UCU pensions

We have seven weeks in which to raise the temperature and to inject some hope into the battle to defend pensions says Des Freedman

When professors of actuarial science start to organize, then you know that the ground is shifting beneath you.

Earlier this week, experts in pension valuations drawn from the world of maths and statistics wrote to the chair of the Trustee Board of the USS, the pension fund for thousands of university staff, challenging his overly pessimistic assumptions that have been used to justify drastic new proposals to slash pension obligations and to completely re-model the scheme.

The proposals are the cause of the industrial action currently being carried out by members of UCU, the union representing academic and academic-related staff in universities and colleges, who, until recently, were involved in an assessment boycott in an attempt to scupper the proposals. Yet, as had been widely predicted, members of the Higher Education Committee of the UCU voted last week to suspend the assessment boycott while the employers consider the union’s counter-offer and take part in fresh talks.

The suspension has demoralized activists who were arguing that, far from scaling down the action, the union needed to escalate the dispute both to force employers to offer significant concessions and to deal with the rogue universities who had decided to dock staff 100% of their pay simply for taking part in the boycott. Union members at the University of Liverpool, for example, were due to have walked out this week in response to what is, effectively, an employer lock-out. Now, in what many union members think is a sign of weakness, negotiators have agreed to talk without first having secured any fresh concessions on the core issues of the dispute. Instead, the employers have simply offered to withdraw the threat of 100% pay docking and to enter into more discussions.

Many activists will be extremely frustrated by the recent turn of events and the pallid tactics being pursued by negotiators. After having offered to drop the final salary element of USS (which currently applies to some 75% of USS members) in favour of a career average scheme, it seems as if final salary has already been condemned as an historical relic (though not, it seems, to lucky staff at the Bank of England).The latest element of the campaign is a petitionto the employers which asks them to ‘agree a fair method of valuation which reflects the underlying strength of the USS fund’ but which does not mention a commitment to defend the final salary scheme for those who are in it nor to improve the career average scheme for more recent joiners.

A petition alone at this point in the dispute is hardly likely to shift employers who are committed to reducing their costs. Let’s remember that this is not due to economic necessity. The most recent studyof university finances shows net assets of some £37 billion as against debts of £7 billion with a net surplus in 2013 of over £1 billion. Recent figures, revealed in an excellent post on the politics of the assessment boycott, show that while the income of those universities involved in the USS dispute has grown by 27.7% since 2009, staff costs as a proportion of turnover have fallenby 3.7%.

The question is, therefore, not whether institutions can afford to pay or whether the scheme is in dire straits (a claim systematically rebutted by some experts) but how members can put sufficient pressure on the employers to force them to drop their proposals.

The assessment boycott will be restarted on 16 January 2015 unless sufficient progress has been made to resolve the issues. At present, a deal that will appeal to members seems highly unlikely and, indeed, there was apparently ‘universal agreement’ at the HEC meeting that the dispute is not over. One participant insisted that ‘it was emphasised by everyone that we needed to be prepared to take hard-hitting action in January’ given that ‘the employers have not retreated from their deficit estimates and “de-risking” strategy’.

Activists need to use the interim period not simply to moan about a ‘sell out’ but to organize both locally and nationally so that action is re-started in the most effective way. Some ten branches have already voted for a special sector conference to discuss the conduct of the dispute and to attempt to assert a more radical perspective on how best to win. 10 is a good start but another 10 are needed if the conference is to take place. Branches should also be organizing events with students in order to win their support for the dispute. At Goldsmiths, for example, an Assembly of over 100 staff and students discussed not simply the USS action but also issues of concern to students including student poverty and poor quality, expensive accommodation.

Departmental meetings will also be crucial in order to plan how best for members to participate in the boycott if and when it restarts and to consider other forms of action that they would be prepared to engage in. The assessment boycott will be all the more effective when supplemented by a variety of actions including targeting admissions events and procedures and a boycott of email for academics. Finally, the mandate for strike action – supported by a majority of members in the ballot – needs to be activated, particularly when ‘rogue employers’ return on the scene to punish those who take part in the assessment boycott.

Higher education policy in the UK is in a mess. This is far from a minority view. Just last week the cross-party Higher Education Commission concludedthat the reforms introduced since 2010 ‘have created a system where everyone feels they are getting a bad deal and this is not sustainable’. The report discusses the stakes involved in the pensions dispute and concludes that forthcoming accounting changes affecting pensions liabilities ‘will be noted by bankers and lenders to HE’ – a revealing glimpse into who counts in the marketized world of higher education in 2014.

In this context, a serious battle to defend pensions is entirely possible given that the proposed changes are neither necessary nor legitimate (nor indeed supported by all employers). We have seven weeks in which to raise the temperature and to inject some hope.

Where Now for the UCU?

Called by ‘Liverpool UCU Network’ and University of Liverpool UCU
Saturday 6 December, 1.30-3.30.pm (1pm for registration and lunch),
The Quaker Centre, 22 School Lane (near Church Street), Liverpool, L1 3BT
More about this meeting…

Des Freedman

Des Freedman is Professor of Media and Communications in the Department of Media and Communications at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is the co-author of 'The Media Manifesto' (Polity 2020, author of 'The Contradictions of Media Power' (Bloomsbury 2014), co-editor of 'The Assault on Universities: A Manifesto for Resistance' (Pluto 2011), and former Chair of the Media Reform Coalition.