The USS strike and the winter of academics’ discontent

The protests against pensions reforms reflect not just self-interest but also anger about working conditions and a sense that universities are losing their way. Jack Grove explores how proposed changes to the USS strained and broke bonds of trust

April 12, 2018
University and College Union members demonstrate during pensions row

Its prosaic hashtag of #USSstrike might have trended on Twitter, but the fight to protect university pensions in the UK acquired some far grander titles.

For many of the thousands of university staff braving snow, rain and freezing temperatures on picket lines in February and March, it became “the Great University Strike”. For others, the walkouts at 65 mostly pre-92 universities were a “strike to save higher education”, a battle to “stop the slow cancellation of our future” and even a “defence of the Enlightenment”.

Some described the 14 days of strike action over proposed reforms to the Universities Superannuation Scheme, which covers about 190,000 academics and academic-related staff, academia’s “Brexit moment”: a chance for staff to say “no” not just to pension cuts but also to the tightening grip of managerialism, marketisation and ministerial control within institutions – just as some voters saw the UK’s 2016 referendum on European Union membership as an opportunity to lodge a more general protest against the direction they felt established politicians were taking the country.

That is not to say that the financial impact of Universities UK’s proposed changes to USS retirement benefits has been neglected. The original recommendation to close its defined-benefit plan from April 2019 and switch to defined contributions – in which members’ retirement payments would be based on the investment performance of their contributions – received massive scrutiny on social media from a new army of self-taught pensions experts. Hundreds of Twitter threads have sprung up since the escalating series of strikes began on 22 February, all claiming to unpick the valuations, assumptions and overall conduct of the dispute’s major players – with criticism aimed largely at UUK and the USS.

Elsewhere, blogs, crowdfunding initiatives, expert actuarial analyses and letters to news outlets have also sought to cast doubt on the allegedly “overly prudent” reform proposals, which, according to the University and College Union’s sums, would wipe £10,000 off the average academic’s annual pension.

However, while financial self-interest has undoubtedly persuaded many to join the picket lines, the strike’s momentum appears to have been fuelled more by a sense of anger about the direction and stewardship of UK universities.

Read all our coverage of the university pensions dispute on our dedicated hub page

“Pensions became a potent – if somewhat unlikely – symbol for how academic leaders imagine the development of higher education: high-risk investment in the ‘student experience’ and declining investment in people,” explains Jana Bacevic, a postdoctoral fellow in the University of Cambridge’s Faculty of Education.

Bacevic, a sociologist who during the strikes helped to organise “teach-outs” on the effects of neoliberalisation on higher education, believes that the discontent over pensions cannot be separated from academics’ “visceral experience of the declining quality of working conditions” caused by the growing marketisation.

“For those working at universities, the USS scandal destroyed the vestiges of the myth that precarity at present can lead to security in the future,” she says. “The remarkable solidarity between academic staff and students can be seen as a collective effort to reclaim that future.”

The proposed move to a more uncertain pension plan and UUK’s failure to understand why this was so unpalatable to academics merely underline the gulf between academics and management, Bacevic adds. “There is a growing realisation that employers view academics and the things that they value – job security, time to reflect and research, and decent retirement conditions – as a liability rather than an asset.”

That loss of trust in university leadership can also be linked back to previous reforms to the USS, such as the 2011 closure of the final-salary scheme – long described as the “jewel in the crown” of academics’ terms and conditions – to new members, and the 2014 decision to move all members on to a plan based on average career earnings. Both of those reforms resulted in some minor industrial action, but academics perhaps felt that agreeing to a third round of cuts could have opened the way to yet more erosion of their benefits further down the track.

“We have been told to accept these changes without complaint – just as we were told with the cuts in 2011 and 2014,” says Sherrill Stroschein, a reader in politics at UCL, who adds that those previous cuts were accepted on the understanding that there would not be further radical reforms.

“We now feel betrayed and deceived,” she says, with many university staff struggling to see themselves “successfully living on £10,000 a year less in retirement [than they had] been budgeting for when they took the job”.

