What next for USS? Possible outcomes of the April 27 JNC

In the CUCU briefings on the consultative ballot on the March 23 UUK proposal, we advised members that regardless of the panel, both the Pensions Regulator and the USS trustee would likely require some changes to benefits and contributions to be agreed by the end of June, and that it would not be possible for the JEP to complete its work by then. We have now seen the papers for the USS JNC meeting happening today (April 27), which confirm that this is the case.

The JNC papers make clear the “surprise and disappointment” of the USS trustee at UUK’s failure formally to withdraw the January 23 proposal, despite Alastair Jarvis publicly saying several weeks ago that they “did not intend” to proceed with it. The papers also indicate an expectation shared by all parties that the JEP will not report until September or October, too late to affect the completion of the current valuation and probably too late for its recommendations to be implemented before April 2020. The valuation will therefore be completed on the basis of the November technical provisions, with proposed changes to benefits and contributions going out to statutory consultation by late June, well before the expected reporting date of the JEP, for implementation in April 2019.

So what happens at today’s JNC is important. The USS trustee has made clear that it will not proceed with the January 23 resolution for 100% DC without a further explicit instruction from the JNC to do so. If it receives no further instructions before the close of business on 30 April it will proceed to implement the contribution increases it deems necessary to fund status quo benefits under the November valuation (‘cost sharing’).  So there are three possible outcome from the JNC:

(i) The JNC decides to go ahead with the January all DC plan, if the independent chair votes with UUK to issue a fresh instruction to USS to that effect. All now seem agreed, however, that these proposals would — in the words of the chairman of the USS — be “significantly damaging for the sector”, so this seems an unlikely step.

(ii) The JNC makes an alternative proposal, costed to the November valuation, before April 30. This is a real possibility, since the March 12 Acas proposal would fit the bill from the UUK and USS perspective, and might well be supported by the JNC chair. An improvement on the March 12 Acas offer would depend upon the willingness of employers to increase contributions further, so is unlikely. It is also possible that Cubie might allow UUK to put through something worse than Acas so as to keep their contributions below even the 19.3% of the Acas agreement.

(iii) The JNC does nothing, and the USS trustee implements cost sharing. In our view, this would be the best outcome for USS members. The loss of c. 3-4% of pre-tax salary from take-home pay would be very unwelcome, but employer contributions would increase by nearly double that figure, giving cost-sharing the best ratio between member contributions and benefit levels than any other possibility. The size of the employer contribution involved would also give UUK a very strong incentive to negotiate seriously with us to make the JEP work effectively, in order to agree something to replace cost-sharing at the earliest possible date.

Which of these options is pursued will determine not only the likely shape of our USS pension arrangements in 2019-2020, but also the leverage which UUK and UCU respectively have at the JEP. So we should be watching what happens over the next few days (including what the USS trustee does around April 30) very closely.


Social media in a transformed union

Cambridge UCU member Jana Bacevic is running a #NoCapitulation: using social media session at UCU in transformation: UK-wide activists’ day school, taking place in London this Saturday, UCL, Roberts Engineering Building, Torrington Place (short walk from Kings Cross/Euston).  This blog post is a short reflection on the topics concerning the role of social media in union organizing raised by the strike action, and a set of basic questions to guide members and activists in using social media beyond industrial action; it’s meant to kick-off discussion, not cover exhaustively the content of the session.
The comments box is open, so please let us know any questions, comments, or specific aspects you would like to learn more about, or tweet at us with #UCUtransformed. We will also be live-tweeting from the session, so follow the hashtag if you can’t attend in person – and we hope you will!


USS strike and social media: how did we get here?

foisted 2
[Branch reps Twitter DM chat, 28 March]

This snippet from the thread of Direct Messages that started between UCU branches on Twitter sometime during the strike reflects well, I think, some of the dominant characteristics that shaped both the strike itself and the use of social media within it:

(1) It all happened very quickly;

(2) Quite a bit involved coordination ‘on the run’, frequently between people who had no previous experience in doing similar things;

(3) The existing union (or branch) procedures were insufficient to offer guidance, especially given the speed of events;

(4) Results were often outstanding and surprised even those involved from the beginning.

Though technically an ECR, I was lucky enough not to have social media duties foisted upon me: I volunteered, together with a bunch of other people. This may seem strange, as I am not a social media expert (neither am I sure what a social media expert is, but some organisations pay a lot of money to people to advise on this): I am a sociologist and social theorist, and my work has, for a while now, been on how people act together politically – including in universities. In this sense, I am interested less in what technology can do, as much as how we can use technology (including digital technologies) to harness the power to act together, as a collective.

A lot of the writing on the role of social media in political mobilisation and social movements emphasises its transformative potential, especially when it comes to democracy and horizontal decision-making. However, as the history of science and technology suggests, technology does not do that alone: it equally has the potential to be transformative and to perpetuate the status quo; to subvert existing relations of power as well as to amplify them. The question, therefore, is how we can use social media to support and further develop those elements of the strike we’d like to see more of – solidarity, comradeship, swift coordination between branches – and not perpetuate others, including top-down power relationships, different forms of exclusion, etc.

In between 

One of the reasons why branches’ social media strategies often boiled down to that proverbial ECR is that social media fall neatly in the crevice between usual union communications. On one side of this crevice are traditional ways of reaching out to current and prospective members: meetings, leaflets, regular emails distributed via branch or departmental mailing lists or reps. On the other side are ways in which unions communicate with the ‘general public’, including traditional media: press releases, communiqués, and interviews. Add to this the fact that local branches usually have limited resources; even if there is a designated ‘comms person’, social media – with few exceptions – was not very high on the list of their priorities. It’s probably not an overstatement to say that before the strike, social media was not seen as central part of union communications, let alone its strategy.

So what can social media do?

