USS strike: social media has collapsed the case for pension cuts

Academic sleuths have used investigative skills and Twitter to tell the real story behind proposed pension cuts, says Sherrill Stroschein

March 12, 2018
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After the dust of the university pension strikes has settled, many will wonder what brought the UK’s higher education sector into such a state of conflict?

One area of division has been the sources of information used by both parties. At the start of the dispute, the facts, as relayed by universities, seemed incontrovertible: a £6.1 billion deficit had to be filled and massive cuts were the answer.

However, staff on picket lines began to obtain information via social media, rather than merely relying on messages from university communication offices. 

As a political scientist, I teach how power can take a variety of forms. The most direct form of power is the ability to harm someone until they do what you want.

Excessively punitive responses to the strike action, such as attempts to dock additional pay for non-rescheduled classes or for working to contract, reflect this attempt at power, the “we can hurt you, so we will” idea. Authoritarian regimes are good at exercising this type of power, but it comes with legitimacy problems.

However, other types of power are more covert. In the most successful exercise of power, the masses even come to believe that their interests align with those who govern them – something that has worked for university leaders up to now.

With the strikes, management’s ability to exercise power has faded due to the availability of detailed and reasoned alternative accounts of the changes from colleagues on social media.

Many now feel deliberately deceived by managers and are at a point where the legitimacy of university employers and Universities UK has come into question.

Early articles problematising the declarations of the Universities Superannuation Scheme’s purported £6.1 billion deficit were written by University of Warwick economist Dennis Leech. Other people, well versed in statistics, examined what they found to be a flawed valuation model behind the stated deficit, as in this piece by UCL academic Sean Wallis.

Michael Otsuka, from the London School of Economics, has also been digging into the number of institutions involved in supporting the new valuation and found a discrepancy in the figures.

With painstaking effort and some crowdsourcing via social media, he was able to uncover a story of how Oxford and Cambridge colleges had been counted individually in the consultation process, which exaggerated the voices of these institutions.

But why? Some clues were unearthed in an old Times Higher Education piece. Universities that perceived themselves to be at the top of the heap did not want to carry the risk of other institutions in the scheme – the so-called last man standing problem.

If institutions with the USS retirement scheme could go bankrupt, those remaining did not want to pick up the pension responsibilities for employees. In short, the increased volatility of today’s market-driven system has led to an overly cautious attitude towards risk.

This has prompted some individuals, including former business secretary Vince Cable, to conclude that state backing is needed to overcome this risk aversion. 

Social media has also helped USS members to understand that universities were not merely averse to risk from other institutions, but also to pension responsibilities towards their own staff.

Defined benefit pension systems keep such responsibilities on the books, while defined contribution pension systems can clear them as accounting liabilities. This is not just an accounting issue – it is a question of priorities.

If teaching and research are the main missions of universities, one would think that staff should be a priority in budgeting. But perhaps the allure of real estate and property development has tempted some university managers to consider removing pension responsibilities from their books.

All this information and much more became available via Twitter. And academics and other university staff, curious as to why they were being told that their pensions would be halved, were reading it.

Universities UK and many vice-chancellors have, however, continued to insist that the pension fund faces an enormous insurmountable deficit – with no acknowledgement of the questions raised regarding the valuation process.

But they can only ignore the insights produced by this academic digging for so long.

Sherrill Stroschein is a reader in politics at University College London.

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