Get the Vote Out for pay and pensions ballots

Ballots for both the HE pay and pensions disputes have started today. Members in over 60 USS institutions are urged to vote YES to defend our pensions, to oppose increased contributions and to reject the shenanigans of the USS itself. UCU members across the HE sector are also urged to vote YES for action in the ballot, along with members of four other campus universities, to fight for fair pay, to demand an end to gender and ethnic pay gaps, to address the scandal of casualisation and to confront rising workloads. It’s crucial that we don’t take success in either dispute for granted. The Tories’ disgraceful industrial relations law which requires participation of above 50% in each institution means that we have to launch a programme of action in every branch to reach every member before the end of the ballot on 30 October. Just because members have every right to be angry about what’s happening to our working conditions doesn’t mean that they will automatically take part in the ballot nor that they will support strike action. We need a Get the Vote Out campaign that doesn’t just rely on the odd email but mobilises members, answers their questions, reaches out into canteens, staff meetings and offices and shows that only defiance and industrial action will secure the pay and pensions we deserve.

We reproduce below part of the action plan – including a weekly calendar and communication to reps – from Goldsmiths UCU that gives an idea of what we should be doing right now to raise the temperature and to deliver strong yes votes in our ballots.

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Dear UCU Department Reps,

UCU’s ballot over pensions and over pay & equality officially started today, so members will be receiving their ballot papers in the post from Wednesday. Earlier today we sent an email to all members outlining  the key issues in relation to the pay/equality negotiations here and the USS here. There will be two ballot papers which must be returned in one envelope.

Publicity for both issues is now available, and will be distributed at Wednesday’s pre-strike committee meeting. The idea of the meeting is to brief members, and build a team in each department that will work with you on getting the strike out – please try and encourage people to come along.

Getting over 50% turnout

It is important to note this is a disaggregated ballot, so in order to take part in action, we must reach over 50% turnout so Getting the Vote Out, really matters.

Of course the key will be to engage and listen to members and seek to persuade with the strongest possible arguments.  But we also want to make sure that we take organisational steps to ensure as many members as possible have direct communication with UCU members regarding the ballot. In relation to this we are asking department reps to coordinate with other activists to talk to as many members as possible and encourage them to vote.

On-line membership & ballot list

Department UCU membersthis afternoon, our membership officers will send you a link to members in your department. Please check it is accurate and think about how this could be divided in your department to make sure everyone is spoken to face to face, over the phone, or via personalised emails.

Asking members to vote: This is not about hassling people but seriously engaging with the current situation. The branch recommends VOTE YES, but ultimately asks members to VOTE as we must reach the threshold. Failure to do so will have an extremely detrimental impact on our ability to be effective at a volatile time nationally and locally.

Keeping us updated: The GTVO committee will be reviewing the voter turn out each week and we ask that you help us by updating your department members spreadsheet when people let you know they’ve voted.

Door knocking/dep walkabouts – in particular we advise this approach as it has been very effective in other ballots. If you can let the branch administrator know specific times you plan to do this, then we can arrange members to come and help.

Posters/flyers – it would be great if we could get members to put a poster on their door, and help distribute, generating an atmosphere will encourage and remind people to vote.

Department meetings – The branch president has written to HOD’s requesting a UCU slot at any staff meetings taking place during the ballot. It would be helpful also if we had union specific meetings in departments – if you are able to organise one, we’ll arrange an exec member to speak.

Communication in general

Each week we will be sending specific local emails out to members. If there are issues you think need to be covered, please let us know.

We will also be linking the national issues such as casualisation, workload etc to the local situation. This includes special anti-casualisation publicity.

Opting out of Vote messages

From Wednesday, we will also be sending a link to members which they can click to tell us they’ve voted – they will then also be taken out of any ‘VOTE’ messages.

Reaching the 50% threshold – things you need to know

  • Anyone who joins up to 23 Oct, will be added to the ballot list and able to cast a vote.
  • Members who have not received their ballot papers, should request a replacement online. The link for this will be available from 17 Sept.

One month on: what does the election of Jo Grady mean for UCU?

One month ago today, Jo Grady was elected as our next General Secretary. Three activists tell us what they think this means for rank and file voices in the union and for our prospects of beating back the employers’ assault? Send us your thoughts:

Lesley McGorrigan, Leeds University UCU Campaigns Officer, Yorkshire & Humberside Regional Secretary, National Executive Committee member (2019/20)

Jo Grady’s election as UCU’s general secretary (GS) is to be celebrated; it symbolises the transformation within our union triggered by the USS strikes.

Eighteen months ago, without agreement from our elected bodies, the then GS, Sally Hunt, promoted a yes vote on a sub-standard USS proposal. One year ago, Hunt and the bureaucrats surrounding her felt confident to trash our democracy by walking out of 2018 Congress.  They even sabotaged the sound system to prevent delegates debating motions criticising Sally’s conduct and calling for her resignation.

One year on, Jo Grady, a rank and file candidate, a product of the USS strikes, has been elected GS on a left platform. Many had assumed that Hunt’s right hand man, Matt Waddup with a long career as a union official, would win.  Seventy four percent of members voted for one or other of the left candidates on an unprecedented turnout. This shift is a direct result of the increased member engagement during and since the USS strikes.  This gained us 16,000 new, young, diverse and energetic members. This mood has inspired FE where a wave of lively pay strikes have recently won victories.

This transformation in the union was reflected throughout the recent 2019 Congress. The grouping to the right of the union, the Independent Broad Left, appeared subdued.  One of their motions which, if passed, would have reduced FE representation, attracted only its author to vote for it! The debates were full, friendly and fruitful with a healthy degree of unity amongst the supporters of the two left candidates who had contested the election. Jo McNeill, the candidate of the organised left who I voted for, delivered a message of solidarity and support to Jo Grady, in the face of criticisms from the Daily Telegraph.

If the left can maintain this unity, we have a lot to gain in the months and years ahead.  We can transform our neoliberal universities and colleges and challenge the ‘hostile environment’ imposed upon staff and students. I voted UCU Left as my 27 years in the union has taught me that we need to be organised. When I observe what Corbyn is subjected to from the determined right in his party, it is clear that a disciplined, united left is necessary to avoid being crushed by the custodians of the status quo. I look forward to being part of that unity.

Andy Williams, Media and Communications Officer, Cardiff UCU

Before 2018 I was never the most active or enthusiastic union activist. I was a department rep, I voted when asked, and I observed industrial action (even that time UCU tried to weaponise the extended lunchbreak with a series of cringe-worthy two-hour strikes over pay). The USS strike changed all that.

Significant numbers of us became much more active, and have been through an intense process of political education. The union, at branch level at least, felt less like a service provider and more like a space for active, member-led campaigning. The manner of our collective strike action in defence of pensions has since boosted our branch-level struggles over dangerous workloads, the scourge of casualization, fighting cuts, and resisting redundancies.

The participatory spirit of the strike showed us what we can do when proper numbers of our uniquely diverse, expert, influential, and persuasive members stand together and use their skills and knowledge to improve our collective lots.

Jo Grady, for me, is one of the individuals who most embodies and represents that spirit, and her manifesto presented a convincing and exciting plan for making UCU into a different kind of union, one which is a more democratic, collaborative, credible, and militant fighting force.

