By The St Andrews University and College Union (UCU)
The following is a point by point response to the email circulated by Vice-Chancellor Sally Mapstone and signed by other members of the Principal’s Office. As this magazine has firmly sought to defend our striking teachers, it has opted to publish this rebuttal so as to ensure it can be read alongside the near ubiquitous circulation of the Vice-Chancellor’s email.
Thank you for all your support for the current UCU dispute over damaging changes to the USS pension scheme: it has been heartening and uplifting to see so many colleagues and students join together to protect our collective interests and the future of higher education. The Principal wrote to all staff and students last week, with the full staff of the Principal’s Office (PO) as co-signatories. This statement responds to that letter, and should be read alongside it.
The scheme and the proposals:
The current valuation of the scheme is highly variable, and depends on a variety of factors. The deficit is not a simple fact but the result of a complex calculation. UCU has suggested in this and previous valuation rounds that the methodology is based on unreasonable assumptions and has proposed alternatives that would have the effect of reducing the projected deficit. The employers have not wished to adopt these alternatives. Instead they have taken an approach (questioning the strength of the covenant between employers and asking for less risk) that has increased the size of the projected deficit. The PO’s letter demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of negotiation. Sally Hunt, the UCU General Secretary, made it clear in a letter to Principals and Vice-Chancellors that UCU was willing to enter in discussion around the variables involved in the scheme: the employer and employee contributions, accrual rate and defined benefits cap. During the meetings of the JNC, the employers refused to discuss UCU’s proposals to retain a defined benefit scheme. Negotiation is when two sides meet to discuss the possibility of a compromise between different proposals. UUK have shown no ability to compromise despite the union’s offer. They are approaching the valuation as an opportunity to reduce their costs and liabilities. The areas for negotiation to which the PO refers to are all ways in that the employer might reduce its costs, and not ways in which members might preserve their benefits.
The PO’s letter demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of negotiation.
Trade unions have to protect their members’ interests. The proposed changes to USS benefits are not in members’ interests. It is therefore hard to co-operate with the PO on the scheme’s governance while they advocate these changes. (It should also be noted that the current UUK proposals for reform of USS contain nothing on scheme governance.) The PO made an overture to UCU St Andrews proposing a joint letter on reforming the scheme’s governance of the scheme. The branch responded by saying that if the PO publicly supported a defined-benefit pension, then we would be able to consider its proposals about reforming scheme governance. We asked for a position paper on the PO’s reasons for reform of governance, so that we could understand their case, and see if it would be in members’ interests. But the PO has not provided us with any detail at all on why they think scheme governance should be reformed, how it should be reformed, or what effect that might have on scheme performance. The PO’s emphasis on scheme governance is a distraction from their push for the most significant reduction in staff benefits in UK higher education in decades.
The PO’s emphasis on scheme governance is a distraction.
The consultation exercise on the proposals will not make any difference to the proposed changes to the scheme. The PO will arrange sessions to help members ‘understand’ the proposed changes, not to alter them. The option of employees being able to contribute less to the scheme is presented as a positive. If staff cannot afford their pension contributions, it is because employers have consistently forced below-inflation pay settlements on them, resulting in a decline of the real-terms pay of university staff of more than 15% in the last decade (see p. 4 of the joint pay claim submitted by campus unions last year). Further, decreasing employee contributions, in combination with the likely lower take-up of the less attractive scheme UUK is proposing, will have the effect of reducing the funds coming into USS, and decrease its medium-term viability. If you want to change the UUK proposals rather than just understand them (as you probably do already), then the current UCU industrial action is the best means to do so.
The option of employees being able to contribute less to the scheme is presented as a positive.
The Student Representative Council unanimously passed a motion, accompanied by a petition with over 400 signatories, supporting UCU action over USS pensions. Students assembled at College Gate on Thursday 22 February to show solidarity with striking staff, and to demonstrate to the Principal’s Office that they consider a workforce that is secure and adequately paid, in work and in retirement, is a vital part of their educational experience. The threat to students is not coming from UCU members; it is coming from those employers represented by UUK who will not support the meaningful negotiation that is the best way for this dispute to be resolved.
This section of the PO’s message threatens to withhold or withdraw support for projects that will improve equality, inclusion and equity in the workplace as retribution for any cost incurred in maintaining decent pensions. These were the implications of an earlier message sent to staff by the Quaestor and VP Governance: you have to choose between ‘family friendly policies’ (i.e. maternity pay) and your pension. Such threats indicate that the PO’s interest in diversity and inclusion may not be as deep as they claim. These are not features of our university life that are to be bargained with. We should all be working for them, whatever the challenges that budgets or others constraints bring. That is what UCU, the other campus unions, and the Student’s Association should continue to do, whatever the PO threaten.
The PO’s message threatens to withhold or withdraw support for projects that will improve equality, inclusion and equity in the workplace as retribution for any cost incurred in maintaining decent pensions.
The PO senior managers are all members of USS. They all earn above £100,000 a year, several of them significantly more. But the changes to the scheme they are proposing will make proportionately less difference to them than to other staff, particularly those whose earnings are below the current defined benefit cap of £55,500. The larger an individual pension pot, the more diverse the investment portfolio in which it can be placed, and the greater the returns will be from that fund. The UUK proposals increase inequality in the scheme by enabling higher earners to have access to better investment vehicles in retirement, favouring senior managers over other staff. It is worth pointing out that the UUK proposals affect two pay grades that are lower than the household income threshold the University uses to give automatic hardship bursaries to students (£34,000). The PO is proposing to cut the pension of employees who may be parents of students it acknowledges to be in financial hardship. We are not all in it together: the proposals affect senior managers less than anyone else. The rest of us need to fight to preserve our benefits in USS. UCU St Andrews is grateful for your continued support in that fight.
We will continue to work for equality, inclusion and decent conditions of work for all colleagues at St Andrews.
Photo by Tom Josten of the Feb 28 rally.