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April, 2022:

Reasons to vote YES in the HE ballots – USS

Some staff have sent emails to the VC urging him to rethink his position on USS in the light of new evidence that the perceived deficit on which the current UUK proposals are based has all but disappeared. They received a standard response email from the Finance Director, Sarah Pook, and shared it with us. We wanted to investigate some of the assertions made in this email and consulted pensions expert, Mike Otsuka, from LSE. He has provided us with these helpful comments which challenge many of her key points and suggest that UoS is doubling down in its defence of a fundamentally flawed position adopted by UUK.

Sarah Pook: ‘In the spirit of ensuring that everyone has awareness of all views to ensure the widest possible understanding of the situation, I thought it would be helpful to make you aware of the response and clarification given by Universities UK, on behalf of USS employers, to the latest UCU comments relating to the USS Trustee’s latest monthly monitoring report of the pension scheme:

The USS Trustee has a legal duty to conclude the 2020 valuation, and has determined the contributions payable by both employers and members under the 2020 valuation. These contributions are set out in the schedule of contributions and are legally payable until superseded at a future valuation’.

Mike Otsuka: The bold bit of this statement is false: “These contributions are set out in the schedule of contributions and are legally payable until superseded at a future valuation.” Even in the absence of a new valuation, USS could issue a new recovery plan and schedule of contributions, which reflects the current, improved funding level of the scheme as indicated by the monitoring of the 2020 valuation. Moreover, even in the absence of a new valuation, JNC could revoke the UUK cuts and replace them with a higher level of benefits, costed in a similar way.

Sarah Pook: ‘It is good news to see an indicative improvement in the funding position, but this is monthly monitoring and not a full actuarial valuation which requires a full process including revised covenant assessment, and statutory consultations to be concluded amongst other processes; as we know this takes considerable time to conduct.’

Mike Otsuka: The above is true. Nevertheless, it would be possible, while awaiting the results of a full actuarial valuation with more reasonable (less excessively conservative – aka ‘prudent’) underlying assumptions than the 2020 valuation – to revise the recovery plan and schedule of contributions to reflect the improved funding position of the 2020 valuation.

Sarah Pook: ‘USS made clear last week at the Joint Negotiating Committee that without the latest reforms we would not have seen such an improvement in the funding position, which remains very volatile month-to-month’.

Mike Otsuka: As Mark Taylor-Batty notes: “The growth of assets to circa £90bn, the fundamental aspect of the improved position, has nothing to do with the UUK proposal. The health of the scheme adds credibility and urgency to the UCU proposals.”

Sarah Pook: ‘The USS Trustee has made clear that without the reforms escalating contributions would be payable by both members and employers – and this would not change until a new valuation was concluded’.

Mike Otsuka: This is false. Even before a new valuation is concluded, it would be possible to cap the escalation in contributions, as spelled out by the third of UCU’s three proposals. See here for further explanation of how such a cap could be realised.

Sarah Pook: ‘Indeed, if the reforms were not made the USS Trustee’s February 2022 monitoring points to a future service rate of 40.7%, plus a deficit of £6.3bn to be addressed which requires further deficit contributions of between 4% and 6.2%’.

Mike Otsuka: Here your VC is running together two very different items under the heading of ‘reforms’: (i) UUK’s swingeing cuts to future accrual, and (ii) their commitment to repair the damage to the covenant caused by the exit of one of their members (Trinity College Cambridge) by such means as a 20 year commitment of all other employers not to exit the scheme. The figures quoted above are based on the assumption that employers fail to repair this damage but instead offer only minimal covenant support. Under UCU’s proposals, current benefits would be underpinned by these measures to repair the damage to the covenant – i.e., they would be underpinned by the same level of covenant support as employers are extending to their own cuts to benefits. With such comparable covenant support, USS has indicated that, as of 28th February, the cost of future service would be 38% (not 40.7%), the deficit would be £3.6bn (not £6.3bn), and required deficit recovery contributions would be as low as 0.9% (not 4%), where this lower rate would be achieved by means of reasonable assumptions regarding length of recovery plan and assumptions regarding returns on asset investment.

In short, this is further evidence that our employer is refusing to engage with UCU even when the situation has changed and even when UCU’s proposals represent the best option for securing benefits for members and protecting the long-term health of the scheme.

The only way for us to get any leverage to push back against these savage cuts to our pensions is to refuse to accept them.

Vote YES to Strike Action and YES to ASOS on USS.

Reasons to Vote YES and YES from a local member

A local active member shared with the branch some of the comments they received while talking to colleagues about the ballot. Here are some responses to things they’ve heard:

  1. “I can’t find my ballot paper”

You can check at MyUCU where your ballot paper was sent.  Sadly, if you haven’t received it already it is too late to request a replacement so have a hunt around at home/in your pigeonhole to check it’s not under a pile of other papers.  Send it in the post by 6 April to ensure safe arrival. 

