USS strike: staff walkout is only way left to stop unnecessary pension cuts

Academics do not want to damage students' education but strike action is the only option left to protect pensions, says Sam Marsh

February 22, 2018
Source: iStock

This morning I expect to be in the cold, outside a building I walk into daily without question.

I will be stood alongside colleagues who, like me, believe passionately in the value of education and who devote huge amounts of both work and personal time to their students.

I have done this before, most recently in pursuit of fair treatment of casualised staff, the elimination of the gender pay gap, and to prevent new lecturers from doing the same job as previous generations for less pay. But this time it will feel very different.

The strikes that have been called by the University and College Union are without precedent in the recent history of higher education. Unless Universities UK reopen negotiations over the future arrangements for the Universities Superannuation Scheme, I will be back inside my office for just three of the following 17 working days. After that, there may well be more to come. Is this a proportionate response to the situation?

The answer is “yes”; what’s at stake is huge. The defined-benefit scheme that is being pulled from under us offers security in retirement and is the hallmark of a civilised relationship between employer and employee.

Pay in higher education is well known to be below that of comparable roles in the private sector. Colleagues who have moved from legal, pharmaceutical or industrial sectors in particular have told me that the pension played a significant part in accepting a pay cut to do so.

And for those just starting out, the insecure contracts that begin many academic careers may be softened by the knowledge that guaranteed retirement income has been accrued during this uncertain start.

Over the past three years, I have read almost everything there is to read about the USS and its valuation processes. While the calculations are complex, the concepts are not. While some claim the scheme to be in crisis and others view the problems as entirely manufactured, I began expecting to find the truth somewhere in between. But the more I learned, the clearer it became that the problems that the USS was experiencing were political, not financial, in nature.

Decisions were actively being made that would force the appearance of deficits. Assumptions that had big effects on the valuation were presented without justification, and seemingly contrary to the evidence.

The USS is the biggest funded defined-benefit scheme in the country. If it is allowed to fall, what hope for similar schemes elsewhere? With the valuation methods applied to the USS used throughout the actuarial profession, it is far too important to let this fundamentally healthy scheme be consigned to the dustbin without questioning whether the underlying analysis is fit for purpose.

And if the academic community isn’t prepared to ask such questions, who will?

But to refuse to work, knowing the effect it will have on my students: is that really the only option? I discussed the underlying issues with my MP on multiple occasions. I persuaded my university to form a working group and helped to ensure they arrived at informed decisions. I started a transparency campaign to force the underlying documentation into the public domain.

While some good came of these endeavours, the issue seemed strangely resistant to rationality or reason. I am of no doubt that the last resort of walking away from our duties is now appropriate.

It pains me that the decisions UUK are making for their convenience are being taken with such little thought as to the effects on their staff. Those who work in universities will tell you that morale is heading downwards fast, as performance demands grow ever greater and goodwill is stretched.

At a time when higher education is under attack in the media and sorely in need of advocates, those who work in the sector are noticeably quiet or, worse still, adding to the criticism. University leaders are losing the support of their own employees.

I don’t know what will happen from here, but everything tells me it won’t be pretty. I can’t see staff backing down, and experience tells me that UUK will not quickly reverse a decision that they’ve staked their reputation on.

Students are hugely supportive of their lecturers now, and rightly directing their anger at the decision-makers, but will they continue to do so as their courses disintegrate in front of them?

It all points to a toxic situation that will do no one any good.

There’s only one way I can see this situation resolving without a huge amount of damage being done, and that is for vice-chancellors to realise that they have led the sector towards a dead-end and to speak out against the changes.

Some already have, and in places have done so forcefully. Perhaps by the time this is published, more will have joined them, and I’ll be nicely in the warm preparing for my 9am lecture. I can dream, can’t I?

Sam Marsh is a teaching fellow at the University of Sheffield’s School of Mathematics and Statistics and is communications officer for the university’s UCU branch.

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Reader's comments (1)

Dr Marsh speaks from the heart here - I have seen first-hand how much time and effort Dr Marsh has put into understanding the issue over several years, and coming up with a solution that could satisfy UUK, UCU and the Pensions Regulator. IMO, the recent valuation is unduly pessimistic, due to historically low interest rates. A recent Telegraph article showed that DB deficits halved last month, as soon as there was a hint of higher interest rates. The Tier 1 test is very volatile, and gives no basis for a long-term valuation. Recent reports show that Oxbridge, and Oxbridge's 69 colleges (which are NOT valid members of UUK), have skewed the USS consultation - in order to gain a competitive advantage in the marketised HE sector. This is the folly of marketisation in HE. It's time for UUK to re-start meaningful negotiations.

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