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Picket and Teach-Outs Schedule, Strike Week 3, 5-8 March!

Last week’s action was warming to the soul, if freezing everywhere else.  What an amazing lot you are!  Highlights included the Monday rally with Sally Hunt, General Secretary of UCU, and the meteoric rise of the Dinosaur of Solidarity, now a Strike of 2018 superstar (other branches are now requesting appearances…).

Here is the schedule for this week’s strike activities. After each day’s pickets, UCU has organised a series of teach-outs for students and staff to learn together during the strike action.  Please do come along and join these and support your striking lecturers.  You can download the teach-outs schedule here.

You can sign our open letter to the VC here, for delivery on 9 March.

All activities subject to change (who knows, the dispute may be called off!).  More activities may be added, so keep your eyes on Twitter and Facebook for updates.

MONDAY 5 March: (am dry and breezy, showers later)

8am – 12pm Morning picket – meet with picket coordinators or come to Union House

Twitter challenge:  Where is The Dinosaur of Solidarity?

12pm Rally at Highfield – petition to go to VC at 1230pm
2pm-4pm Teach-out, Trago Lounge, Portswood Road

WTF does my lecturer actually do all day?

Christopher Gutteridge from iSolutions has worked near and with academics for over 20 years. He will give a tour of what the hell it is that academics actually do all day (when they are not on strike).


TUESDAY 6 March: (breezy all day)

8am – 12pm Morning picket – meet with picket coordinators or come to Union House


2pm-4pm Teach-out, SUSU meeting room 2, Level 1 B42

Strikes on  Screen: Representing Workers 

You’ve seen us on the picket Iine, but is that what strikes always look like? Cinema has long told stories about workers and their struggle for fairness.  Dr Shelley Cobb, Dr Louis Bayman and Prof Nicky Marsh will take you through a history of strikes on screen, then look closely at the context and conditions of strikes and workers in 80s Britain, concluded by a look at women’s strikes and the gendered issues of workplace equality.

4pm-5.30pm Teach-out, October Books, 243 Portswood Road

How do you teach creativity?

Can you teach creative writing? How can we use our imaginations to engage with the world around us?  Join writer and teacher at Itchen College, Catrin Mascall, for a creative writing workshop and open discussion about how we teach creativity in schools and beyond. This session is in support of October Books.


WEDNESDAY 7 March:  (showers in the am)

8am – 12pm Morning picket – meet with picket coordinators or come to Union House

POP PICKETS CHALLENGE – video your picket singing! Lyrics sheets will be available, but we’d love to see what you come up with.

1pm-2pm Southampton University Community Choir, Turner Sims Concert Hall
2pm-4pm Teach-out, Swaythling Neighbourhood Centre (by the entrance to Hampton Car Park) NOTE CHANGE OF VENUE

Resistance histories

Come and hear lecturers in History talk about how people in the past have used their imagination and skill in resisting oppression. Whether in the ancient world, 20th-century Europe or our own times, when faced with armed force or with a ‘new normal’ that they reject, men and women have found ways to think, liaise and refuse.


THURSDAY 9 March:  (showers all day)

8am – 11.30pm Morning picket – meet with picket coordinators or come to Union House

IT’S INTERNATIONAL WOMEN’S DAY!  Come to your picket prepared to celebrate.

1145am Meet at Highfield, Building 37, for a rousing finish to the strike week.
1.30pm-3.30pm Teach-out, SUSU meeting room 2, Level 1 B42

Is homelessness the fault of the individual or society?

Official figures indicate that homelessness and rough sleeping have been rising over the last 7 years. Why are the numbers of people living and dying on the streets continuing to rise? Are those individuals responsible for their own misfortune? Or is society to blame? This lecture will unpack what we know about micro and macro factors It will formulate rough sleeping as an interaction between the individual and environmental, exploring how policy and economic variables interact with mental health and individual coping to cause and maintain homelessness.


Cake and misdirection. The VC’s chat with the students

Cake and misdirection. The VCs chat with the students

The students recently occupied the VCs office to quiz him about the USS pension plans. The resulting video (part 2 here)  provides an opportunity to hear Sir Christopher’s defence of UUK plans to remove the guaranteed pension for academic and academic related staff at level 4 and above.

We have identified four core arguments he offers and we refer to these, for reasons that should become clear, as

  1. Cake
  2. Hobson’s Choice
  3. Lost the money
  4. Shift the blame

Throughout, his responses are peppered with reassurances that he knows what he’s talking about (“that’s the reality,” “let me explain,” “it’s more complex than that”) – but once you poke under the veneer, the arguments are flimsy. At the end, he adds a few other rhetorical flourishes but we will deal with the big four first.


This is the “not enough money argument” We call it cake as he talks about there “only being one cake.” (NB: We believe Marie Antoinette used this metaphor previously).

The VC says that keeping the Defined Benefit scheme would cost this university £9m, and this would force cuts elsewhere (there is only one cake). Later he says that to return to 1997 contribution levels, the university would have to pay up to £12 million.

Our VC – and UUK – seem very keen to create fear about the cost of USS.

We have seen similarly inflated claims by other universities. We suspect that UUK has been rehearsing these arguments with university leaders, along with shared strategies and scare tactics.  We have seen very similarly worded emails being sent to staff at different universities about deductions of pay for working to contract, for example.

In 1997, the employers were paying 18.55% into USS. If this had continued, there would be no possible excuse to claim that the scheme might have a future deficit.

In 1997, however, the employers claimed the scheme was in surplus and reduced their contribution to 14%. We think Southampton stopped paying into PASNAS around this time as well, citing the same reason.

Even with the USS “pension holiday” by the employers, the scheme is doing surprisingly well. The best actuarial estimates show that it is not in deficit at all.

So these “cake” arguments are about further reducing the possibility of the employers having to make additional payments in the future. Universities want to reduce liabilities and salary spend in order to generate more profit, and attract financial investment – like our Bond. Interestingly, the pension liability was described as fairly low risk in the bond application; it is only now we have the £300 million in the bank that we are being told that pensions are a high risk.

It seems to us that, basically, employers would like more cake for themselves. We say they should invest in their staff who actually deliver education and research.


