The fi­nal straw: how the USS strike brought to the fore aca­demics’ anger about the work­ing con­di­tions and di­rec­tion of UK uni­ver­si­ties

THE (Times Higher Education) - - CON­TENTS -

The widely sup­ported strike by univer­sity staff against pen­sion re­forms re­flects not just fi­nan­cial self-in­ter­est but also pent-up anger about work­ing con­di­tions and a sense that uni­ver­si­ties are los­ing their way. Jack Grove ex­plores how pro­posed changes to the USS were the break­ing point for trust be­tween aca­demics, se­nior man­agers and sec­tor lead­ers

Its pro­saic hash­tag of #USSstrike might have trended on Twit­ter, but the fight to pro­tect univer­sity pen­sions in the UK ac­quired some far grander ti­tles.

For many of the thou­sands of univer­sity staff brav­ing snow, rain and freez­ing tem­per­a­tures on picket lines in Fe­bru­ary and March, it be­came “the Great Univer­sity Strike”. For oth­ers, the walk­outs at 65 mostly pre-92 uni­ver­si­ties were a “strike to save higher ed­u­ca­tion”, a bat­tle to “stop the slow can­cel­la­tion of our fu­ture” and even a “de­fence of the En­light­en­ment”.

Some de­scribed the 14 days of strike ac­tion over pro­posed re­forms to the Uni­ver­si­ties Su­per­an­nu­a­tion Scheme, which cov­ers about 190,000 aca­demics and aca­demic-re­lated staff, academia’s “Brexit mo­ment”: a chance for staff to say “no” not just to pen­sion cuts but also to the tight­en­ing grip of man­age­ri­al­ism, mar­keti­sa­tion and min­is­te­rial con­trol within in­sti­tu­tions – just as some vot­ers saw the UK’s 2016 ref­er­en­dum on Euro­pean Union mem­ber­ship as an op­por­tu­nity to lodge a more gen­eral protest against the di­rec­tion they felt es­tab­lished politi­cians were tak­ing the coun­try.

That is not to say that the fi­nan­cial im­pact of Uni­ver­si­ties UK’s pro­posed changes to USS re­tire­ment ben­e­fits has been ne­glected. The orig­i­nal rec­om­men­da­tion to close its de­fined­ben­e­fit plan from April 2019 and switch to de­fined con­tri­bu­tions – in which mem­bers’ re­tire­ment pay­ments would be based on the in­vest­ment per­for­mance of their con­tri­bu­tions – re­ceived mas­sive scrutiny on so­cial me­dia from a new army of self-taught pen­sions ex­perts. Hun­dreds of Twit­ter threads have sprung up since the es­ca­lat­ing se­ries of strikes be­gan on 22 Fe­bru­ary, all claim­ing to un­pick the val­u­a­tions, as­sump­tions and over­all con­duct of the dis­pute’s ma­jor play­ers – with crit­i­cism aimed largely at UUK and the USS.

Else­where, blogs, crowd­fund­ing ini­tia­tives, ex­pert ac­tu­ar­ial analy­ses and let­ters to news out­lets have also sought to cast doubt on the al­legedly “overly pru­dent” re­form pro­pos­als, which, ac­cord­ing to the Univer­sity and Col­lege Union’s sums, would wipe £10,000 off the av­er­age aca­demic’s an­nual pen­sion.

How­ever, while fi­nan­cial self-in­ter­est has un­doubt­edly per­suaded many to join the picket lines, the strike’s mo­men­tum ap­pears to have been fu­elled more by a sense of anger about the di­rec­tion and stew­ard­ship of UK uni­ver­si­ties.

“Pen­sions be­came a po­tent – if some­what un­likely – sym­bol for how aca­demic lead­ers imag­ine the de­vel­op­ment of higher ed­u­ca­tion: high-risk in­vest­ment in the ‘stu­dent ex­pe­ri­ence’ and de­clin­ing in­vest­ment in peo­ple,” ex­plains Jana Bace­vic, a post­doc­toral fel­low in the Univer­sity of Cam­bridge’s Fac­ulty of Ed­u­ca­tion.