We face huge challenges, no doubt. Our Universities and colleges have never been more marketised, our members more over-worked or relatively under-paid, our students more positioned as consumers in the classroom and competitors in an unjust and precarious job market.

But with Grady as the gaffer, buoyed by a re-energised and bolshy rank-and-file, we’re also better positioned than ever to fight back and improve further and higher education in the UK. And in doing so, we’ll also be giving our students a different kind of education: one which leads by example and shows how solidarity, mutual aid, and collective resistance for the common good gets results, even when the odds are against you.

Marian Carty, President, Goldsmiths UCU

The election of Jo Grady, in a record turnout, as UCU’s new General Secretary heralds the beginning of a new era for the union. with members resolved to fight the attacks on Prison, Adult, Further and Higher Education.

We have seen transformative and unprecedented resistance in both further and higher education over the past two years.  The campaign in Further Education for better pay and conditions continues with strikes taking place throughout the country,resulting in a number of significant victories. There can be no let up as more and more colleagues are at risk of redundancy, and colleges, such as Stourbridge College are threatened with imminent closure due to asset stripping employers’  incompetence.

The debates at this year’s congress showed that members are united in their resolve to mount campaigns to fight the privatisation and commodification of tertiary education in all the nations of the UK.

There is so much to do. Continued threats to the USS pensions and renewed attacks on TPS, will mean stepping up pensions action in higher education. This includes GTVO for a USS strike ballot next term, should the employers persist with their intention to raise our pension contributions again in October.

Congress voted decisively for BAME and gender pay gaps to be addressed in this climate that sees increasing far right narratives coming to the fore. This must be accompanied with resolute and imaginative campaigns to fight the curse of increasing casualisation of education, redundancies  and excessive workload. Our refusal to go along with employers efforts to worsen our pay and conditions in preparation for further privatisation of our sectors, is crucial if we are to defend public education for future generations of students and university workers.

Jo Grady ended her speech with these words ‘…we are one union now, from professional services staff to prison educators, from the regions and nations to Carlow Street. We are the people who will stand up for tertiary education and research in this country, and we have each other’s backs.’

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Some media reaction

FE week, 24 May 2019

FE Week, interview with Jo, 9 June 2019

TES, 24 May 2019

TESinterview with Jo, 27 May 2019

Times Higher, 24 May 2019



Resisting Toxic Performance Management

Earlier this year, colleagues at Liverpool UCU balloted for industrial action against a  punitive and unreasonable Research Excellence Framework Code of Practice that was being imposed at their institution. While the branch narrowly missed out on the anti-union turnout threshold by only 39 votes, the dispute remains live. University of Liverpool UCU are opposed to the culture of toxic performance management and unreasonable expectations that academic staff are facing, particularly with regards to research performance. Subjective REF rating, which staff entered into out of collegiality can now be used to ‘manage out’ research active staff. The branch has now produced a fantastic document that outlines how this culture at Liverpool goes against the spirit of new REF rules, and also many Draft REF Codes of Practice at similar research-intensive universities who are explicitly stating that REF preparation will not be used as a tool for performance management.

Access the full document HERE.

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Let’s reclaim USS for the many, not the few

2018_UK_higher_education_strike_placards_By Deepa Govindarajan Driver (written in a personal capacity)**

This article should be read in conjunction with the motions on USS passed at Congress 2019 – some of which are reproduced below – and demonstrate the urgency of a firm response from members of the Scheme.

It has been another action-packed few weeks on pensions. Since the last Branch Solidarity Network update, the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) saga continues to unfold with ever more twists to the plotline.

Highlights this time, include

  • USS now has Master Trust status
  • USS Limited (USSL) the corporate trustee proposing three contributions options to employer representatives Universities UK (UUK)
  • a leaked letter from The Pensions Regulator (TPR) questioning USS governance and expressing displeasure about the communications from USSL to TPR in relation to the three proposed contributions options (as above)
  • a leak showing that the executive decision-makers at Trinity College Cambridge (100 members in USS) had voted to leave the Scheme
  • a UCU-nominated director being recused from the USS board after blowing the whistle on malpractice and
  • UCU’s National Dispute Committee calling on UCU’s Congress to recall UCU-nominated trustees, which is an event without precedent in the history of the Scheme.

But before we examine these recent developments, let’s take a step back and remind ourselves of some facts. The 2018 USSL annual report says that contributions totalled up to £2.2 bn while benefits total £2bn. What this means is that the Scheme, with £64.4 bn of net assets, was not drawing on these assets to pay benefits. Nor was it drawing on returns on assets. So why would what is described by the JEP as an immature (i.e. with a slew of new entrants on DB) Scheme and a cashflow positive Scheme that is expected to remain so for another 50 years, be at the centre of a serious crisis in Higher Education (HE)? What is the argument about deficits all about?

USS is a ‘last-man standing’ Scheme with an employer covenant that binds together USS institutions in a remarkable way, ensuring the strength of the Scheme and its sustainability in the longer term. Some HE management teams however have used institutional balance sheets to take on questionable and unprecedented amounts of debt and expenditure causing the regulator to pay more attention to the strength of this covenant. While in the past, employers were keen to celebrate the supposed surplus in USS (see underpayments estimated to total roughly £7bn over a decade), even strong employers now cite financial constraints or plead poverty as a reason for cutting research budgets, making redundancies and not injecting additional funds into the Scheme. This makes the strength of the covenant even more suspect to a regulator sensitive to employers’ asset-stripping of assets underpinning pensions promises.

Coupled with this, is the lower risk appetite expressed by the management teams, who (perhaps in order to engage in even more shenanigans on their balance sheet), are sending strong messages to USSL to “de-risk”. At a time when bond market yields are historically low, USSL has undertaken this “de-risking” by moving the fund’s investments more and more into debt instruments rather than equity. Given that gilts are getting a -0.8% return and with even a conservative estimate of returns on equities of 4%, when we move into debt from equity we are losing an effective rate of 4.8% per year. Also over a 30 year horizon, although more volatile in the short term, a substantial investment in equities is critical to allow us to achieve the returns we need to meet our projected benefits. From a societal point of view, pension funds are important longer-term investors and like USS must invest and take risks by funding longer-term investment and entrepreneurial activity.

What this means is that in reality, for members and for the sustainability of the Scheme, USSL’s actions do not de-risk. Instead they introduce an unjustified increase in risks to members and to the sustainability of the Scheme.

What is going on?

Members would be right to wonder what on earth is going on and how to make sense of recent changes in this context. To understand what is going on, it is worth looking at each of these developments, and then putting them in perspective as part of a bigger picture.

Let’s start with the news that USS has become the first hybrid pension to get Master Trust Approval.

The Master Trust regime was introduced in 2017. Although the statutory objectives of The Pensions Regulator remain the same, Master Trust status means that TPR now explicitly approach regulatory oversight of these schemes in a four-pronged way examining the fitness and propriety of those running the schemes, checking if systems and processes are robust, requiring a sound continuity strategy for the scheme and asking for demonstration of the scheme’s financial stability. USS’ chairman Prof Sir David Eastwood has presented this authorisation as a significant achievement and there is no doubt significant work was undertaken at USS in order to jump through the regulatory hoops required for this authorisation.