… or the “we have no choice” argument.

He says “we have a moral obligation to have the best possible pension scheme we can have.”  Yes, this is about morality and obligation. The employers made a covenant or promise to staff about a guaranteed pension.  They have made lots of promises they have not kept.

This is the third change to the pension scheme in seven years: the scheme was changed in 2011 and in 2014, and each time we were promised that the changes would be stable for years into the future.

Staff want the Defined Pension because it provides some certainty about the income they will get in retirement and crucially, unlike Defined Contribution, the risk is collectively shared by the employers, not pushed onto the individual.

DC is not “the best the employers can do.” Universities can decide to value staff and reward them. They seem very happy to make the argument that pay matters to senior staff whose reward packages have gone up and up, while staff pay has fallen in real terms,

The DB scheme and its guaranteed pension was a moral obligation and a promise.


…or DB is just too expensive and we’ve lost the money (and all the while USS executives and investment managers are earning in their millions).

Sir Christopher says the DB has “become more expensive because basically the investments haven’t generated the money they need to.” See how neutral that sounds.  It is as if the money invested itself and fared badly. But it seems to us that the employers keep redoing their sums to get an answer they can use to argue for removing DB.

The “technical provisions” proposed by USS in September 2017 did not cast the scheme in a sufficiently bad light to satisfy the hardline VCs at Universities UK, so they launched a special consultation not just of  mainstream universities but also of all the other small employers who have a few members in the USS pension scheme. Fewer than half responded (unlike our UCU strike ballot) and, of those that did, a minority called for even more pessimistic “technical provisions.”

It later emerged that a third of this hard-line minority consisted of individual Oxbridge colleges, each of whom have few USS members, who wanted to bring down the shared USS covenant as it favoured other universities over Oxbridge. Based on this minority position, the USS trustees were persuaded to adopt new “technical provisions” in November 2017. These artificially inflatde the cost of a defined benefit pension by about 4% of salary, making them (falsely) appear unaffordable.

We suspect Christopher Snowden was also amongst the minority who pushed to destroy the USS guaranteed (DB) pension. The non-Oxbridge supporters of this position seem to be VCs who have taken out large private-sector bonds. He is also trying to do similar damage to Southampton’s local PASNAS scheme.


Finally, he tries to shift the blame. Basically he attempts to offload the blame to anyone but UUK and the employers. First he tries to blame THE GOVERNMENT. This is the argument that “it’s that nasty pension regulator what made us do it.”  He suggests the deficit problem is “coupled to a pensions regulator” and the scheme isn’t compliant with these regulations.

Then he tries to blame THE STUDENTS – they don’t cover their cost.  Even with fees of £9250 the University is not generating sufficient money to cover the cost of education for the UK/EU students. This is a neat way to attempt to sever the emerging coalition between staff and students to defend higher education. Our pension is being taken away because they don’t pay enough.  (He says his view is that the government itself should recognise the social benefit in education and shouldn’t rely so heavily on fees. See how this cleverly loops back to the first blame argument – he’s trying hard here).

Finally in a last ditch attempt to shift the blame he tries to blame THE UNIONS. This one is subtle because he suggests that it is the complexity of the negotiating framework that makes it too difficult to get a decent pension. We acknowledge that there is a JNC that has UUK and UCU sides and there are 366 employers represented by the UUK side.  But the large employers are the 64 in the strike. And our VC has a very powerful voice to influence the direction of the negotiations as a former chair of the UUK and one of the most senior vice chancellors in the country. Why did he side with Oxbridge?  Could it be because of the bond we mentioned above?


He then mentions the 1/75th or 1/80th  of salary for calculating defined benefit– either in a final salary or CRB (career revalued benefits) scheme.  This is basically the cake argument again.

He then brings up one point made in a proposal by ‘UCU members’ about retaining 18% employer contributions, but moving to DC. This refers to a discussion document prepared by 3 UoS academics who are also members of the union. This discussion document is not union policy or our positon. The current UUK proposal will not put 18% into the pension pot; it will put a maximum of 13.25% in to the DC scheme. This is a cut to deferred salary.

On the consultation regarding changes to the PASNAS scheme he blames the students, invokes Hobson’s choice, and says they lost the money here too.

He cleverly dodges the question of reducing his own pay.

On the expenses scandal he shifts the blame to ALL THE OTHER UNIVERSITIES because we showed all our dirty linen but the others hid theirs better. Even if the FOI revealed all the questionable expenses of the senior team, the point is that these people are behaving like FTSE 250 CEOs, not educators in a public education system.

He agrees with UCU that the outcome of the current UUK proposals is a totally different type of scheme. He suggest that because others – including his own son – have a ‘worse’ DC scheme we should all have one, too (“That’s the reality,” so deal with it…). This is a race to the bottom argument. We might be tempted to say that as some VCs can live on £150k pa then maybe all should?

The UUK proposals are for a worse pension. Yes, accrued benefits remain (but are subject to volatility of investments to an extent) but this is a move to DC. The questioner makes a great point that he’s “not sure employees want flexibility, I think they want security …it’s perfectly reasonable to say that people don’t want their pension to be decided by the stock market on the day that they retire.”  Exactly. One of our students understands what we are asking for better than UUK and our own VC.

Near the end of the session, Sir Christopher hints that if the finances improve the employers will pay more into our pension. What makes him think we are ever going to trust our employers again?

Gold for Southampton Strikers

We haven’t really had much time for following the Winter Olympics. It turns out striking requires a lot of effort and takes considerable time. It has been pretty cold out on the pickets for the past two days but perhaps that’s why our eye was drawn to the news that Billy Morgan from Southampton had won a bronze medal in snowboarding.  Morgan said:

 I pushed all the fear to the side on that last jump. I was like ‘even if I completely wreck myself it doesn’t matter, I’m going to go and do it’.

We hope that strike action is not quite as terrifying as snowboarding in the Olympics, but we know that it takes courage. (It also helps to have handwarmers – supplied last week by our comrades in Unison, for which we were most grateful.)

We had a great response to our call for picket line volunteers and UCU members stood outside several buildings at Highfield and there was a huge turnout at Avenue and SGH too. We received some welcome press attention  and on and Friday one of our student supporters was able to address a picket ‘huddle’ of about 150 people before the senior management asked us to ‘move along’.

