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October, 2017:

The student as consumer II: what happened to academic teams?

This blog has started as more of a personal reflection, but it may end up as a call to action. We’ll see.

A conversation last week with an administrator from another part of the university (let’s call her Caroline) led me to think a bit about the academic team – students, academic staff, and administrators who participate together in an ongoing project of scholarship. Some colleagues may remember, in the mists of time, when the University had academic teams.  We called them departments. Each department had at least one departmental administrator, who supported the Head of Department in administrative tasks, both teaching- and research-related, helped students navigate the course, and – in many cases – provided the quasi-familial glue that held the department together. As with all roles, some department administrators were more skilful than others, and each had their strengths as well as weaknesses, but they were, by and large, people whose jobs were to be there for the department.

Even further back in the mists of time, academic departments had their own budgets, ran their own activities, and when they needed support for those activities, they went to support teams who pitched up with what was needed, be it technical assistance, teaching innovation, or specialist printing… but I digress.

Now, much has moved on from those halcyon days – our responsibilities to HESA, HEFCE, QAA, and RCUK (and the Borders Agency, and..and..) have expanded beyond all recognition. As the sector shifted inexorably from a resource for public good to a provider of private gain, our University moved with the times. It created a belatedly Thatcherite “internal market” for support services in the late 1990s, and then – disastrously – in the new century “Transitioned” into the form we see now, in which many “departments” are virtual within Academic Units or Faculties; in which – as Caroline pointed out – administrators no longer work directly for academics, but are in structural silos according to responsibilities, line-managed and appraised by someone who may work on an entirely different campus; and in which the student is a consumer (the “student-consumer,” as one upcoming policy event now has it) rather than a participant.

When the conversation turns to the University’s (rather than Faculties’ or Academic Units’) responsibility for NSS, I frequently hear, “well, students talk to each other, so we need to make sure that everyone gets the same level of service.” From a quality assurance point of view, there is certainly a strong case for ensuring procedural equivalence (if not equality) across the University. But Transition began a process that has all but wiped out something irreplaceable to the student experience. Administrators were removed from departments and corralled into open-plan offices – this might have been seen as a more efficient way to work, but it ripped the soul out of our departments, and things have never been the same. Transition, and every successive centralising restructure, first destabilised, then demolished, then in places erased all memory of the academic team.

In many parts of the University, students begin their academic journey in contact with an Admissions Team, their local queries are dealt with at a Faculty/AU Student Office by someone at a hatch or a counter, they rock up to lectures and tutorials where their presence may or may not be recorded (don’t get me started about whether or not attendance can be mandatory, and what that means for student support…), but they do not belong anywhere particular.  Caroline told me last week that she has seen students wandering campus in tears: now that almost all pastoral support has been devolved to academics, who are busier and busier, and thinner and thinner on the ground anyway, it is not unlikely that both their Personal Academic Tutor and the Senior Tutor are teaching or in administrative meetings. Who is there for that student, especially if they are on a joint honours course? With no academic team to belong to, where do they, and where do their tutors, find their community, their tribe, and their support? There are nightlines, advice centre drop-ins, the First Support team – and they do very good work, but there is no substitute for the personal relationships that used to bind our teams together.

My own students (I am both a PAT and Senior Tutor for my AU) are privileged because we may be the one of a very few AUs that still has an administrator who sits in an office in the middle of our campus space – Music is separated from the rest of Humanities at the Avenue, so there has to be a Faculty outpost at Highfield. The students think of the staff in that office as Music staff, even though technically they are not – but in general, those administrators know all our students by name and have an understanding of who they are, what issues they might have, and even – gasp! – might have some sort of friendly rapport with them.

This may seem all very nice but not necessarily germane. However, when it comes to dealing with students (and staff, for that matter) with specific mental health issues, or those that have sudden personal crises, and even those that just want to share something wonderful that has happened to them, that relationship can make all the difference. The day before my conversation with Caroline, a student in deep crisis felt able to come to our administrator, who then was able to provide some initial comfort and guidance before coming to find me and the PAT. I cannot imagine that student feeling comfortable going to a counter or a hatch, in floods of tears, in order to talk to a complete, or nearly complete stranger. But as it was, they had immediate and personal support, and within minutes they were safely in an office where they could cry until they were able to express the problem, and by the end of the day we were on our way to identifying solutions.

