy to be seduced into thinking that, somehow, those effects will be attenuated before that. But, clearly, it is also possible that things will turn out badly.

The stakes are incredibly high. One of the features shared by both disputes is the almost existential importance which rests on their outcome. The battle is for the future of the country, and future of higher education. Many are contemplating leaving the higher education sector, or choosing not to embark on (further) education in the HE sector, because of a sense that those activities are likely to become too costly, and insufficiently rewarding, both financially, and in more holistic ways too. Many are people and businesses are considering whether to live, work and trade in the UK, because of the increased costs and hostility they fear they might encounter. Friends and colleagues are making these choices, and our universities and countries will be much impoverished if they take the entirely understandable option of exercising their ability to ‘exit’.

In order to seek to prevent that, it is important that we grasp opportunities to shape the future as they appear, and, to borrow from somewhere, ‘take back control’ of our country, our universities, and our future (or, to borrow from somewhere else, to reclaim our ‘voice’). It is only if we remain committed and resolute (and ‘agile’, as the University of Bristol sees itself…), and work together to understand and confront unwelcome change, that we can shape the future. There is no doubt that the path ahead will be hard, and that it will make great demands on all of us, but ultimately it is a fight which, for me at least, is impossible to ignore.

Phil Syrpis

University of Bristol Law School

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‘…I am not striking against my university. I am striking for my University’

As we enter the fourth week of our industrial dispute it is more important than ever for all staff to understand the issues at play and how we have arrived here – not just for achieving a resolution to this dispute but for moving forward as a strong institution afterwards.

Consequently, I wrote for my colleagues who are not members of the UCU and not been on the picket lines, for those who are trying to make sense of the chaos of #USSstrike news.

Many of them/you/us are confused! That is understandable given that key components of the UUK argument have remained undisclosed (UUK is not obliged to comply with the FOIA). That confusion is compounded by a flood of new information over the past weeks, poor reporting (except for the Financial Times) and reversals by many Universities, including Bristol. So it is confusing, especially if you have not been gorging yourself on the news.

So below are some bullet points about where the dispute stands. I try to avoid any advocacy until the very end. These are either facts on which all parties agree or at least have not been disputed. Bear in mind that I am on strike and I am angry, so take my claims of neutrality with a grain of salt. These also cover only some facts and there are many aspects to this dispute and the employers’ proposals. (And do please forgive any minor errors – because I also am confused about many things!)

1) Three years ago, our pensions were reduced from a defined benefit (DB) final salary scheme to a DB career averaged scheme; our pension income decreased. The proposed changes will end the DB scheme and decrease all of our pensions further, but especially those just starting their careers.

2) We still have a very good pension scheme compared to many others in society, in part because DB schemes have been under attack for the past two decades. We can debate why we should have such a scheme and we can debate whether we should be fighting this trend beyond the constraints of our own sector. But regardless of our position on those issues, the USS pension is very strong and currently growing. Money in is greater than money out; moreover, USS has been very good with our investment portfolio, growing it by 12% last year.

3) So why a further decrease in our pensions? As part of the Higher Education Act, the govt no longer guarantees our pension. The pension regulator insists that all pensions not backed by the govt pass a strict stress test – “will your pension assets cover your liabilities if you go bankrupt?” This is a fair assumption for a business (looking at you BHS and Carillion), and I personally experienced friends and family being plunged into poverty when the local factory shut down and their pensions were forfeited. But is this an appropriate assumption for an entire sector? All 68 Universities in USS, including all Russell Group Universities, would have to go bankrupt. USS never challenged the fit of that criterion to USS. Why not? In any case, although UCU disagrees, it has now accepted that premise as part of its negotiations.

(Post-92 Universities are govt backed and do not have to pass this test, which is why someone in their 30s starting at UWE will have a far superior pension than the one proposed for us and likely be paid more over their entire life. This dispute is creating huge inequality in the sector. It is also why UoB employers have prioritised govt backing of our pension in their recent interventions. )

[Update: The excellent Mike Otsuka at LSE has explained that this is not accurate. USS adopted a less severe version of this test, which was more predicated on the willingness of the employers to increase contributions if the shortfalls emerged. In short, it was less a test of bankruptcy but of commitment to the scheme.]

4) So do we have enough under those constraints to cover our liabilities? The uncertainty is large as we have to calculate life expectancies, salary growth and of course stock market and bond returns 40 years or so into the future. Small differences in assumptions yield big differences in outcomes. No one knows how the USS did this. But we do know that life expectancy was assumed to increase by 1.5% per year and salary would increase by about 4% per year (far exceeding salary growth of the past two decades).

