Support Feyzi Ismail; challenge precarious conditions in HE

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“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.

 

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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

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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

Context

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.

Notes:

(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.

Why We Will Strike Against REF

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Colleagues at Liverpool UCU are currently balloting for industrial action against a  punitive and unreasonable Research Excellence Framework Code of Practice. This article was sent to us anonymously by a member at the University and provides a vivid description of rampant managerialism and the instrumentalisation of research. Please send your support to lucu@liverpool.ac.uk


Imagine a world in which academics could be sacked and disciplined just because one colleague didn’t rate another colleague’s research highly enough.  Welcome to my world. My university is now threatening to dismiss staff because of a subjective score made by an anonymous colleague.

No one can deny that Universities must take REF preparation for the Research Excellence Framework (REF) seriously.  And although few like it, we recognise it is a game we need to play.  But a line has been crossed here.  REF preparation is not being used in ways that identify our strengths but is being used to undermine staff and drive an aggressive and toxic management culture.

This is how it works.  The University of Liverpool’s ‘Research Policy Principles’ demand that every research active member of staff has their research papers marked using REF criteria (1*-4*).  This is normal in REF preparations across the sector, and neither I, nor my colleagues have any particular objection to that.

What is different at Liverpool is that staff must achieve at least four papers or books within the current REF cycle scored at 3* (internationally leading) AND if they fail to hit this target, they face “capability procedures”, the formal procedure that enables dismissal.  Yet this level of performance expectations is way beyond the recently confirmed REF expectation of an average of 2.5 submitted outputs per research-active member of staff in each REF submission.

Our dispute is not simply about the level of expectation, but the way the process is being used.  In this system, the reviewer is anonymous but the author isn’t.  This means that there is no ‘anonymous marking’ principle that students now universally expect for their assessment.  And, unlike the marking of student assessments, because the marker is anonymous, there is no accountability.  In other words, there is no safeguard against particular groups of staff facing discrimination in this system.

The system ultimately depends on notoriously unreliable subjective judgments.  One of our colleagues was threatened with redundancy for producing work that was rated in one department as an unacceptable 2* (even though it had been published in a respected, peer-reviewed journal) and in another department was awarded the acceptable rating of 3*.  External colleagues from other universities are being unwittingly used to participate in this.  In one department, an external reviewer was paid piecemeal rates (at £100 per paper) to ‘re-assess’ work that had already been rated as an acceptable 3*. The rating duly came back on both papers as ‘2*’.

The problem with asking for one internationally leading paper every 18 months is that even if this quality and frequency of publication by everyone is possible (researchers need a long lead-in period to produce ‘internationally leading’ research), rising student numbers and pressures to do more and more administrative tasks make it impossible to find the time for quality research.  Our dispute also demands a review to the timetabling policy that has failed to give a large number of staff any meaningful research time.

Some academics from other institutions might recognize something like this situation, but the University of Liverpool has made it clear that it will use performance metrics for disciplinary capability activation. This practice is part of a tidal wave of policies being introduced or more closely followed in a relatively short space of time; a tsunami of toxic performance management demands.

And so, at the University of Liverpool we are balloting to go on strike.  If my colleagues vote to go out on strike over this, then I for one will be there on the picket line.  At the moment this looks like the only way to stop the reckless and destructive fervor that has gripped managers at the University of Liverpool.

This may be the first strike against the use of high REF targets at Liverpool to harshly manage the performance of staff.  If we are forced to take industrial action, it will be to a strike to stop the creeping culture of toxic performance management that is threatening to spread across the sector.

 

National Organising Meeting, 12-3pm Saturday 2 March

UCU faces a critical time. Turnout in the HE pay and equalities ballot was not sufficient to meet the thresholds imposed by Tory legislation while USS are digging their heels in and refusing to implement the full JEP report. Meanwhile, FE staff are set to strike over pay while there is an impending battle to be general secretary following the resignation of Sally Hunt. Branches should try to send reps to this meeting and follow this up with local discussions about how best to respond to these issues as well as the general uncertainty in HE with the August Review of post-18 education set to report and a slew of redundancies across the country. Details hereScreen Shot 2019-02-25 at 19.58.39.png.

 

De Montfort Renewed: A Manifesto

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Well done to all at De Montfort UCU for putting together a fantastic manifesto for democratic guidance at the University. Drawing on the Gold Paper and our own Activists’ Handbook, the manifesto “recognises what people working within DMU think it stands for as a space of civic and public engagement, of excellent teaching and learning, of socially-useful scholarship and research. This Manifesto is a living document that celebrates DMU as a self-critical scholarly community; a true University with creative, critical and radical ambitions.” This is all the more vital in the light of the recent resignation of its vice-chancellor and the launch of an investigation into its governance and finances.

Read the whole manifesto here.

National Dispute Committee motion calling on USS to implement JEP in full

The NDC is recommending that branches consider (and ideally pass) the following motion in response to USS’ refusal fully to implement the JEP proposals.

This branch notes that:

  • USS has calculated that the 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’
  • 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
  • the USS pension dispute has not been resolved.

This branch resolves:

  • to call on USS to implement in full, in the 2018 valuation, the 6 JEP proposals for the 2017 valuation
  • not to accept any increase in member contributions, including ‘trigger contributions’, for this valuation
  • to call on our employer to endorse this position, and also to publish their response to the USS technical provisions document.

There’s a briefing note to accompany this available here.

If you do pass the motion, please notify the National Head of Policy & Campaigns, Matt Waddup, mwaddup@ucu.org.uk, copying in members of the NDC at ndc@ucu.org.uk.