The best and the worst characteristic of social media is that it spans both worlds: it can, at the same time, reach members (current and prospective), as well as the general public.     However, distinguishing between the two is more complex than in ‘traditional’ union comms; while some platforms (e.g. Facebook) offer limited possibilities of ‘selecting’ audiences, it makes sense to assume that, in principle, all activity on social media is (or can be) visible to anyone. This is particularly the case with privacy issues related to platforms such as Google or Facebook. The solution, of course, is not not to use social media at all, but rather to match the platform to the type of message and audience you are trying to reach. If done well, social media can engage existing members, attract new ones, and communicate the union/branch political message in ways that are more efficient and potentially farther-reaching than those through classical union channels. If done badly, however, it can alienate existing members and present the organisation in a less-than-favourable light (anyone need reminding of UUK’s ‘we’ll meet you tomorrow’ Twitter moment ;)?).

Ideally, obviously, a branch social media account should aim to do more of the former, and less of the latter. However, there are bound to be mistakes and backfires: after all, as one of the contributors to the branch Twitter DM channel said, “behind these handles are real people”. No social media ‘guide’ or strategy can fully insulate from it: at the end of the day, like any other political message, social media is about knowing and listening to your members. Here, however, are a few questions I think can help orient social media use in ways that help build solidarity within the union.

[1] What is the nature of the message you are trying to communicate?

Some platforms are better suited to specific forms of communication – for instance, Twitter works well for relaying information as well as short political positioning statements – e.g. “We encourage the University to avoid pay docking” or “Solidarity with XYZ workers on strike to defend their pensions!”. However, given the character limit, a more detailed elaboration of political position will require a link to a longer document – for this, you need to rely on a website/blog, or Google docs.

Similarly, Facebook works well for events – but so does Eventbrite. One of the challenges is to avoid using too many channels for the same thing: it multiplies labour needed to provide content and creates potential confusion (what if the event on Facebook says it starts half an hour earlier than the event on Eventbrite?). The only rule of thumb is to use the platform with the broadest possible public access – so, make sure that even those not registered can get information about the event.

That being said, obviously, if you need to communicate something strictly confidential, best is to stay off social media completely.

[2] Who is the audience you are trying to reach?

Three obvious groups are members, prospective members, and the general public. In addition to this, there are specific groups you may already be working or liaising with – other unions, local activist groups, campaigns, etc. In principle, social media can be used to communicate with all of them – but, sometimes, you need to adjust the message and medium to specific audiences. For instance, when reaching out to graduate students, it makes sense to focus on Facebook; when focusing on other organisations and institutions, it makes sense to prioritise Twitter, perhaps, depending on the context and suitability, adding their handles.

Following and liaising with other members and groups on social media is a good idea – it makes coordinating campaigns easier and reduces the amount of labour needed to keep the feed populated.

[3] Do you really have time to engage?

Most people build the impression of social media from their own – or other people’s – patterns of use. From this perspective, social media can seem like a wonderful opportunity to connect with and engage in discussion with other people. The reality for a branch account, however, is that this can become very time-consuming, not to mention a potential source of conflict. The question, therefore, is: what kind of engagement is best served by social media?

This will obviously vary in relation to branch, but here are some of the guidelines we apply at Cambridge UCU: engage to provide information – always; support – if and when appropriate (don’t forget that branch officers and case-workers exist precisely for this purpose – social media can be a first point of contact but is not a replacement); discussion – if and only if there is a clearly defined branch position (remember – you are posting as branch, not as individual); argument – never. The latter may seem a bit contentious, and at times makes the branch seem ‘aloof’ or disconnected, but the truth of the matter is that no-one benefits from prolonged shouty conversations. Do not feed the trolls. If you are being trolled on the basis of a misunderstanding, provide clarification – once (don’t be the UUK); then let go.

Also: never, ever post after coming home from the pub.

[4] What’s the best way to integrate social media into union working patterns?

Here it is, the elephant in the room: working for the union is, for the most part, voluntary. This means that we should by all means strive to avoid it becoming someone’s full-time job (unless they are paid for it, of course). This is particularly important as social media is still often treated as a ‘lighter’ part of comms and/or something that doesn’t involve a high degree of political judgment (neither is true, of course); as a consequence, it is frequently foisted upon ECRs, women, minorities, tech people, or whoever else is seen as ‘naturally’ good at it.

One good way of resisting this is always having a social media team – that is, multiple union members who can use different accounts. However, it is also important to have a clear schedule, rota, and a delineated set of duties – for instance, a ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ person for each platform, and someone in charge (and with overall responsibility) for the strategy. You also need a quick and efficient conduit between the exec and comms – we use WhatsApp groups, which also allow for quick sharing and distributing of content, but Slack and other platforms are also available.

Last, but not least, this is where technology can really help: apps such as Tweetdeck, Buffer, and Hootsuite offer the possibility of planning ahead and scheduling social media content – there are free versions for single users, or paid-for but still affordable versions that allow for combining teams. Hey, maybe it’s not fully automated luxury communism, but we’re getting there.

More about all this (and other things) tomorrow – meanwhile, feel free to post questions or comments below! 


Pensions as an equality and diversity issue

The two remarks below were made by Cambridge UCU members Dr. Iza Hussin (POLIS) and Prof. Sarah Colvin (MML) at the Discussion of the Universities Superannuation Scheme that took place on Tuesday 20 March at Lady Mitchell Hall. The Discussion was called following a campaign that gathered the signatures of more than 500 members of Regent House (the university governing body), many of which were collected by union members on the picket lines.

The statement read by Dr. Hussin was co-signed by a number of colleagues, including University Equality Champions, and the statement by Prof. Colvin signed by Gender Champion for the School of Arts and Humanities, Dr. Clare Chambers (Philosophy). The names of these co-signatories were left off the record of the Discussion published in the University Reporter. This repost, with their permission, is intended to set the record straight.

If you would like to help campaign on the issues raised below, come to our Gender Pay Gap, Pension and Equalities meeting on Tuesday 17 April, 2.30pm in the Outer Parlour, Pembroke College (map).