The pickets are perhaps the most visible part of the action – but lots more has been happening as part of our action to defend a decent pension for all staff. Here are a few edited highlights – do follow our Facebook and Twitter feeds for regular updates.

UUK arguments shredded

Alongside the various analyses offered by independent actuaries some of the country’s top academics have waded into the debate about pension reform.  Prominent amongst these are the damning counter arguments rebutting the UUK position offered by David Speigelhalter et al.

Their key points are:

  1. The USS provides insufficient information about the methods used to value its assets and liabilities.
  2. UUK proposals assume a fall in the expected long-term nominal investment return from 4.7% to 2.8%. – despite evidence that equity markets in high income countries have increased by 11% per year
  3. They assumed cumulative pay growth of 16% over 4 years yet recent general pay increases have fallen well short of this, cumulatively increasing by just 5.8%.
  4. They say life expectancy is increasing by 1.5% per year when the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries estimates suggest life expectancy is lower.

Their letter concludes

If the USS and Mercer reports were statistical, medical, or economics papers, diligent editors would reject them out of hand. Why do we apply lower standards to an institution entrusted with £60bn of investments to provide for our retirement, than for our academic research? There appears to be a real risk the USS could be wound up because of these analyses. There may be a sizeable deficit, but on the basis of the evidence that the USS has presented, it is impossible to judge.

This week it was also revealed that the push to move to defined contribution was in part enabled by the extra votes afforded to Oxbridge colleges – while we were forced to run a democratic process for our strike action it seems UUK decision making was distorted by a medieval power base. Mike Otsuka’s diligent pursuit of a Freedom of Information request has led to an estimate that about 16 Oxbridge colleges were counted in the survey of employers, on top of individual votes by Oxford and Cambridge universities themselves.  We are forced to conclude that the hardline position, taken by our own VC and this handful of the UK’s wealthiest universities is partisan and untrustworthy.

Every day it is becoming clearer that the arguments put to members of the USS pension scheme by UUK and our employers are at best misguided and at worst duplicitous. UUK and our VC repeatedly tell us there is a deficit when the scheme has assets of £60bn and new members joining every week. They tell us defined contribution – shifting all the risk onto us – is the best and only possible deal, when it removes our guaranteed pension and represents a cut of £10000 a year from the annual pension of a typical lecturer.

VCs breaking rank but UUK refuse to budge

We’ve been told by UUK that there can be no more talks and no better pension deal. But already we can see the strike is having an impact. Leaders of institutions like Loughborough, Glasgow, Warwick, Birkbeck, Goldsmiths, Strathclyde, London School of Tropical Hygiene and Medicine have publically called for a resumption of national talks. The vice-chancellor (VC) of the University of Essex joined them on Monday, and on Thursday, the VC of Newcastle University said he “”absolutely supported staff’s decision to strike”, saying he didn’t know “what else they could do to express their concerns about the current situation.” On Friday we received the momentous news that Cambridge, too, was breaking ranks to call for more talks.

In response to these apparent divisions in their ranks UUK offered talks on Tuesday 27 February. The timing is seen by some a cynical move to test the strikers resolve to continue into a second week.  UCU negotiators will attend but have reluctantly decided not to suspend the strike because UUK have lied about their position.  A leaked email reported in the the Telegraph revealed that UUK has no plans to make changes to the pension offerSally Hunt responded:

Because this is so serious for students and for staff we will of course attend. I am however very concerned that UUK has explicitly ruled out discussing the imposed changes that have caused the strikes.

Success in Southampton teach-outs

Prof Traute Meyer leads our first Teach-out

It’s the first time we’ve run these, and we’ve had two excellent sessions so far, one  led by Prof Traute Meyer (Sociology and Social Policy) on pensions and risk providing a European and historical analysis based on her research, and one led by Prof John Langley (Chemistry) on time management.  What struck me about these session was the quality of the interactions – students, staff and members of the public freely learning together, debating, and sharing experience – quite different from some of the more heavily monitored ‘educational experiences’ we are forced to offer.  For those of us a faculty who recently introduced a compulsory lesson plan for every contact hour of teaching, it was something of a relief to just participate in education. There are more teach outs this week including our fundraiser at October Books – please do come and encourage students to take part.

Twitter and all that

We know many people find social media frivolous distraction but we have seen a vast increase in traffic on our own Twitter and FB feed and branches around the country have been sharing evidence about the flaws in UUK proposals, news of VCs reconsidering their views about defined benefit pension and, my favourite, photos of picket lines.

The Penguins of Solidarity enhance their skills portfolio by baking Chelsea buns.

It has been fantastic to see Southampton mentioned regularly on the UCU strike live web page and we are taking a few moments each day to compare #dogsonpicketlines, the quality of picket picnic fare #bakingforUSS (buns, welsh cakes, and chocolate cake here) as well as keeping up with the more serious commentary.

This blog by Marianne O’Doherty (English) struck a chord with many around the country with her observations about how the strike has “clarified the extent to which our employers feel that they are entitled to our free labour.”

 What’s next?

The conversations we have been forced to have about pensions are sparking much wider, important, debates about our sector and the work that we care passionate about. We must continue to engage with these and defend higher education and research.

It has been galling to see, after a semester of staff cuts, restructuring and increasingly hostile senior management behaviours here, that our once well-respected University has made the headlines yet again for all the wrong reasons.  In addition to having some of the most inflated senior salaries in the sector we discovered unedifying details about the further excesses of a few senior managers. We hope all members will watch the Channel 4 programme on Monday at 8pm and that efforts will be made to be more prudent at the top of our organisation.

Our sister unions Unite and Unison are holding a rally about the attack on pensions on Monday at 12 noon. Sally Hunt is due to attend, as is the leader of Southampton City Council.

There are rumours circulating that the University may try to prevent this rally taking place. Rest assured we will rally at 12 pm on 26 Feb – please check @SouthamptonUCU Twitter  and Facebook feeds, call in at Union House (47 University Rd) or ask our pickets for details.