But, for Stroschein, the strike also has “more profound roots”. “We who teach and run libraries and vital services know that we are the university,” she explains. “Universities are networks of learning and advancing knowledge. These interactions don’t happen without front-line staff. The pensions attack showed just how far our absurdly paid employers were willing to sacrifice our knowledge community for other goals.”

Vice-chancellors’ embrace of recent government policy innovations, such as the teaching excellence framework (soon to be extended to subject level) and now the knowledge exchange framework, have confirmed the lack of empathy with rank-and-file academics, continues Stroschein.

“Instead of respecting our professionalism, we are placed on a hamster wheel,” she says. “Many colleagues said they were happier during the strike than they had been in years, as we were able to teach and learn and pursue knowledge on the picket line with students, unmeasured and unmetricised.”

For some, the strike has also triggered a grim introspection, explains Alastair Hudson, professor of equity and finance law at the University of Strathclyde.

He describes how one of his colleagues identified with a scene from the 2002 spy thriller The Bourne Identity, in which an assassin played by Clive Owen – ironically called “the Professor” – lies dying in a field after having been shot by Jason Bourne, played by Matt Damon.

Placards of university staff during demonstration over pensions, 2018

“Both men have lived through the same system of being used and trained by the same demanding, ultimately indifferent, entity, and with his last words, the Professor says: ‘Look at this. Look at what they make you give,’” he explains. “Academics who have become used to working through the weekend to finish their research, to being micromanaged and observed at every turn, to the constant expectation that they will work far beyond their contracted hours, feel that they are being asked to give too much. They said ‘no’, together, for the first time.”

According to Vicky Blake, president of the UCU’s University of Leeds branch, the strike has enjoyed a breadth of support rarely seen in previous disputes. With the UCU ditching its previous tactic of single-day strikes, camaraderie was able to build on the picket lines as the duration of weekly walkouts expanded from two days to a full five.

“We’ve met many more ‘quiet’ union members who might have gone on strike before but never joined the picket line,” says Blake, an educational engagement officer for widening participation. “Then there are those who have been union members for years but never gone on strike. And you also have those who had never thought about joining a union, but [who saw the latest USS proposals as] the final straw and wanted to join the union and the picket line.”

That demographic breadth, she says, should be a wake-up call for the sector hierarchy. “When you have pushed even the moderates to call for high-impact strike action, then senior management have to ask if they have got it right.”

Blake, who has chaired the UCU’s anti-casualisation committee, was also surprised by how many staff on temporary contracts – even those not affiliated to the UCU – joined the picket lines given the financial implications of their forgoing wages.

“I don’t think senior management expected that, and nor did they expect to see students support us,” she says, adding that there have been more than 20 occupations of university buildings by students in solidarity with their lecturers. “Students have said how much they appreciate the staff who teach them and they understand that we would not be going out on strike if we could avoid it.”

The UCU has gained more than 15,000 members since the start of the year, official figures state, with a new member signing up every five minutes throughout February.

“People were sent all the usual stuff by senior management warning us about going out on strike, and some of the language was really quite menacing. However, I think they’ve got it wrong this time, and it hasn’t worked.”

Not all vice-chancellors, however, have faced condemnation from striking staff. Some, such as the University of Warwick’s Stuart Croft, have won plaudits by publicly disagreeing with various elements of the original UUK proposals, and for visiting staff on the picket line.

However, all this has left some wondering how the original plans came to be drawn up in the first place. “The gnawing question – given the unpopularity of the proposed closure of the defined-benefit scheme among significant numbers of vice-chancellors – is who is being represented here [by UUK]?” asks Thomas Scotto, head of Strathclyde’s School of Government and Public Policy.

Many who have used Twitter to follow the dispute found their answer in an analysis of UUK’s consultation of employers by Michael Otsuka, professor of philosophy at the London School of Economics. In a series of tweets in March, Otsuka highlighted the “double-counting” of Oxbridge, in which constituent colleges as well as the universities themselves were allowed to contribute to the consultation, which “significantly distorted” its finding that 42 per cent of respondents wanted “less risk” for universities around their pensions liabilities.

