An open letter urging action relating to the 2018 USS valuation

Dear Vice Chancellor,

This letter is written on behalf of UCU members at Senate House. As you know, USS is currently consulting employers on its 2018 valuation. This valuation is intended to replace, as soon as possible, USS’s recently filed 2017 valuation, which is imposing large, escalating shared contribution increases on members and employers from April 2019 onwards.

For this 2018 valuation, USS has been able to take into account the proposals made by the first report of the UCU-UUK Joint Expert Panel (JEP). The JEP’s proposals were intended as modest, short-term measures for producing a valuation that reflected the true health of the Scheme and maintaining contribution rates at appropriate levels. Given more time, the JEP would have recommended much more sweeping changes, and indeed it appears to be preparing to do so in its forthcoming second report.

Recently, we learnt that USS has calculated that if all of the first report’s proposals were applied to the 2018 valuation, the Scheme would no longer be in deficit and the total contribution rate required of employers and members would be 25.5% of salary: in other words, less than the 26% we are paying now. Moreover, both UCU and UUK’s actuarial advisers (First Actuarial and Aon) have indicated that they would regard such a valuation as prudent and in conformity with current regulations. However, USS itself does not. In its valuation document of 2nd January USS has decided to reject two of the JEP’s proposals out of hand, and only to accept certain others if employers (and possibly members) promise to provide ‘contingent support’ if the Scheme’s funding position worsens in unspecified ways between valuations. USS have stated that the trigger contributions could equate to 4%.

Having followed the dispute since the JEP published its first report, we remain far from convinced that employers are serious about listening to the advice of the JEP or implementing its proposals. It is true that the majority of them indicated a willingness to accept the JEP’s proposals in principle. However, employers still have not acknowledged the wide range of failings which the JEP identified in USS’s governance, consultation processes, actuarial methodology, and interactions with The Pensions Regulator (TPR). Even more importantly, since USS publicised its unwillingness to accept the JEP’s proposals in full, employers have displayed very little appetite for challenging the Scheme on the specific terms of its rejection of the JEP.

This raises a further question: if employers fail to put any pressure on USS to accept the JEP’s first report, what will happen when the JEP publishes its second report? In agreeing to establish the JEP in exchange for a suspension of strike action, and negotiating its terms of reference with UCU, employers agreed to commission the JEP to consider not only this valuation but also the longer-term future of the Scheme. If, as seems likely, the JEP’s second report urges even more significant changes to USS – on the level of governance and member representation, for example, or the use of gilts-based targets to drive the investment strategy – how do employers intend to press USS to accept them? And how will members be able to trust employers to do so if they’ve already refused to push for the much more modest changes proposed in the first report?

In other words, the present consultation offers employers a crucial opportunity to show that they are serious about holding up their end of the bargain which they entered into in April 2018, not only in the shorter but also in the longer term. Fortunately, it is not too late to challenge USS’s 2018 valuation plans. UUK have asked for employer submissions to this consultation by 13 March, ahead of the USS deadline of 15 March.

There are a number of measures which employers could have taken, and are still able to take, in pursuit of a 2018 valuation that reflects the true health of the Scheme. Below we lay out those measures in the hope that the University’s governing body and any other relevant committee(s) will take them up before finalising the University’s response to USS’s consultation.

We request that you:

  1. Ask actuarial advisers Aon to comment publicly on the hugely important finding by Dr Sam Marsh of the University of Sheffield, based on cashflow and asset data, that USS could comfortably achieve a position within £10bn of self-sufficiency within its 20-year covenant horizon by keeping its current investment strategy and contribution rates: in other words, without ‘de-risking’ and without requiring large contribution increases, as USS had claimed. UCU has already asked First Actuarial to comment on this finding.
  2. Ask USS to provide the equivalent data for the 2018 valuation, which would confirm the long-term health of the Scheme. So far only UCU has asked for it via the Joint Negotiating Committee (JNC), whereas employers apparently have not.
  3. Ask USS why it continues to use Test 1 to drive its investment strategy, when even TPR is willing (according to its recent, 11 December 2018 letter to USS) to let the Scheme stop doing so. Please see this recent survey of critiques of Test 1.
  4. Ask USS to explain why it is no longer willing to delay the de-risking imposed by Test 1, as it proposed to do in September 2017 – a proposal which the JEP said USS should revisit. USS’s 2018 valuation document does not even try to explain why the Scheme will not do this anymore.
  5. Ask USS to challenge TPR in the areas where we know TPR is wrong: first, covenant strength, where TPR is contradicted by detailed reviews by two auditors and the JEP; and secondly, projections of Scheme vs. sector growth, where the JEP has disproven TPR’s claims using USS’s own data (see Annex 7 of the JEP report). Also, challenge TPR on the extent to which they are exceeding their statutory remit by getting involved in the management of a scheme they regulate.
  6. Ask USS to substantiate its completely un-evidenced claim in the new valuation document that TPR won’t allow the Scheme to implement all of the JEP proposals because the resulting technical provisions discount rate would be too high compared with the going rate for gilts.
  7. Instruct the employer-appointed Trustee board members to accept all of the JEP proposals.
  8. Reject USS’s recent and unorthodox request to UUK to propose the conditions for and extent of ‘trigger’ contributions on the grounds that USS have provided no data to justify the need for these. The Scheme came through the 2008-09 financial crisis without any emergency rise in contributions. (See USS’s summary of the size of the DB fund 2008-2018).
  9. If USS continues to resist on all these fronts, consider passing a vote of no confidence in the USS Executive and even, if necessary, the USS Trustee, via the JNC and/or the Board of UUK.
  10. Consider taking USS to court, as UUK threatened to do when USS, in September 2017, suggested ‘trigger’ contributions along very similar lines to the ones they are proposing now.

