Employers, university staff and politicians called for both sides to engage in talks in the belief that a workable compromise could be achieved. That assumption now appears ill-founded.
Throughout this period of industrial action Universities UK has been accused of being entrenched in our position and unwilling to compromise. It has been claimed we are bent on impoverishing university staff. But the reality is very different.
We have proposed changes only because they are necessary. Employers are trying to deal with a tough set of financial circumstances. We have a pension scheme that is in deficit and costs are increasing. The problem faced by USS and universities is not unique. Many trustees and employers are making the same difficult decisions across UK funded private sector defined benefit schemes.
According to USS rules, it is the job of representatives of employers and university staff in the scheme to work out a way forward when the current payments into the scheme are no longer sufficient to meet future costs. Throughout 14 months of negotiations and more than 40 meetings with UCU, we have tried to find the best possible proposal for scheme members, while representing, in good faith, the majority view of the scheme's 350 employers that they were not prepared to pay more into USS.
As the views of employers started to shift, so did we, entering into further talks at ACAS in hope of finding a solution that could deliver on UCU's demand for a meaningful defined benefit for scheme members, while remaining affordable for employers. That we managed to achieve a compromise proposal is testament to the flexibility of negotiators on both sides.
Employers currently contribute 18% of salaries to USS, double the private sector average. And make no mistake: paying more in would mean difficult choices over where the extra money comes from.
Universities are only as good as the quality of their staff, which is why employers are willing to raise contributions to 19.3%, as part of the ACAS deal, so the majority of USS members would retain a full defined benefits pension.
To maintain the status quo with USS benefits, however, total contributions from employers and staff would need to rise by 11% - £1 billion every year. This is simply unaffordable without serious cuts to teaching, research and jobs.
I am personally truly sorry that the situation has reached this point. The time I do not spend seeking a solution I spend in reflection on what could have been done differently to avoid this dispute that has done damage to students' academic experience and to the sector, which does such extraordinary, life-changing work.
Looking ahead, the clock is ticking on the current valuation, as there is a legal requirement to submit the plan to tackle the scheme's financial challenges to the Pensions Regulator by 30 June.
Employers recognise that questions have been raised over the 2017 valuation methodology. That's why Universities UK is to establish a panel of independent experts to review the processes behind the valuation that put the fund's deficit at £6.1bn. The idea for such a panel of independent experts was agreed with UCU at the ACAS talks, and it is being brought forward to address concerns over the valuation.
The panel will consider issues of methodology, assumptions and monitoring, aiming to promote greater transparency and understanding of the valuation. It will have an independent chair, involve academics and pension professionals, and will liaise with both USS and the Pensions Regulator. UCU will be invited to play a full role with the panel. I hope it will give assurance that the valuation undertaken by USS has been robust and boost public confidence in the process.
In the interests of our students, I hope we can now reach a speedy resolution. Students are caught in the middle of this dispute through no fault of their own. They now face further rounds of industrial action and cancellation of teaching.
We hope that UCU, in discussion with employers, will be able to agree a workable and reasonable way forward as soon as possible.
We appreciate the strength of feeling expressed by union branch secretaries. Equally, we must remember that the majority of university staff who belong to the pension scheme are not on strike. We need to listen to views across the sector on how USS should be secured so it can continue to offer valuable pensions now and for future generations of university staff.
This article was first published by The Sunday Times.
Please see my reply in the series of tweets below:
Will the panel look not just at the valuation methodology but also the amount is acceptable risk and the strength of the covenant, since different assumptions here will completely change everything. Also will all models/assumptions be published in full with complete open access code so that they can be verified by us. Also, will all different models and assumptions considered (not just those in the final assessment) be published. Finally, will the panel be chosen equally by UUK and UCU? And iff not why not.
Seems like USS is sticking to the idea of a £6.1 billion deficit as if they believe the maths behind it. It is quite clearly bogus, or at least founded on such high levels of uncertainty and such dodgy assumptions that the figure is an insult to those affected by this stance.
Worryingly, with the words "I hope it will give assurance that the valuation undertaken by USS has been robust and boost public confidence in the process", the goals for the panel are very brazenly exposed. This does not sound like an objective and independent venture, but one with a fixed agenda and outcome. I can only assume that Alistair is not well schooled in the concepts of critical and objective thinking, and much more familiar with the idea of ulterior motive.
The tone of this article foretells of much conflict yet to come.