Dr I. R. B. M. Hussin (Department of Politics and International Studies and Pembroke College):

Deputy Vice Chancellor:

I am a Lecturer in Politics and International Studies, and I make these remarks in my personal capacity. I also make this statement on behalf of my colleagues, Dr Surabhi Ranganathan of the Faculty of Law, Dr Mónica Moreno Figueroa of the Department of Sociology, and Dr Kamal Munir of the Judge Business School, these last two University Race and Inclusion Champions, who could not be present today.

I wish to make three points, informed by my experiences as an early career academic, a supervisor of doctoral students, and a participant in University, School, Departmental and college efforts to improve equality and diversity, including through internal processes such as Athena Swan certification, and through the recruitment of new colleagues and students.

First: Proposed changes to USS undermine the University’s equality and diversity work. Efforts to support equality and diversity have emphasised the need to provide better opportunities for women, ethnic minorities and other groups historically under-represented in higher education. My colleagues and I, across the University, have worked to recruit students and colleagues whom we believe will make important contributions to their fields, and who will model a University that reflects values of equality and diversity. Proposed changes to the USS put the University as an employer at a profound disadvantage compared to post-1992 institutions whose employees are on the Teachers’ Pensions Scheme. More importantly, these changes to the USS constitute a pipeline to precarity across the sector, one which places historically under-represented groups in higher education at further disadvantage throughout their academic lives, and beyond. In this, we share common cause with higher education institutions across the UK, from which our students come, and to which they will turn for future employment.

Second: The shift to defined contributions exacerbates existing USS inequalities. It is important then, for us also to turn our attention to the question of possible inequalities within the USS pensions schemes. The shift from pension calculations based on final salaries, to those based on career averages, has already been demonstrated to structurally disadvantage women and other members of under-represented groups who share a protected characteristic such as race, age, pregnancy and maternity, religion or belief, sexual orientation and disability.[1] In the current scheme, these already constitute structural inequality along the lines of gender, minority ethnicity, and early career status. Research shows that in the current scheme, the use of career average salary as a basis for pensions is particularly problematic for early career researchers, for women and those who have caring responsibilities, and for those working in lower pay grades within our universities. The gender pay gap, for example, is already projected to become an even larger gender pension gap: the European Parliament reported in 2017 that while women in Europe earn an average of 16% less than men, women’s pensions are on average 40% lower, in Europe and in also the UK.[2] Changes of the type proposed by the UUK, including the shift to defined contributions and a lowering of the salary cap, will have a further detrimental effect on these categories of university workers and further exacerbate these issues.[3]

Third: Our commitment to equality and diversity requires thorough and transparent assessment of the differential impact of USS changes. Regardless of our position on the current unprecedented industrial action, I hope we can agree that they have sparked off a national conversation about university, and other, pension schemes.[4] Moreover, I believe we are in common agreement that there needs to be greater transparency within these schemes, the UUK and the USS. Given these facts, I would like to call upon the university, firstly, to be more explicit about the presence, and workings, of such inequalities, and secondly, to press for their mitigation in its negotiations with the UUK on pensions.

Deputy Vice-Chancellor: The University’s commitment, and its legislated duty, to uphold equality requires more clarity and transparency on the ways in which pension provision is an equal pay issue.[5] Demonstrable change and improvement in our equality objectives requires clear commitments to systematically addressing inequalities in pay, opportunity, and treatment of students and staff.

[1] https://www.hr.admin.cam.ac.uk/pay-benefits/pay-and-reward/pay/equal-pay-reviews

[2] http://www.europarl.europa.eu/news/en/press-room/20170609IPR77006/gender-gap-in-pensions-of-almost-40-needs-to-be-tackled

[3] http://www.newn.cam.ac.uk/newnham-news/newnham-principal-writes-chief-executive-universities-uk-urge-take-action-uss-pensions-dispute/


[5] http://www.legislation.gov.uk/uksi/2011/2260/made; http://www.ucea.ac.uk/en/publications/index.cfm/eprgpgr

Professor S. J. Colvin (Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages and Jesus College):

Deputy Vice-Chancellor,

I speak today in my role as University Gender Equality Champion for the Arts, Social Sciences, and Humanities, and with fourteen years of experience in a professorial role at four UK universities.

Two ideas are repeatedly invoked to defend the proposed changes to the USS pension scheme. The first is the ‘last man standing’. The metaphor of the lone male must be treated with caution because it distracts from the fact that this is about pro-market reforms that will affect women disproportionately. The second is that already accrued USS benefits are secure: this tells us that the longest-serving and highest-earning members of the scheme, predominantly men, will be least adversely affected. Most adversely affected are members on temporary, part-time, and precarious contracts, and those who take ‘career breaks’ such as maternity leave; predominantly women.

This University has a very significant gender pay gap. Women are paid far less than men over the course of their careers. They are disproportionately represented in the lowest pay quartile where men are disproportionately represented in the highest pay quartile.

Deputy Vice-Chancellor, this University has made a strategic commitment to reduce the gender pay gap. But the proposed pension changes exacerbate its effect.

The pension situation is already one of gender injustice. In 2011 the shift from final salary pensions to career average impacted hardest on women. Under the final salary scheme it was in theory possible for women to catch up with men by the end of their careers (even though in practice the gender pay gap is most shocking at professorial level; and it is worth noting that according to the organization Black British Academics, less than a quarter of one per cent of professors in the UK are black women).1

Under a career average scheme a woman who catches up by the end of her career will still have a smaller pension than her male counterpart. Women who are unable to contribute towards their pensions during maternity leave and carers’ leave, or who contribute less when working part-time, bring their career average earnings down still further.