However, it is worth remembering that for all the fanfare from USSL, this is in reality only an authorisation from The Pensions Regulator that it requires from all trustees if they wish to run a multi -(unconnected) employer Scheme with a money purchase component. What is more important to members is how the Scheme will be required to be run in the future as a result of this authorisation. The status subjects the Scheme to changes in how it will be governed and requires USSL to rebalance the make-up of the trustee Board towards including more independent directors. At a time when the independent trustees on the USSL Board give cause for serious concern to members, given their past / current affiliations outside the Board, and their visible lack of commitment to DB, it would be understandable to worry that inclusion of these so-called independents – who are part of prevailing industry groupthink about valuations and appear to have a predisposition towards the closure of defined benefit schemes – might not be in the best interest of the Scheme and its members. This becomes particularly important in the context of concerns raised previously by UCU about the power imbalance caused by the fact that UUK has four trustees on the Board while there are only three UCU-nominated trustees.

Callard and Hardy, Govindararajan Driver, and Hersh (herself a member of UCU’s superannuation working group) are amongst those who have already raised grave concerns regarding governance including poor decision-making, lack of transparency and potential conflicts of interest of those moving the Scheme in particular directions.

It is also important to remember that USSL could instead have chosen to retain the old status, as long as the DC element was cleaved from our predominantly DB Scheme. Such a plan would have required USSL to propose to TPR this option of running the non-money purchase element of the DB Scheme and demonstrate to the regulator that the separated DB (and DC) elements would be adequately governed. What makes USSL’s march towards Master Trust authorisation (that allows including more industry insiders on the Board) even more suspect, are the recent revelations that UCU-nominated trustee Jane Hutton has blown the whistle on governance concerns at USSL noting her frustration with USSL for not providing information allowing her to check if the supposed deficit was vastly overestimated. This is all the more worrying given the points raised by UCU advisors First Actuarial questioning the USSL’s take on the position of the Scheme, not to mention the serious flaws pointed out by Marsh, and reconfirmed by Wilson and Chitty, that challenge the valuation and the calculation of the so-called ‘deficit’.

What’s in it for the employers?

So why are employers willing to pay more if the increases are unjustified? For some management teams, the entire pensions dispute has – largely and slyly – been the mechanism for removing uncertain pensions liabilities from balance sheets to allow them to engage in shady financial transactions and to take on debts that have covenants or funders who want to have a certain kind of balance sheet. All this is largely in the aid of new shiny buildings, performance incentives for management, large marketing budgets, privatisation of provision, meaningless rankings, metrics etc.

Now let’s turn to the letter dated 7 May 2019 from USS to UUK that indicates that USSL has proposed three options to employers, NONE of which reflect credible engagement with the recommendations of the first phase of the Joint Expert Panel constituted after the USS strike. According to a response from UUK’s advisors, and a subsequent indicative response from employers on 21 May, only the third of these three options is of interest to employers. Meanwhile a leaked letter from The Pensions Regulator suggests that they are concerned that, although USSL had consulted the regulator on two of those options, it had not consulted with them on this third option. The regulator has taken issue with governance processes that do not seem to demonstrate that trustees have given thought to the implications of the third option, instead choosing to kick the can down the road to a presumed 2020 valuation. It is worth wondering whether the only reason USSL trustees – who seem to be in constant contact with the TPR – pulled a rabbit out of a hat and proposed this third option was that they were planning to later withdraw it on grounds that TPR wasn’t satisfied with it.

In the meanwhile, some have already started undermining our Scheme. Trinity College Cambridge which is a relatively tiny employer with circa 100 members in the Scheme has made the extravagant decision of buying itself out of the USS by voting to pay £30 million to leave. Trinity’s decision is being watched closely but unlike other decouplings it is likely to happen quite quickly. The trustees will now have to make a case to the regulator as to the soundness of what is termed as the employers covenant on the Scheme, that binds constituent members of the HE sector into what is termed a ‘last-man standing’ Scheme.

We must not forget that pensions have a very big equalities dimension. Changing the mutuality and the benefits and member contributions on USS entrenches further structural barriers for those who are already discriminated against.

Last but not least, self-interested management teams at many universities have played a long game in eroding USS, and it is noteworthy that the trajectory of the erosion of USS follows a path that has been outlined by a member of staff at UUK’s advisors Pinsent Masons. I urge you to read this article and get your branch members aware that the contributions increases we have paid out for have not happened by accident. They are well-orchestrated steps to make our Scheme unviable, to undermine investments that are sustainable in the longer term and to atomise the sector, to suit the financial interests of the few. Let us reclaim pensions for the many and prepare for campaigning and industrial action to defend what is our right and far from a luxury.

What do we need to do?

See these motions passed at Congress 26 May 2019 which we urge all branches to consider as soon as possible.

 HE6 USS employee contributions

Conference notes USS letters to members in March 2019 notifying them of increases in employee contributions up to 11.4%, with 8.8% from April 1 and a possible 10.4% from October 1.

Conference resolves to:

  1. call on UUK to pick up any additional employee contributions (including contingent contributions) from 1 October 2019 and not pass them on
  2. enter into dispute and prepare for an industrial action ballot in 2019 if the employers do not agree.

HE7 USS pensions

Conference notes:

  1. the transformative impact of the USS strike on UCU
  2. the failure of USS to implement the JEP’s first report leading to proposals for increasing contributions and threats of worsening of benefit
  3. additional USS contributions have already led to some research contracts being substantially reduced in length from the time period originally costed, offered, and accepted – from 5 years to 4 in one case – damaging research projects, and passing employer costs onto staff.

Conference believes the refusal to adopt JEP recommendations is underpinned by a governance failure within USS trustee body.

Conference resolves:

  1. to reaffirm UCU’s position calling for the resignation of Bill Galvin USS CEO and call for the resignation of all independent trustees
  2. to call a higher education sector conference on USS in the autumn term 2019 to review the position and consider all actions available to UCU to defend USS
  3. to call for a national Day of Action on USS
  4. to call on employers to protect research projects and staff by picking up additional pension costs.

HE8 USS dispute

HESC notes that:

  1. USS has calculated that full implementation of the JEP proposals to the 2018 valuation would lead to a £0.6 billion technical provisions surplus and require a contribution rate of only 25.5%. This vindicates the UCU position of ‘no detriment’
  2. Nevertheless USS are continuing to insist that the JEP proposals be implemented only in part and that contributions be raised to a minimum of 29.7% for the coming valuation period
  3. The USS dispute has not been resolved.

HESC resolves:

  1. to call on USS to implement in full, in the 2018 valuation, the 6 JEP proposals for the 2017 valuation
  2. not to accept any increase in member contributions, including ‘trigger contributions’, for this valuation and that any threat of these should be countered with a ballot for industrial action in line with existing policy
  3. to call on all employers to publish their response to the USS technical provisions document.

HE9 UCU must remain open to a legal challenge against USS

The handling by USS of their recent actuarial valuations has been subject to intense scrutiny. Concerns over USS’s decision-making, governance and associated processes have been raised by many members and branches, and also by UCU’s actuarial advisers and the Joint Expert Panel.