We also request that you publish your response to the current consultation on the technical provisions of the 2018 valuation.

At a national level, UCU’s policy is that we do not accept that members’ contributions need to be increased or benefits cut. This policy represents what members deserve for their hard work in making the Higher Education sector so extraordinarily successful. It also has the advantage of being in line with actuarial positions, acknowledged by the broad expert consensus of the JEP, First Actuarial, Aon, and various other parties. Much of what we have said in this letter echoes the briefing materials prepared by UCU’s newly elected National Dispute Committee, which has taken a dim view of USS’s response to the JEP and of the notion that employers cannot do anything to influence USS’s actions. If employers refuse to push USS to accept these points, we would not be surprised to see UCU initiate another ballot for strike action across its affected branches.

We would be grateful if you could indicate your views on the above proposals. It is in both members’ and employers’ interests to cooperate as closely as possible while there is still time to influence USS.

Yours faithfully,

UCU Senate House

Passed motion: post-contract support for precarious academic contracts

At our branch meeting today (20/02/2019), the following motion was duly passed.

This branch notes that:

  • A UCU report from April 2016 suggested that up to 82% of academics at ‘UoL institutes and activities’ are on insecure contracts, above the national average of roughly half of academic staff in the UK (UCU 2016). In 2013, the latest year for which figures are available, only three UK HEIs had more staff on insecure contracts than UoL/SAS.
  • By definition, precarity brings periods of unemployment. UCU recognised that casualised/insecure/precarious/atypical contracts are now ‘the early careers norm’ for academics: academics routinely face unemployment between insecure contracts, sometimes without an institutional affiliation (UCU 2016). This is not new—it was clear a decade ago that ‘precarious is one of the defining experiences of contemporary academic life’ (Gill 2009)—but the funding environment in the UK is making academic precarity more common and more extreme.
  • The normalisation of such periods of unemployment in the UK higher education sector means that they are not the personal responsibility of the employee but a structural issue within the sector (Loveday 2018).
  • Precarity damages mental health and careers (Moscone et al 2016). Academic ‘homelessness’ especially damaging in academia because periods without employment, an institutional affiliation, or a research home can lead to academics being ‘pushed out of, or deterred from, an academic career’ (Jones/Oakley 2018; Statement 1, Statement 2).
  • UCU’s ongoing national campaign against academic precarity aims to influence future policy, but academics currently in precarious contracts need immediate support.
  • As the national research centre for the humanities, SAS has a responsibility to model best practice in its support of the researchers it employs and hosts. It also has a duty of care to its staff and postdocs.
  • SAS currently offers follow-on, post-contract support for precarious/casualised/insecure academic staff on an informal, ad hoc basis.
  • Normalising that offer could bring institutional benefits to UoL/SAS at minimal cost and a better return on UoL/SAS’s investment in precarious research-active staff (who might be on an academic career trajectory but in an impact role; Statement 1) and its graduating PhD students. The benefits include supporting the continuation of research outputs and RPF activities, generating a larger and more representative representation of activities on SAS-Space, boosting postdoc and staff recruitment, and creating a stronger community for generating and collaborating on grant bids.

This branch resolves:

  • To call on UoL/SAS to commit to modelling best practice by offering a standard post-contract support package to all academic and research-active employees on precarious contracts, and to its graduating PhD students, for least one academic year or their following employment (whichever is sooner).
  • That, in the first instance, UoL explore low-cost, low-resources measures to benefit to precarious academic and research-active staff (including postdocs), UoL/SAS as an institution, and the broader UoL/SAS community. This exploration should be undertaken urgently and with input from affected academic and research-active staff (including postdocs and PhD students, who are soon-to-be postdocs), and UCU.
  • That the post-contract support package include, for example:
    • A non-stipendiary research affiliation;
    • An institutional SAS email address (so affiliates can access external resources and opportunities that require an academic email);
    • The ability to deposit outputs in the institutional repository, SAS-Space (so affiliates can avoid interruption to their REF-able publication record);
    • Access to online resources, for example Jstor (so affiliates can continue to access secondary literature for research);
    • Access to personal and professional development training and career services at SAS (so that affiliates can continue in their academic career development);
    • Access to physical research resources at SAS (including Senate House Library);
    • Access to hot desks, shared workspaces, or a research hub within SAS, SHL, or the relevant institutes (including Senate House Library if relevant);
    • The option of extension at the discretion of the head of the relevant institute or department; and
    • The same status, on the same terms, to PhD students who graduate from SAS (to strengthen alumni support while building the postdoc community).