As a result of the strike and the vote of support from SUSU Southampton UCU are working much more closely with student union representatives than ever before, Students have joined the picket lines, provided strikers with cakes and encouragement.  Next week we have more teach outs hosted by SUSU.Please do come along to these.

It’s been hard week. Striking is tough, especially when it is cold outside.  We would all rather be inside working, but we have to win this – our financial futures depend on it. So we will have to persevere, escalating our action if necessary.

To return to the Olympics theme, we think we deserve a GOLD for the strike last week. But this is not enough. We’re calling on all members this week to join us.

  • Join the picket lines. Bring a colleague.
  • Come to the rally at 12 on Monday 26th.
  • Support the SUSU teach outs on 27th and 28th.
  • Donate to the hardship fund.
  • Write to the VC and your MP – again if necessary.
  • Watch our FB and Twitter feeds for updates.
  • Work to contract on Thursday and Friday.

UCU members are clear.  Enough is enough.  We want a decent pension. We will take action until UUK make us a better offer. If you have not participated in a strike before now is the time to find your inner Blly Morgan – fight the fear and just go and do it.

See you in the morning for the first picket rotas.





The Pensions Strike: A Personal View

Note: this blog was edited 3.3.2018 in response to a few comments. See the my longer note at the foot for a discussion of the issues some commenters raised.

Over the past couple of weeks I have had a lot of conversations in corridors with staff in my institution. Very few of them have been explicitly about the strike. What people really want to talk about  is workload. That’s because my University, along with many, many other Higher Education Institutions in the UK, has a massive problem.

While the politicians and media personalities nationally like to spin the notion of lecturing as a leisurely job punctuated by long holidays, conversations on campus reveal a very different picture. Academic staff repeatedly tell me a that they had no weekend because they worked a Saturday visit day then marked all day Sunday; they tell me that they marked until 4 am then got up early to give a 9.00 lecture; they tell me that they got forty minutes sleep the night before a marks return deadline. They tell me that if they turn away from their email for a day to get a core part of their job (like, y’know, teaching) done, their inbox mushrooms out of control. They tell me that they can’t go on doing this; it’s physically and mentally harming them. In private, colleagues are prepared to talk about how the workload has damaged their family lives. ‘I haven’t seen my youngest child for three days’, a colleague once told me. Others have shared that they have felt pressure to choose between the job and their marriage.

When I look at my own life I have to admit that it has been damaged too. I’ve spent booked holiday that I really needed to rest and recuperate preparing courses, because I know that if I don’t, the students will suffer. I’ve worked, over the past six months, probably about 60-65 hours a week, and each weekend normally includes at least one working day. I’ve struggled with the physical as well as the mental and social demands of this.

Free labour in a marketised Higher Education system

My University in common with many HEIs across the UK, has a peculiar sickness: an addiction to free labour. Like other addictions, it started innocently enough, but has become an all-consuming monster.

First universities expected colleagues to pull a few long days in the marking season to get the work done. And naturally, when colleagues have got books or articles to finish, or a research grant deadline is looming, was expected that the days will be a bit long and they might have to pull a working weekend or two.

Then it was the Saturday Applicant and Open Days. We tried a few – voluntary of course – and the were a success. So the University scheduled more. Then, under pressure over recruitment, we tried a Sunday Open Day. The University decided that it works, so it scheduled more.

Of course, the academics can’t take time off in lieu in the week to compensate for these weekends (because we’re teaching in the weeks). But universities don’t think about that; academic contracts say that we have to work such hours as are ‘reasonably necessary’ to do the job, so they assume we will just absorb the work. More and more work is heaped on us: myriad tasks we’re told are necessary to enhance ‘the student experience’;  tasks required for quality assurance reasons; tasks for REF; tasks for TEF; tasks for the impact agenda, and so on, seemingly forever. Too often, the employers’ response to the demands of the competitive market in Higher Education is simply to expect individual frontline staff to do more.

I look at this trend in my workplace – and across universities nationally as seen here and here – and realise: we’ve been feeding an addiction. We thought that the more free labour we gave to our employers, the more they would appreciate us. Instead, this labour has fuelled and increased a dependency that the employers do not themselves even recognise. It has taken the current pensions dispute to make this truly clear to me.

Free labour and the current dispute

Way back when I first thought about becoming a university teacher, I was warned that the pay was a bit rubbish, but that the pension compensated. The first part of this sentence is certainly true, and particularly so at lower levels of the pay scale. UCU keeps track of the erosion of academic pay by inflation. As they prepared for the last set of pay negotiations in 2015, UCU pointed to a real terms decline in the value of pay since 2009 of over 14%, caused by academic pay’s failure to keep place with inflation. This followed years of below-inflation pay rises. But UCU members at many institutions, including my own, have not traditionally been particularly militant about holding out for above-inflation or catch-up pay rises, because we have viewed our take-home pay as just one part of our wider benefits package – a package that also includes deferred pay in the form of our pension. Indeed, a refrain I’m hearing from many colleagues in this dispute is — rightly or wrongly — that they’ve never felt comfortable striking or picketing over pay; it is the unprecedented attack on the pension that has brought many of them to the picket line for the first time.

Along with many colleagues at institutions across the country, I have always seen our defined benefits pension as a fundamental part of my overall salary package. When I’d ask myself ‘financially, is this really worth it?’, after another endurance-busting week working some insane multiple of my contracted hours, there was the pension: that promise of financial security on the horizon. In short, I rationalised the amount of unpaid, unrecognised labour I was performing as  balanced out by the pension. Now, my University, along with the other largely pre-92 universities that are members of the Universities Superannuation Scheme, is going after that pension.

You can read any number of articles outlining why the changes proposed to USS by our employers are unfair and largely unnecessary. A series of excellent articles by Mike Otsuka set out how much of the current alarm about the scheme results in large measure from bizarre and unwarranted actuarial assumptions; how the employers’ attitude to risk is hypocritical; how the draconian proposals presented are disproportionately driven by an estate-rich Oxbridge cartel in a fit of free market buccaneering. There is no need for me to rehearse any of those arguments here.