That student is in the third year, and will be filling out the NSS in a matter of months. I wonder if we did a quick analysis around the University, whether we would find lower NSS scores overall in places where the academic team is most fragmented or even non-existent? Where it is impossible to place a sign saying “Welcome to the Department of X-ology” because such a place is only virtual? Where the students would not be able to name or recognise the person responsible for administering their academic progress, or vice versa?

When you think of the student as a consumer rather than a participant, your perception of their needs and wants is changed. I rather suspect the University thinks its responsibility to the NSS is to provide a better student experience through administrative efficiency, because it is measurable. In order to find answers about administrative effectiveness, our senior management have been putting their faith in an opaque consultancy process called Uniforum, the results of which have been impossible to obtain (commercially sensitive, don’t you know?).  When we ask for data – because we care about our students and our colleagues, and because we want some agency in the future of the university – we are rebuffed. But when we tell them things (because our experience should be of value), via whatever consultation or staff engagement mechanism they care to dream up, they have not yet listened.

The big question is, of course, is there a will or a way of turning back the clock? Or can we do it in a move forward, rather than a move back? If this is a moment of great change in the university, why should we not take the opportunity to make it as positive a change as possible? What do you think? Would the re-establishment and repair of fractured academic teams make a difference? To the student experience? To the staff that bear the the day-to-day responsibility for making the student experience better?

Outcomes of the General Meeting, 24 October 2017

As members will be aware, we held a General Meeting this lunchtime to update the membership on local matters, and to discuss the USS valuation and the potential for a national dispute.  The President’s report highlighted the current position of the University after the results of the TEF and the NSS, citing some sadly prophetic words from national UCU’s own briefing on TEF, released in late June. We also briefed on progress and developments regarding our local priorities, set at our Strategy Day: appraisals, MEQs, consultations, and settlement agreements.

Our invited speaker Chris Mason, UCU Pensions official, and our own Denis Nicole, who sits on UCU’s National Executive Committee, helped shed light on some of the more detailed and contentious issues surrounding the pensions valuation, and there was a lively discussion about what the branch felt was important to understand about pensions, what strike action might mean, and what kind of strike action we felt able to support.

Thanks for a well-attended meeting!

Two draft motions for the special conference and meeting to be held in Manchester on 9 November 2017 were submitted to the GM for approval.  The discussion did much to clarify what matters to members of the branch, and helped everyone understand better the issues at stake.  It was to the credit of the members attending that this respectful and productive debate resulted in amendments that were unanimously approved.  They are reproduced below.

We are still looking for a third delegate to attend the 9 November events on our behalf – it is essential that we are well represented, as if we do not use our representation to its maximum benefit, we may end up with a call to action that does not reflect well our priorities here.  If you are willing to represent us (we will pay your expenses!) please get in touch with the branch via email, or on 023 80592364 as soon as you can.

Many thanks!


Motion for Special HE Sector conference to determine national UCU industrial strategy

Motion on industrial action to protect pension rights

Conference notes

  1. That the willingness to take industrial action is necessary to defend USS pensions.
  2. That a marking boycott is not an effective threat in many institutions because of the increasingly casualised workforce, and a boycott’s disproportionate burden on a subset of the full membership.

Conference believes

  1. That well-supported work-to-contract and full strike action are the only effective means of delivering a meaningful national action.

Conference resolves

  1. To ballot for industrial action with strike action plus work-to-contract not before January 2018; with escalating strike action as necessary.
  2. To increase the quality and quantity of advice to branches on effective work-to-contract strategies.
  3. To escalate the political campaign to win the argument for not changing the pension scheme.


Motion for meeting of pre-92 USS branches to determine a response to proposals in respect of USS:

Motion to resist ideological interference in USS proposals

Conference believes that

  1. Predicting a possible future unsustainable deficit via a disputed methodology has provided an ideological justification for the privatisation of collective Defined Benefit schemes and movement into individual Defined Contribution schemes.
  2. The recklessly prudent change in investment strategy to ‘manage risk’ and the Pension Regulator’s recent re-evaluation of the covenant are ideologically driven rather than rooted in reality.