If those Oxbridge colleges calling for less risk are discounted, only one in three employers would have been against paying more to preserve the existing scheme, Otsuka claims, which could have eliminated the need to switch to a defined-contribution scheme.

But while many have condemned the perceived Oxbridge stitch-up of the consultation, many colleges were none too pleased about the process themselves. In a letter to UUK’s chief executive, Alistair Jarvis, on 9 March, Dame Athene Donald, master of Churchill College, Cambridge, hit out at the “obscure, and possibly misleading way in which college responses have been referred to”, stating that her college was unable to “consult properly” with its members given the time allowed for a response. Calling for a more detailed breakdown of the responses and their weighting, Donald urged that “transparency is necessary if trust in the dialogue is to be rebuilt”.

In response, UUK said that the consultation was “only one part of a range of inputs that informed our response” to the USS trustees’ warning about the disputed £6.1 billion deficit in the scheme. In addition, UUK said in a letter dated 18 March, Oxbridge colleges are “separate participating employers within USS” and thus “have a right” to be consulted. But other colleges have also spoken out against UUK’s approach. In a statement published on the same day, Queen’s College, Oxford, said it was “troubled by what appears to have been a reluctance to consider alternative approaches and to think more creatively about the ways in which a defined-benefit arrangement could be made to work”. It added: “The proposed agreement appears to have been negotiated within the constraints imposed by the recent valuation of the scheme’s deficit. To that extent, many will view it as akin to a rearrangement of deck-chairs on the Titanic.”

Others have wondered if UUK – the umbrella group for vice-chancellors – is just too opaque and dictatorial for a sector where collegiality and, increasingly, transparency are demanded. More than 12,000 people so far have signed a petition calling on the body, a registered charity with an annual income of £11.6 million, to be made subject to the Freedom of Information Act in the same way as universities and government bodies are.

Others see the appointment of Jarvis, UUK’s former director of communications, as the problem. Taking office in August 2017, he may have pleased many academics with his bullish defence of universities as they came under attack in the media in his first few months, condemning what he called a “post-truth summer of misinformation, muddled argument and even a little malicious intent”.

However, this confident style may have subsequently alienated many USS members, who have suggested that Jarvis spun the consultation to push forward the original plan to switch to defined contributions. And, for Adam Ganz, a reader in the department of media arts at Royal Holloway, University of London, Jarvis’ appointment within a month of the post’s being advertised in July last year is symptomatic of UUK’s lack of transparency and accountability, and should be scrutinised further. The “voice of universities” should not be appointing its chief executive in such a “hole-and-corner fashion”, he says.

A university staff member protesting in the snow 2018

UUK has said that it interviewed four people out of 26 applicants after Nicola Dandridge was headhunted to run England’s new higher education regulator, the Office for Students.

Jarvis is not the only player in the USS dispute to face criticism. Sir David Eastwood, vice-chancellor of the University of Birmingham and chair of the USS board, has also been a target, not least for the £90,000 he earned for his pensions work on top of his £439,000 overall pay package in 2016-17. Adam Tickell, vice-chancellor of the University of Sussex and a UUK negotiator, has also been singled out for criticism.

Tickell has, however, been unapologetic, stating that the UCU’s original counterproposal would have cost Sussex £5.5 million a year, while its staff would have had to pay an extra £2.7 million.

“There are a small handful of institutions that could absorb that cost without serious financial consequences. Sadly, Sussex is not one of them,” he said in a blog post published on 23 February.

“If we had to find an additional £5.5 million for staff pensions, we would have to cut £5.5 million out of our budget, which inevitably means reduced spending on our infrastructure, regrettably job losses and a negative impact on students’ education,” he added, insisting that “this is not a threat or managerial posturing, it is the unfortunate reality of the magnitude of the shared problem we all face”.

Even the UCU’s own leadership has taken a good deal of flak. On 13 March, hundreds of UCU members gathered outside the union’s London headquarters to demand the rejection of an agreement struck by the UCU and UUK that would have seen defined-benefit pensions preserved up to £42,000 in salary in a deal lasting three years, in return for higher contributions from both staff and employers.