5) UCU hired an independent actuary (First Actuarial) to do an independent assessment. That result? USS has a surplus! But there is a large uncertainty, such that there is about a 30% risk that it has >6B debt. (This risk is independent of the risk that all of the Unis go out of business). This is where the UUK’s statement ‘There is a £6.1B deficit’ comes from.

6) But USS did not originally propose such a large deficit. Instead, they suggested to the Universities that they could take on some of this risk, and therefore originally suggested that there was effectively a smaller deficit. That is the Sept valuation some of you will have heard about.

NOTE: This USS valuation is essentially the same that UCU has now proposed as the basis for negotiations. This is the valuation that Oxford and Cambridge have reversed decisions on and now accept. Bristol also now seems to have reversed position and accepted this valuation.

7) But at the time, 42% of respondents, including Bristol, rejected that suggestion via a survey (now re-badged as a consultation), saying they could not accept that level of risk. On the basis of those 42% of the respondents, UUK adopted a more risk averse stance yielding the £6.1B deficit (November valuation).

NOTE: The University of Bristol did comply with FOIA requests, revealing that it was greatly concerned about risks both within the scheme and more widely to the sector. In subsequent correspondence, it has linked that risk and its costs to other preferred areas of investment.

8) No one outside of UUK knows how this happened. There was and remains no transparency and many Unis and UUK have ignored FOIA requests. But what has been accidentally leaked by UUK and where Unis have made public statements has now revealed: 1) those respondents were not all Universities; in fact, many individual Oxford Colleges had independent responses; and 2) many institutions have confirmed that their consultation response was ‘not an authorised response on behalf of their institution’ due to the short turnaround time. Aside from that, I still do not understand how 42% drove the shift in stance.

9) Because of this still-hidden process and because some Unis refused to accept the proposed risk, that forced USS/UUK to assume a larger deficit. That is expensive, and the near-inevitable consequence was to shift from defined benefits to defined contributions, where individuals rather than institutions bear the risk. The consequences to your pension (aside from us bearing the risk)? Although there is dispute, depending on career stage and various other assumptions, the new proposal will result in a 30% to 60% cut to most of our pensions, mostly falling on early career researchers. A loss of £10K per year appears to be a representative number. This is in addition to the cuts imposed three years ago.

In short, our pensions are being cut to offload risk, partly prompted by the pension regulator but largely driven by UUK and some Universities. That offloading of risk is being done either to facilitate competition, to borrow more or to safeguard us against past or ongoing gambles.

I will leave it to you to decide how this has played out locally. There has been great solidarity on the picket lines, across Faculties and between staff, professional services and students (Big shout out to the Student Occupation!). I have been frustrated by our employer’s internal messaging, shocked by decisions to proceed with HoS interviews and efforts to extend the working day, and disappointed by their hesitancy to exhibit national leadership. But their communications have improved and become generous with tone, far more than many other employers; they have reversed decisions; and they have been an exemplar in how they engaged with the Student Occupation. UoB is also one of only a few institutions that has complied with the FOIA requests.

Consequently, going ahead, there are issues to be resolved, and there are positives on which we can build. New or old to the strike, here are some questions that we need to explore collectively, now and over the coming years:

Why did no one push pack against the pension regulator’s stress test? Was it opportunism? Has management become so corporatized that they never considered questioning it? Or have they lost the courage to confront a government that has a strong hand on the higher education till?

Does the UoB senior team really believe that the gamble of expansion is worth more than our pensions? If so, why did they think that? And what do they need to do to rebuild trust? And if they do make the right overtures, are we able to listen?

What responsibility does the government have here, not only for not backing the pensions but for removing the caps on student numbers that have turned us from being a collegial sector into a competition- and profit-driven one? How do we re-unite, all of us, to challenge past decisions and resist those that are looming on the horizon?

When will we do right by our youngest staff? When will we move them out of precarious situations and end casualization of teaching in some parts of the University? How do all of us – in any senior leadership position – do better to help them and to fight for them?

How will we fight the larger and wider issues of competition and marketization that now appear to have corrupted our sector? What do we want our University to be? What do we want HE in the UK to be?? Ultimately, how do we do right by our students?

And finally, is this a fight that ends at our walls? So many others have lost their pensions and so much more… and they have shown great solidarity throughout this dispute. Will we stand with them?

