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pensions

Acclaimed author cancels university appearance over pensions row

Prize-winning author Jon McGregor has pulled out of an appearance at the University of East Anglia due to the ongoing dispute over pensions.

 

The author was due to appear at the UEA Spring Literary Festival on Wednesday (7 March), but has said that he will not cross the picket line. Instead, he will headline an evening of readings at the Students’ Union in support of striking staff.

 

The ‘Writers for the Strike’ event will run from 5 – 7pm on Wednesday and will feature readings from leading authors including Sarah Perry and Megan Bradbury, as well as inputs from staff and students. It forms part of the ‘Alternative University’ – a programme of teach-ins and discussions organised by members of the University and College Union (UCU) taking strike action.

 

Author Jon McGregor said: ‘Although I had been very much looking forward to reading at the UEA Spring 2018 Literary Festival, I will not be able to do so while strike action in defence of university staff pensions is ongoing. I fully support the UCU action, and – in common with a number of university vice-chancellors, government ministers, and the opinion pages of the Financial Times – call on Universities UK to return to meaningful negotiations immediately to avoid any further disruption not just to students but to the role universities have to play in the wider cultural life.

‘I have never crossed a picket line in my life, and am not about to start now. Instead, I will be joining staff, students, and writers for an evening of readings and discussion as part of the Alternative University being put on by the Student Union.’

 

The pension dispute centres on proposals to end the defined benefit element of the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) – a move which UCU says would leave a typical lecturer almost £10,000 a year worse off in retirement than under the current set-up.

 

In the recent strike ballot UCU members overwhelmingly backed industrial action. Locally, 87% of UCU members at UEA who voted backed strike action on a turnout of 66%.

 

UCU UEA branch spokesperson Ben Little said: ‘We really appreciate the support of all the writers and students who are making Wednesday’s ‘Writers for the Strike’ event possible. Strike action is always a last resort, but the threat to our pensions is so serious we have been left with no choice. We hope the university will seek to minimise any further disruption to students by ensuring that Universities UK commits to proper negotiations to resolve this dispute.’

 

UCU@UEA USS Strike 2018

UEA branch voted overwhelmingly – and on a record turn-out – to take strike action to defend the DB pension.

While there is debate over the financial implications of this, there is no evidence that maintaining a DB scheme is impossible. We believe that negotiations should resume to look at ways of managing the scheme.

The proposed change from UUK will disproportionately affect those at the start of their careers, or those intending to enter the profession in the future. We do not believe it is right that those colleagues should have worse work benefits than those later in their career; this would not be an act of solidarity, and is contrary to the communal ethos that underpins a university.

It is in this spirit that 1,000 professors – likely to be relatively unaffected by these changes – signed a letter to the Times Higher stating, “we want to stand shoulder to shoulder with all our colleagues, and especially the next generation, to defend our profession”. Similarly, we reject the current proposal on the grounds of its abandonment of early career staff, which will damage those colleagues as individuals, and the profession more broadly.

The planned strike days are as follows:

Week one – Thursday 22 and Friday 23 February (two days);
Week two – Monday 26, Tuesday 27 and Wednesday 28 February (three days);
Week three – Monday 5, Tuesday 6, Wednesday 7 and Thursday 8 March (four days);
Week four – Monday 12, Tuesday 13, Wednesday 14, Thursday 15 and Friday 16 March (five days)

There are strike FAQs here https://www.ucu.org.uk/uss-action-faqs

If you support the defence of pensions, and want to take strike action, it’s not too late to join UCU – https://www.ucu.org.uk/join

University pensions

UCU is opposed to the proposed change to the pension scheme and is balloting its members – more information here

UCU@UEA asked local MP Clive Lewis for his support and here is his statement:

“I echo the concerns voiced by Shadow Education Secretary Angela Rayner in her statement on the USS pension scheme changes which have been proposed, which would leave staff at older universities – such as University of East Anglia – significantly worse off in retirement.
UEA is one of Norfolk’s jewels – boosting the county both economically and culturally, so its future as a top-class university brings the region positive benefits.
UK Higher Education is world class, and UEA is competing on a world stage, increasingly successfully. But it’s vital that it retains its staff who are crucial in building that reputation.
I also know that the students in my constituency are caught in the middle of the dispute, and support the NUS joint statement with the staff union UCU saying that students benefit from a university sector where staff are properly paid and know they will receive a fair pension in retirement.”

Pension changes

Last week we heard that UCU members had voted to accept the proposed reforms put to them following negotiations with UUK, who put in an improved offer after the ASOS of November 2014.

The offer is far from ideal, notably in its introduction of an element of Defined Contributions for earnings above £55,000. This shifts the risk from the employers to employees.