Conference resolves

  1. To state in all UCU literature that we insist that employees should not pay for this constructed deficit, either in increased contributions or in reduced benefits.
  2. To encourage the USS JNC to resist inappropriate intervention from the Pension Regulator.
  3. To refuse to accept detrimental changes to the USS pension scheme by identifying viable solutions which allow retention of secure benefits for members.


The times, they are a-changin’

The Penguins of Solidarity rally around our community

This week Southampton UCU reps have been working with colleagues in the latest Faculty to be hit by a restructuring programme – or as it is rather euphemistically described in briefing papers, ‘Realigning resource to meet the decline in student numbers’. (SUCU believe that a genuine ‘people strategy’ would refrain from labelling people – our friends and colleagues – as resources, but we are where we are).

This announcement has been preceded by a preliminary consultation period.  SUCU representatives have repeatedly reviewed the draft consultation materials, scrutinising the equality impact assessment and working with HR to reduce the number of ‘resource units’ (i.e. colleagues) at risk. These negotiations are informing our own plans for how best the branch can support staff. This is becoming the bread-and-butter, everyday work of our branch, as successive restructures and redundancies are announced. We are (mostly) a volunteer force, but thankfully we also have the support of our regional officials and the back-up of the national teams.

At the staff meeting called to open this particular consultation, the Vice-Chancellor explained that the University’s apparently sizeable surplus in its accounts was really an operating surplus of only £3m on a turnover of £600m. He said that despite the austerity measures, notably the recruitment freeze, staff numbers have risen more quickly than the numbers of students and this will necessitate further restructuring. This will not be happy news for staff who have been threatened with redundancy in cross-University ‘Transition’ and ‘In-Ex’, and other localised restructuring schemes over recent years. And let us not forget the 250 or so staff who appear on the fixed term redundancy notification every 3 months, for whom fear of losing their job is a hardwired expectation.

Job insecurity is becoming a way of life across the university.  That said, it is worth noting that once again the proposed job reductions involve frontline staff – this time it is academics, while previous restructures have targeted administrative and support staff. Yet the elephant in the room is the apparently inexorable rise in higher earners (those earning over £100k) employed here over recent years, who are seldom ever in the frame for redundancies.

Another interesting reveal in the consultation process was that Sir Christopher’s summer reading of the NSS data identified evidence of tactical voting in at least one subject area. Subsequently it has emerged that this was in part due to the efforts of one disgruntled individual with a sizable Facebook network mobilising a protest vote. This is, of course, appalling, but we have yet to see any of our sector leaders seriously challenge the NSS methodology, and highlight the obvious problems of manipulation.

Led by the National Union of Students, students in other institutions boycotted the NSS precisely because it is a problematic measure and because it was reportedly to be used to enable fee increases by the ‘best’ (TEF-Gold rated) institutions. We share the NUS’s concerns, and we would like to see that our leaders do, too. We want them to set out a vision of education as transformative, life changing and necessarily challenging – not to use the questionable results of a survey based on the ‘student as consumer’ model as yet another performance management metric to browbeat individuals and teams.

We recognise that there is always room for improvement, but this improvement cannot happen in a vacuum, and will not happen if we carry on in a culture of fear.  Instead of telling us just to do ‘simply better’, we suggest that the University return to providing meaningful staff development and support: the closure of our learning and teaching unit – ILIaD – earlier this year has left a significant gap in provision for staff looking to improve their skills.

Sadly, we expect to see much more of this sort of activity across the University in the coming weeks.  We urge you to urge your colleagues: join the union, get active, get informed, and feel empowered.  We still have Senate, we still have our Statutes and Ordinances, and we must fight to preserve them.  No one is saying that the next few months are going to be easy, but they will be less distressing if we work together with a common purpose.


Your pension in their hands

Amanda, our branch administrator, explains the importance of the proposed changes to our pensions

You may have noticed exec members on early morning missions last week, trying to get the vote out in UCU’s consultative ballot over action to preserve our pensions.  And the maelstrom surrounding the USS pension valuation seems to be strengthening, even since the discussion we had with senior management at the October JNC.

At the meeting we were shown a draft press release explaining in more detail the University’s response to the employers’ consultation, which we assume will be forthcoming soon.