I’ve tried to avoid inserting my personal opinions here, although they certainly do seep through in tone and language. But this strike and the wider issues it represents are personal. And so: I am striking because the pension cut is unfair, classist, racist and sexist; it disproportionately affects our youngest staff, and by extension women and minorities. I am striking because this pensions cut is not necessary. I am striking not because Unis should not invest in buildings or new campuses but because they should not sacrifice our pensions to do so. I am striking because students are not customers to be wooed by marketing and treated as income streams but are the next generation of leaders and artists and engineers who should be mentored, educated and advised in good faith. I am striking because it is time to stop, to reflect, to think about where UoB and the sector is going, who we are and what we should be.

Like all of us, I am not striking against my university. I am striking for my University. For my students and for my colleagues. And for the future of higher education in this country.

**Big thanks to all of you for solidarity! And big thanks to colleagues across the country who have unearthed and explained the information I summarised above.

Rich Pancost

Director of the University of Bristol Cabot Institute
Professor of Biogeochemistry

The Soul of Education – Our Pensions and More

I am professional services staff and I work in digital education.

Great to see so many here today – academic staff, support staff and students – both here with us and those still up on the 5th floor of senate house.

Is also great to see prospective students and their parents today. They want to study at Bristol and learn from some of the best minds in the country – that’s you lot. I wonder how they would like the university to spend their fees? On staff OR on shiny new buildings that won’t be finished before they graduate.

I have learnt a lot about pensions in the last couple of weeks. I think the employers thought they could get the change in pensions past us for 2 reasons

First – they thought a lot of people wouldn’t understand the change. So who here now knows the deficit isn’t a real deficit?

I’ve been learning a lot on twitter, about meaningful negotiations, from an employment law lecturer and about assessing risk from the Director of Bristols Cabot institution. They thought we wouldn’t understand – we literally teach this stuff.

Speaking of twitter we are winning the argument there – with UUK being tweeted back to the negotiating table as their “logical inconsistencies” were called out. We also seem to be winning the wider argument in the media – for example one paper in Scotland is saying that us defending our pensions is an important first step in allowing others to demand better pensions too.

Second they thought our greatest weakness was that we care so much about education. We would accept the pension cuts and not move jobs because we care. That the strike would crumble because we care about our students education – even if senior management don’t seem to. That the students would not stand with us because they have become consumers.

They didn’t realise that we can see a bigger picture – and that our greatest strength is that we care so much about education. We will fight the pension cuts so that we continue to retain and recruit the best staff. The strike will stand – because we believe that students are taught best by staff that are focused on their work not worrying about rent and old age. The students stand with us as we will stand with them to make university about education not about huge debts.

This strike is about protecting a decent pension that we have paid for.

This strike is also part of a larger fight for the soul of education.

The VC says he’s had a difficult week…University of Bristol UCU President Writes

Dear all

Following Senate on Monday James Thompson wrote to the Vice Chancellor asking him to make a strong public statement in support of the current negotiations and asked whether he would support the new UCU proposals. You can read his response. Sadly, we are no further forward. Epigram have also just published a longer article from the VC entitled “Between a rock and a hard place/ Collegiality in challenging times” – in this he says he’s had a difficult week.

In both articles he speaks of UUK as if they were a third-party over which he has no influence. I’m sorry Professor Brady but, if you recall, your influence began in your response to the UUK consultation when you (along with 16 Oxbridge colleges) rejected the USS trustees’ original proposals for the valuation, called for an end to defined benefit pensions and asked for no increase in employer contributions.

In the Epigram article he also states … I struggle to understand how two sides, both equally passionate about higher education, can be so far apart in their valuations and interpretations. Vice-Chancellor, I really don’t think it’s that difficult to understand: the valuation methodology is flawed and UUK stacked the deck when collating its responses. UCU’s new proposals are clear: we want a return to the original (September) valuation proposals and both sides sharing the cost.

We demand that you, as our leader, revise Bristol’s position to support that. If, Vice-Chancellor, you are not willing to do so, then you must explain to your staff why and provide the evidence and analysis to prove that these reforms are necessary.

You will probably also be aware that messages are going out to all students and taught postgraduates which talk about action to ameliorate the impact of our action – our action is already having a massive impact.

I promise this will be my last message this week as we all deserve a snow day tomorrow, however, just a few actions if you haven’t done so please write to the Vice-Chancellor calling for him to change his position, but before you do you must read a truly exceptional letter from John McTague to provide inspiration.