That decisive rejection by UCU members, rallying under the hashtag #NoCapitulation, was, in part, a message to employers about the broader discontent at play in the sector, says Strathclyde’s Hudson, who is a founder of Academics for Pensions Justice, a network of more than 1,000 USS members who have crowdfunded more than £50,000 to pay for specialist legal advice to explore “potential mismanagement” by the USS board. “The opportunity to reject that derisory offer from UUK was the first opportunity academics had to say ‘no’ to a system of corporate, commercialised universities that they never wanted in the first place,” he says.

Negotiators subsequently returned with a second offer that would preserve the current arrangements while a jointly appointed expert panel reviewed the assumptions and valuation methods used by the USS, with the aim of ensuring that the scheme continues to pay benefits “broadly comparable” to those currently offered. UCU members have until 13 April to vote on the proposal. At the time of going to press, it is unclear whether they will approve it – some UCU branches have been urging their members to reject it because it does not guarantee that members will not be worse off under the eventual settlement.

In a statement on 28 March, UUK said that the “panel will help to build confidence in the valuation process and assumptions. It will also give time to pause, to reflect and to rebuild the trust that has been damaged over the past few months.”

Some experts are convinced that a slight improvement in the current financial conditions – which have massively increased the USS’ projected pension liabilities – might eradicate the need for reform altogether. Others think that less onerous advice from the Pensions Regulator – on its guard following the collapse and enforced bailout of several major schemes, such as that of the bankrupt retail chain BHS – could reduce the need for drastic changes.

Still others believe that the problem is one of education: with an 18 per cent employer contribution, the USS is already one of the UK’s most generous schemes, they argue, adding that a wholly defined-contribution scheme is not inherently worse than a defined-benefit one and could even yield higher returns.

But many experts are not persuaded that the problem will go away any time soon, despite the creation of the expert panel. “You can argue about some of the individual assumptions [used to assess the deficit], but we need to stop having this existential argument about whether the deficit exists at all,” says Nick Foster, a lecturer in actuarial science at the University of Leicester, who points out that according to its 2017 triennial review, the USS was only 83 per cent fully funded according to criteria stipulated by the Pensions Regulator – a long way from the 100 per cent that the regulator requires. “I don’t think the USS – which is generally seen as very well run – has been over-prudent in its assumptions,” he adds.

More imaginative pension plans somewhere between a pure defined-benefit and a defined-contribution scheme should be considered, says Foster. One option is the “defined ambition” scheme championed by the Liberal Democrat's former pensions minister Sir Steve Webb. Sometimes called the “pension income builder”, such a scheme would mean a guaranteed pension sum would accrue each year, with remaining contributions invested in a collective defined-contribution arrangement in which risk is shared between members. “There are lots of things to be negotiated and lots of options before you move to defined contributions, but it can’t just be a question of changing the numbers at stake,” Foster says.

Either way, it is far from clear that a resolution to the pension dispute will mend all the bonds of trust between employers and staff that have been torn – or exposed as already severed.

The introduction of the subject-level TEF, the start of the 2018-19 pay round and an overzealous and narrowly defined championing of “value for money” by the OfS all risk further alienating staff.

For Sally Hunt, the UCU’s general secretary, the pension strikes have “demonstrated a disconnect between those running our universities and staff and students”, which will require more than an acceptable pension offer to fix.

“Issues such as casualisation and workloads cannot be swept under the carpet any longer,” she warns.


Print headline: The winter of our discontent

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Reader's comments (2)

This is the corporate university so far away from an educational institution it is beyond belief. Sit in a lecture room where the lecturer can barely speak English but for some political reason unknown has got a job at an English University, think about the private fees you are paying for this drivel and see red. The statistical crudity which allows each university to make inflated claims about its success rate is staggeringly obvious to all except the management of the university concerned. Time for an OFSTED style inspection. Keele University take note.
Well, join with us (TUC) on 12th May to protest for a New Deal for all workers. Join us on 30 June (The People's Assembly) to protest against the destruction of the NHS. Support the CWU in its renegotiation of its pension arrangements. Protest that HE engages with tax avoiders for its services, not least in IT. The 'neoliberal' HEI is simply a resonance of a wider issue.