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Corrections to statements in the email from the Interim VC on UCU strikes

In his email of 19th November, Interim VC David McGuire gives his version of the reason for the current strikes.

UCU Sussex would like to make clear that this is a misrepresentation of the real issues.

If we are to resolve this dispute it is important that we base discussions not on misleading rhetoric but on real facts.

This blog post corrects the Interim VC’s statement point by point.

The Interim VC writes:

1. However, because we are all living longer and financial investments are not provid[ing] the returns needed, the pension has become unaffordable for employers and employees. There is no escaping this truth.

This is incorrect in two ways.

On ‘we are all living longer’: the truth is that as a result of updated longevity data the USS deficit has reduced (not increased as the Interim VC suggests) in all three of the last USS valuations (2020, 2018 and 2017), most recently by a significant £2.6 billion. See Mike Otsuka on ‘Why does UUK continue to make false or misleading claims about life expectancy?’.

On ‘financial investments are not providing the returns needed’. This is also incorrect. It is, as has been widely agreed, the pessimistic and unjustified assumptions of the 2020 valuation and not the USS returns on assets that are the problem here, as shown in this graph, originally plotted by Sam Marsh for USS briefs 106.

2. I don’t believe this industrial action, at a minority of universities, will change the USS Trustee and The Pension Regulator’s insistence on long-term reform.

Unfortunately industrial action is often the only thing that does make changes happen. As UCU General Secretary Jo Grady told The Tab ‘UCU is the only union that has successfully managed to prevent the transferral of a scheme from a DB [Defined Benefit] to some form of DC [Defined Contribution]...It’s achieved a completely historic, unprecedented turnaround of our employer. If we hadn’t been able to do all the industrial action in 2018, everybody now would be on a far worse pension.’

In addition, it is inaccurate to represent this as a minority action. In fact, the strike ballots have unprecedented turnout, higher than 2019 and 2018. This is even more impressive if you take into account the pressures of the pandemic. While 58 universities are taking strike action most branches who missed the threshold (many by very small margins) will reballot to join in January, making the action stronger still. The UUK cuts are scheduled to be pushed through in February 2022.

3. This is after employers in USS, including the University of Sussex, agreed to make even stronger promises to the pension scheme to provide defined benefit pensions at affordable levels for scheme members and employers.

This is misleading, as the stronger promises to the pension scheme refers only to what was offered by employers to make up for Trinity College Cambridge leaving the scheme. There has therefore been no net increase in support.

In addition UUK have refused to provide the same level of support for UCU proposals or for the backstop of the 2020 valuation that will occur as and when UUK withdraw their proposals. This refusal to provide support increases the costs of pensions in the view of the regulator, so UUK’s actions are effectively closing doors on negotiations.

4. On USS, no such alternative has been tabled [by UCU] and strike action must be seen in this light. It is important to note that any alternative would have to satisfy The Pensions Regulator, which is an added complication. However, the door has always remained open.

This is incorrect. This misinformation is being widely used by UUK and Vice Chancellors. In fact, UCU tabled costed, formal proposals as agenda item 3.2 of JNC papers for the meeting of 13 August for discussion. Sam Marsh, USS UCU negotiator, has offered to update VCs on the proposals. The alternative UCU proposals alongside UUK cuts are detailed clearly in the table in this WonkHE article.

We note that the UCU proposals operated within the catastrophic 2020 valuation and further that the UCU proposals are now superseded by the dispute letter which calls for withdrawal of the cuts under the lower-cost backstop, and a 2021 valuation. This is the resolution which will be best for staff, employers and students alike.

We also note that other schemes subject to the same Pensions Regulator have taken a less conservative approach to their valuations as the accounts of the Railways Pension Scheme report.

5. Increasing costs are leading to many opting out and addressing this has to be a serious consideration

This is disingenuous. The real issue here is real-terms falling wages (17% in real terms over the last 12 years) and precarity as has been well reported. Members not being able to afford to pay into pension because of poor pay and conditions and high levels of casualisation in the sector, is not the same as them not wanting this pension. This is what the survey the Interim VC is referring to, actually shows

In addition, the data on non-participation in USS isn’t really clear. Data in fact suggests that opt-outs are decreasing and that more people are opting out in the years when UUK has tried to push through benefit cuts, perhaps voting with their feet.

6. Improving the work environment for all staff is something we care about deeply – and a number of projects are underway to improve the various issues that contribute to this. However, we have finite resources,

We all agree that we care deeply about this, but the current projects as measured by Council Key Performance Indicators are not achieving their targets. The UCU demands in this industrial action are calling for national coordination to support individual institutions to make the kind of progress we all want to see.

7. It’s a particular shame that this action will impact students at Sussex when conversations and solutions can only take place on a national scale.

This statement represents the University of Sussex as a powerless institution with no influence. This is to disavow everything we believe Sussex can and should be. It is also incorrect as UUK is the committee of Vice-Chancellors, run by Vice-Chancellors who can have exactly these conversations but are choosing to remain silent.

8. Alongside our commitment to our students, the welfare of our staff is also very important and we must provide the space for different views and decisions, while maintaining a culture of dignity and respect.

We agree, but having different views is not the same as making incorrect statements, and doing so does not lead to progress or negotiations in good faith.

Sussex UCU Executive asks that in future the University of Sussex refrain from making misleading and inaccurate statements. We request that it demonstrates commitment to the University, to education, to staff and to students through engaging in dialogue based on actual facts.

Sussex UCU also asks that the University of Sussex publicly call on UCEA and UUK to meet the very reasonable, and easily achievable demands in the two dispute letters.

  • To improve their pay offer; and

  • To commit to meaningful agreements and action on casualisation, workload, and equality pay gaps.

The letter to UUK (on USS) 8 November 2021 calls on UUK to consult employers on:

  • Withdrawing their current un-agreed detrimental changes to members’ pensions;

  • Whether they would be prepared to pay higher contributions for fixed period of time to allow a negotiated settlement; and

  • Calling publicly for a 2021 valuation.

Sussex UCU Exec and Reps

We have checked all calculations linked in this blog and can share data as needed contact

Photo credit: Wonder woman0731


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