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Dear students, following the rejection of the proposed UCU/UUK agreement

An anonymous lecturer explains why they voted to reject the agreement proposed by UUK.

I'm writing as a lecturer currently striking to defend our pensions. (I'm writing only on behalf of myself, not the UCU or any other organisation, in my personal capacity.)

On Monday evening, UCU informed us of a proposed agreement on pensions between UCU and UUK that would suspend the strike on 14 March pending a Universities Superannuation Scheme Joint Negotiating Committee meeting. I gave the agreement due consideration, because the prospect of going back to work on Thursday was extremely attractive, but I could not in good conscience support the proposed agreement. My opinion was apparently shared by a majority of UCU membership, and the deal has been rejected.

The latter means that industrial action will continue. I'm very aware that many students will be upset by this, and don't blame them. I understand that the strike is very disruptive for students, so I feel I owe an explanation for why I've personally taken the position I have.

Here is why I could not support the agreement. The deal proposed a three-year transitional plan, which did retain an element of the 'defined benefit' pension staff have been fighting for. However, there were problems:

  1. The 'accrual rate' was lowered from 1/75 to 1/85. This alone amounted to a significant -- nearly 12% -- pension cut.

  2. The defined benefit threshold was lowered from £55,550 to £42,0000. This threshold is the amount of a staff member's salary from which they currently pay into the defined benefit 'USS Retirement Income Builder' scheme, and the maximum amount from which their defined benefit pension income is computed after retirement. Salary over the threshold is handled by the defined contribution 'USS Investment Builder' scheme, and pension income derived therefrom is therefore uncertain.

    In short, lowering this threshold means that a significantly higher proportion of many staff members’ pensions will be subject to the vagaries of the market, contrary to the principle that our pensions are not a "perk" - they are part of our pay.

  3. The 'indexation' was capped at 2.5%. So, whenever the consumer price index -- a standard measure of inflation -- exceeds 2.5%, our pensions begin to decrease in value. Note that CPI has, historically been much higher than this (double digits) and exceeded 3% at various points in 2017. This part of the agreement would make it certain that benefits will be eaten away by inflation, causing income reduction in retirement. It is hard for me to see this as anything other than an under-hand way of slowly destroying defined benefit.

  4. The proposed increase in contributions appeared to be needless, given that the premise on which the dispute is based (the supposed deficit) is questionable (see point 9).

  5. The agreement proposed that UCU "encourage" members to prioritise rescheduling of teaching. Staff will not be paid for any of the days they were on strike, but the agreement made no apparent provision for staff rescheduling teaching - doing work that they did not do while on strike - to be paid for that teaching.

    As well as being unfair, this would leave universities in a position of having gained money from the dispute, and I saw no provision in the agreement asking UUK to encourage universities to spend this money on services for students.

    Rescheduling also gives up the most powerful act of resistance that any trade union has. The precedent it sets has the potential to let down workers represented by other unions, some of whom are our coworkers and approached our picket lines with words of support.

  6. The proposed agreement included the establishment of an "independent valuation review". The proposal claims that the group will "promote greater transparency and understanding". There was no detailed explanation of how this would work, and issues of transparency lie at the heart of the dispute. This lack of clarity about transparency undermined my faith in the rest of the commitments UUK made.

  7. There was little in the agreement to convince me that UUK will not try again to implement massive pension reductions. It seemed that, after the transitional period, UUK could simply take advantage of our demobilisation to try to impose something like they’ve tried this time.

  8. The drastic changes that have been proposed are simply not necessary, in my view. The 'deficit' is merely an artefact of a set of unrealistic assumptions, which have been discussed extensively elsewhere. The truth about the deficit and the assumptions underlying it needs to be confronted before specific proposals to change our pensions are even considered.

If you've been missing lectures/teaching and are feeling autodidactic, I'd recommend reading up on some of the background of the pensions dispute, particularly related to point 8. Some useful sources include:

  • Wikipedia, unsurprisingly
  • LSE philosopher Michael Otsuka has blogged extensively on the subject
  • A University of Bristol statistics professor has constructed (with transparency about assumptions) a model from which he has not been able to reproduce the claimed deficit

I know that some of you, even those who may have been sympathetic to our cause, might find your patience seriously tested by the latest development. However, I want you to understand what was at stake, and why I, and many others, felt unable to accept what looked like a seriously flawed agreement after having come so far already.

Sympathy and solidarity.

Featured image: Anonymous

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