Bace­vic, a so­ci­ol­o­gist who dur­ing the strikes helped to or­gan­ise “teach-outs” on the ef­fects of ne­olib­er­al­i­sa­tion on higher ed­u­ca­tion, be­lieves that the dis­con­tent over pen­sions can­not be sep­a­rated from aca­demics’ “vis­ceral ex­pe­ri­ence of the de­clin­ing qual­ity of work­ing con­di­tions” caused by the grow­ing mar­keti­sa­tion.

“For those work­ing at uni­ver­si­ties, the USS scan­dal de­stroyed the ves­tiges of the myth that pre­car­ity at present can lead to se­cu­rity in the fu­ture,” she says. “The re­mark­able sol­i­dar­ity be­tween aca­demic staff and stu­dents can be seen as a col­lec­tive ef­fort to re­claim that fu­ture.”

The pro­posed move to a more un­cer­tain pen­sion plan and UUK’s fail­ure to un­der­stand why this was so un­palat­able to aca­demics merely un­der­line the gulf be­tween aca­demics and man­age­ment, Bace­vic adds. “There is a grow­ing re­al­i­sa­tion that em­ploy­ers view aca­demics and the things that they value

– job se­cu­rity, time to re­flect and re­search, and de­cent re­tire­ment con­di­tions – as a li­a­bil­ity rather than an as­set.”

That loss of trust in univer­sity lead­er­ship can also be linked back to pre­vi­ous re­forms to the USS, such as the 2011 clo­sure of the fi­nal-salary scheme – long de­scribed as the “jewel in the crown” of aca­demics’ terms and con­di­tions – to new mem­bers, and the 2014 de­ci­sion to move all mem­bers on to a plan based on av­er­age ca­reer earn­ings. Both of those re­forms re­sulted in some mi­nor in­dus­trial ac­tion, but aca­demics per­haps felt that agree­ing to a third round of cuts could have opened the way to yet more ero­sion of their ben­e­fits fur­ther down the track.

“We have been told to ac­cept these changes with­out com­plaint – just as we were told with the cuts in 2011 and 2014,” says Sher­rill Stroschein, a reader in pol­i­tics at UCL, who adds that those pre­vi­ous cuts were ac­cepted on the un­der­stand­ing that there would not be fur­ther rad­i­cal re­forms.

“We now feel be­trayed and de­ceived,” she says, with many univer­sity staff strug­gling to see them­selves “suc­cess­fully liv­ing on £10,000 a year less in re­tire­ment [than they had] been budgeting for when they took the job”.

But, for Stroschein, the strike also has “more pro­found roots”. “We who teach and run li­braries and vi­tal ser­vices know that we are the univer­sity,” she ex­plains. “Uni­ver­si­ties are net­works of learn­ing and ad­vanc­ing knowl­edge. These in­ter­ac­tions don’t hap­pen with­out front-line staff. The pen­sions at­tack showed just how far our ab­surdly paid em­ploy­ers were will­ing to sac­ri­fice our knowl­edge com­mu­nity for other goals.”

Vice-chan­cel­lors’ em­brace of re­cent gov­ern­ment pol­icy in­no­va­tions, such as the teach­ing ex­cel­lence frame­work (soon to be ex­tended to sub­ject level) and now the knowl­edge ex­change frame­work, have con­firmed the lack of em­pa­thy with rank-and-file aca­demics, con­tin­ues Stroschein.

“In­stead of re­spect­ing our pro­fes­sion­al­ism, we are placed on a ham­ster wheel,” she says. “Many col­leagues said they were hap­pier dur­ing the strike than they had been in years, as we were able to teach and learn and pur­sue knowl­edge on the picket line with stu­dents, un­mea­sured and un­metri­cised.”

For some, the strike has also trig­gered a grim in­tro­spec­tion, ex­plains Alas­tair Hud­son, pro­fes­sor of eq­uity and fi­nance law at the Univer­sity of Strath­clyde.