The Academics for Pensions Justice group, set up in the wake of the USS dispute, crowd-funded over £50,000 from nearly 2,000 individual donations to obtain specialist legal advice about potential mismanagement by the board of trustees of USS.

Conference believes that UCU must remain open to supporting a legal challenge over the actions of USS, and instructs those with relevant decision-making powers (including but not limited to the superannuation working group, national dispute committee, higher education committee, national executive committee and the general secretary) to give serious consideration to taking further legal steps in defence of members’ pensions.

Conference agrees:

  1. UCU must do work with aligned groups in pursuit of defending our pensions wherever possible
  2. to draw up a full report on legal options open to UCU, via meaningful consultation with Academics for Pension Justice (and associated legal advisors), NDC and SWG
  3. this report will make recommendations which will inform HEC’s consideration regarding next steps in pursuit of any possible legal challenges over the actions of USS.

L5 No confidence in the USS board of trustees

Conference notes that on 7th May 2019 the USS board of trustees definitively and unilaterally rejected the report of the Joint Expert Panel (JEP), by offering three contributions options none of which accepted the full set of JEP recommendations.

Conference resolves that it has no confidence in the corporate trustee of USS and its board.

Conference invites UUK to also withdraw their nominated trustees.

If UUK refuse to confirm by 1st June 2019 that they will not impose any contribution increases in October 2019, HESC instructs the Higher Education Committee to initiate an immediate campaign for industrial action, highlighting USS’s destructive role, with a ballot commencing 1st September 2019 which will give UCU negotiators the necessary leverage to save the USS defined benefit pension with no detriment to members.

HE10 Defending the ‘no detriment’ position in our USS dispute

HESC notes:

  1. The multiple failings of the USS 2017 and 2018 valuation documents
  2. USS has calculated the full implementation of the JEP proposals in the 2018 valuation leads to a £0.6 billion technical provisions surplus, requiring a contribution rate of 25.5% which vindicates ‘no detriment’
  3. USS is imposing large ‘cost sharing’ increases in contributions, to 8.8% in April 2019, 10.4% in October 2019 and 11.4% in April 2020, whose rationale has been extensively debunked

HESC believes these increases are unnecessary and violate UCU’s position of ‘No Detriment’.

HESC calls on UUK to join UCU in resisting any contributions increases and to refuse to implement the October 2019 and April 2020 increases.

L6 UCU directors of USS

Conference notes:

  1. that UCU-appointed director Prof. Jane Hutton has recused herself from the Trustee Board after pressure following her whistleblowing with regard to the 2017 valuatio
  2. Prof. Hutton has been a consistent critic of the valuation methodology and forced USS to adjust their mortality assumptions.

Conference believes:

  1. UCU Directors should be free to represent members’ interests without interference by the USS executive and offers Prof. Hutton our strong support
  2. UCU has no confidence in the valuation methodology or the USS executive.

Conference resolves:

  1. to seek legal advice on behalf of its three USS directors regarding the implications of their removing themselves from the Trustee Board until Prof. Hutton’s concerns are satisfactorily addressed
  2. to re-state our call for the resignation of Bill Galvin CEO of USS and issue a press release stating this
  3. to demand a public enquiry into the undermining of USS DB scheme.

** Please note that this article is an extract from a longer unpublished piece of research by the author.










Support Feyzi Ismail; challenge precarious conditions in HE


“Casualisation is endemic across higher education and contributes to real insecurity and anxiety for those who are subject to it. I’m currently involved in a dispute with SOAS over its refusal to grant me a permanent contract even though I have worked more than 4 years in the same role and do the same work as permanent colleagues. Ironically,  Valerie Amos, SOAS’s vice-chancellor, produced a report only last week on the BAME attainment gap, which also noted that BAME staff are woefully underrepresented in academic institutions. My case is just one example of these injustices. I hope to have a hearing with the University later this month and feel that if more cases like mine are brought into the open this would help challenge the precarity and discrimination that is on the rise in our education system.” Feyzi Ismail

Join over 600 others and sign the letter in support of permanency of Feyzi Ismail 

Dear SOAS Management,

We are writing to express our support for Feyzi Ismail with regard to her grievance hearing on 14 May 2019* and call on SOAS, University of London to make Feyzi a full-time, permanent member of staff. We are deeply concerned that in refusing to do so up to now, the School is not adhering to the spirit of labour law for all workers.

Feyzi has been teaching in the Department of Development Studies at SOAS since 2011 and is currently on her 10th contract. She was employed on four full-time fixed-term Senior Teaching Fellow contracts from 2014-2018. Employment law in the UK clearly states that: ‘Any employee on fixed-term contracts for 4 or more years will automatically become a permanent employee, unless the employer can show there is a good business reason not to do so’.

Accordingly, Feyzi made requests for permanency in 2018 and 2019, both of which were rejected on the basis of ‘objective justifications’. Following her first request for permanency, the School reduced her full-time position to 0.5 FTE. Feyzi has appealed the latest rejection and is due to have a hearing with Human Resources. We are concerned that the School will continue to refuse Feyzi’s right to permanency through the misuse of objective justifications, acting against the spirit of the law in order to redefine what has in fact been indefinite employment.

Objective justifications, as invoked in Feyzi’s case, include covering for staff absences or specialist expertise required by the institution for a temporary period. We do not believe that these justifications are appropriate in this case:

• Feyzi has undertaken core responsibilities within the Department. She has been engaged in the same work as permanent colleagues, performs the same duties, participates in the Department in the same manner and has similar qualifications, skills and teaching experience.
• The substance of Feyzi’s job has remained the same over the past five years, apart from an increased amount of responsibility, including School-wide roles.

Neither of these points would apply to employees simply covering staff absences. This progression, instead, reflects the career path of permanent employees. The School has also recognised that Feyzi has demonstrated exceptional performance – over and above the normal expectation for someone who is fully developed in the role – by awarding her a contribution increment last year. One example of this is her leadership of the Development Studies Seminar Series, which brings some of the most exciting thinkers in academia to SOAS, is consistently the best attended weekly event in the School and has raised the profile not only of the Department but of SOAS more broadly.

The refusal to grant her a permanent position thus not only appears to represent a violation of national legislation regarding the treatment of fixed-term employees but reflects a broader trend of casualisation within academia. Academics like Feyzi do the same valuable work as permanent employees but on significantly worse and more precarious terms and conditions. Feyzi’s treatment also raises questions about the School’s publicly stated commitment to issues of race and gender representation at SOAS and in higher education in general.

Feyzi is an asset to the Department and the School, and should be made permanent with immediate effect. We call on the School to grant Feyzi a fair hearing and a full-time permanent contract, and we urge SOAS to take the lead in eliminating the precarious and discriminatory conditions currently endemic within higher education.

*HR has postponed the hearing to 14 May but have yet to confirm this date.

Please add your name here.


A Q&A with the rank and file candidates for UCU General Secretary

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The election for the next General Secretary of UCU starts on Monday 29 April and closes at 12 noon on Thursday 23 May 2019. There are three candidates: Jo Grady (Sheffield University), Jo McNeill (Liverpool University) and Matt Waddup (UCU National Head of Policy and Campaigns). Branch Solidarity Network invited questions for both rank and file candidates and we publish their answers below (and thank them both for making the time to give such full responses).