A shift, as now proposed, from Defined Benefit to Defined Contribution would make women disproportionately worse off yet again. The Changing University Cultures project has been working with UUK on sector-wide guidance for creating cultural change and has supported our own high-profile Breaking the Silence campaign. That project has now ended its work with UUK specifically because ‘pensions are a key equalities issue’. Changing University Cultures noted in its letter to UUK that:

while women have a smaller pension than men in any system, and BAME women are even more adversely affected, this is exacerbated in defined contribution schemes […]. DC schemes also fail to offer the maternity coverage that DB schemes do. Universities UK cannot claim to be working towards equality and diversity in the sector while pursuing pension reforms which are antithetical to that agenda and we cannot in good faith work with Universities UK on equality and diversity issues under these conditions.2 [emphasis added]

The shift from Defined Benefit to Defined Contribution is part of what are called ‘pro-market pension reforms’. To quote from recent published research on pensions, the shift is:

likely to result in greater income inequality between older women and men, and between those who have had an intermittent or low paid employment history and those with an advantaged position in the labour market […] the emphasis on financialised provision in pensions is creating new forms of gender inequality, and new forms of gendered insecurity. The complexity of women’s life courses is not reflected in gendered retirement provision norms. […] Pension penalties arising from earlier caring roles will continue to be magnified, creating increasing income disparity among women in older age according to their employment, partnership status and care history.3 [emphasis added]

Deputy Vice-Chancellor, I call upon the University to clarify and consider as a matter of urgency how a shift to Defined Contribution, or any cuts to Defined Benefits, will affect women differently.


Occupation Summit 2018: a display of student-worker Solidarity

On Sunday 18 March, approximately 40 student activists from 13 different universities gathered at the Institute of Education at UCL. Some had travelled from campuses as distant as Glasgow, Strathclyde, and Edinburgh. During the first wave of the pensions strike, these activists went into occupation in solidarity with us in UCU. Several of these occupations were coordinated through the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC), the education activist organisation formed during the 2010 student protests. NCAFC organised and hosted the summit along with the local groups.

I spoke in the opening plenary alongside Swansea UCU activist Cath Fletcher, and NCAFC National Committee member and Arts SU Campaigns Officer Sahaya James. Fletcher provided a broad overview of both the union and the present pension dispute, placing the strike within the context of recent attacks on employment security in the education sector. Contrastingly, James, who is being targeted by management at the University of Arts London (UAL) for her central role in the anti-gentrification occupation at the London College of Communication, highlighted the significance of the occupations for the revival of the student movement.

I spoke from my perspective as a young activist in UCU, underscoring how many of us in the union who are now postgraduate students and Early Career Academics politically came of age in 2010. I acknowledged that we should not overly reify 2010. After all, for many student activists, 2010 is only a distant memory, if that. Nevertheless, I explained how the experience of staging demonstrations and occupations against the tripling of tuition fees allowed younger UCU members to see this latest wave of pension cuts within the larger picture of the marketisation of the education. Likewise, I conveyed how significant this wider picture was for bringing together staff and students on campus in a manner never seen before, from the student bolstering of picket lines to the 5-day occupation of the Old Schools.

After the opening speeches, the summit adopted a more roundtable style, with activists sharing their experiences of the strike. Most constructively, the summit broke into smaller groups to discuss what went did and didn’t go well in their occupations and other direct actions on campus. This was a valuable skill-sharing process for all those gathered, especially since it provided an opportunity for activists from very geographically distant campuses to discuss the tactical, strategic, and logistical issues they encountered, and learn how others were able to deal with them. This discussion provided the foundations for a forthcoming best practices document due for release on NCAFC’s website, anticuts.com.

The closing hours of the summit were spent on the grander politics of the occupations, bringing together a joint statement of demands around the UCU strike, as well as related struggles of students and workers. A final version of this statement is now viewable on anticuts. The demands include not docking pay for action short of a strike (ASOS) and not classing strike days as ‘mandatory attendance’ for students, especially international students. These demands sit alongside broader commitments to a democratic, accessible, and liberated education system, and calls for secure, in-house contracts for all campus workers.

The summit was a valuable experience in several respects. For activists, it provided some needed national coordination between different forces across the country supporting our struggle in UCU, laying the groundwork for closer cooperation between different local groups. In short, it demonstrated NCAFC’s ability to bring together new and experienced activists in a manner that draws from and adds to an institutional memory. In a domain as inherently transient as the student movement, such an institutional memory truly is invaluable.

For UCU members, seeing such a diverse gathering of students who went to incredible lengths to support the first wave of the strike brought home just how much of an awakening we have seen on our campuses these last few months. During my time as the Surrey UCU Secretary last year, I never imagined that a strike by our union would provide the largest mobilisation of students this country has seen in eight years. Indeed, I would say that such committed solidarity action between students and workers, rooted in the understanding that our struggles are shared, is precisely what distinguishes this year’s wave of campus activism from that of 2010-11. For these reasons, I am pleased that NCAFC intends to call a second occupations summit in May, but with a broader range of activists, including those involved in NUS.

With the decision made by our union’s Higher Education Committee (HEC) on Wednesday 28 March to take UUK’s more recent proposal to a members’ ballot, the future of the pension dispute is far from certain. Should we find ourselves on the picket lines once more, the occupations summit has renewed my confidence that student activists will back us all the way.

– Daniel Davison-Vecchione (Cambridge UCU member)

Branch Exec briefing on the ballot: a response to Michael Otsuka

On Friday, the Cambridge UCU Branch Committee, of which I am a member, published a set of briefing documents on the upcoming USS ballot. In them, we explained the reasons why we feel unable to recommend either calling off strike action on the basis of the latest UUK proposal alone, or the adoption of a”No Detriment” negotiating position.

Michael Otsuka has responded to our briefings on Twitter, and argued that we are too critical of the case for a Yes vote. In particular, he has argued that it is unreasonable to expect formal withdrawal of the January 23rd 100% Defined Contribution plan as a condition of suspending industrial action. Otsuka argues:

(i) that we cannot expect the employers to give up the power to impose this plan in advance of an agreement with UCU;

(ii) that in any case UUK cannot withdraw the plan unilaterally because they only have 5 of the 11 members of the USS Joint Negotiating Committee;

(iii) that it is unreasonable to expect UUK to open the door to the USS no-deal default of very large increases in employer and employee contributions when 100% DC is currently on the table and much more attractive to them.