Over the weekend more information has emerged about political meddling in the valuation, that goes beyond even the Pension Regulator’s letter to USS, published in the Financial Times on Friday. Henry Tapper, one of First Actuarial (UCU’s auditors) blogged about the whole sorry business yesterday – showing that Frank Field (Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee), the Pensions Regulator, UUK, and USS have been involved in correspondence over the summer, trying to shore up all their individual interests in the matter.  As Henry points out, though, the only missing voice in this conversation is ours – the future pensioners.

Mike Otsuka, one of UCU’s most active pensions experts, is advocating a way out of this conundrum, that has the ideological support from the actuarial working for both UUK and UCU: a scheme that relies on discretionary targets rather than promises that he explains here.

UCU members have until 18 October to vote in the consultative ballot.  If you have not received your ballot email, or have lost it, you can get another here. We strongly recommend that you vote YES, that you are prepared to take industrial action to save our pensions.  If you are not yet a member of UCU, you still have time to join, and to vote in the ballot: click here to join online, or for information on how you can join over the phone.

We are holding a General Meeting on 24 October at Highfield, after the UCU consultative ballot has closed. Mike Otsuka has supplied us with some materials, and we are trying to arrange for an additional speaker.  We understand that some members at outlying campuses may not be able to attend, so we will do what we can to help: we can certainly circulate the meeting materials, and if you can help us with room booking, we will do our best to come to you.


“And all for Love, and nothing for Reward”

“They for us fight, they watch and duly ward…. And all for Love, and nothing for Reward” (The Faerie Queene, Bk 2, VIII/2).

Southampton UCU have been concerned about the implementation of appraisal, probation, and promotion – the collection of policies called ‘Reward’ – for many months.  We have raised our concerns repeatedly at JNC meetings, but have found senior management reluctant to engage, either claiming that our concerns are unfounded or saying that the issue involves only “individual cases” that we may not discuss in the meeting.

This past academic year, we have seen a huge increase in casework around appraisal, probation, and promotion, with members at all levels – from new lecturers to distinguished professors – feeling aggrieved about the initial process with their line managers or, frequently, the moderation of their agreed appraisal scores. In some cases, unsatisfactory moderated scores have led to members facing performance management/capability processes.

All the ERE Reward Policies were negotiated with UCU, and ratified by our National Ratification Panel, in 2014. According to the agreed terms, these policies should have been jointly reviewed on an annual basis, but this has not happened.  Moreover, the implementation of these policies, both in the broadest sense (the appraisal moderation guidelines) and in some individual cases, has been outside the terms agreed in 2014.   Up to this point, management has refused to recognise this to be the case, but at the October JNC, HR finally admitted that the policies’ implementation was not in accordance with the negotiated agreements.

Having agitated for a review of the policies for many months, we are relieved that this review is now going to take place, commencing at the end of the month.  We have requested an analysis of last year’s results, for probation and appraisal, focussing on moderated scores, analysed against protected characteristics (gender/race/age/sexuality/religion) and by department/AU/professional service. We deeply regret, however, that we have been told that because the appraisal window for Level 7 has already opened, no changes to the policies can take place in this academic year.  We take the view that since moderation – by far the most damaging and contentious element of the process, and the one that sits largely outside the agreed policy – will not be taking place until January at the earliest, we should be able to make progress on making this part of the process fairer.

We would like to remind members of our view on module evaluation questionnaire scores. These MEQ results have been shown to inherently biased against lecturers with protected characteristics, and thus have no place in performance review or management. This view is supported by the Module Survey Policy, which does not list performance review as an aim for MEQs. We will seek clear guidance for line managers and appraisers on the appropriate use of student module evaluation.  We also will continue to press for a fit-for-purpose learning and teaching CPD programme for all staff, that can help both teaching staff and managers respond to any fairly identified needs.


The problem with treating students as customers, or how module evaluation questionnaires and our timetabling policy damage the student experience

A long title, sure, but this issue lies at the root of many of the intractable problems that are having a most severe effect on our members.  We want our members, both ERE and MSA staff, to recognise that we can improve both student and staff experience without succumbing to the rhetoric and false logics of the marketisation of higher education (our strategy Simply Better, as we have now been told, has its roots in a “radically conservative” self-help marketing book by the same title).