This is not an official hustings event in which case all three candidates would expect to be able to air their views. Instead, it is an endorsement and an opportunity to hear from the two Jo’s whose voices have not been heard as regularly in the THES and who we feel best represent the desire for a grassroots, member-led and radical union – the constituency out of which BSN emerged last year. We urge branches to organise official hustings with all three candidates but, given that this is an STV election, we also encourage members to use their votes to make sure that the next General Secretary is called Jo.

1. Does having two left candidates run the risk of splitting the vote?

Jo Grady

I don’t think so, no. I think the recent race for Vice President of UCU, where Vicky Blake, the non-aligned candidate from the left of the union ran against one from each of the established factions, is the best guide we have to this election. And it worked very well for the left: partly because the two candidates encouraged their supporters to vote for each other, but also because it raised the level of debate, moved the whole conversation in a progressive direction, and possibly generated more interest, and therefore votes, than a two-horse race would have. So I’m glad that I’m not just one of two candidates.

Jo McNeill

Potentially. However, given this is a single transferable vote if we use our second preference vote wisely then we should be able to get a rank and file candidate into position. That’s provided both sets of supporters understand that neither left candidate is the enemy here and are disciplined in using their second preference vote for the other left candidate. This worked in the recent VP election. Vicky Blake came second to Adam Ozanne on first preferences but when the votes transferred, around 50% of my supporters chose her as their second preference which catapulted her into the VP position. However, we can never guarantee where our second preference votes will go.

What concerns me is that some of Jo G’s supporters may not choose me as their second preference because they’ve bought into the right-wing propaganda that those of us who’ve been fighting the bureaucracy for years before the USS dispute, are the devil. If that is the case, then it’s highly likely that the left vote will split and the continuity candidate, will win. The outcome of this election may well be up to the wider left. The question is, do you dislike the UCU Left candidate enough to allow the continuity candidate to win if your first choice doesn’t? My advice is to be disciplined and to vote #JoJo12 with whichever one of us you prefer as #1.

2. Are you running as an “independent” candidate?

Jo McNeill

No. I’m running as the UCU Left candidate. I’m more than happy to have the ‘factions’ debate at any time. ‘Factions’ exist in the union because activists have to organise in relation to the conservatism of the bureaucracy of the union.  One of the candidates standing for General Secretary is an official who is seeking to restrict activists’ influence over the union. So all activists, whether in UCU Left, Branch Solidarity Network or USS Briefs have to organise as what is referred to as ‘factions’. These may be more or less formal, more or less internally homogenous and overlap with one another but nevertheless they reflect the need of activists to organise within UCU.

We have to organise on the Left because we face a very organised right in UCU. Although they claim innocence, they’re actually far more organised and definitely far more disciplined than is commonly known. They have won the majority of the national executive seats for several years and have stifled so much activism that I couldn’t even begin to go into detail here. We do caucus as the left in the same way I would expect every UCU branch to caucus with their sister unions on campus prior to meeting management, so we can have our discussions, talk about what our members want and come up with an agreed position where possible. I heard throughout the VP campaign that UCU Left turn up at NEC, we don’t allow debate and we all just bloc vote. That’s bullshit. We try to take in an agreed position so that we can then use our time in the meeting to convince the right to vote with us. Sometimes, on odd occasions, that works.

I appreciate some people say they don’t like the idea of ‘factions’ but these organised groups exist, they exist in all unions and political parties. Both of the other candidates in this election are part of different groups. These groups operate at a national level in the union. They talk to each other, co-ordinate their activity and campaign collectively. Anyone coming onto the NEC will quickly learn that the only way to get anything done in NEC is to take an organised position.

Jo Grady

Yes, I’m the only candidate in this race not to receive support from either of the established factions in UCU. I have never been a member of either faction, and in my last two elections to national posts (for the USS National Dispute Committee and for the National Executive Committee), I stood as the only non-aligned candidate and comfortably beat candidates from each faction.

3. Please describe your experiences as caseworkers and branch activists for casualised, BAME and disabled staff.

Jo Grady

This is difficult to discuss without revealing too much specific information about the members I’ve helped, so I’ll have to talk in quite general terms. I have been involved in casework with, BME and disabled members for various reasons, including bullying and harassment, in addition to casework related to changes to return to work following maternity leave, but also redundancies. A large part of my leadership role in my previous branch involved helping deal with a very large and intimidating programme of redundancies managers were trying to impose on us.

Jo McNeill

I’ve been a caseworker for years, I’ve represented countless members and I have an excellent success rate. We’ve fought zero hours contracts at a local level and achieved a moratorium on them, although in the past 12 months we’re hearing management have broken this agreement. We also have an anti-casualisation claim in progress this is a collective issue as opposed to fighting on a case by case level.

For BAME staff we’ve been meeting locally with our Black Staff Network. Members in this group told us that progression and promotion are the main areas of concern for them. Our approach to rectify this was to agree with management that black staff members would be seconded into new, higher graded posts being created as part of a re-structure for a trial period with a view to them keeping the position. This moves away from the deficit model which pushes for black members to receive training or mentoring to get a promotion. This is in my manifesto as something I would roll out nationally.

Our university, like many others, has lots of accessibility issues. I regularly negotiate reasonable adjustments for disabled members and work through stress risk assessments with members and management to support members with mental health issues. I’ve pushed work related stress through the H&S committee which is an excellent negotiating forum and we developed a stress code of practice which has been rolled out nationally by UCU. We organised a very effective day of action in line with UCU’s Disability Day of Action where we taped up the entrances to every inaccessible building on campus and followed this up with an extremely noisy march. This led to the employer asking to meet with us and we are now going through an institutional level review of accessibility. The direct action we took led to the movement by management which our disabled members needed to see.

4. Can we get a more powerful legal Department so that casework isn’t volunteer-dependent and that employers have a bit of fear in them?

Jo McNeill

When I ran against Sally Hunt in the last GS election I said I would overhaul the union’s legal department. As a caseworker myself, I know how difficult it is to get a legal opinion and even when it does arrive, it’s usually vague. We are not seeing any changes in university cultures because hardly any cases are going to court. We could have precedent setting caselaw in equalities cases if the union would offer more supportive, convincing legal support. As GS I will take a series of test cases on equalities issues to court. As a caseworker I’ve regularly been told that equalities cases can be ‘risky’, well, sometimes we have to take risks and financially support equalities cases in order to effect positive change.

I will also look into a legal challenge to question the misuse of NDAs (Non-disclosure Agreements) as these are being used to cover bad practice all over the country. A former member from my branch bravely broke her NDA very publicly last week and members from all around the country are talking to the media about their stories. I’ve unwillingly been involved in the negotiations of too many NDAs and its about time something was done by national UCU to actually step up and protect the members instead of the employers. When I ran in the last GS election, Sally Hunt claimed success in negotiating over £70million for individual members. I raised the point back then that this was nothing to brag about, that we had very little caselaw to show for this figure and that most of this amount was tied up in NDAs hiding bad practice, sexual harassment, bullying, abuse, discrimination and everything else that these agreements hide.

