UUK obstinacy has forced UCU marking boycott

Sally Hunt explains why union members are taking action this week over changes to pensions

November 6, 2014

Source: Elly Walton

A prerequisite for a settlement is that UUK needs to recognise and respond to the strength of feeling among staff and universities about the changes

An assessment boycott by University and College Union members is due to begin today in 69 universities. The industrial action is over detrimental changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme pension benefits proposed by Universities UK. Sadly, this industrial action was wholly avoidable.

In my view, UUK made two critical mistakes in the way it approached this issue.

First, it once again underestimated the strength of feeling that exists about pensions. In 2011, when changes were last proposed, they were rejected by 94 per cent of staff in a referendum. The employers’ response was to ignore this vote and push on anyway.

Once again it is clear that the overwhelming majority of staff oppose the changes. In the UCU’s ballot, 87 per cent of members voted for an assessment boycott on the highest turnout (45 per cent) in our history. Yet the employers’ response to the ballot was to insist that their proposals were the best that could be achieved and they made it clear that they considered the negotiations to be over before they had even begun.

When you are proposing big changes (for some people the employers’ proposals will mean a cut in expected annual pension income of per cent) you cannot treat those affected like spectators in a one-sided tennis match. This is especially true when staff themselves know that while their pensions are under attack, many vice-chancellors have used their own annual remuneration reviews to protect or, in some cases, even increase their own pension pots.

This brings me to the second failing. While UUK is no doubt convinced of the rightness of its cause, it failed to justify the case for change to key stakeholders, including many of the higher education institutions on behalf of which they are supposed to be negotiating.

The UCU’s objection to the methodology being used to measure the USS deficit is well known. We believe that it is too simplistic and does not take account of the scheme’s underlying strengths.

Since 2011, when the last set of detrimental changes to members’ pensions were made, the fund’s investments have grown by £8 billion, the number of members has grown by 18 per cent and returns on investment have outperformed both average earnings and inflation.

What is perhaps more surprising is that the University of Oxford in its submission to the USS described the employers’ modelling on how changes would affect staff as “misleading”, while fellow Russell Group member, the University of Warwick, questioned how attractive the USS will be compared with the Teachers’ Pension Scheme, which operates for academic staff in the so-called new universities.

The University of Cambridge has also raised concerns about UUK’s work. Meanwhile, 10 distinguished professors in statistics and financial mathematics wrote to Times Higher Education to describe UUK’s modelling assumptions as “inadequately justified” and “unreasonably pessimistic and incoherent”. They were unhappy that UUK’s predicted salary rises assumed a buoyant economy, but their investment returns assumed a recession.

A less polite way to describe all of this would be “spin”. Writing on her blog last month, pensions expert Ros Altmann called scare stories about the USS problems “overly negative”, yet the employers continue to suggest that the financial position of the USS sector necessitates urgent change. The fact is that the average university involved in the dispute has seen its wealth grow substantially since 2009, but its spending on staff as a proportion of income fall over the same period.

I have raised these issues not to score points but rather to try to signpost to the employers how we can resolve a situation that threatens to create real disruption for hundreds of thousands of students. A prerequisite for a settlement is that UUK needs to recognise and respond to the strength of feeling among staff and even universities about the changes.

It is no good blaming poor communication or local misunderstandings – the real fears that staff have must be addressed and that will mean negotiating changes to the proposals. UUK must also address the concerns that institutions have highlighted.

It is simply not tenable for a career academic in the same grade to be some 36 per cent worse off a year at a USS university when they retire than if they were at the TPS one down the road. Lastly, UUK needs to stop spinning and put its energies into negotiating sensibly.

The UCU is committed to the sustainability of the pension fund. We understand the demographic pressures the fund is under and will respond positively to the employers if they respond constructively and positively to our requests for serious negotiations. However, if they refuse to do so, they must understand that we will not roll over, and will we not step back from taking action to protect our members’ pensions.

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