This blog covers only the aspects that we addressed at the UCU JNC on 12 October 2017, but we are very happy to continue the conversation offline, and welcome members’ contributions. We would particularly encourage members who are on Senate to consider how they can help reframe the conversation within the university governance structure.

Module evaluation

There are so many things wrong with the ways student evaluation is used and interpreted, across the sector and in our own institution.  While it is important to have a means of informing module enhancement and tools for examining student experience, end-of-semester module evaluation questionnaires are, at best (even when they are conducted and interpreted appropriately), limited in the benefit they can impart, particularly that the students themselves can experience. We have created an initial resource for members’ use, centred on mid-module evaluation – already practice in some faculties – as a much more constructive way to engage students in effective change: click here to see our suggestions for Module Evaluations and Simply Better.

There is a weighty, constantly evolving literature that shows “student evaluation of teaching ratings and student learning are not related,” that “teacher effectiveness is negatively correlated with students’ evaluations,” and worse, that unconscious gender bias affects “even putatively objective aspects of teaching, such as how promptly assignments are graded” to a statistically significant degree. Our submission to the October JNC was unequivocal about this bias, and we consider the discussion to have put the University on notice. Management cannot now claim that they are unaware that student module evaluation questionnaires bear a significant and demonstrable burden of discrimination in contravention of the Equality Act, and  SUCU will support any member of staff wishing to commence a grievance who can show that their module evaluation scores have been used in a way that causes them to suffer detriment (see also the upcoming blog on our Appraisal discussion).

Timetabling policy

At the October JNC, we also addressed some serious issues with the Timetabling Policy:  currently, although it ostensibly allows for reasonable adjustments under the Equality Act, it contains a hierarchy of protected characteristics and who has those characteristics, student or staff – which rather confounds the concept of equality.  It also jeopardises the University’s Athena Swan award, so we want this fixed sooner rather than later: we have asked that the policy be considered as a matter of urgency at Policy Review.  We are also deeply concerned that some members with protected characteristics are being refused flexible working/timetabling requests, and we are pursuing this with the Equalities Officer as a matter of priority.

The conversation then turned to that aspect of the policy that has created disaffection and distress in the whole community: the fundamental principle (3.12.a) that student choice determines the timetable, not the other way around. We all know the havoc this manifests at the beginning of each semester, and it is not uncommon to find that we do not know where we are teaching, even days (or working hours) before the beginning of the semester, or that for a week or two (or more) the class size can be greater than the number of students a room can accommodate.   But it has ramifications further into the semester: for instance, if your module assessment design is based on an average intake of a certain number of students and you find you have double or half that number registered, all sorts of problems arise at the point of assessment (inadequate time for presentations, inadequate numbers for effective group work etc.).

This is not something on which the union is empowered to negotiate directly, but we can hold a view and we can represent our members’ views to the JNC.  We know that timetabling problems and mismatches between module design and module enrolment, issues wholly or largely out of the control of individual departments, have directly contributed to poor outcomes on NSS. We strongly assert that academic staff should not be held accountable, through measures taken via the Education Strategy, for problems created by a misguided adherence to the notion that student module choice trumps all other considerations.  Given an appropriate and meaningful choice, students – as far as we can tell – would opt for modules and courses to run smoothly and predictably: perhaps less variety overall, but with more timetabled options for popular/core modules.

Students are not customers, and strategies to address customer satisfaction (as if we were the book Simply Better‘s illustrative businesses Toyota, Tesco, and Ryanair) are not the first place we should be looking to improve the “quality of education and student experience we provide.  If senior management wants to know where the stresses are that make the real differences, then all they have to do is ask, listen, and accept – even if the message is not one they particularly want to hear. The Collegiality strand of Southampton’s Simply Better demands “high-performing leadership and management” and a “community built on trust and taking personal accountability.”

Go on, then. Let’s talk, and put it right – for all of us.

“What’s a JNC, then?” What your union has been doing for you this week

It’s been a hectic week (well, couple of weeks, really) at Southampton UCU HQ. Even while we’re all slowly uncurling from the brace position of Week 0 and greeting our new and returning students, our intrepid committee and caseworkers have been going about campaigning on pensions, negotiations, training, representation, committee meetings, liaising with our sister campus unions – all part of the rich tapestry of local branch business.