He de­scribes how one of his col­leagues iden­ti­fied with a scene from the 2002 spy thriller The Bourne Iden­tity, in which an as­sas­sin played by Clive Owen – iron­i­cally called “the Pro­fes­sor” – lies dy­ing in a field

Uni­ver­si­ties are net­works of learn­ing and ad­vanc­ing knowl­edge. These in­ter­ac­tions don’t hap­pen with­out front-line staff. The pen­sions at­tack showed just how far our ab­surdly paid em­ploy­ers were will­ing to sac­ri­fice our knowl­edge com­mu­nity for other goals

after hav­ing been shot by Jason Bourne, played by Matt Da­mon.

“Both men have lived through the same sys­tem of be­ing used and trained by the same de­mand­ing, ul­ti­mately in­dif­fer­ent, en­tity, and with his last words, the Pro­fes­sor says: ‘Look at this. Look at what they make you give,’” he ex­plains. “Aca­demics who have be­come used to work­ing through the week­end to fin­ish their re­search, to be­ing mi­cro­man­aged and ob­served at ev­ery turn, to the con­stant ex­pec­ta­tion that they will work far be­yond their con­tracted hours, feel that they are be­ing asked to give too much. They said ‘no’, to­gether, for the first time.”

Ac­cord­ing to Vicky Blake, pres­i­dent of the UCU’s Univer­sity of Leeds branch, the strike has en­joyed a breadth of sup­port rarely seen in pre­vi­ous dis­putes. With the UCU ditch­ing its pre­vi­ous tac­tic of sin­gle-day strikes, ca­ma­raderie was able to build on the picket lines as the du­ra­tion of weekly walk­outs ex­panded from two days to a full five.

“We’ve met many more ‘quiet’ union mem­bers who might have gone on strike be­fore but never joined the picket line,” says Blake, an ed­u­ca­tional en­gage­ment of­fi­cer for widen­ing par­tic­i­pa­tion. “Then there are those who have been union mem­bers for years but never gone on strike. And you also have those who had never thought about join­ing a union, but [who saw the lat­est USS pro­pos­als as] the fi­nal straw and wanted to join the union and the picket line.”

That de­mo­graphic breadth, she says, should be a wake-up call for the sec­tor hi­er­ar­chy. “When you have pushed even the mod­er­ates to call for high-im­pact strike ac­tion, then se­nior man­age­ment have to ask if they have got it right.”

Blake, who has chaired the UCU’s an­ti­ca­s­u­al­i­sa­tion com­mit­tee, was also sur­prised by how many staff on tem­po­rary con­tracts – even those not af­fil­i­ated to the UCU – joined the picket lines given the fi­nan­cial im­pli­ca­tions of their for­go­ing wages.

“I don’t think se­nior man­age­ment ex­pected that, and nor did they ex­pect to see stu­dents sup­port us,” she says, adding that there have been more than 20 oc­cu­pa­tions of univer­sity build­ings by stu­dents in sol­i­dar­ity with their lec­tur­ers. “Stu­dents have said how much they ap­pre­ci­ate the staff who teach them and they un­der­stand that we would not be go­ing out on strike if we could avoid it.”

The UCU has gained more than 15,000 mem­bers since the start of the year, of­fi­cial fig­ures state, with a new mem­ber sign­ing up ev­ery five min­utes through­out Fe­bru­ary.

“Peo­ple were sent all the usual stuff by se­nior man­age­ment warn­ing us about go­ing out on strike, and some of the lan­guage was re­ally quite men­ac­ing. How­ever, I think they’ve got it wrong this time, and it hasn’t worked.”

Not all vice-chan­cel­lors, how­ever, have faced con­dem­na­tion from strik­ing staff. Some, such as the Univer­sity of War­wick’s Stuart Croft, have won plau­dits by pub­licly dis­agree­ing with var­i­ous el­e­ments of the orig­i­nal UUK pro­pos­als, and for vis­it­ing staff on the picket line.

How­ever, all this has left some won­der­ing how the orig­i­nal plans came to be drawn up in the first place. “The gnaw­ing ques­tion – given the un­pop­u­lar­ity of the pro­posed clo­sure of the de­fined-ben­e­fit scheme among sig­nif­i­cant

num­bers of vice-chan­cel­lors – is who is be­ing rep­re­sented here [by UUK]?” asks Thomas Scotto, head of Strath­clyde’s School of Gov­ern­ment and Pub­lic Pol­icy.