Jo Grady

Yes, I think we can and should do this. I find it interesting and disappointing that UCU hasn’t filled its vacancy for Head of Legal Services. We don’t have a proper in-house legal team, as I point out in my manifesto. While there are good law firms we can engage for help with employment law, it does leave us under-resourced for problems that are quite specific to the sectors we work in: whether it’s the kind of ‘workload creep’ issue I’ve highlighted in FE, or the unequal effects of REF-related performance management in HE.

5. What plans do you have to make the union more responsive to the employment needs of our members day-to-day?

Jo Grady

I’ve detailed a few ways in which UCU can make itself more of a presence in members’ daily lives in my manifesto. One is making more use of technology to communicate with members; another is to hold regular surgeries where members can talk to me, as GS, and other national officials. It’s easy to forget this but the GS doesn’t have to be holed up in Carlow Street (UCU’s national HQ) all the time. I plan to spend plenty of time going round the country, working from regional offices, and being in contact with branches. I don’t like London all that much anyway!

Jo McNeill

I have said in my last two national election campaigns that the leadership of UCU is disengaged from our membership.  None of the senior management team have ever worked in any of the sectors we represent, they are all career bureaucrats. I have personal experience of all of our sectors except prisons. During my time with Aimhigher I was based at the University of Liverpool but ran projects in FE, Post 92s and schools and I came through adult education as an access student. I am an academic related member of staff but I have been a very active caseworker for many years representing academic and academic related staff in all aspects of their working lives. I understand the wider education system and the issues all of our members face.  I am better placed to work across our membership than either of the other candidates. This is not just a ‘Lecturer’s union’. I would be a hands-on GS and would maintain my already strong connection with the wider grassroots membership. UCU will only be fully responsive to our members needs when they are properly engaged and understand fundamentally what those needs are. I will be accountable too and if members don’t think I’m doing a good job I will have accepted the proposed recall clause into my contract and will willingly enter that process.

6. What are your plans to make UCU a campaigning union?

Jo McNeill

We need to move away from any notion of a service model union and ensure campaigning is at the heart of UCU. One of the main reasons we see branches struggling to get the vote out during ballot periods is due to the lack of high profile national campaigning. In the past we’ve seen indicative ballots drop into our inboxes with no campaign whatsoever, this approach sets us up to fail. We know the annual timetable of national pay negotiations. They are the same every year yet we never start the national campaign early enough, or powerfully enough. A campaign needs more than a leaflet, a poster and a mention on the UCU website. As an NEC member I, along with others, have offered to go into branches to speak to members about the importance of the campaign. We’ve never been allowed to do that – although I have regularly gone in and spoke in friendly branches without National approval.

However, I believe strongly that UCU’s campaigns must not be restricted to national and local issues which directly affect our members. UCU must be an internationalist union. I have been a life-long campaigner against war and imperialist intervention. I’m proud to be an internationalist. I also proud that UCU has a strong position on supporting the struggle of the Palestinian people and is affiliated to organisations like the Stop the War Coalition.  Interventionist wars led by US and Britain are still taking place from the middle east to Venezuela. UCU is quite right to make anti-imperialism a central part of the union’s polices. As GS I would make sure that this position is continued and strengthened. At a local level we’ve been working on campaigns with Liverpool’s Sudanese community for the last couple of years and we regularly supported a delegate from our committee to attend CSP-Conlutas Congress in Brazil so that we maintain a broad understanding of international issues. In June Donald Trump is coming to Britain. Regardless of the outcome of this election, I will be organising to get as many UCU members as possible to join the tens of thousands that will bring the capital to a stand still on that day to send a clear message across the world that this racist, misogynistic, climate denier and homophobe is not welcome here.

Jo Grady

This really strikes a chord with me, because it’s a central concern in my manifesto. UCU says that it campaigns on all sorts of issues, and technically, it does. But campaigns are more than a report, a press release, or a list of resources on a website. The question we should always be asking about almost any issue that concerns us is: how are we going to get a binding nationwide agreement with our employers? Trade unions in other countries have managed to negotiate national agreements about all sorts of things: not just pay and pensions, but harassment, workplace dignity, professional development, job security, you name it. If we want that, we need to get leverage, and we need to get our membership as a whole on board. I have plenty of ideas about how to do that in various areas – so I hope you read the manifesto and take a look.

7. What do you consider to be distinctive about Higher Education and what is your vision of the “university of the future”?

Jo Grady

I don’t know if I would say that Higher Education is particularly different from Further Education. Both are about about giving people the freedom to develop their interests and capacities and decide how they want to participate in society. A few years of freedom at university to think, and learn, and grow, is important and can form the basis of a happy, fulfilled adult life. The burden of debt associated with higher education now discourages people from working class backgrounds to benefit from that. Higher education should be open to everyone and free to everyone.

The other thing I would add is that universities, in particular, have become more and more detached from the local and regional communities around them. In fact, they’re often doing a lot of damage to those communities. That’s not an easy problem to solve, but it would be on top of my list of priorities if I were in charge of this country’s Higher Education system.

Jo McNeill

Higher Education in the UK at one point was the envy of the world; now there are more negatives than positives. My vision for a ‘university of the future’ is one where casualisation has been stamped out, all staff have manageable workloads and positive work/life balances women and BAME staff are paid the same as white men, and everyone works in environments free of all forms of harassment, abuse and bullying; where the far right and hostile environments are confined to studies  in History departments and our colleagues from all over the world can work alongside UK nationals freely; where coming into work doesn’t detrimentally affect your mental health; and where further and higher education is free for all and is valued in and of itself instead of being just another cog in the capitalist machine. I’d also like to see pay caught up AND kept up with properly funded defined benefit pensions and there should be fair pay ratios between the highest and lowest paid staff.

In the future all universities and colleges should be fully accessible to all staff and students. BAME staff should progress and be promoted at the same rate as white staff. No group of people should feel uncomfortable in the workplace and free speech should not be used as an excuse to intimidate or harass any group of people. I’d like to see employers value staff, and recognise that they are worth more to the education system than any shiny new building. I also hope the climate action taking place now works and our environment survives so we can have this ideal future!

All of this may seem like a HE fairy story but these are basic workplace expectations. We’ve been conditioned into thinking there is no way to resolve the situation HE is in right now but all of this is achievable. Ok, confining the far right to the studies of the History department may take some doing but most of what I’ve outlined above are basic working rights. In UCU we’ve lost sight of that simple concept. We are acting like a professional association while our employers are treating us like factory workers. We have to organise like factory workers. And I am not having a go at factory workers here – I’m saying they have far more industrial strength than we do, and we need to emulate that model if we want to effectively fight back.

8. What action should be taken in relation to allegations of financial corruption at universities and to ensure that union branches remain independent of university management?

Jo McNeill

The marketisation and financialisation of HE have led to complex financial structures, instruments and internal metrics-based transfer pricing mechanisms being used by a huge range of HE institutions. Simultaneously we see exponential growth in the conflicts of interest of those in senior positions coupled with an employers lobbying body, UUK, that puts on events that offer networking opportunities for those with predatory interests to hobnob with senior management teams. Alongside the increase in complexity, conflicts and opacity, we have found that democratic scrutiny and good governance have been actively discouraged, as statutes have been eroded and staff involvement in key university governance positions has been either minimised or removed entirely. Some institutions have actively engaged in union-busting activities to silence any challenge or scrutiny of those in positions of power or influence.