I’m curious- a reported 43% of USS employers, most of them not universities, allegedly voted in a postal survey in favour of moving all risk on to academic staff by ending DB and imposing DC. Academics who are members of USS, the USS itself, and now a number of prominent VCs, do not believe this measure was proportionate to the risk. So why do you feel you have a mandate and why is your response to write in the Times that the change was ‘necessary’?
So, you are not confident enough of your position to agree the membership and terms of reference of the review with UCU?
It isn't even your money, Alistair.
A useful report on dispute but there are 8 Universities involved in strike action Monday and Tuesday . Students also do not know how the next strikes will affect them .Students have already supported UCU for a month and it is unsatisfactory for UCU to expect them to continue support until June . The strike action should be discontinued immediately and talks to take place which lead to a solution agrreable by both sides .
Academics (researchers and lecturers) invested an amount of time in their careers (MSc, PhD) that is hardly comparable to employers in the private sector who start contributing much earlier to their pension funds. In order to contribute to the whole society in terms of high quality research and teaching, researchers and lecturers spent more time to enter the employment market (most in their 30s) and started contributing to their pensions much later than employers in the private sector who start working and contributing to their pensions in their early 20s. Therefore, the argument that there has been also pension cuts in the private sector is very weak as we researchers and lecturers are much behind. It is more than fair that we have the right to a fair pension after spending a big chunk of our lives studying for the benefit of the whole society. If Universities cannot afford current pension schemes, Vice-Chancellors should be the first to offer for big wage cuts and give the example. Not many, if only, came forward to offer this option.
You note that the majority of staff on the USS are not on strike: that includes me. My institution didn't vote in sufficient numbers for strike action. However, you and UUK have mishandled this situation so badly that, if we had the chance to vote on strike action again, we'd join our fellow academics on the picket line.
Nobody is interested in Universities UK establishing "a panel of independent experts to review the processes behind the valuation that put the fund's deficit at £6.1bn." How can UUK, one of the main protagonists in the current dispute, be taken seriously when they themselves are going to set up the panel?
We are interested in a genuinely independent valuation of the entire scheme, not in your desperate attempt to rescue your own deeply flawed valuation. And we also want an enquiry into the "consultation" of employers, which seems to have based its conclusion of Oxbridge college bursar's cats running over the keyboard. I believe Dame Athene Donald, Master of Churchill College, Cambridge, is still waiting for some answers from you about that. To save you time on Google, here are her questions:
1. 1. How were the responses from different institutions weighted? Was the weight based on numbers of employees and pensioners, University financial position, or some other set of criteria?
2. 2. How were non-authorised responses weighted compared with those for which there has been full consultation?
3. 3. What weight was given to replies from non UUK institutions (such as Oxbridge Colleges) compared with those from UUK employers?
Why do we know more about the workings of the Sinaloa cartel than about Universities UK's "consultation" process?
Dear Mr. Jarvis,
I am offended at the statement "we must remember that the majority of university staff who belong to the pension scheme are not on strike" as I assume this would include academics such as myself. The ONLY reason I am not on strike is the provision of s.2 of the Trade Union Act 2016. The LSE UCU twice balloted but failed to get a 50% ballot return. I suspect this may be due to the higher than normal proportion of academic staff at the LSE who are on sabbatical or other forms of leave (maternity/paternity etc) and who did not receive the ballot.
Let there be no misunderstanding that I support the actions of my striking colleagues 100% and I woudl be joining them in their actions were it not for s.2. The USS scheme needs to be INDEPENDENTLY valued as a matter of urgency as even your own members are increasingly calling for.
Professor Andrew Murray, LSE
All of those staff not striking in my own dept(including myself) fully support the strike but are constrained by finances (aka not defaulting on the mortgage). So taking this sample, no inference regarding pensions can be drawn from the fact that some staff are not striking other than that single income households with two or more children are not well-placed to take strike action however much they would like to. Notably all who are external examiners have sent in their resignations because that is something they can do.
I'm in a post-92 institution and on the TPS scheme, but you should know that I stand as one with USS colleagues both in their struggle to guarantee a fair and just pension and against the vacuous commodification and marketisation of HE that you and your body seems to represent. Divide and rule tactics ('Equally, we must remember that the majority of university staff who belong to the pension scheme are not on strike') will not work.
Just to let you know, I am a USS pension scheme member. I was not striking as a member of a different union. I deploy the position you hold on my pension; my non-participation in strikes cannot be deemed supportive of your destruction of my retirement. The tone of your article seeks to blame strikers for the negative impact on students, but it's your fault. Plus, if you continue to mistreat university staff you're hardly going to attract and retain the very best, are you? What impact will that have on students?