UCU leaflets and desk ornaments

Union campaigning materials in the autumn sunshine, accompanied by the Heart of the Union and Tony, the AUT Brain.

The focus (highlight?) of the week has been the two Joint Negotiating Committee (JNC) meetings on Thursday 12 October, the morning devoted to matters concerning all campus unions, and the afternoon to matters solely relating to UCU members.  The JNC is perhaps the most important event of each term, as it is where we initiate, debate, and complete formal negotiations with university management.  Any matter that has an impact on our terms and conditions of employment will eventually end up tabled at JNC: for instance, in September, we established new ground rules for policy development and approval, where University policy affects our T&Cs – and JNC is where all that work is finalised.  Most importantly, JNC is where we can hold the university to account if we feel that things have not gone – or are not going – according to the law, or our negotiated agreements, or to good practice.

We covered a great deal of ground yesterday in these meetings and some matters deserve write-ups of their own, just so this update doesn’t get too long.  For each, there is a tl;dr summary, but if you want to know more, I’ll be providing more detailed coverage over the weekend (13 Oct: I’ll be adding links as I write the more detailed posts).

  1. Pensions: The University has made its position clear, and will be issuing a press release soon.  We are very disappointed that the response has not engaged with the detailed criticisms of the valuation.  (In other news, we’ve continued campaigning for the consultative ballot on national strike action over the threat to USS.)
  2. Education matters – module evaluation scores and timetabling: We raised significant issues from our members relating to the conduct of module evaluation questionnaires and the inappropriate uses to which scores are being put, and we questioned reasons for the policy of retaining MEQ data on employees for six years.  We requested an urgent review of the Timetabling Policy, in terms of its incompatibility with the Equalities Act, and in the way some faculties are failing to implement flexible working requests.
  3. Appraisals and ERE Reward policies: We delivered robust criticism of the implementation of the ERE Reward policies, particularly appraisal, and established that the University has been operating outside our negotiated agreement of 2014.  The policies will now undergo urgent and long overdue review.

Other matters can be summarised briefly here. We raised several incidences of the University’s failure to respond to FOI and data access requests, and received assurances that the team dealing with data access has been strengthened. Also under the umbrella of communication, we reminded management that if they are going to use NSS results on feedback to, um, encourage individuals and departments to do better, they they need to up their game on feedback to us: focus group activity, working groups, suggestion email addresses… Management tell us that they engage with staff in a variety of ways, and are always seeking input and acting on it, so if that’s the case, we need to see the outcomes.

Two matters will need further discussion and work before our next JNC in March, so I’ll leave them with you to come back to us: the “expectation” of turning student emails around in three days (turnabout is fair play, so if you are left weeks without a response from HR or management, do let us know); and the imposition of Clarity [link to intranet; not for public users] as sole agents for university business travel.  We say this decision relates to our terms and conditions, particularly for those of us who self-fund our research travel, so we have insisted that it be referred to JNC’s Policy Review Group.  Please let us know if you have any difficulty arising from this (currently) unnegotiated decision.

Your UCU branch president,



USS pensions update: a conversation and a quote

Last week, I wrote urging you to vote in UCU’s consultative ballot on whether you would be willing to take strike action to safeguard our pensions.   At that time, Southampton UCU had not had any indication from senior management regarding the University’s position on the USS valuation. I hoped that the University would take its responsibility seriously, and perhaps take a position like the University of Sheffield, critically evaluating the methodology and inputs for the valuation.

I have now met and discussed the University’s response with the Vice-Chancellor and President and fellow SUCU exec members met with the Director of Finance and HR team last week. I asked Sir Christopher if he would be willing to give me a quote that I could share with members.  He kindly responded with the following:

Pensions are extremely important to colleagues, and as a University we wish to be able to offer pension schemes which provide the best possible benefits to employees and which remain sustainable well into the future to provide the income we all need in retirement.  We are particularly keen to ensure that employees throughout their career are able to participate in a long term sustainable pension and to be aware of the importance of joining a scheme as early as possible. The current USS scheme is heavily in deficit and the University along with all other institutions who participate in this scheme are making substantial payments to address the huge deficit in addition to the pension contributions, currently of 18% of salary, together with 8% from employees in the scheme. The University has responded to the consultation on the pension scheme and after careful consideration has supported the proposal for a defined contribution (DC) scheme for future benefits because it would provide greater certainty in terms of benefits and would be sustainable whilstgiving more flexibility to all our staff. The scheme’s Trustees will have to satisfy the Pensions Regulator that the scheme is sustainable and that the sector is able to address the growing deficit.  Further increases in employer pension contributions and any increase in deficit payments by employers are simply not affordable and would threaten both the future of the University and that of the pension scheme.