What I think really needs to be stressed is the impact of what is happening on us, and on our relationships with our employers and our work. The UUK proposals, and the Universities’ reaction to our decision to take part in lawful strike action, have clarified the extent to which our employers feel that they are entitled to our free labour. This sense of entitlement has enabled their belief that they can unilaterally decide to pay less for it through a reduction in our retirement incomes – our deferred pay – of thousands of pounds per year.

As the action draws nearer, universities’ HR departments up and down the country have been busy emailing employees, threatening almost identical punitive deductions not just for strike action, but for working to contract (Action Short of a Strike, or ASOS). That is, many institutions, including my own, are threatening to withdraw 100% of our pay if we have the temerity to only work the hours stated in our contracts (normally 35-37 hours per week), should they deem this to result in ‘partial performance’. Some are even threatening individual lecturers with legal action if students make claims against their universities. Drawing their support from the line in most academic contracts that states we must work ‘such hours as reasonably necessary to perform our duties’, universities are closing ranks to assert their absolute right to demand academic labour without paying for it.

What next?

It’s clear that a number of the Universities involved in this dispute think that they can ride this out. They think they  will take a hit in the NSS this year but, aided by threats of punitive deductions and  the hard economic reality of pay deductions bearing upon staff, they will weather the strike. The changes will then be imposed and we can all go back to business as usual.

That is not how this ends.

The Higher Education sector in the UK is broad, diverse, and strong. Staff at many institutions in the sector automatically join the Teachers Pension Scheme, which is already significantly better than USS, even before the proposed UUK changes are enacted. UUK’s highly divisive proposals  are set to magnify that difference, and it is hard to see how this will not  affect the ability of pre-92 institutions to recruit and retain staff. For those who choose to remain at  pre-92 institutions, what UUK and individual universities have done will profoundly damage perceptions of employers’ good faith and concern for the wellbeing of their staff. Reductions in pension benefits will lead to increased dissatisfaction among staff with stagnating levels of basic pay. This threatens to drag the institutions into a series of bitter and drawn-out pay disputes that can only further damage their reputations.

For my part, there can be no return to ‘business as usual’ after what has happened in this dispute. However this is resolved, institutions’ reliance on free labour, and their extraordinary insistence on their entitlement to it, must stop.

Dr Marianne O’Doherty

UCU Representative and Branch Executive Member

Note on edits 03.03. 2018

After writing this post, I received many many comments, overwhelmingly positive, from colleagues across the sector who recognised themselves and their own institution in it. Several commenters, though, suggested that it was unhelpful to frame the piece as about pre-92 universities, pointing out that the addiction to free labour exists across the sector. Several also pointed out that there are a number of USS members in post-92s (because of course staff move around), and that there are a small number of post-92 HEI’s whose members are by default in USS. 

 The piece was never intended to imply that the addiction to free labour doesn’t apply to post-92s; I’m sorry and slightly mortified that the piece ever gave that impression to anyone. It is deliberately and explicitly framed as a personal piece, signalling that it is based my own experience which, since I finished my PhD, has been in pre-92 universities. The explicitly pre-92 frame of reference particularly aimed to reflect the fact that the current official dispute in which we find ourselves is between staff and employers in the largely pre-92 member institutions of the Universities Superannuation Scheme. This is true irrespective of the fact other institutions unquestionably have members in the scheme. It is difficult to find a shorthand expression that reflects the part of the sector affected by the dispute, and I initially settled for ‘pre-92s’ for simplicity, not exclusivity.  The piece attempts to reflect that – while workloads are terrible across the sector – the specific threat to USS, as a scheme that largely (though not exclusively) serves pre-92 institutions, is bringing to the fore conversations in this part of the sector – the only part in which I have recent personal experience. 

In the light of commenters’ remarks,  I’ve edited  -and, I hope, improved – the piece to better reflect the widespread nature of the workload problem across all UK HEIs. Some way of making a distinction between the universities involved in the dispute (because their members are largely in USS) and those that are not (because their members are largely, though not exclusively in the Teachers Pension Scheme) is necessary to understand the dispute; I hope commenters will consider my phrasing (‘largely pre-92 member institutions of USS’) improved.  

In the light of the important points commenters have made, it seems appropriate to add a few more words on the cross-sector nature of the problem here. Contracts in pre-92 and post-92 institutions alike don’t set fixed hours. The post-92 national contract sets a maximum number of contact hours, but that number – 18 – is extraordinarily high given rising demands to increase informal student support, maintain time-consuming VLEs and so on in pursuit of a TEF Gold. All institutions seem to be making use of roughly the same contractual clause requiring us to work ‘such hours as are reasonably necessary to perform your duties’ (or similar wording). It’s this that allows employers across the board to ratchet up loads, by simply adding more duties and requiring us to perform them. This applies, of course, not just to teaching and research staff, but also to administrative and managerial staff whose contracts contain the same phrase. There might in the past have been a time when employers had a reasonable definition of the word ‘reasonably’. If so, that time has gone. 

 All institutions across the sector seem to share the expectation that we’ll work during much of our holiday entitlement – that is, not just the vacation periods, when we of course expect to be working, but our booked annual leave. In the pre-92s  I think that expectation is an unwritten (though sometimes a spoken) rule. The post-92s national contract, however, contains the charming statement, in clause 8.2, that ‘your holiday entitlement (clause -“Holidays”) will primarily be devoted to research and scholarly activity’. Classy.

I absolutely agree with the commenters who point out that the ratcheting up of workloads is a cross-sector problem in response to which we need cross-sector solidarity and union mobilisation, and I look forward to working together to improve things for all of us and for our students, who cannot be well-served by exhausted and demotivated staff.


Southampton UCU Pickets and Activities Schedule, 22-28 February 2018

Here is a full rundown of events and pickets for the first two weeks of strike days.  The Penguins of Solidarity are ready!


Download the schedule as a PDF here.


Date Activity
Thurs 22/2 Pickets 8am – 12pm

Highfield campus – meet outside 47 Uni Rd

Avenue campus– meet outside main entrance

2pm- 4pm

Teach out Swaythling Neighbourhood Centre

Traute Meyer – The big risk shift. Why British employers won’t make pension promises any more

In this session Traute Meyer, Professor of Social Policy, will talk about the important role occupational pensions have played in the UK for many decades. Employers contributed to pensions voluntarily, protecting many. This situation is ending. Private sector schemes have contracted or closed over the last two decades, currently we are witnessing a similar trend in the public sector. Why is this happening? Why does it matter? Can anything be done about it?