"Equally, we must remember that the majority of university staff who belong to the pension scheme are not on strike."
Equally, you must remember that a huge proportion of university staff are on short-term contracts with low job security (in addition to low pay relative to industry counterparts), and feel unable to strike in full because of these issues. Many of us support our striking colleagues wholeheartedly, but have only been able to participate in a small proportion of the strikes due to our contracts coming to an end. For those of us in an already precarious situation, these huge cuts to any future security will make reconsidering a future in UK academia a serious necessity.
Like many other commenters, I have not been on strike as I am not a member of the UCU. I have watched in disbelief at the behaviour of UUK, their lack of transparency and apparent desire to force through substantial changes to our pensions based on questioned assumptions and a flawed survey. Please recognise that there are many many members of USS who feel as strongly about this issue as those on strike. If this mess, of your making, is not sorted out soon then I am will be joining UCU and their other members on the picket lines.
I am unable to participate in strike action as my teaching and research involves working with vulnerable adults and I cannot abandon them. Such activities rely on my goodwill. The intrasigence of UUK and the USS trustees is killing off all of my goodwill. I want to help but you are making it impossible for me to continue to do so. So, here's a view from someone not on strike: stop putting all the risk (and I do not agree with your risk assessment!) on your employees, on whose goodwill you rely.
I am not on strike because I work at an institution that did not reach the 50% membership turnout in the ballot for industrial action, not because I do not support the action taken by my striking colleagues at institutions where the 50% turnout was achieved. I have no confidence in the methodology used to generate the catastrophe-scenario for USS that underpins the proposed changes, and I urge UUK to think again before making another incorrect assumption, viz, that non-striking staff necessarily support that flawed sector-failure USS modelling which is being peddled.
I work as a Lecturer in a post-92, but I am in USS because I started my career in the UK at a Russell Group institution.
I am not on strike because the majority of my institution is not in USS, and so I am not allowed to strike. But make no mistake: I fully support the strike, and would be on strike if I was in a position at a pre-92.
I have spoken to several colleagues who are in a similar position, and their views match mine.
To claim as you do that "the majority of university staff who belong to the pension scheme are not on strike" is nothing short of deliberately disingenuous, and does nothing to reassure members such as myself that UUK is acting in good faith; rather, it provides further evidence that you are not.
You wanted to listen to all views: those are mine.
Alistair, thank you for finally putting your communication in the public domain and giving people a chance to respond.
Here are a few facts and related questions:
1) payments to USS by employers were reduced from 18.55% to 14% between 1997 and 2009 - this reduction in contributions from the taxpayer, via the universities (then still funded via block grants) to USS is on the order of the missing money or deficit. When will UUK request that the UK government makes up for this contribution holiday?
2) the DB part of the USS pension was already significantly cut back in 2014, partly based on the assumption that academics would receive wage increments that have not since materialised. Nonetheless the current case for further cuts is based on similarly heroic assumptions about wage increments. How can you/UUK/USS expect anyone to trust statements about the state of USS liabilities when such assumptions are hidden in footnotes and members are treated like children?
3) there clearly has been an attempt to mischaracterise the level of risk that your membership is willing to accept as based on the survey of UUK members. UUK have still not released all the information on this and this means that no member of USS can trust UUK going forward. When will you seriously address this instead of suddenly pretending the survey was of no great significance, as in your letter to Dame Athene Donald?
4) various VCs have clarified that the UK government's stance on student fees, TEF, Office for students etc. creates significant cost pressures for the universities that no longer receive block grants. They have threatened, as you do, that the result of this could be redundancies, if we do not accept a pay cut via the reduction in pensions. This line of argument can be repeated at infinitum so that the government can indirectly continue to reduce fees or increase costs of universities and each time staff will be asked to reduce pensions or wages. Shouldn't it be UUK's job to clearly document the implications of the government's attempts to avoid funding HE institutions and to vigorously and publicly contest this highly damaging policy instead of conniving to hoodwink the universities' workforce into accepting significant cuts to their deferred wages?
5) Why do you consider it appropriate to significantly cut pensions of staff at UK universities when you have no idea what effects this might have on incentives for the best and most mobile academics to leave UK HE institutions as your own report on pensions in HE from 2017 makes clear on page 13?