Sources

Sophie A. Jones/Catherine Oakley, The Precarious Postdoc: Interdisciplinary Research and Casualised Labour in the Humanities and Social Sciences, Working Knowledge/Hearing the Voice (Durham University, 2018). http://www.workingknowledgeps.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/WKPS_PrecariousPostdoc_PDF_Interactive.pdf

Rosalind Gill, ‘Breaking the Silence: The Hidden Injuries of the Neoliberal University’, in R. Flood/R. Gill, eds., Secrecy and Silence in the Research Process: Feminist Reflections (Routledge, 2009). http://platform-hnu.nl/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/gill-breaking-the-silence-2.pdf

Vik Loveday, The Neurotic Academic: Anxiety, Casualisation, and Governance in the Neoliberalising University, Journal of Cultural Economy 11/2 (2018), 154–166. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/17530350.2018.1426032

F. Moscone/E. Tosetti/G. Vittadini, ‘The Impact of Precarious Employment on Mental Health: The Case of Italy’, Social Science & Medicine158 (2016), 86–95. https://bura.brunel.ac.uk/bitstream/2438/13169/3/FullText.pdf

UCU, Precarious Work in Higher Education: A Snapshot of Insecure Contracts and Institutional Attitudes (April 2016). https://www.ucu.org.uk/media/7995/Precarious-work-in-higher-education-a-snapshot-of-insecure-contracts-and-institutional-attitudes-Apr-16/pdf/ucu_precariouscontract_hereport_apr16.pdf

Academic Promotions Round 2018 at SAS

In late 2018, we submitted a number of queries to management in response to feedback from members about the Academic Promotions Round 2018.

We understand that the criteria for promotion in 2018 required candidates to demonstrate “excellence” in two of three areas rather than in one of three areas as required by the previous policy. This seemed to us as a significant change to the criteria for promotion, and we argued that this should have triggered the application of the Change Management Policy. The policy had already been launched for a couple of weeks by the time we made this challenge. However, we sought a reassurance from the University that this would not happen again. In response to this, the University has agreed to meet with UCU to discuss concerns in advance of the 2019 policy being released. We will be in touch with members before any meetings to seek representations.

Additionally, we requested data on the total applicants in the promotion round and total applicants that progressed to stage 2 of the process for each of the last three years. We understand that this informtion is currently being compiled.

We would welcome questions/comments from members.

Membership for part-time staff/those on fractional contracts

We have recently been asked to provide information about membership subscriptions rates for prospective members not on full-time contracts. We’ve consulted with our national membership office.

Subscription rates are calculated by looking at your total earnings, rather than the nature of your contract. The subscription band should reflect anticipated earnings during the year (or a multiple of monthly salary times 12 for those on temporary contracts) before tax.

Branch priorities for early 2019

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In this post, we list the Senate House branch’s priorities for the next few months. These were identified following the first meeting of this year’s branch committee on 7 Jan and during discussion of a motion at a well-attended branch members meeting on 22 Jan.

  1. USS pension dispute – identify opportunities to keep the dispute on the radar of senior management
  2. London Weighting – continue campaigning work on this important pay equality issue
  3. In-housing – hold the University to commitments made; first of all, the in-housing of reception, AV, post and portering colleagues in spring/summer 2019
  4. Casework – provide high quality advice for UCU members
  5. Increase awareness of equality and the law in the workplace at the University
  6. Take action on pay equality and casualization
  7. Lobby for UoL to support colleagues and students from EU countries affected by Brexit.
  8. Take action to normalise union membership
  9. Increase UCU membership at the branch
  10. Make better use of the existing channels of influence we already have as a branch

If you have any questions or comments about this post, please email the branch committee. UCU members can also request a copy of the finalised motion that led to this post.

knowledge is power_edited

EU settlement scheme: joint statement by UCU and UNISON Senate House branches

UCU & UNISON

 

Following persistent lobbying by UNISON and UCU over a number of months, we were pleased to note the University of London’s announcement on 18th January that it had agreed to reimburse the £65 application fee for colleagues who are EU nationals applying for settled status under the government scheme.

A few days later, the UK government announced that the £65 application fee was being waived.

On this issue, we will now ask the University to ensure that any colleagues who have already gone through the application process as part of the pilot scheme are made aware of the fact that the Government intends to reimburse them – see https://www.gov.uk/settled-status-eu-citizens-families.

UCU and UNISON branches at Senate House, University of London