To begin with the second, procedural question, it is true that to vote through any changes through the USS JNC the five UUK members must be joined by either one of the five UCU members or (notoriously) by the independent chair. It may be that the chair, Sir Andrew Cubie, would not be prepared to vote to withdraw the January 23 proposal without replacing it with something other than the default contribution hikes (Rule 76.4). However, I think the UCU members would be very happy to provide the necessary votes, since Rule 76.4 (current benefits for employee contributions around 12% and employer contributions around 26%) is less unattractive to USS members than is the 100% DC proposal, and because making Rule 76.4 the default would give the employers the same large incentive that USS members already have to agree something better than the JNC decision by negotiation, either through or in advance of the work of any Joint Expert Panel.

Points (i) and (iii) are essentially similar. The former argues that it is unreasonable to expect UUK to withdraw their threat capacity before we have called off strikes, and the latter that it is unreasonable to expect them to expose themselves to the risk of large costs if the Joint Expert Panel for any reason does not result in new recommendations ready to take effect in April 2019. The important point here is that the risks in these respects are symmetrical for UUK and for USS members. If UCU call off strikes before something better than the January 23rd decision has been passed through the JNC, USS members lose their threat capacity to press for any improvements at all, and leave themselves exposed to the 100% DC plan if the Joint Expert Panel fails to result in implemented recommendations (as we think very possible, for reasons explained in the briefing). There would also be little incentive for UUK to make the Joint Expert Panel work, since its failure would result in minimal costs to them.

I therefore think that the removal of the January JNC decision, and its replacement with either Rule 76.4 — to ensure both sides have equal incentive to agree something better— or some other major advance on 100% DC, is both within UUK’s power, and a reasonable gesture to expect as a sign of good faith. Without that gesture, there are too many grounds to fear that the employers correctly regard the Joint Expert Panel as little more than a convenient distraction.

— Sam James (Cambridge UCU Vice President)

A mess, but not a stitch-up: Wednesday’s national UCU branch meeting

On Wednesday, I was the Cambridge UCU delegate at the branch briefing at UCU headquarters in London. I brought three motions from the Emergency General Meeting our branch had held the day before. The first welcomed Friday’s UUK proposal for a Joint Expert Panel (JEP) to review the 2017 USS valuation, but supported maintaining strike action to secure further assurances on benefits and contributions. The second instructed me to vote against an immediate e-ballot on the UUK proposal. And the third required that the proposal be interpreted such that there could be no detrimental changes to USS pensions in advance of review by the panel. A full set of notes on what took place at the meeting – though not a verbatim transcript – has been released by UCL UCU. What follows is my own impression of what took place at the meeting, and what I think it means.

The meeting began with Sally Hunt outlining the informal negotiations which produced the new UUK proposal. It transpires that since the March 12 Acas offer was rejected, Sally and Paul Bridge from UCU had been engaged in discussions with Alastair Jarvis, Mary Lambe, and Philip Harding from UUK in an attempt to reach a mutually acceptable resolution to the dispute. The UUK proposal was the product of these discussions rather than an unsolicited UUK offer, although it is true that UUK wrote the text.

Early in the meeting, branch delegates were given two new pieces of information. The first was a letter from Alastair Jarvis stating that UUK “does not intend to return to the January JNC proposal” for a 100% DC scheme at this valuation. The second was Sally’s report of reassurance from the Pensions Regulator that it would not intervene in the operation of the panel. TPR has apparently advised that since the USS trustee already has the unilateral option of increasing contributions from both employers and employees (massively) in order to cover current benefits after April 2019, the Regulator will not block the work of the proposed JEP.

Sally concluded by noting that the USS board meets on 11 April, and that if we want the proposed JEP, it needs to be on the agenda for that meeting. She thus advocated an immediate ballot on the proposal, in light of the reassurances received from UUK and tPR. She made clear that this course of action was incompatible with a “no detriment” position, but that she believes such a position cannot win. Paul Bridge then stressed the significance of the concession implied in the employers’ willingness to support the JEP. The floor was then opened to questions and discussion.

The discussion among branch representatives was very different from in the meeting on March 13th. Whereas the earlier meeting had seen near unanimous agreement that the Acas offer was unacceptable and should not be taken to ballot – despite the steer given by Paul Bridge that the deal was a considerable achievement – Wednesday’s discussion was both more technical and more complex. Questions were asked about the precise remit of the panel and the timing of decisions and reports, especially in the light of the Wednesday USS statements that the trustee considers the November valuation to be robust and the June 30th deadline for completion of the valuation inflexible. Many branch representatives were concerned about the precise meaning of “broadly comparable” pensions in the UUK proposal and both “does not intend” and “meaningful Defined Benefit” in the Jarvis letter. And considerable frustration was expressed from branch representatives that the new information from UUK and tPR had not been available to members in advance of the meetings and e-consultations which determined branch positions. It was clear that a number of branch representatives felt that given the new information they no longer had a mandate to vote either way on the fitness of the proposal to be put to ballot.

In the event, no vote was taken, despite the yellow voting cards that had been distributed at the start of the meeting. In the light of the above, this seems to me to have been a justifiable decision. The branch representatives’ meeting ran over time by nearly half an hour, and a full range of views were expressed, from support for accepting the offer as written, to demands for no detriment from the status quo before 2022. Moreover, many of the views expressed were complicated. Several branches had received different results in meetings than from e-consultations (a fact which could be interpreted in multiple ways), and a number of delegates felt that the new information received in the briefing would have altered the majority view in their branch. It is not at all clear to me that under these circumstances to have had branch representatives vote on whether to ballot would have been the democratic thing to do.

This is not to say that I support the decision by a narrow majority of the UCU Higher Education Committee to call a ballot, or condone the process by which it did so, which by all accounts seems to have been pretty messy. It remains my view that there are too many uncertainties about what we are agreeing to for the JEP proposal alone to be a basis for considering ending industrial action, and I think to send it to ballot as things stand risks leaving members underinformed about both what it promises and what they are committing themselves to.