Many who have used Twit­ter to fol­low the dis­pute found their an­swer in an anal­y­sis of UUK’s con­sul­ta­tion of em­ploy­ers by Michael Ot­suka, pro­fes­sor of phi­los­o­phy at the Lon­don School of Eco­nomics. In a se­ries of tweets in March, Ot­suka high­lighted the “dou­ble-count­ing” of Oxbridge, in which con­stituent col­leges as well as the uni­ver­si­ties them­selves were al­lowed to con­trib­ute to the con­sul­ta­tion, which “sig­nif­i­cantly dis­torted” its find­ing that 42 per cent of re­spon­dents wanted “less risk” for uni­ver­si­ties around their pen­sions li­a­bil­i­ties.

If those Oxbridge col­leges call­ing for less risk are dis­counted, only one in three em­ploy­ers would have been against pay­ing more to pre­serve the ex­ist­ing scheme, Ot­suka claims, which could have elim­i­nated the need to switch to a de­fined-con­tri­bu­tion scheme.

But while many have con­demned the per­ceived Oxbridge stitch-up of the con­sul­ta­tion, many col­leges were none too pleased about the process them­selves. In a let­ter to UUK’s chief ex­ec­u­tive, Alis­tair Jarvis, on 9 March, Dame Athene Don­ald, mas­ter of Churchill Col­lege, Cam­bridge, hit out at the “ob­scure, and pos­si­bly mis­lead­ing way in which col­lege re­sponses have been re­ferred to”, stat­ing that her col­lege was un­able to “con­sult prop­erly” with its mem­bers given the time al­lowed for a re­sponse. Call­ing for a more de­tailed break­down of the re­sponses and their weight­ing, Don­ald urged that “trans­parency is nec­es­sary if trust in the dia­logue is to be re­built”.

In re­sponse, UUK said that the con­sul­ta­tion was “only one part of a range of in­puts that in­formed our re­sponse” to the USS trustees’ warn­ing about the dis­puted £6.1 bil­lion deficit in the scheme. In ad­di­tion, UUK said in a let­ter dated 18 March, Oxbridge col­leges are “sep­a­rate par­tic­i­pat­ing em­ploy­ers within USS” and thus “have a right” to be con­sulted. But other col­leges have also spo­ken out against UUK’s ap­proach. In a state­ment pub­lished on the same day, Queen’s Col­lege, Ox­ford, said it was “trou­bled by what ap­pears to have been a re­luc­tance to con­sider al­ter­na­tive ap­proaches and to think more cre­atively about the ways in which a de­fined-ben­e­fit ar­range­ment could be made to work”. It added: “The pro­posed agree­ment ap­pears to have been ne­go­ti­ated within the con­straints im­posed by the re­cent valu­a­tion of the scheme’s deficit. To that ex­tent, many will view it as akin to a re­arrange­ment of deck-chairs on the Ti­tanic.”

Oth­ers have won­dered if UUK – the um­brella group for vice-chan­cel­lors – is just too opaque and dic­ta­to­rial for a sec­tor where col­le­gial­ity and, in­creas­ingly, trans­parency are de­manded. More than 12,000 peo­ple so far have signed a pe­ti­tion call­ing on the body, a reg­is­tered char­ity with an an­nual in­come of £11.6 mil­lion, to be made sub­ject to the Free­dom of In­for­ma­tion Act in the same way as uni­ver­si­ties and gov­ern­ment bod­ies are.

Oth­ers see the ap­point­ment of Jarvis, UUK’s for­mer di­rec­tor of com­mu­ni­ca­tions, as the prob­lem. Tak­ing of­fice in Au­gust 2017, he may have pleased many aca­demics with his bullish de­fence of uni­ver­si­ties as they came un­der at­tack in the me­dia in his first few months, con­demn­ing what he called a “post­truth sum­mer of mis­in­for­ma­tion, mud­dled ar­gu­ment and even a lit­tle ma­li­cious in­tent”.

