Lecturers on the picket line in Bristol. Photo: Jack Hazeldine. Lecturers on the picket line in Bristol. Photo: Jack Hazeldine.

As UUK returns with a further offer, Des Freedman takes a look at the immediate options facing university staff involved in the dispute

After 14 days of strikes and an overwhelming vote to reject the employers’ laughable offer to settle the pensions dispute – met with the widely popular response, #NoCapitulation – UUK, the group representing university employers, has returned with a further offer.

The proposals include the setting up of a ‘joint expert panel’, composed of equal representation from union and employers, which will preside over a revised valuation of the USS pension fund. This group would then recommend to USS ‘measures aimed at stabilising the fund to provide a guaranteed pension broadly comparable with current arrangements’. There is no mention, as there was in the previous offer, of encouraging striking staff to re-schedule teaching lost as a result of the industrial action and, indeed, as Lee Jones has noted, no requirement for UCU to suspend its industrial action in order to consider the offer.

The main issue here is that the employers’ recognition – in the agreement itself – of ‘the clear wish of staff to have a guaranteed pension comparable with current provision’ has been extracted through sustained and militant strike action. The determination shown by staff and student supporters on picket lines and teach-outs, in snow and rain, in marches and occupations was the sole factor that destroyed the credibility of UUK and, along with it, the legitimacy of many of their arguments concerning the existence of a pensions ‘deficit’. It was not employer benevolence or ‘public opinion’ that forced UUK to revise its offer but the pressure of industrial action.

The new offer is, therefore, a huge climbdown from the employers’ previous position that staff should shoulder the vast majority of the burden of a pensions ‘crisis’ entirely manufactured in the imagination of ‘risk-averse’ vice-chancellors and a bullish UUK.

Yet the offer is also hugely problematic. It continues to speak of an ‘affordability challenge’ and offers no structural reform to the governance of the USS scheme. It continues with the myth that the current scheme is unsustainable and leaves in place the unaccountable decision-making structures that engineered the current dispute. There is also no guarantee that the new joint panel will be able to agree on a valuation that will genuinely ensure the status quo nor that the USS trustees will be held to any such valuation. As such, there is little to prevent the employers from once again claiming that cuts are necessary and attempting to impose an inferior scheme.

UUK’s proposals are, therefore, both a recognition of its own vulnerability and an attempt to stabilise the situation by encouraging UCU to call off its action and defuse the momentum established by the strikes.

UCU has called a national meeting of reps on Wednesday 28 March to consider the proposals and branches will be meeting to discuss the offer before then. How should they respond?

The crucial task is to extract more guarantees from the employers before the action is suspended.

Firstly, what counts as ‘broadly comparable with current arrangements’ can mean different things to different groups. Projections by USS’ actuarial advisors, Aon, back in December 2017, showed that the move from a ‘defined benefit’ to a ‘defined contribution’ scheme would mean members still continuing to receive 80-90% of their existing benefits’. Does a cut in pensions of some 10-20% suggest ‘comparability’? UUK obviously thought so arguing that it was a good deal and that ‘defined contribution’ was the ‘best offer for members, maximising the contributions towards future service and giving additional flexibility.’ For more economically literate people, however, a 20% reduction is not a ‘comparable’ offer but a significant cut.

For that reason, it’s vital that UCU negotiators insist that any future deals should not be just ‘broadly comparable’ but essentially equal to existing benefits on a defined benefit basis. This might require additional contributions from the employers (to compensate for their reduced contributions from 1997 to 2011) but we should stress, once again, that the idea of a ‘pensions black hole’ is a narrative designed to justify the de-risking strategies of some of our largest universities

Second, we need assurances around deadlines that work to the advantage of our members. The new deal, much like the previous deal, sustains the status quo until April 2019. UCU negotiators should insist on a deadline for the new valuation that equips the union to resume action, if necessary, at a time when it can be most effective – for example by September in order to strike at the start of term and certainly well before the New Year. Of course, that also means that the official 30 June 2018 deadline set by the government’s Pension Regulator to establish the ‘sustainability’ of the pension scheme will need to be postponed as a result of any agreement between UUK and UCU.

Third, we need guarantees in relation to the current dispute that there will be no victimisations and no sudden demand for re-scheduling classes and tutorials. This needs to include demands that the outcome of the pensions strike is not used to justify redundancies as we are seeing at Open University and, even more recently, at the University of Liverpool where its VC, and president of UUK, Janet Beer, has announced at least 220 voluntary redundancies.

Unless we have these guarantees it would be short-sighted to suspend industrial action.

The strikes so far have yielded significant results. They have produced thousands of new members, galvanised branches, deepened solidarity between staff and students and extended our horizons so that our claim for pensions justice is just one element of a broader demand for democratization and de-marketization of our universities. Crucially, the strikes have demolished the employers’ arguments and handed the momentum to staff to set the terms of debate. We cannot afford to lose that momentum and debate on our options now needs to be considered in the light of how we best maintain our unity and strength.

The proposed deal shows how far we have come in this dispute. It is by no means perfect but it contains the seeds of a resolution if we press home our advantage. The mass resignation of external examiners, working to contract, and future strikes all need to stay on the table until more guarantees are provided by UUK. We’re not yet ready to call off the action given that it was our determination that shifted the employers in the first place and it will be our willingness to take part in more action that will force UUK to make the concessions we deserve.

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.