But a ballot has been called. What therefore matters now is that our leadership presses UUK to remove the uncertainties surrounding the proposal before we vote. I no longer think the necessary assurances will be forthcoming from tPR or USS, both because they seem unwilling and because their legal obligations may prevent them from making such advance commitments. Assurance must thus come in the form of a better deal than either the January JNC decision or the no-deal default being passed through the JNC, either through cooperation between UUK and UCU members or using the vote of the independent chair. We should be clear to UUK that without such an acceptable fallback on the table, the current proposal cannot prudently be accepted as an end to the dispute, and that the UCU leadership will not argue that it should be.

A further point needs to be made about process, however. Having been at Wednesday’s meeting and studied the UCL notes on the discussion since, I reject the idea that the decision of the HEC was an affront to the expressed views of branch representatives. It is true that in the meeting it felt as if there was majority support for “revise and resubmit”, in part because the stylish ring of the phrase meant it was often repeated word-for-word. (It appears 17 times in the UCL notes.) But it is important to realise that the neatness of the expression obscures a huge range of positions, from requiring every term in the proposal to be altered fundamentally to simply asking for encouraging noises from tPR before we go forward. Not all of these translate straightforwardly into opposition to a ballot of members.

On the question of whether to take the proposal to ballot, my rough count of views from the UCL notes indicates pretty much equal numbers of branches (as distinguished from numbers of words spoken) on each side. A clear majority being against balloting is produced only if e-consultations are ignored, “seek clarification before balloting” is equated with “revise and resubmit”, and those representatives who changed their mind in light of Wednesday’s new information are ignored. Equally, a clear majority is produced for balloting only if smaller meetings which conflicted with larger e-consultations are treated as irrelevant, and “accept subject to clarification” is taken to mean support for balloting. It’s a murky picture, and I don’t envy the HEC members who had to decide how to proceed.

If we could accept the proposal without suspending our action, I would have advocated both a ballot and a yes vote, since we could still have pressed effectively for further UUK commitments. But if accepting the proposal means suspending action I could have supported neither balloting nor voting in favour of acceptance. We do not yet know what will be on the ballot paper, and I still support the UUK proposal for the convening of a JEP. But in my view it remains essential to secure a better range of possibilities for what may still be decided on or around June 30th this year before we consider standing down our industrial action. It may be that the UCU leadership has more information than it feels able to share with the wider membership, but what we do have from Jarvis, tPR, or USS as yet is not nearly sufficiently reassuring. I am watching and waiting for something better, and I hope our leadership are trying to get it.

— Sam James (Cambridge UCU Vice President)

What happened?

Anyone who has been in the vicinity of a UK university in recent weeks will have heard something snap.

Snapping, as Sara Ahmed observes, is not always planned; it happens when something ends up being too much – and once it happens, you can wonder what took you so long.

Ahmed snapped in 2016, when she publicly resigned from her position as director of the Centre for Feminist Research at Goldsmiths, University of London, over its “failure to address the problem of sexual harassment”.

Being told they must suffer another cut to their pensions has now taken thousands of lecturers, librarians and others to snapping point. A snap, says Ahmed, breaks a bond, when maintaining that bond would require “overlooking violence”. Johan Galtung, the Norwegian sociologist who invented the term structural violence, defines violence as “avoidable insults to basic human needs”. A pension cut of the proportions proposed, without independent scrutiny of the valuation behind it, was clearly an avoidable insult: a number of vice-chancellors have now acknowledged as much.

But snapping is never the starting point. Academics and academic-related staff have historically accepted relatively low pay in exchange for autonomy, job security and a decent pension. Snapping breaks a bond, but university leaders have seemed unaware there ever was any kind of bond, as over the last decade they have gone about replacing trust and autonomy with a culture of control and job security with “flexible contracts”. They nodded tolerantly along as our pensions were decimated while awarding themselves the infamous pay rises.

Another bond broke when management teams learnt the language of academic-bashing, legitimizing control by speaking of professional intellectuals as if they were feckless children who couldn’t be trusted. Academics might now wonder why it took them so long to declare that the lack of trust is mutual.

It has become clear in recent weeks that trust is spectacularly broken. Many of our students snapped with us. Students who have been redefined as customers and offered a product called “the student experience” have come out to support the people who are genuinely part of their experience of university life and learning: the lecturers, the librarians and other professional support staff who are on strike and implicitly the support and secretarial staff who aren’t (yet). Galtung says one form of cultural violence indulged in by ruling elites “is to blame the victim of structural violence who throws the first stone”. But that hasn’t worked in this case. Our students have joined us on the pickets and occupied management spaces.

In her moving open letter in the LRB to the vice-chancellor of the University of Leeds earlier this month, the priest and librettist Alice Goodman, the widow of a Leeds academic, wrote with sadness of the false assumption of the managerial university that “teachers and scholars are infinitely interchangeable and replaceable”.

But it isn’t only vice-chancellors’ fault. They are under pressure, too – and one day, perhaps, they too will snap, rather than bending endlessly under political pressure. They and their management teams are relentlessly offered opportunities for opportunism. On 8 May, a company called Westminster Insight is offering a conference called “Adapting to the Transformed Student Consumer”, in line with the creation of England’s new and allegedly student-focused regulator, the Office for Students. Delegates will have time to consider ‘the impact of regulatory changes on academia and the UK’s globally admired research and teaching facilitates [sic]’; and to build ‘an effective student protection plan’ (which may yet be needed – I think of students at the doors of Cambridge’s Senate House, chanting a question and answer: ‘Whose university? Our university!’). They will be brought up-to-date with best practice in “expectation management” – which presumably means learning to manage our transformed consumers’ disappointed anger when they recognise the disrespect for their humanity that inheres in the attempt to make education a consumer experience. The jewellery tycoon Gerald Ratner notoriously once implied that his customers were stupid enough to buy “total crap” – with disastrous results.

Sadly, academics also step up to legitimise the violent deformation of the university project. The blurb for a recent lecture in Durham University’s Future of the University series by Katherine Hayles, professor of literature at Duke University, claimed that universities can no longer be “the privileged site of knowledge creation and dissemination”, and must instead become “busy informational crossroads’ focused on the “value added” of their contributions “to human and planetary flourishing”. I didn’t attend the lecture but I hope that someone who did asked who is going to find a quiet moment to come up with the ideas that will cause  such flourishing when we are all sitting at that busy crossroads calculating our value added (and presumably trying not to get run down by a truck).