How­ever, this con­fi­dent style may have sub­se­quently alien­ated many USS mem­bers, who have sug­gested that Jarvis spun the con­sul­ta­tion to push for­ward the orig­i­nal plan to switch to de­fined con­tri­bu­tions. And, for Adam Ganz, a reader in the de­part­ment of me­dia arts at Royal Hol­loway, Univer­sity of Lon­don, Jarvis’ ap­point­ment within a month of the post’s be­ing ad­ver­tised in July last year is symp­to­matic of UUK’s lack of trans­parency and ac­count­abil­ity, and should be scru­ti­nised fur­ther. The “voice of uni­ver­si­ties” should not be ap­point­ing its chief ex­ec­u­tive in such a “hole-and-cor­ner fash­ion”, he says.

UUK has said that it in­ter­viewed four peo­ple out of 26 ap­pli­cants after Ni­cola Dan­dridge was head­hunted to run Eng­land’s new higher ed­u­ca­tion reg­u­la­tor, the Of­fice for Stu­dents.

Jarvis is not the only player in the USS dis­pute to face crit­i­cism. Sir David East­wood, vice-chan­cel­lor of the Univer­sity of Birm­ing­ham and chair of the USS board, has also been a tar­get, not least for the £90,000 he earned for his pen­sions work on top of his £439,000 over­all pay pack­age in 2016-17. Adam Tick­ell, vice-chan­cel­lor of the Univer­sity of Sus­sex and a UUK ne­go­tia­tor, has also been sin­gled out for crit­i­cism.

Tick­ell has, how­ever, been unapolo­getic, stat­ing that the UCU’s orig­i­nal coun­ter­pro­posal would have cost Sus­sex £5.5 mil­lion a year, while its staff would have had to pay an ex­tra £2.7 mil­lion.

“There are a small hand­ful of in­sti­tu­tions that could ab­sorb that cost with­out se­ri­ous fi­nan­cial con­se­quences. Sadly, Sus­sex is not one of them,” he said in a blog post pub­lished on 23 Fe­bru­ary.

“If we had to find an ad­di­tional £5.5 mil­lion

for staff pen­sions, we would have to cut £5.5 mil­lion out of our bud­get, which in­evitably means re­duced spend­ing on our in­fra­struc­ture, re­gret­tably job losses and a neg­a­tive im­pact on stu­dents’ ed­u­ca­tion,” he added, in­sist­ing that “this is not a threat or man­age­rial pos­tur­ing, it is the un­for­tu­nate re­al­ity of the mag­ni­tude of the shared prob­lem we all face”.

Even the UCU’s own lead­er­ship has taken a good deal of flak. On 13 March, hun­dreds of UCU mem­bers gath­ered out­side the union’s Lon­don head­quar­ters to de­mand the re­jec­tion of an agree­ment struck by the UCU and UUK that would have seen de­fined-ben­e­fit pen­sions pre­served up to £42,000 in salary in a deal last­ing three years, in re­turn for higher con­tri­bu­tions from both staff and em­ploy­ers.

That de­ci­sive re­jec­tion by UCU mem­bers, ral­ly­ing un­der the hash­tag #NoCa­pit­u­la­tion, was, in part, a mes­sage to em­ploy­ers about the broader dis­con­tent at play in the sec­tor, says Strath­clyde’s Hud­son, who is a founder of Aca­demics for Pen­sions Jus­tice, a net­work of more than 1,000 USS mem­bers who have crowd­funded more than £50,000 to pay for spe­cial­ist le­gal ad­vice to ex­plore “po­ten­tial mis­man­age­ment” by the USS board. “The op­por­tu­nity to re­ject that de­risory of­fer from UUK was the first op­por­tu­nity aca­demics had to say ‘no’ to a sys­tem of cor­po­rate, com­mer­cialised uni­ver­si­ties that they never wanted in the first place,” he says.

Ne­go­tia­tors sub­se­quently re­turned with a se­cond of­fer that would pre­serve the cur­rent ar­range­ments while a jointly ap­pointed ex­pert panel re­viewed the as­sump­tions and valu­a­tion meth­ods used by the USS, with the aim of en­sur­ing that the scheme con­tin­ues to pay ben­e­fits “broadly com­pa­ra­ble” to those cur­rently of­fered. UCU mem­bers have un­til 13 April to vote on the pro­posal. At the time of go­ing to press, it is un­clear whether they will ap­prove it – some UCU branches have been urg­ing their mem­bers to re­ject it be­cause it does not guar­an­tee that mem­bers will not be worse off un­der the even­tual set­tle­ment.