Currently, UCU tends to deal with the nuts and bolts issues such as redundancies, pay freezes, casualisation or gender pay gaps through local and national disputes or on an individual level via casework. This is all very important but it is also important to have a holistic sector-wide response to the root causes of these problems. I will therefore be supporting a motion from the Southern Region at Congress that challenges UCU to commission more critical accounting analyses so as to centrally provide a counter-narrative that supports branch discussions in talking to employers using the language they employ with us. While branches should be able to tailor such materials to their particular circumstances we need to do better at understanding similarities and differences in the big picture so we can develop and apply UCU resources more effectively for the benefit of all of our members.

Jo Grady

This is a really important question but a really difficult one, too. We can’t have a situation where there are accusations of inappropriate conduct and UCU’s national leaders are intervening on one side of a dispute within a branch. So what can we do instead? To my mind, transparency is the key to ensuring the integrity of elected officers of the Union. Branches can have policies, for example, not to allow one-on-one and/or un-minuted meetings with management. They could also find ways to open up their official negotiation meetings to rank-and-file members of the branch. I’ve already said in my manifesto that I want to explore ‘open negotiations’ at a national level, and it would be good if we saw members pushing their branches in the same direction.

As for financial corruption: as universities open themselves up to global capital markets and other private-sector interests, this is only going to get worse. We need serious investigative capacity in the Union on a national level. On top of that, I wonder if this could be an area where we could set up a member ‘task group’, along the lines I discuss in my manifesto. We have members who are experienced in every aspect of this, from professional services staff who work with external consultants to specialist researchers in critical accounting. But a lot of what’s written about financialisation and financial corruption in universities and colleges fails to take a staff-centred approach. It asks what financialisation means for a university’s business model, or its relationship to the public sector, or for students, but not so much how it hurts staff, by exacerbating casualisation, outsourcing, and other problems. But we saw vividly during the USS strike just how many problems it can cause us.

9. What are your plans to address workloads in HE, particularly for early-career academics and those on fixed-term contracts?

Jo Grady

I think there’s a lot of work we can do to develop UCU’s current workload/Health and Safety campaign, as I suggest in my manifesto. At the moment, there’s just one national officer responsible for Health and Safety across all sectors – that doesn’t suggest it’s been prioritised. The workload surveys UCU has offered are quite basic. They don’t align properly with the standards set by the Health and Safety Executive, for example. As for how we relieve the burden on ECRs and fixed-term staff: this is the kind of thing I believe we can and should put on the table in our national negotiating. For instance, the casualisation-related demands in UCU’s last two annual pay claims don’t really address overwork in any way. There are simple demands we could make on a national level: reductions in workload for staff on probation, for instance, which already happens in some institutions but needs to be expanded; or we could ask for all teaching-focused fixed-term staff to be allowed to enrol in a PGCHE course, with a corresponding reduction in their workload allocation.

Jo McNeill

One of the first things I’d do as GS is to launch a campaign to make sure every single FTC holder who has had two or more contracts for four years or more is recognised by their employer as permanent. So many of our members have been on repeated FTCs and haven’t established permanency, it’s a very simple process, a template letter from UCU to the individuals HR department gives them more rights instantly. I will roll out the successes we’ve had in Liverpool in relation to early-career academics where I have used the nationally agreed Framework Agreement to ensure they are working within their pay grade.

Workload is both a Health and Safety issue, which means employers have to formally consult with us over this issue and a pay issue which means we can collectively bargain at a national level. H&S legislation has some teeth and crucially, H&S officers automatically receive facilities time. Branches should be supported in effectively using H&S legislation to ensure employers collectively consult on workload allocation models (WAM). UCU needs to centrally co-ordinate to ensure strong, functional WAMs are rolled out around the sector. I will ensure national negotiators relate workload to pay. Its simple, if you work 60 hours a week, your hourly pay rate decreases. That discussion needs to feature on our pay claim. Industrial action over unreasonable workloads is more likely to get a high turnout than pay alone but this will only happen if the national union deliver a credible, highly visible campaign with a strong supporting narrative from the GS.

10. What are your views on university tuition fees and post-16 funding and how do you think the union should pressure government to invest more in public education?

Jo McNeill

I believe education should be free for all. I personally returned to education as a mature student and a young, working class mum via an access course and overcame lots of barriers to do that. I’ve since worked in Widening Participation and Fair Access for the past 14 years and know very well that intelligence is not in any way related to privilege, opportunity is directly related to privilege and if everyone had equal opportunities in education we would live in a very different society. I was working for Aimhigher when EMA was abolished and the fees went up to £9k. I was working directly with young people from some of the most under-privileged areas in the UK, I witnessed first hand the devastation the loss of that income meant to them and how their aspirations to go to university halted because they came from families who had struggled with debt all their lives so were highly debt averse. UCU needs to do more to support widening participation and adult education. UCU can have a strong voice on this nationally, as GS I would work closely with the NUS to lobby to abolish fees and to bring back EMA and the Adult Maintenance Grant.  Corbyn’s National Education Service is the ideal model for all of the sectors we represent.

We are now awaiting the full publication of the Augur Review which will potentially create one of the biggest bombshells UCU will have to face in coming years. Direct funding has to replace fee income or universities around the country will look elsewhere for money which we know is likely to mean course closures and job losses for our members. This is a joint union issue as our sister campus unions will be equally impacted so we need a high profile joint union campaign and grassroots organisation from day one of the GS term to ensure we are ready to fight any such attacks. The only way to win for our members in this environment is to build from below to pressure those making decisions at the top.

Jo Grady

I am opposed to tuition fees and have consistently taken part in demonstrations against them and against funding cuts. This includes the huge UCU/NUS coordinated 2010 protest about the removal of the cap on tuition fees in HE, and FE funding cuts.

There’s one thing we have to be clear about from the start: the Conservative Party is ideologically opposed to public education. We can see that in everything from academisation at the secondary level, to the imposition of austerity on FE colleges, to the shifting of the cost of Higher Education in the direction of students. Another thing we have to be equally clear about: too many of our managers like this state of affairs. As I point out in my manifesto, Universities UK have already lobbied the Labour Party to keep the current tuition fee system if they get into power.

What does this mean for us in practice? If we get a Labour government, perhaps we’ll be better off. But if not, we need to be so strong in our defense of staff conditions that it’s too much of a headache for the Tories to cut funding. They need to understand that if funding gets cut, it’s the business operations of universities and colleges that will suffer first – the way they way funnel money into the private sector. It won’t be staff. I don’t think polite lobbying will get us anywhere with the politicians or managers that are currently in power.

bUSSted: Why we still need to stand firm on pensions


by Deepa Govindarajan Driver (written in a personal capacity)

22nd February 2019 marked a year from us being on the picket lines defending our USS pensions (1). We stood united, braving the cold weather, sacrificing our pay cheques, worrying about the costs to our students and in the process built new networks of solidarity to disrupt the marketization of Higher Education. This short article attempts to capture where we are with the USS dispute, why we are now paying increased pension contributions when the Scheme is in surplus (or would be if all Joint Expert Panel recommendations were applied), and the implications for Scheme members


A year ago, we took strike action, because employers and USS Ltd (USSL) (2) proposed to make changes to close the Defined Benefit (DB) element of the Scheme and shift us all to a Defined Contribution one. Their changes were expected to cost Scheme members circa £200,000 (each) over the course of their retirement.