This brings Higher Education pensions closer towards the schemes that private companies have. But the professionals who work in universities don’t get comparable pay to those in private companies – the pension has always been cited as a benefit that compensates for this. But let’s not forget: the VC said in his first interview with the student newspaper Concrete, he is the ‘CEO’ of a multi-million business. We must therefore be aware that on the horizon in this pensions dispute is the fate of universities as in some way ‘public’ institutions, and we must be vigilant to protect their commitment to the public good in the future. USS reform, like the hike in undergraduate fees, is a glimpse of things to come.

 

This aside, we recognise that there were improvements made to the original proposal as a direct result of UCU’s action:

1/75 is an improved accrual rate

The cap for earnings to still receive defined benefits was raised from £40k to £55K and it has been confirmed that this will be uprated in line with inflation (CPI rather than RPI)

The employers agreed to increase their contributions to 18% and to maintain this for 5 years.

 

It remains disappointing that the employers were determined to introduce a defined contribution element to pensions, but it seems that the ballot of acceptance was necessary as negotiations were unlikely to achieve a reversal of this. The negotiating team stated that in their view substantial industrial action would be needed to bring about any improvements. Some within the union feel that further industrial action could have brought more concessions.

Members of staff, including representatives from the UCU committee, attended the pension event that the university organised on February 3, and put questions to Mercers, the actuaries who are acting on behalf of UUK. There was a notable lack of detail on elements such as AVCs, the costs of running a hybrid scheme, and the costs and complexity of the defined contribution pot, which was far from reassuring.

 

What’s next?

USS will hold a 60 day consultation, expected to take place mid-March – mid-April. This will be for all USS pension members – and is a further opportunity to ask for changes.

UCU will continue to call for the valuation methodology to be changed.

UCU will continue to call on USS trustees to explain their actions

 

Motion passed at UCU@UEA Emergency General Meeting 19.11.14

UCU at UEA EGM 19/11/14 Resolution

 

UEA UCU notes that the senior management team’s response to the assessment boycott called for 6th November and continuing has been to threaten to deduct 100% pay on grounds that it does not accept partial performance of contracts.

 

We note too, the letter signed by over 100 academics – both UCU members and not – condemning the university’s stance and we note the letter published in this week’s Times Higher Education in a similar vein, signed by thirty or so academics at other universities but who have contact or collaborations with colleagues at UEA.

 

This union believes the University’s response to be disproportionate and aggressive, and likely both to damage relationships with staff (in the long and short term) and to harm recruitment. It is a clear rejection of the collaborative “do different” ideals on which UEA was founded 50 years ago. It fails both to respect the sincerely held views of staff about the merits of the dispute and the genuine worries staff have for the long term viability of their own pensions, and to take any account of the hard work above and beyond that all colleagues provide – to students, to other staff. Last, it is incredibly poor and short sighted industrial relations practice; the fact that deducting 100% pay might be lawful – which this union does not accept – does not mean that employers should deduct the totality of wages. The Senior Management Team says that it is “with profound regret that we find ourselves in a situation where we have to take that stance” but has never explained why it has to. The vast majority of other universities are deducting a much smaller proportion.

 

We also note that the University has accepted uncritically the explanations, figures and projections provided by USS and the Employers’ Pension Forum when there is a good deal of counter-evidence to the contrary on both the size of the deficit and how best to tackle it from reputable economists and statisticians. There is not a “one-size” fits all approach from university employers – several pre-1992 Russell Group institutions, namely Warwick, Oxford, Cambridge have taken stances significantly at odds with taken by UEA.

 

This union calls for the University of East Anglia to:

  1. Pay back any pay deducted since 6th November 2014;
  2. Show a commitment to work with the union to establish a more balanced policy on deductions for industrial action short of a strike, that better takes account of not only the university’s legitimate interests, but the interests of its staff to take lawful action without punitive disproportionate threat of penalty;
  3. Show a commitment from the senior management team that they are making representations to the employers’ national negotiators that they want them to engage in a constructive dialogue in good faith with the UCU national negotiators based around all sets of figures, data and projections;
  4. Open up communications with its own staff – UCU members and non-members alike – affected by the proposed changes to understand the views and to investigate these issues further at local level.

 

If the senior management does not withdraw its threat to deduct 100% of pay of anyone taking part in action short of a strike in this current dispute, this union will, as a first step, call on UCU nationally to authorise the grey-listing of UEA. If the senior management carries out its threat to victimise people taking part in action short of a strike and withholds their pay indefinitely, this union will regard this as an escalation on the part of management and will respond proportionately. Our responses may include, but may not be limited to, withdrawal of any co-operation not specified in our contracts, and/or calling on UCU nationally to authorise strike action.