  1. “I’m not sure if I’m eligible to vote”

Do any of the following apply to you?

  • You’ve retired
  • You’ve become unemployed
  • You’ve left the branch
  • You’re on long term leave (including maternity leave, sick leave, sabbatical)
  • You’re employed by a third party
  • You’re head of the institution
  • You hold an emeritus or honorary position

If they do then it’s really important that you tell Amanda ( by 5 April so that you can be excluded from the ballot, otherwise the threshold will be artificially high

  1. “I can’t be doing with paper forms, if the UCU wants my vote they should organise online ballots”

They’d love to but the government won’t let them. The anti-union legislation currently in force requires postal ballots despite (or more likely because) of them being cumbersome and expensive

  1. “I’m abstaining so there’s no point in posting my ballot”

You couldn’t be more wrong! Every abstention received counts towards the turn-out threshold. Leaving your ballot unposted means your colleagues’ votes are ignored and allows our management to claim that we don’t care about pensions, workloads, casualisation or pay gaps. It’s happened twice, please don’t let it happen again.

  1. “I joined the Union because it helps members, not because I wanted to go on strike”

So did I, and without its help I wouldn’t be in Higher Education today. But the Union can only help its members if it’s also prepared to take action to defend their interests. Management have made it abundantly clear that the only limiting factor to what they’re prepared to do to us is what we’re prepared to tolerate.

  1. “I don’t like UCU’s approach to campaigns”

Get involved, let them know. If you don’t want a strike, vote against it. But don’t throw your vote away, and all your colleagues’ votes with it.

  1. “There’s no point taking action, it never works”

A common misperception, that VCs would love you to believe. Industrial action in HE/FE is highly effective, see here, here and here for just a few recent examples.

  1. “The changes to USS are a necessary response to current economic conditions and they’re in our best interests”

You’re welcome to your opinion, but if that’s the case why have UUK been hiring consultants who specialise in breaking pension schemes since long before these conditions were present, and why have VCs (including ours) been misleading staff about the negotiations?

  1. “These issues don’t affect me personally so why should I take action?”

Because that’s what a union is.


Why academic related professional staff should vote YES in the HE ballots

The University of Southampton comprises over 6,000 staff. Over 2,000 are academic-related professional staff (ARPS). We work across 17 distinct professional services: responsible for student and education services, libraries and the arts, widening participation and social mobility, global recruitment and admissions, residences, iSolutions, and the list goes on. ARPS are fundamental to the running of the university. Whilst our collective voice in UCU may be smaller in relation to our academic colleagues, we are affected by many of the same issues, we are of equal importance when it comes to challenging issues of our pensions, pay, workloads, casualisation and equality, and it is imperative that ARPS make it clear that we will not stand for the erosion of our pay and conditions.

Many ARPS will be affected by the ongoing USS pensions dispute, and indeed, many of us have taken strike action on this issue previously at Southampton in 2018, 2019 and 2020. On 31st March 2022, UCU issued a call for VCs across the UK to demand UUK revoke the cuts to the pensions after the health of USS finances were revealed. The changes due from 1st April see staff who pay into USS lose up to 35% of their pensions when they get to retirement. If you haven’t already, you can use the UCU modeller to see how you could be affected by these cuts.

Along with our pensions, pay has been eroded consistently since 2009, with a recent report by UCU showing that pay is down by 25.5% in real terms. ARPS are already in a position where there is no consistency with academic colleagues in regards to a framework for pay and promotion. Relatedly, the national picture on pay inequality is bleak. The pay gap between Black and white staff is 17%. The disability pay gap is 9%. The mean gender pay gap is 15.1%. An earlier blog in this series pointed to the pervasive gender pay gap at the University of Southampton. The erosion of pay is closely linked to increased casualisation. There are approximately 15k ARPS employed on temporary contracts. The issue of casualisation HE is not exclusive to our academic colleagues. Across the University of Southampton, professional services have undergone or are undergoing restructures, and there are departments still reeling from loss of staff after the latest rounds of voluntary severance in 2020. This has seen temporary posts and uncertain secondments proliferate, putting strain on teams, and adding to workloads where staff turnover is high and gaps in teams aren’t being properly resourced. For an institution that has just unveiled a new strategy that states a commitment to put its people at the ‘heart’, presiding over sustained cuts to our material conditions at a time when the cost of living is the highest it has been in decades is contemptuous.

Voting to take strike action is hard. It can be particularly difficult when you are one of only a small handful of colleagues in a team – or sometimes the only one – who are members of UCU. However, visibility of ARPS on the picket line is key to growing our numbers at the branch and making that collective voice stronger. Without ARPS, universities would cease to run. Academics would suffer, students would suffer, and the wider community would suffer. We need to stand unified with our academic colleagues, recognising that the issues outlined in the ballot affect us all.