After successes with granting themselves a decade of pension underpayments, followed by the closure of the final salary scheme and the imposition of cost-sharing of future contributions rises on members, what our employers had not counted on was our ability to mobilise credibly.  It should not have surprised employers that members of UCU were in a unique position to scrutinise some of the detail behind their arguments to shift us to a Defined Contribution pension. Our membership consisted of experts in a range of areas – and much to the employers’ chagrin, our collective expertise was vital in unravelling some (but not all) of the detail behind the proposed changes to USS. We began to understand that we had been cheated.

USSL, meanwhile, was under pressure to agree the delayed and contested 2017 valuation. This pressure was of course, partly from the regulator. Although we are aware of other schemes with significantly longer delays than this, given the size and importance of USS, no doubt the regulator was paying close attention to it. It is also likely USSL wanted to legitimise the methodology of the 2017 valuation.

In Spring 2018, as a result of our action, the employers reversed their proposal to abolish the Defined Contribution scheme and in the summer and early autumn the JEP and expert lay members of the Scheme produced significant evidence of the flaws in the valuation methodology and governance of the Scheme. In particular, grounds for USS’s ‘de-risking’ strategy of moving its investments into bonds (particularly Test 1) were roundly debunked.

Meanwhile USSL moved ahead with ‘cost sharing’ contributions increases, based on their November 2017 valuation while assuming no reductions in Defined Contribution benefits. You may also recollect that under cost-sharing arrangements members pay roughly a third of any such increases and a schedule was offered by USSL with a three-step increase in April 2019, October 2019 and April 2020. The October 2019 and April 2020 contributions increases were particularly onerous on employers as well as our members (see rows 6-8 of the table HERE). These were to be a ‘fallback’ solution in case all parties could not agree on the JEP’s recommendations.

In October 2018, USSL began the member consultation (which you may have contributed to), about the cost-sharing contributions increases. UCU’s National Dispute Committee and others have publicly commented on the lack of attention and consideration USSL paid to members’ responses.

Bait and Switch

Towards the end of 2018, USSL offered employers an interesting conundrum. It is now public knowledge that USSL executives disclosed that if all the JEP recommendations were applied to data as at 31 March 2018, the fund would be £0.6 bn in surplus rather than £4.0bn in deficit as the JEP had estimated using 11 March 2017 data. (See rows 9 and 11 of the above table). It suggested that the JNC agree the 2017 valuation as a fallback and have it approved by the USSL Board, and the USSL Executive would quickly initiate a 2018 valuation. Although it appeared that April 2019 contributions increases could not be stopped, there was an expectation now that the October 2019 and the 2020 increases (i.e. the second and third steps of the ‘cost sharing’ increases) would be superseded by this 2018 valuation, which would show no need for contributions increases at all. Employers of course were particularly worried about the second and third step of increases. So, a quick agreement was reached on the 2017 valuation and this was lodged in December 2018.

Meanwhile USSL started to work on the 2018 valuation, but in the consultation document they published in January 2019, they did not adopt two crucial JEP recommendations.  They proposed a ‘lower bookend’ involving employee contributions of 9.3%, but only if UUK would accept a trigger mechanism of ‘contingency contributions’ allowing USSL to increase contributions without consultation to mitigate against the risks it suggested were present in the Scheme. This resulted in a further round of employer consultations which have only just ended.

We are now at a crucial juncture. The JEP is currently running its second phase. First, the JEP are conducting a review of USS governance. Several issues with governance have been brought to their attention. Next, they will move on to other issues with the valuation including Test 1 (which was not dealt with fully in the first round of the JEP).

Meanwhile the employers have completed their consultation and we are informed that they are now negotiating their position with USSL over the proposed trigger contributions but many employers are insisting that such contributions be cost-shared with members.

USSL is apparently in discussions with the regulator on the strength of the employers’ covenant and the regulator’s view of risk in the Scheme.

It is indeed appalling that members have, since 1st April, been paying an extra 0.8% of their salary in increased contributions which are unjustified and based on flawed valuation assumptions and tests, at a time when we are also enduring real-terms paycuts, increased workloads and deteriorating conditions. Given the glacial place at which USSL are proceeding, it is becomingly increasingly likely that this increase could become a 2.4% increase from the 1st of October 2019.

The National Dispute Committee met on Friday 5thApril to decide the future course of the dispute, because clearly the ‘No Detriment’ position of the union has already been breached. NDC expressed concerns about

  1. the multiple failings of the USS 2017 and 2018 valuation documents;
  2. USS confirming that their calculation of the full implementation of the JEP proposals in the 2018 valuation leads to a £0.6 billion technical provisions surplus, that in turn requires a contribution rate of 25.5%, which vindicates ‘no detriment’;
  3. USS imposing large ‘cost sharing’ increases in contributions, to 8.8% in April 2019, 10.4% in October 2019 and 11.4% in April 2020, whose rationale has been extensively debunked.

NDC has now raised a motion to Congress requesting the Higher Education Sector conference to resolve that these increases are unnecessary and violate UCU’s position of ‘no detriment’. NDC has asked the Higher Education Sector Committee to call on UUK to join UCU in resisting any contributions increases and to refuse to implement the October 2019 and April 2020 increases.

A further update will be circulated, once more news is available from employersand when the NDC arrives at any further conclusion. Meanwhile, I urge branches to:

  1. consider these issues at branch meetings in the summer term and to prepare for industrial action, if necessary, once again to defend our pensions.
  2. urge your Congress delegates to back the NDC Motion (below).


NDC motion to HESC: Defending the ‘No Detriment’ Position in our USS Dispute

HESC notes:

  1. the multiple failings of the USS 2017 and 2018 valuation documents,
  2. USS has calculated the full implementation of the JEP proposals in the 2018 valuation leads to a £0.6 billion technical provisions surplus, requiring a contribution rate of 25.5%, which vindicates ‘no detriment’,
  3. USS is imposing large ‘cost sharing’ increases in contributions, to 8.8% in April 2019, 10.4% in October 2019 and 11.4% in April 2020, whose rationale has been extensively debunked.

HESC believes these increases are unnecessary and violate UCU’s position of ‘no detriment’.

HESC calls on UUK to join UCU in resisting any contributions increases and to refuse to implement the October 2019 and April 2020 increases.

HESC resolves to immediately begin campaigning for an industrial action ballot commencing October 2019, should UUK refuse to confirm by 1 July 2019 that they will not impose contribution increases on members from October.


(1) The Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) is a multi-employer, hybrid, last-person standing Scheme. The Scheme is the largest private sector Defined Benefit (DB) scheme and is worth circa £60bn.

(2) USS is managed by for us by USS Ltd (USSL) who are the corporate trustees of our pension. For all practical purposes, the directors of USSL take trusteeship responsibilities for our pensions and it is USSL executive (and corresponding executives at USS Investment Management) and these directors that we seek to hold to account.