The same blurb dismisses traditional universities as “cloistered spaces”: familiar ivory tower rhetoric that hits laughably and painfully wide of the mark. Like most academics, I spend more time in meetings responding to the latest plans of people whose job descriptions require them to “manage change” than I spend “cloistered” with either my students or my research.

Something that has snapped isn’t easy to mend. Apart from offering us a fair pensions settlement, university leaders will need to relearn and model some respect for university students and staff, not as transformed consumers or education providers but as intellectually talented dynamic human beings. That will be a tall order in the current political climate, but, in Alice Goodman’s words, it would also be ‘brave, wise and honourable’. And it will be an even taller order to maintain UK higher education’s international reputation for excellence if word starts to spread that our universities are broken.

By Sarah Colvin, Cambridge UCU member and Schröder Professor of German. This is a longer version of an article published last week in the Times Higher Education).

How good is the new UUK proposal? 

Yesterday a new proposal emerged from UUK for the immediate future of USS, which UUK clearly hopes will be sufficient to resolve the current dispute and end the ongoing industrial action in UK universities. At the heart of the proposal is the convening of a joint expert panel, with equal numbers of UCU and UUK nominees and a jointly agreed non-voting chair, to review the basis of the scheme valuation.

It is promised that the panel will bear in mind the distinctive nature of the Higher Education sector and the effect of pension reforms on other inequalities, and that it will take a fair and balanced approach to decisions about risk. The panel’s work, we are told, will “reflect” the clear commitment to defined benefits evident among scheme members, and any changes to contributions and benefits will remain “broadly comparable with current arrangements”. Comparability with the Teachers’ Pension Scheme currently used in post-1992 universities will be discussed, as will the role of government and several other related issues. In the meantime, the current scheme of benefits and contributions will be maintained until at least April 2019.

On the face of it, this sounds like a promising offer. Four weeks of determined strike action by UCU members have forced UUK to acknowledge that the valuation process so far has been both arbitrary and inept, and that its conclusions carry no confidence. UUK has been brought to accept that the valuation of the scheme’s assets and liabilities, and the identification of any deficit or surplus in the funding level, is too complex and important to be done without full transparency and proper employee representation. The recognition that any changes to benefits must follow rather than precede a reliable valuation is both welcome and overdue.

But when one inspects the details, there is much that is deeply troubling. The first is that “the maintenance of the status quo in respect of both contributions into USS and current pension benefits, until at least April 2019” is no concession at all: even the JNC decision to introduce 100% Defined Contribution was only to be implemented in April of next year, and this would be true of any changes made in the current valution cycle. It does not inspire trust to see this presented as a major concession.

More important, though, is the absence of proper engagement with two crucial problems. The first is that any changes in the scheme valuation must be made not by UUK or UCU, but by the USS Trustee, and the second is that any valuation (and accompanying set of reforms) which cannot be settled by June 30th of this year would require the Pension Regulator to extend a deadline it has made clear it cannot move, or at least to tolerate the deadline being missed. The failure of the Acas agreement to move beyond the November valuation was the result of resistance as much from USS and tPR as from UUK. There are therefore strong grounds here for thinking UUK is making promises it knows it lacks the power to keep.

This raises the question of what the fallback option is, should the USS trustee say that that it is not up to UUK how it values the scheme, or tPR say that a decision on amended benefits and contributions still has to be made by June 30th (which would mean on the basis of the November valuation). There are roughly three possibilities. The first is to maintain something like current benefits, but increase employee contributions by around 50%. (This is the no-deal scenario under the Scheme rules.) The second is to adopt something like the Acas deal, which makes massive cuts to benefits in order to keep contribution rates down. The third is to impose the employers’ original all-DC plan. Nothing beyond these three alternatives could satisfy the Pensions Regulator while the November valuation remains the basis for discussion, and there is no possibility of the new panel reporting in time for a new valuation to underlie a decision by June 30th.

Which of the three alternatives is most likely? As well as an increase in employee contributions to around 12%, the first option would require an increase in employer contributions from the current 18% to around 25% of salaries. UUK has previously made clear that employers consider such an increase unaffordable, and for a considerable number it probably genuinely is. It is therefore hard to see it happening. The second option reproduces more or less precisely the Acas proposal: that offer itself included the convening of an expert panel and the maintenance of current benefits until April 2019, so if the Acas terms are the default then the new proposal is little more than Acas with some pages missing. It’s hard to see this as an attractive offer to USS members.

That leaves the third alternative: reversion to the January 23 decision to impose the lowering of the defined beneft threshold to zero, and thereby make USS a 100% Defined Contribution scheme from April 2019, at least until some further reforms can be agreed. This is precisely what we have been striking to stop, and while the all-DC possibility has been little discussed in recent weeks it is sobering to note that the website for the statutory USS consultation continues to record that “the decision from the Joint Negotiating Committee on 23 January 2018 still stands”. Until that changes, nothing can be said securely to have changed.

None of this means that the UUK proposal should be rebuffed. We should be receptive to the undertakings made to adopt a properly impartial and expert approach to the scheme valuation, and to leave behind us not only the November but also the September deficit claims until a proper assessment of the scheme has been carried out. We should also welcome the principle that the status quo in benefits and contributions must be maintained until that assessment has been completed.

But we must not allow ourselves to be lulled into a false sense of security by promises which UUK lacks the power, even if it has the will, to make a reality. We need UUK to extract a clear and public commitment that tPR will accept an extension of the deadline for completion of the valuation, and a similar statement from the USS trustee that the conclusions of the new panel will be allowed to replace the current November valuation as the basis for any benefit reform, and that no changes will be imposed upon scheme members until then. If and when those commitments have been made, we can begin a conversation about calling off our industrial action. Until then, we must remain firm.

