Divided we fall

The sector needs agreement on pensions and job security if it is to resist savage coalition cuts, argues Sally Hunt

October 7, 2010

In Whitehall they talk of cuts in teaching grants of 75 per cent, universities allowed to go bust, the end of public funding for the arts and humanities, and reductions in research spending. Cuts of this magnitude, and indeed cuts of any magnitude to a sector already doing more with less, will have human consequences.

Thousands of student places and staff jobs are at risk across post-16 education and research funding cuts will encourage many world-beaters to go abroad where their work is better valued.

The personal impact on friends, colleagues and students would be profound, but the social and economic loss to our country from this academic vandalism is almost incalculable.

In the face of this threat, the sector must pull together, not apart. Political influence does not increase with the number of mission groups you create; it depends on the clarity of the message and the unity of those who send it.

Some vice-chancellors and principals understand this. I am delighted to report that a small but growing number of institution heads are actively supporting the Fund Our Future demonstration on 10 November. But in the sector's hour of need, where are the rest of them?

A prerequisite for the unity we so desperately need is that universities treat staff fairly. The rejection by employers of the University and College Union's proposals safeguarding the Universities Superannuation Scheme fund's future and its current benefits has elicited great anger among USS members. The employers' alternative - a reduced-benefit two-tier scheme - is unnecessary and would divide the sector, as will their inexplicable decision to block a member vote on these life-changing proposals.

My preference would have been to work with the employers to give every pension-fund member a vote on the proposals. Sadly they refused, so I have given all USS members, whether they are in the UCU or not, the chance to do so at www.ucu.org.uk/defenduss.

In the first week of polling, more than 15,000 members voted. We will honour the referendum result, whatever it may be. The employers should agree to do the same.

The USS changes are concrete, not abstract. One consequence is that staff at risk of redundancy from the cuts would lose the right to rejoin a final-salary scheme unless they find new work in higher education within six months of losing their jobs.

Is this an isolated example of shoddy and wholly unnecessary ill-treatment of hard-working staff, or part of a pattern of institutions failing to address worries and concerns about job security?

Staff understand the financial difficulties facing their institutions. They do not understand why employers, while making very low pay offers, will not agree transparent and consistent procedures to minimise job cuts, or their reluctance to work with the unions to maximise job security.

We have, over the years, agreed national protocols to regulate fixed- term and hourly paid work, establish researchers' career paths and even create generic job descriptions for academics. It is a tragedy, both for those faced with the sack and the sector at large, that the employers are now found wanting when it comes to this timely and vital issue.

The imminence of John Hutton's pensions report and the coalition's Comprehensive Spending Review means that these issues will not go away. Wouldn't it be better to sit down and agree a joint approach now so that staff and employers together can fight the cuts that threaten to destroy our sector? The offer is there from the UCU.

Unity is a precious commodity among staff, too. Our membership will grow, even in these difficult times, as long as we make a stand on issues such as pensions and jobs that staff see as important and avoid being sidetracked.

We have as much responsibility as those in charge of our sector to avoid internal bickering; to unite around the issues that matter; to work with other unions to defend public services; and to listen to our members rather than do their thinking for them. We in the UCU are prepared to step up to defend our sector, and to work with all who share that goal. Let's reach agreement now on jobs, pensions and other shared concerns to enable us to make a united case for education over ignorance.

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