Fri 23/2 Pickets

8am – 12pm

Highfield campus – meet outside 47 Uni Rd

Avenue campus– meet outside main entrance

2pm- 4pm

Teach out

SUSU meeting room 2, Level 1 B42

John Langley – Time: Friend or Foe?

Do you struggle to meet deadlines? Does time control you or do you control your time?  This teach-out, led by Prof John Langley, will explore the different calls on our time and offer some ways to take back control so avoiding rushed work, deadline panic and allowing the opportunity for quality time to meet that work deadline.

Mon 26/2


Pickets 8am – 12pm

Highfield campus – meet outside 47 Uni Rd

Avenue campus– meet outside main entrance


Rally organised by Unite and Unison

Jubilee Plaza, outside B85, Highfield

Our sister unions, Unison and Unite, are organising a rally to talk about the attack on staff pensions at University of Southampton.  UCU is invited along to discuss the current USS dispute.

2pm- 4pm

Teach out October Books

243 Portswood Road, Southampton SO17 2NG

Shards from World histories of activism

For this session, held in support of our October Books’ drive to raise funding for its new premises, staff in English will explore some of the ways in which literature engages with moments of social and political activism. Stephanie Jones will talk about ‘Striking Sail, and other troubles at sea’. Emma Clery will discuss ‘’The Poetry of Protest in the Romantic period’. Ranka Primorac will introduce us to ‘Africans on Strike’ through Ousmane Sembene’s God’s Bits of Wood. We’ll end with a performance from Sarah Hayden that helps us think about how hope can drive political action: ‘Would it not be possible?’

Tues 27/2 Pickets 8am – 12pm

Highfield campus – meet outside 47 Uni Rd

Avenue campus– meet outside main entrance

2pm – 4pm

Teach out

SUSU meeting room 2, Level 1 B42

Denis Nicole – Cybersecurity and lock picking

It’s a secret – come along and find out…….

Weds 28/2


Pickets 8am – 12pm

Highfield campus – meet outside 47 Uni Rd

Avenue campus– meet outside main entrance



Turner Sims Concert Hall, Highfield Campus

University of Southampton Voices (USV) are rehearsing Sergeant Pepper every Wednesday in the Turner Sims 1.10 – 1.50. All are welcome – no experience needed and Harvey Brough is happy to accommodate strikers and supporters to sing on our strike days.

2pm – 4pm

Teach out

SUSU meeting room 2, Level 1 B42

Beautiful Trouble: My First Strike.
Workshop led by Kevin Brazil
For many staff, as well as many students, this will be their first experience of strike action. This is an opportunity to bring staff and students together to learn about the process in a different way than usual, where students learn from staff. Instead the strike offers staff a chance to learn with students: to learn about strikes, activism, and what works. People, even participants, often focus on what is negative about strikes – loss of teaching, loss of money, conflict, anxiety, stress. But the history of activism shows that strikes can be acts of empowerment, bonding, and joy – acts of beautiful trouble. To learn together about strikes and activism, we will study a selection of modules from the Beautiful Trouble casebook, reflect on what works, what doesn’t – and what we might use together at Southampton.


An open message from a member in Medicine: The USS Pension Hypothesis

This message was sent by Tilman Sanchez-Elsner to his colleagues on 15 February 2018.

I am writing to inform you that there may be strike action this February and (perhaps, hopefully not) in March that, unfortunately, could disrupt our ability to do our jobs.

There has been enough blame game being played when discussing the USS pension issue, so I would like to take a more “scientific” angle on the problem to try and simplify it detaching it from emotions, which is what we usually do in our profession.

Hypothesis: “There is a huge deficit in the USS pension.”

There are two options:

Hypothesis is FALSE: There is no deficit (or it is only transient, due to market fluctuations), there is no need to change our pension scheme. UCU (or, better, the Union’s actuaries) claims this is the case; depending on whether you calculate it, we might even have a surplus.

Hypothesis is TRUE: There is a long-term deficit. UUK (our employer) claims this is the case. We have to tackle the deficit.

UUK want to do this by reducing our current scheme from Defined Benefit (guaranteed income,) to Defined Contribution (no guaranteed income). This, according to economists in papers such as the Financial Times, is not the solution to the deficit. It is, yes, the solution to the risk that the deficit poses to the employer.

Why? Because in a Defined Contribution Scheme, the risk is placed on the pensioner. If the market hasn’t performed, if there is a huge deficit in the pension pot (remember, Hypothesis is TRUE) you will pay for it by getting a lower pension (some calculations claim -10K/year).

Conclusion, the deficit will stay rampant (if TRUE, remember) for the next 15-30 years (while USS is still paying mostly Final Salary pensions, the previous scheme, before Defined Benefits). By the time some of us retire, there will be very little in the pot unless we take action now and stop the deficit from bleeding us dry.

I am no expert, so I am not going to dare offer a solution. UCU suggested that increased contributions (by both employer and employees) could help tackle the deficit, if it exists. I just say UUK have to sit down with UCU and take this problem seriously with a credible solution to the deficit, not leave the hot potato to us. They have rejected all of UCU’s proposals.

As a biologist, I believe in competition as an important driver in the international academic ecosystem. That is why I think that a weak pension scheme, together with other recent national events, may be a huge hindrance when trying to recruit brilliant academics from neighbouring countries.

As a biologist, I also believe that co-operation is an important driver in any ecosystem. This is why I am desperately asking our management to sit down with UCU, to talk, to negotiate, to co-operate in finding a solution to a problem that won’t go away with a change in the scheme. This view is shared by our Government, in a letter I just received from our MP Caroline Nokes (Southampton North, CON): “The Government encourages both sides to continue negotiating and come to a sustainable and fair agreement.”

In an attachment to that letter, Sam Gyimah, Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation claims that “[…]an independent report commissioned by USS concluded that universities with USS schemes would remain strong and stable for at least the next 30 years.” In the same letter he expresses the interest of our Government in “[…]discussions on what, if anything, was needed to ensure that defined benefit pension schemes [such as ours] remain sustainable, whilst protecting members’ benefits.”