6) When will you resign, given that you are directly responsible for the deplorable situation students and staff at all UK universities now find themselves in?
i am a member of USS and though I am not striking I fully support the strike. I may not be on strike but have donated to the strike fund. Please do not presume that those not striking support UUK proposals for changes to our pensions. There are many reasons why people choose not to strike or are unable to strike.
To assume that not striking equals not supporting the strike is a massive error. The people that are not on strike (at least all the ones I talked to) were pushed to the decision not to strike by financial situation (I.e., not being able to loose their salary) which shows another issue with the HE. HE doesn’t equal great pay or security, soon it might also stop being equal to good will of people working in it. It is shame that those in the higher ranked positions cannot see it.
The 19.3% contribution rate is only up to a reduced threshold. For someone earning 55K the employer contributions seem to be LOWER than before. In addition the employer match on voluntary contributions above the 55K threshold has been removed.
This proposal may well redistribute employer contributions towards lower-paid employees, which makes sense, but there is no modelling that shows that employers are indeed putting in additional money. The additional money, if any, is likely to be a lot less than the claimed movement from 18% to 19.3%.
Mr Jarvis - Stop hiding behind your editorials and have a proper face-to-face debate about the USS pension scheme with LSE's Prof Michael Otsuka, whose views represent a great many lecturers.
Here is my view, since you ask.
I no longer have confidence in "Universities UK" and I would not accept any opinions voiced by a panel of "independent experts" that you convene. A retrospective audit of your compliance with your own in-house "processes" is no use. The assumptions underlying your valuation are in dispute.
Mr Jarvis - why doesn't UUK re-run the consultation on the September valuation, transparently and weighting responses according to USS membershp? My bet is that that would end this dispute - as we now know after your spin has disipated, Sept has the support of the majority of your consultation respondees, UCU willing to use, it has not been blocked by tPR, and it provides a foundation for meaningful DB.
I am a USS member and have not been on strike - but only because I'm at a non-striking University. My non-involvement therefore does NOT mean that I do not agree with the arguments behind the strike. Please can we have some transparency about why many scheme members are NOT on strike? The statement as it is is very misleading.
I have no confidence in you or Universities UK and distrust your role in our pensions. I do not feel you adequately understand the sector and the trust and social contract on which it is run. You and Universites UK are breaking that trust whether you are aware or not. This will break the sector. It is hugely worrying. Key VCs are not behind you. Personally in my view there now needs to be root and branch review of Universities UK and its role in the governance of pensions and indeed review of the exact remit and legal status of the body in general.
I've only been on strike for a day because of my short-term contract and responsibilities to provide for my young family. I fully support those on strike and the calm, rational and dispassionate manner in which those on strike have revealed the tissue of lies and deceit from Universities UK.
You are an absolute disgrace, Alistair Jarvis.
"Employers recognise that questions have been raised over the 2017 valuation methodology. "
Do you also recognise tht questions ahve been rised about the way that employers opinions on risk were garnered? Don't you think it is time now to ask the employers again in a clear and transparent, sufficiently nuanced manner, what their views are now?
It is too late now to avoid this dispute. You do, however, have a chance to end this dispute before it goes into a second wave of strikes, by repeating the survey that is the root of the problem, in a manner that is less open to question and that represents failrly the number of USS members at each institution surveyed.
We need replies to Otsuka's questions before there can be any progress in this discussion.
As a non-striking member It's reassuring that you are keen to listen to my views:
"Equally, we must remember that the majority of university staff who belong to the pension scheme are not on strike. We need to listen to views across the sector..."
I'm unable to strike because it would lead me to default on my mortgage (partner on parental leave, costly mortgage, and I'm currently earning less than I did in the NHS).
Please don't take my financial difficulties as any kind of support for your ridiculous proposals!
For the avoidance of doubt I was not on strike because I am not currently a member if UCU. However I fully support my colleagues who were on strike and I think UUK has behaved appalingly. My university has been willing to change its position when presented with evidence if a flawed valuation methodology; I am expecting UUK to do so also.
Just because I didn't strike doesn't mean I accept your rubbish. UUK would do well to stop confusing economics with accountancy, get on with the business of education and speaking truth to power. Push back, I dare you.
You write as if you have a mandate. But the whole point of these strikes is that we dispute the accounting on which you base your mandate. Who do I trust? A PR man like you or the many academics (and accountants) who are experts on pensions? Even the FT agrees that your figures are bogus. The whole tone of this piece is full of the faux paternalism of capitalist realism.