 — Sam James (Cambridge UCU Vice President)

Increasing the pressure on UUK

Now that the strikes are over, and in light of the failed ACAS negotiation, it is more important than ever to take the fight directly to UUK. One fact that has emerged clearly over the past month or so is that UUK is not fit for purpose.

Attention has rightly focused on the governance, structure, and remit of this murky organisation. This is particularly important because when the debate is about the nature of the pensions themselves it is easy for those in power simply to seek managerial justifications for their stance, or to refer the whole thing to an independent body. The risks here are great, as shown by Alistair Jarvis’ preference for ‘independent’ assessment of the pension scheme rather than further negotiations or reform of his own organisation’s procedures.

So, what exactly is wrong with UUK? First, it is neither transparent nor accountable. As a highly successful petition points out, UUK is not subject to Freedom of Information requests. But because it demonstrably has a role in the running of UK higher education this is unacceptable, and should be a matter of government interest. Second, UUK has clearly reached a point where it does not represent the interests even of its own members. Even the FT’s business-oriented analysis describes the role of university leadership in the dispute as dangerous, shortsighted, obtuse. Many VCs and other prominent members of UK universities have sought to reverse the damage that UUK has done. Penetrating questions have been asked – these need to be reiterated until we have answers. The paywalled and blustery piece in the Times only adds to the feeling that UUK is utterly out of touch. Third, and perhaps most importantly, UUK’s actions appear to be in contravention of both the Companies Act and its own stated charitable purpose.

We must be clear: the fault for the strikes lies with UUK. The solution to the problem is to nullify everything they did following their September survey. We know the 42% figure is false, and we know that UUK’s members were misrepresented.

If senior members of UK universities truly want to represent the interests of their staff, they must continue to distance themselves from UUK. If VCs, financial officers and others in power want to retain any credibility, they need to take up the fight to reform UUK. Union members and university managers can find common cause in simply rejecting all that UUK did since September. Motivation for that unity should come from anger about the very nature of UUK.

The petition regarding FoI is one useful tool. But the UUK problems are so specific and serious that we can press harder. We can ask our bursars, financial officers and VCs why they didn’t protest at the time about the rushed and badly handled survey. We can seek legal advice on pay deductions, on the grounds that UUK was at fault for the strike action in the first place. We can bring the crisis at UUK to the attention of our MPs, who must surely care about what is being done to our universities.

Cambridge MP Daniel Zeichner told me in an email that Labour has already expressed its ‘concerns’ directly to UUK. However, he also pointed out that university governance should come from within. This is absolutely correct: pressure to reform UUK should continue to come from UCU, staff members, as well as senior management.

– Boris Jardine

Anti-racism on the picket lines

Pickets at the Clinical School show their support for the 17 March national demonstration against racism

A day of activities themed around organising against racism marked Cambridge UCU’s day of strike action on 14 March, with picket-line talks, leafleting and photocalls to highlight the 17 March national protests on UN Anti-Racism day, a town-centre rally which heard speeches on racism in Cambridge and a powerful call for solidarity with women on hunger strike in Yarls Wood Immigration Detention centre. The day was rounded off by a teach-out held in collaboration with Black Cantabs and the African Society of Cambridge University which brought students and staff together to share experiences of ‘everyday’ racism and discuss how to organise against it.

The day began with a picket line tour organised by Cambridge Stand up to Racism activists who visited picket lines across the city with leaflets and posters for the March 17 demo, followed by a morning of anti-racist poetry organised by the pickets at Sidgwick site.

Speaking at the lunch-time rally, Cambridge UCU member Manali Desai said:

“I don’t need to tell you that Cambridge has a race problem.

Let me start by saying that just speaking about diversity is not enough. Higher admission figures are not enough, neither is the token hiring of BME staff. What we need is a discussion about institutional racism. We need more specific information about exclusion; we need to know more about the mechanisms that silence students and staff of colour.

We need to have a conversation about decolonization in a meaningful way. Not just adding more black and brown people to reading lists.

We want to know why epistemologies and forms of knowledge derived in Western contexts without any reflection on colonial pasts are privileged in most of the curriculum.

We want to know why students and staff who speak out about these issues are vilified and excluded.

We want to what Cambridge is doing about everyday racism – casual racism as the high tables and in the classroom, everyday micro-aggression that every BME student and staff could relate stories about.

We want to know more about how Cambridge is going to face up to its own complicity in Britain’s colonial past.

Now more than ever is the time to ask these questions and demand not just answers but change. Not patronizing tokenism … but a change in the way that the university itself functions.

You know, we are often make to feel as though we are lucky to be here. University of Cambridge, you are lucky to have us.”

Many of the same themes were addressed in the Antiracist Organising in Cambridge which was organised by the Black Cantabs Research Society (Surer Mohamed) and the African Society of Cambridge University (Femi Ojambati). Shameera Nair Lin represented her perspective as an undergraduate at Lucy Cavendish College. The teach-out also heard from Cambridge Stand Up to Racism and Anne Alexander spoke on behalf of UCU.

During the first half of the meeting, Shameera shared her experience as a BME student at Lucy Cavendish, arguing against culturally insensitive catering options at her college, and the subsequent backlash when she spoke out against this. Femi relayed the many testimonies of members of the African Society, including being subjected to racial epithets and racialized evaluations of the capacity of BME students.

Other students spoke about the damage caused to self-esteem and confidence by being excluded from or marginalised within college social life. Visibly Muslim students related how colleges kept them under surveillance, initiating reports on their visitors on improbable pretexts.

After this, Femi, Shameera and Surer spoke about the different kinds of systematic racism that operate in this space. This ranges from epistemic racism (Eurocentric knowledge production), to the colonial legacy of Cambridge itself (legacies of British ownership of enslaved people and the refusal to repatriate artifacts from the colonial era).

Plans for future activities include creating a thoroughly researched report on racism at the University of Cambridge to be led by Black Cantabs and ASCU, and another meeting next term to be hosted by Cambridge UCU, Black Cantabs and ASCU with aim of reaching a wider audience of staff and students.