Summarising, let’s talk, let’s find a solution.

Feelings and emotions: I always thought that, if I worked hard enough I would be rewarded… and it has generally come true, particularly here, in the Faculty of Medicine… I feel, though, that, if they destroy our pension, no matter how hard I work or how much I produce, the result will be the same when I retire. I don’t want to find out that, when I am old and cannot work anymore, when I am defenseless, I will have barely enough to live and will have to spend the last years on this planet in poverty or unable to pay for specialized care or equipment when needed. It will be too late to protest then.

I think we deserve better.

Please join us and help us bring UUK to the negotiating table. Join UCU and strike. Short of that, please do not come to work the days of the strike. You have the legal right not to cross a picket line in solidarity with us. Don’t worry, we are not going to “intimidate” our own colleagues and friends nor the Hospital’s patients!

With a daughter in her final year here in Southampton, with teaching duties, papers and grant deadlines… the last thing I want is to strike. But I do not see an alternative to make UUK talk to us in a meaningful way.

Best Wishes,


PS1.- If you want to help, please join UCU

PS2.- This e-mail is my personal opinion. For UCU´s take on the problem:

PS3.- If I have offended anyone, please accept my apologies, this was not my intention.

UCU Industrial Action: a message to our members and colleagues

Dear members

Striking is hard. We know that you are wrestling with the momentous decision this branch and other UCU branches up and down the country have made to strike to defend our pensions.

None of us wants to harm our students’ education.

We don’t want to halt the world-leading research we are doing.

Nor do we want to stop the myriad activities we do every day that contribute to our university community.


We are facing an unprecedented attack – the changes to our pension represent a raid on our deferred salary.  The typical UCU member stands to see their retirement income reduced by £10,000 a year if these cuts to the USS pension fund are imposed. The proposed changes pose a threat to the future of the scheme, and the loss of a decent pension scheme poses a threat to the sector.

If we said you had to gamble your salary at a casino, knowing you’d lose £10,000, we hope you’d say no.

If we told you we were going to take 10-40% of your wages we hope you would do everything in your power to resist.

Our employers want to take away your guaranteed pension. Rather than sharing risk (as the current scheme does), UUK wants each individual member to shoulder all the risk of future stock market volatility. You only need to look at this morning’s papers to understand how risky this is.  Our employers are prioritising their profits, and washing their hands of their covenant to staff.

You have voted for this strike in record numbers. Striking has made a difference in the past, and can make a difference again now: an increasing number of VCs are publicly breaking from UUK’s hardline stance. We must maintain pressure on our senior management, and so all members of UCU must support the strike. We all have to be prepared to withdraw our labour on all of the strike days.

Southampton UCU members are expected to be on strike on Thursday, 22 February, and Friday, 23 February.

Then again from Monday 26 February to  Wednesday, 28 February.

And if UUK don’t come back to the negotiating table then we have to strike on Monday, 5 March, to Thursday, 8 March, and again Monday, 12 March, to Friday, 16 March.

Southampton students have voted to support us and we will be liaising closely with their representatives so that they understand why we have to strike.  We urge you to talk to your students and explain what is at stake here. There are resources on the UCU website – use them to educate our students, to inform parents and colleagues. This cut to our pension and total salary will make University of Southampton a less attractive place to work. Demoralised, devalued staff cannot deliver excellent education or research.  Ultimately this will damage the current and future students too.

UCU nationally and locally will be operating a hardship fund. We ask members who are able to please donate to support our colleagues – especially our casualised and hourly-paid colleagues – who will struggle financially in this strike.

We voted for strike action because the employers have pushed us too far.  We have delivered more and more for less and less reward. We are regarded as disposable assets and now our senior managers stand with UUK to dispense with our future financial security.

It’s time to stand together and say no.  We will see you on the picket line.

Laurie, Catherine, John, Tim, David, Mary, Mark, Roger, Marianne, Sarah, Cori, Huw, Maureen, Denis (Branch Committee 2017/18)


Collegiality and Communication

Several members have asked what has been happening to letters to the VC about the USS  pension.  Below is our correspondence to date.


From: UCU U.
Sent: 09 January 2018 11:05
To: Vice-Chancellor <>
Subject: USS pension

Dear Sir Christopher

Happy New Year to you.

Please find attached letter from UCU regarding the USS pension.  We hope that you are able to give your support to your staff and help protect their pensions.

We look forward to receiving a positive response from you soon.

With regards

Amanda Bitouche
Southampton UCU




From: Vice-Chancellor
Sent: 09 January 2018 15:37
To: UCU U. <>
Subject: RE: USS pension

Dear Amanda,

Thank you for your email and the attached letter from Professor Pope.

Kind regards,

Christopher Snowden



From: UCU U.
Sent: 26 January 2018 16:50
To: Vice-Chancellor <>
Subject: USS pension dispute

Dear Sir Christopher

Please find attached letter from Southampton UCU in relation to the USS pension dispute.

We look forward to receiving your response.

With regards

Amanda Bitouche
Southampton UCU








From: Vice-Chancellor
Sent: 26 January 2018 18:13
To: UCU U. <>
Subject: RE: USS pension dispute

Dear Amanda,

Thank you for your email and attached letter.

Kind regards,

Christopher Snowden



From: UCU U.
Sent: 29 January 2018 10:58
To: Vice-Chancellor <>
Subject: RE: USS pension dispute

Dear Sir Christopher

Thank you for acknowledging receipt of our letter sent to you on Friday 26 January (copy attached).  Would you be willing to make a statement to members responding to the points raised in this letter?

I look forward to receiving your response.

With regards



From: Vice-Chancellor
Sent: 29 January 2018 17:55
To: UCU U. <>
Subject: RE: USS pension dispute

Dear Amanda,

Thank you for your email.

Recognising that their pensions are of great importance to all USS members at the University, I will be posting an item on SUSSED within the next few days which will  also address points raised in UCU’s recent letters.

Kind regards,

Christopher Snowden


Hands off our money – fight to defend our pensions

With a single casting vote in the pension joint negotiating committee the financial security of current and future academic staff has been jeopardised.