Sir Christopher shares our frustration with the current situation, and so I urged him to work with both the UCU and UUK negotiators to interrogate the valuation methodology and the investment strategy proposed by USS.  I suggested that UCU members here wanted our senior management to take the consultation seriously, and to give serious consideration to the materials made available by UCU.

There are academics who, in the Financial Times, on WONKHE, and elsewhere, have closely criticised USS’s methodology, voicing serious concerns about USS’s flawed assumptions underpinning its valuation. UCU commissioned an independent report from First Actuarial that leaves the USS Trustee’s proposed approach in tatters, concluding:

The USS does not have negative net cash flow and is not likely to have in future (subject to dealing with increasing longevity, as already noted). Cash and short dated investments are not needed to meet net outgo and to protect against forced disinvestment. … Investing to achieve a lower return than indicated increases the probability of requiring further employer contributions, indeed, it makes it certain that more contributions are needed, in direct conflict with Test 2 and the wishes of the employers (p. 15).

I remain troubled by the role of the Pensions Regulator in the process. It would be a travesty if the entire consultation was invalidated by the Trustee’s capitulation to the Pensions Regulator’s views: this would suggest that there was no point to consultation in the first place.  First Actuarial state:

the law does not give TPR a role in the decision making process of an incomplete valuation. We note with concern the comment [in the Valuation] that ‘the trustee has shared its emerging proposals throughout the process with the regulator as well as stakeholders.’ TRP’s objectives are not aligned [my emphasis] with the objectives of the trustee and the employers…. the trustee’s role is to act in the interests of the members and the employers (p. 7).

At the root of the employers’ concerns are the implications of contribution rate rises. While employers are absolutely within their rights to run their business according to their best interests, the First Actuarial report argues that there is no need for contributions to rise – and we would wish both the University and UUK to take this seriously.  Although we understand that the decision has not been made without consideration we feel it is regrettable that the University supports a move to a completely Defined Contributions pension, which seems at odds with its desire to recruit and retain quality staff. First Actuarial has also prepared a report comparing the benefits of USS with TPS, the scheme available to employees in post-1992 universities: in all tests, TPS already outperforms USS. EU universities, too, have occupational pension schemes which hardly make employment in a USS university seem attractive.

Ultimately, members need to bear in mind that USS is a private pension scheme. Its existence depends on participation by its members, and, if we really want it, we now have a choice to leave.  The scheme’s employees are paid for by our pension contributions, and the vast salaries on offer to them make their arguments about the need for prudence and the funding deficits seem frankly distasteful: see the Annual Report, Report and Accounts (scheme), p. 25 – a mean average base salary of £63K pa, 113 members paid over £100K pa, with the top earner taking home in excess of £1.6m pa.  We know that the employers are just one of three sides negotiating in the room – well, four, if you count the éminence grise of The Pensions Regulator – but we have no direct way of putting pressure on USS, so we must put pressure on the employers, instead.

There is no doubt, either in my mind or in that of the Vice-Chancellor, that a dispute would be damaging – but that is in the nature of industrial disputes.  We want UUK, USS, and The Pensions Regulator to be in no doubt that we abhor the devaluation of our pensions – what we used to call our deferred salary. They represented a covenant between the sector and its workers that we could accept lower wages than could be commanded in the private sector on the understanding that we would be looked after well in retirement.

We will be holding a General Meeting on 24 October, after the UCU consultative ballot has closed.  In the meantime, we continue to urge you to vote in the ballot: if you have not received your ballot email, or have lost it, you can get another here. We strongly recommend that you vote YES, that you are prepared to take industrial action to save our pensions.  Let those who will decide our future hear our voice.

Your UCU branch president,