In a state­ment on 28 March, UUK said that the “panel will help to build con­fi­dence in the valu­a­tion process and as­sump­tions. It will also give time to pause, to re­flect and to re­build the trust that has been dam­aged over the past few months.”

Some ex­perts are con­vinced that a slight im­prove­ment in the cur­rent fi­nan­cial con­di­tions – which have mas­sively in­creased the USS’ pro­jected pen­sion li­a­bil­i­ties – might eradicate the need for re­form al­to­gether. Oth­ers think that less oner­ous ad­vice from the Pen­sions Reg­u­la­tor – on its guard fol­low­ing the col­lapse and en­forced bailout of sev­eral ma­jor schemes, such as that of the bank­rupt re­tail chain BHS – could re­duce the need for dras­tic changes.

Still oth­ers be­lieve that the prob­lem is one of ed­u­ca­tion: with an 18 per cent em­ployer con­tri­bu­tion, the USS is al­ready one of the UK’s most gen­er­ous schemes, they ar­gue, adding that a wholly de­fined-con­tri­bu­tion scheme is not in­her­ently worse than a de­fined-ben­e­fit one and could even yield higher re­turns.

But many ex­perts are not per­suaded that the prob­lem will go away any time soon, de­spite the cre­ation of the ex­pert panel. “You can ar­gue about some of the in­di­vid­ual as­sump­tions [used to as­sess the deficit], but we need to stop hav­ing this ex­is­ten­tial ar­gu­ment about whether the deficit ex­ists at all,” says Nick Fos­ter, a lec­turer in ac­tu­ar­ial sci­ence at the Univer­sity of Leicester, who points out that ac­cord­ing to its 2017 tri­en­nial re­view, the USS was only 83 per cent fully funded ac­cord­ing to cri­te­ria stip­u­lated by the Pen­sions Reg­u­la­tor – a long way from the 100 per cent that the reg­u­la­tor re­quires. “I don’t think the USS – which is gen­er­ally seen as very well run – has been over-pru­dent in its as­sump­tions,” he adds.

More imag­i­na­tive pen­sion plans some­where be­tween a pure de­fined-ben­e­fit and a de­fined­con­tri­bu­tion scheme should be con­sid­ered, says Fos­ter. One op­tion is the “de­fined am­bi­tion” scheme cham­pi­oned by the Con­ser­va­tive for­mer pen­sions min­is­ter Sir Steve Webb. Some­times called the “pen­sion in­come builder”, such a scheme would mean a guar­an­teed pen­sion sum would ac­crue each year, with re­main­ing con­tri­bu­tions in­vested in a col­lec­tive de­fined-con­tri­bu­tion ar­range­ment in which risk is shared be­tween mem­bers. “There are lots of things to be ne­go­ti­ated and lots of op­tions be­fore you move to de­fined con­tri­bu­tions, but it can’t just be a ques­tion of chang­ing the num­bers at stake,” Fos­ter says.

Ei­ther way, it is far from clear that a res­o­lu­tion to the pen­sion dis­pute will mend all the bonds of trust be­tween em­ploy­ers and staff that have been torn – or ex­posed as al­ready sev­ered.

The in­tro­duc­tion of the sub­ject-level TEF, the start of the 2018-19 pay round and an overzeal­ous and nar­rowly de­fined cham­pi­oning of “value for money” by the OfS all risk fur­ther alien­at­ing staff.

For Sally Hunt, the UCU’s gen­eral sec­re­tary, the pen­sion strikes have “demon­strated a dis­con­nect be­tween those run­ning our uni­ver­si­ties and staff and stu­dents”, which will re­quire more than an ac­cept­able pen­sion of­fer to fix.

“Is­sues such as ca­su­al­i­sa­tion and work­loads can­not be swept un­der the car­pet any longer,” she warns.

The pro­posed agree­ment ap­pears to have been ne­go­ti­ated within the con­straints im­posed by the re­cent valu­a­tion of the scheme’s deficit. To that ex­tent, many will view it as akin to a re­arrange­ment of deck-chairs on the Ti­tanic

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