Please commit to taking the currently proposed pension cuts off the table while negotiatons happen about the terms of reference and the composition of the panel to reconsider the pensions valuation. If you don't, it looks as if you are presupposing what the findings of that panel will be.
Dear Alistair, your role in this tragic dispute is disgraceful. So far you have misrepresented the results of a survey on risk attitudes and failed to adequately represent the universities that employ you as demonstrated by their need to communicate and tweet their varying positions. You are now claiming independence of a review that is controlled by you and then misrepresenting the support of staff by saying that the majority were not on strike. How you continute to be employed in your role is beyond belief.
I am not on strike, but this is due my family's financial circumstances - if I was on strike for fourteen days my family (with two young children) would be at risk of homelessness and needing the help of food banks. Don't assume that those not on strike hold divergent views to those of the strikers.
Mr Jarvis, will you be providing an open response to this open letter ?
I am not a member of the union - yet
I did not strike - yet
i completely disagree with your position on the pension
and I will not have you suggest that my not being on strike in any way indicates that I support you - I and thousands like me do not agree with you
Please see Michael Otsuka' reply in the series of tweets below:
https://twitter.com/MikeOtsuka/status/975266968805748737Read it carefully, and then: "acknowledge the role of employer choices regarding risk in creating this mess. It is now time to come clean to members about this"
On 17th of July 2017 Nicola Dandridge announced she was standing down as CEO of UUK because of her new role at Offfice for students and that you were acting up until a permanent appointment was made. On 7th August (a bank holiday) it was announced that you had the job and she congratulated you.
Were you the only candidate interviewed? What efforts were made to find alternative candidates. Was a recruitment company involved and if not why not? Given that you post pays over £100000 of public funds and is a very high profile one involving a rage of skills it seems a remarkably hasty appointment, and it seems hard to see how appointing the deputy in post was best practice in Diversity and Equality areas where your predecessor was a sector leader.
The UUK website announces “
“The appointment was made by a panel consisting of UUK Board members, with the decision ratified by the UUK Executive consisting of the three Vice Presidents, the Treasurer and the President. The outcome of the process has been shared with the full UUK Board and UUK members.”
Which UUK board members were on the panel? Were any of them people you had a previous or current working relationship with?
I am a member of USS and I am also a member of the UCU. While I decided not to strike (due to personal reasons) I stand in solidarity with the UCU's position and my colleaugues who decided to strike on our behlaf. My action not to strike does therefore (as you allude to in yout piece) mean that I stand by the USS and UUK's position. I strongly oppose the valuation and proposals that you have put forward to date.
It’s just an interim (3-year) deal, you said. How is a reduced (2.5%) cap on inflation adjustments an interim-type change to pension conditions? We know, within bounds, what inflation will be in the next 3 years; all projections come in under 2.5% so it’s nothing to do with fixing any deficit. Capping adjustments for inflation at 2.5% is a long-term type of change, a sneaky attempt to create a low baseline for negotiation in 3 years’ time. And worse, what made UCU negotiators think it was an acceptable condition to agree to?
"we must remember that the majority of university staff who belong to the pension scheme are not on strike"
I am a non-academic member of USS - like many of my colleagues who weren't a member of UCU, I was completely unaware of both the proposals made by the JNC and the resultant impending strike action by UCU, until we received a communication from management concerning the procedures to be followed by those taking part in industrial action the day before the strikes were scheduled to take place. Despite having an online account with USS (and thus them having my e-mail address), the only communication I have received from USS in the last year was the annual (paper) statement of benefits, which contained an advisory note that USS were undertaking a valuation. My employer used to forward the monthly member updates from USS to members via e-mail, but these ceased in May 2017 - apparently USS had ceased supplying them (although we did get the "urgent update" from Bill Galvin this week...). Granted, I could have looked on USS's web site for them each month, although those who will do this every month are vanishingly few in number.
Having spent some time reading around the issue over the last few weeks, I am absolutely appalled and disgusted by the actions and attitude of the employers and UUK in this matter. There absolutely needs to be transparent discussion, rather the spin and PR, if trust is to be restored. If UUK are insistent on pursuing this course of action, they may find that many like myself will leave the sector for better-paid jobs elsewhere (I can roughly double my salary outside of the sector if I'm willing to accept a worse work-life balance and pension).
In case it's not obvious from the above, I absolutely do support those on strike - UUK's actions have actually made me become member of UCU and decide to take part in any future strikes.