Sadly this means that our strike action must go ahead.

Academics and academic related staff don’t like striking. We are here because we care about education and research. Most of us work longer hours than we are contracted for because we believe in what we do, because we chose service rather than profit.

But strike we must.

Here at Southampton UCU we are regarded (and regard ourselves) as a pretty moderate bunch. The turnout for the vote and the overwhelming support for strike action indicates that we have been pushed too far. This attack on our financial futures cannot be allowed to succeed.

The move to defined contribution pension with its frighteningly individualised risks (the value of investments may go DOWN as well as up) and attendant administrative charges, is nothing less than a pay cut. It is pay cut of between 10-40%, taken from our deferred salary. What is more, it is a pay cut supported by the members of the UUK side of the JNC who are most likely to be financially secure (

Not all VCs backed the UUK side or these damaging changes to USS. On Thursday last week, Warwick’s VC wrote that “there is a need to maintain a meaningful defined benefit scheme for those members of staff, present and future, who perceive pension provision as a key factor in their choice entering or remaining in higher education”.

Alongside him, the VC of Loughborough also stated his opposition in a letter (partially reproduced here ) .

Colleagues at Bristol reported that their employers had been keen to find a middle ground and planned to revise how much the institution was willing to pay in contributions.

Sadly our own VC, one of the highest paid senior academic leaders in this country, did not stand with us against the proposals. The senior management here have continued to support the move to defined contributions.

Members can expect more emails in coming days about the strike action. What we can say now is that we must strike to show our employer that our deferred salary is not theirs to bargain away.

Your executive committee will meet on Friday 26th Jan to plan the action here. In the meantime here are some of the things you can do now to help defend your pension.

  1. Volunteer for our picket lines.We will picket areas across our university campuses and need up to six on each picket line. Please email Amanda with contact details (
  2. Pass the message on. Tell those who are not members that these changes could wipe £200,000 from their pension. See Urge non-members to join UCU and join us in action to defend our pension.
  3. Bookmark updates on the action.
  4. email the VC and ask him why he did not defend your pension

Finally remember we are your branch. You are UCU. Send us your comments and ideas about how to make this strike effective.

We may be reluctant to strike, but strike we must. We cannot allow this assault on our retirement security to go unchallenged.


the photo used is from  and depicts an early US ballot box which of course is not related to the USS vote in any way but is instead a rather lovely piece of history.


Why pensions matter (and why you really must vote to save USS)

When I started working in academia I didn’t think much about my pension. I joined USS because I thought I should (a bit like my reason for joining AUT the forerunner to UCU). Someone explained that my pension payments – made by me and my employer – were deferred salary.

That made sense.  My pension is money paid to me but kept back for when I can no longer work. Over the years I put up with pay freezes and below inflation pay awards, the gender pay gap, and short term fixed term contracts, in the knowledge that I would be OK when I retired.

The current proposals to close the defined benefit element – if enacted – rob us of that future financial security.

UCU have calculated that ending guaranteed pension payments would mean a loss more than £200,000 over the course of a retirement for a typical member of staff.  You can see the First Actuarial report analysis here, and admire the critique from our resourceful colleagues at Sheffield UCU below (reproduced graphically for best effect):

UUK have been muddling with the figures on potential losses by including state pension in their calculation (see here an analysis of the impact of their proposals produced by Aon) but even if we take their estimate, current USS members lose 20% of the value of their pension.

Even with UUK taking  liberties with the calculation of the size of your pension cut, this still produces a reduction of 20%.  That’s a lot of deferred salary.  Are you prepared to take a 20% pay cut?

It is difficult to precisely calculate the level of cut in pension our members could face, due to the nature of the move from defined benefit to defined contribution pensions.  Essentially, University employers are wanting to move the risk of providing pensions from Universities to individual employees.  This is an unnecessary gamble, and means that retirement income will be dependent on the peculiarities and upheavals in the stock market.

Little wonder we are angry and starting to get serious about our pensions.

As I write our UCU national negotiators are continuing to put forward counter proposals for a way forward.

  • We know that there are very different views about the methodology for valuing the scheme and the way of managing risk.
  • We know that most employers could afford an increase in contributions from the current 18% of pensionable salary to at least 21% (and this may not be needed in perpetuity).

Your local UCU branch like others around the country has been asking our Vice Chancellor to stand with staff to defend our pension. So far Sir Christopher and the senior management have continued to support the UUK and USS Board proposals. (Perhaps their relatively higher salaries mean that they have fewer financial worries about their futures?).

UCU are balloting for nationally coordinated action initially aimed at shutting down lectures and classes, including a refusal to reschedule any lost due to strikes, throughout February. Already, the pressure created by the strike ballot has forced UUK to extend their deadline for talks, due to end on 19 December 2017, to 23 January 2018. They have also been persuaded to consult their members on an alternative proposal from UCU, which maintains the defined benefits (DB) cap at £55,500, reduces accrual rates to one-eightieth and means increased contributions for both employers and staff (based on the previous cost sharing agreement).

But we cannot afford to be complacent. We know that only the threat of sustained strike action will move the employers’ position, and we must deliver a clear message – before the ballot closes – that we will not tolerate this attack on our pensions.

It is time to think about your pension, but also to act. We need a 50% turnout in the vote for the ballot to be legally binding, so your vote really does matter – regardless of whether you vote in favour or against the strike.  And we need this 50% from University of Southampton members, as the ballot will be counted locally: if Southampton members do not vote in the necessary numbers, our voices will not be heard in the ballot.


If you have not yet received or have misplaced your ballot papers, please visit this address before 12 January for a replacement:

We are having a General Meeting on 9 January 2018 at 1215pm, in 45/2040 (Lecture Theatre A), which will be addressed by Christine Haswell, UCU’s National Pensions Official, and we will be running surgeries after the meeting.  Please let us know on if you wish to attend – all members are welcome, or if you are not a member, please come and join!

Please tell your colleagues to VOTE. If they are not members they can join UCU today at – and if they do so by 12 January, they can get a ballot paper.

If you want to know more about the arguments about USS there are resources here and our UCU colleagues at Sheffield have produced some useful audio and slide sets:

Catherine Pope
Southampton UCU vice-president