Dear Staff and Students,
The UCU@UEA committee wished to respond to the most recent message from our Vice-Chancellor. In his correspondence this morning, Professor Richardson claimed that he was ‘in regular contact with the lead negotiator at Universities UK (UUK) emphasising the need for talks with UCU to resume, in order to avoid the damaging strikes scheduled to start next week’. However, in the same message – sent to staff – he directed colleagues towards the open letter from UUK and UCEA. This hostile letter reprints a number of half-truths, such as:
- The claim that employers have made ‘huge efforts’ to negotiate which includes ‘abandoning previous proposals to reform [pension] benefits’ without mentioning that this only happened because colleagues took an unprecedented 14 days of unpaid strike action to force UUK to accept the Joint Expert Panel, which subsequently exposed ‘wide-ranging flaws’ in the methodology used to create the large deficit in the 2017 valuation and justified our action and our anger last year.
- Claiming that their commitment to ‘paying 65p in every pound of increased cost’ was in order ‘to protect member benefits in full’ rather than the legally mandated backstop position that is reached whenever UCU and UUK cannot agree a fair distribution of contributions. The failure of UUK to agree to shoulder increases in pension contributions – which UCU maintains is unnecessary – until the second report from the Joint Expert Panel is published is the reason that this backstop was automatically triggered.
- UUK claim to have committed ‘to work jointly with UCU and USS to develop and deliver greater transparency, governance reforms and to agree shared valuation principles’, but they have failed to join UCU in calling for the reinstatement of whistleblower Prof Jane Hutton, who was sacked from the USS Board of Trustees when she raised concerns about the Board’s transparency and the approach it was taking to the valuation of our scheme. They have also failed to join UCU in calling for the full publication of any evidence against Prof Hutton so she can be afforded the opportunity to defend herself against all charges.
We do not believe that an individual can both call for meaningful negotiation and accept the numerous flaws contained within this open letter. We call on Prof Richardson to reject the open letter and join UCU and the Vice Chancellor of Essex University in calling for meaningful, positive discussions on how to manage the transition to a new and more transparent valuation process for the USS scheme.
There are also a number of factual errors or misstatements within the FAQs published for students. For instance:
- The fact that contributions are ‘less than they would otherwise have been under the original proposals’ is once again the result of hard lobbying and negotiation by UCU and not the generosity of UEA as an employer or UUK as the employer’s representative body. UCU continues to believe that the original proposals were flawed and that a full implementation of the proposals laid out by the Joint Expert Panel would further reduce the contribution increases we and our employers are being asked to make.
- The FAQs also claim that the University is ‘mindful of the need to maintain a good long-term relationship with UCU members at UEA’. However, the Executive Team has consistently negotiated with UCU@UEA in bad faith during the run up to this action, promising certain positions within meetings and then circulating written guidance that directly contradicts those positions. The UEA UCU branch has also had to rewrite elements of the employer’s own FAQs on the strike and challenge threats of disproportionate deductions from staff members who participate in lawful industrial action. Indeed, these threats were so severe that the Branch overwhelmingly passed a motion on Monday that will call on UCU to introduce academic boycotts of all institutions that take disproportionate deductions from members participating in action short of strike (ASOS).
- In section 11, the VC laments that we are striking after ‘there have been lengthy negotiations already’. We lament this too. Having been forced to take 14 days of unpaid strike action last year to prove that the attack on our pensions was the result of poor valuation calculations – since vindicated by the first report of the Joint Expert Panel – those of us who voted to suspend the action in 2018 are filled with more than just ‘very much regret’. We would like to make it clear that no member of UCU wishes to lose more pay to refight the same battle. We are tired of having to defend ourselves against unfair attacks on our deferred pay. This is why UCU has called on UUK to meet with us in good faith to find a way to avert this action. They have refused to do so.
- Section 11 also states that the increase in our pension contributions is only ‘a small increase in cost to staff’. The increases forced on members of the USS pension scheme this year means that they will, on average, lose more than £500 a year for no increase in retirement benefit. £500 may be a small amount of money to the VC, whose total benefits package for the year is over £300,000 (p. 28), but it means a lot to our members. Indeed, for those joining the scheme, this contribution increase means losing well over £15,000 during the lifetime of their scheme, rising to over £30,000 if the proposed increase in contribution levels to 11% happens in 2021.
- Section 11 also asks that UCU call off the strike action and join UUK to ‘work towards governance reforms of USS and alternative options for future valuations’. To do so, however, we would need to have faith that UUK intends to engage in meaningful and positive discussion. Unfortunately, their behaviour over the past 18 months has not assured UCU members that this will be the case. For instance, if UUK wished UCU to accept the offer, recently referred to in the Lasdun, to reduce employee contributions from 9.6% to 9.1% for two years, then why did they ask union members to forfeit their right to strike during the same period? If we can trust UUK to handle the second JEP report (due to be published in late 2019/early 2020), then why would they ask us to remove the only tool that we have at our disposal to challenge their recent attacks on our pensions? The notion that we would halt strike action for a period of two years would have been unprecedented, essentially asking union members to disarm themselves as the Union prepares to enter negotiations on the long-term structure of the scheme. To do so, we would need to have full faith in UUK. We do not. To present that offer without the context in which it was made is highly disingenuous and we wish to assure colleagues and students that UCU is willing to accept any proposal which we believe has the best interests of our members at heart.
It is clear to UCU that UUK wishes to undermine and belittle our concerns about the future of our own pension scheme. We refute the notion that over £500 a year is a “small increase”. We resent the implication that members are taking action – and losing pay – because we are unwilling to enter in to good faith negotiation with our employers. Finally, we thoroughly reject the implication that we do not have the best interests of our students at heart. We do not believe that students are a “unit of resource”. We do not agree that any 20-year plan at UEA can be achieved if it comes at the expense of the staff who make this University what it is. Let’s Do Different and encourage our VC to do the same.
With best wishes,
The UCU Committee.