Please report all impact – lots coming through already – thank you.

Complete the staff survey. As you’ll be aware, the Senior team decided last week to bury bad news and not promote this – clearly our voice only matters when we have good things to say. We all had an individual link from staffsurveys@capitasurveys.co.uk so dig it out of your mail-box and complete it.

Briefly in other news ….

Remember the extension to the teaching day proposal? They snuck in an additional meeting of Senate in for this afternoon to discuss this. Luckily it’s been cancelled due to snow and we (UCU) will be talking to them next week before Senate meets again.

Review of promotion and progression – another cancelled meeting for tomorrow but we, and our Regional Officer, will be meeting with HR to arm-wrestle over the recommendations in the Senate paper – currently there is quite a difference of opinion over what we should be negotiating on and what we will merely be consulted on.

Finally a reminder of events for next week’s action – it is vital to stay strong. As a national negotiator said at today’s national briefing “Foot off the pedal, you get sweet FA”.

Monday 5 March

  • 8.00 am – 10.00 am – picketing in all locations
  • 10.00 am – rally at Senate House followed by march to Wills Building

Wednesday 7 March – UCAS Post offer day

  • 8.30 am – picket outside of the Wills Building. Registration and all central events will take place inside Wills from 9.00 am
  • 8.00 am – School of Humanities picket for Head of School interviews
  • 12.00 noon onwards – picketing the academic schools which have not cancelled (locations TBA)

Thursday 8 March – International Women’s Day

  • 8.00 am – School of Humanities picket for Head of School interviews (all welcome)
  • 12.00 noon – International Women’s day event at Woodlands Church, Woodland Road

Confirmed speakers include:

  • Joanna de Groot (national president of UCU)
  • Prof. Josie McLellan (UoB, History)
  • Prof. Havi Carel (UoB, Philosophy & University EDI Champion)
  • Dr Susan Newman (UWE)
  • Dr Maud Perrier (UoB, Acting Director of the Gender Research Centre)

See our Gender Pay claim motion for information. Other activities on the 8th include an Equality, Diversity and Inclusivity Choir and a Gender Research Centre cake and book sale.

Monday 12 March – our final week

8.00 am – 10.30 am – picketing in all locations
10.30 am – rally at Senate House followed by march to Wills Building

Enjoy the snow!

With best wishes

Tracey

USS As It Concerns The Casualised – Letter to Professor Brady, University of Bristol Vice Chancellor

Dear Professor Brady,

I am currently on strike, although I don’t receive a pension from the university. My part-time, hourly paid teaching contract doesn’t even include sick pay, and the amount allocated for preparation and marking is so low that the majority of the work that I do is unpaid.

I am one of hundreds of casualised staff at the university employed on a precarious contract. I am aware that if I speak out about this I risk losing this contract all together, but there are now much bigger things at stake than whether or not the university decides to offer me a few hours teaching next year.

I have spent the past eight years living on £6-£12,000 pounds a year and accruing large tuition fee debts in the hope that after obtaining my doctorate I will stand a chance of being employed on a full time, permanent contract by a higher education institution in the UK. I understand that as someone who has only recently completed a PhD, it is likely that I will be employed on low paid, fixed-term contracts for the next few years. This means that by the time that I get a permanent job in academia I will be in my early thirties, and it is highly likely that I will have been unable to put a single penny towards my pension. Not to mention the fact that I will also be unable to afford to buy a house, have a child, or even splash out on a pornstar martini.

Until recently, I accepted this as part and parcel of a system that would eventually reward me with a fair and stable remuneration during my working life and in old age. But if you insist on removing the defined benefits scheme and replace it with defined contributions, the next generation of lecturers such as myself will be left with no choice but to look for work elsewhere.

This is because there will no longer be the prospect of financial security for those of us who have already lived on so little for so long in order to do the job we love. Without a fair pension, it is simply not worth the decade or more of poverty that all of us must endure while obtaining the qualifications and experience necessary for a permanent position in academia.

I am telling you this because I believe that you have a responsibility to ensure that the university survives beyond your term as vice chancellor. When hiring new lecturers, Bristol University must ensure that it employs the best and brightest candidates, not the richest. Given all that I, and so many others like myself, have risked to get this far, I don’t think it’s too much to ask that you remove the financial risk placed on us by defined contributions.

Yours sincerely
Rachel Murray