Oh No, Not Pensions Again!

Once again, our USS pension scheme is threatened by a manufactured crisis!

The University Superannuation Scheme (USS) had £67 billion in assets in the 2019 valuation. 

The facts are that, on a ‘pay as you go’ basis, the USS Pension is firmly in surplus for the foreseeable future.  However, the Scheme is required to value liabilities on an assumed interest rate that follows government bonds, and so is close to zero.  So, on that accounting basis (and that basis alone), the scheme is in deficit.  It is a mathematical artefact that comes about by dividing any sum, no matter how small, by zero – it becomes infinite.  Hence the Scheme future calculated liabilities explode while the assets are fixed at the current market value.  In reality, our current pensions (and indeed the final salary linked ones promised when most of us joined the sector) are affordable. 

Following a scheme revaluation which USS chose to undertake in March 2020, USS is calling for a rise in combined employer and worker contributions to AT LEAST 49.6% of payroll. Yes, that was actually 49.6% of payroll. Despite two reports from the Joint Expert Panel, created to review the workings of USS after the 2018 strike, USS still adopts an approach which employers, the union and the independent work of the JEP all consider to be too conservative and counterproductive. 

The appropriate accounting device to ‘make whole’ the zero-interest rate accounting device imposed on USS by the Pensions Regulator is to have university accounts go up and down to make the adjustment.  In 2019, the College accounts showed a pension provision of £31.1 million to cover an accounting adjustment.  It’s not real money, but an accounting device.  In 2020, the College accounts showed a pension provision of negative £19.4 million so that the College showed a surplus overall of about £14 million.  These shifts occurred throughout the sector and reflect a difference between the cash flow surplus of USS and the accounting deficit.  Not real money.

For these reasons there is no case for cutting benefits at all.  This time Universities UK (UUK – who represent employers in the pension scheme) and UCU are united in their rejection of USS’s proposal to raise contribution rates. The VCs of both Oxford and Cambridge have sent joint letters with their UCU branches to challenge the “flawed” approach of USS. This unity is extending across the sector.  There is no need this year for any cut in benefits or increase in staff pension contributions. 

At this branch and throughout the sector, UCU looks forward to working with Vice Chancellors to come up with a sustainable approach to maintaining our current pension benefits.  The RHUL branch is encouraged that the Principal has already reached out to us,  in line with the February 4th call from the UCU nationally for VCs and local branches to work together to retain our current USS pension benefits.

Keen to know more? If you signed up for the USS scheme webinar last week you could be as disappointed as a certain RHUL-UCU Branch officer. Questions for the USS CEO and Chair had to be submitted in advance and were closely vetted to protect them from probing or criticism. Pensions can be  tricky to understand and this year in particular most of us are too busy to engage with a lot of literature about the pension scheme. Dr Sam Marsh, a mathematician from the University of Sheffield and a UCU pension negotiator, has made a series of videos explaining why the scheme is robust and extra contributions are unnecessary.  This fifteen-minute film is a good first step; it highlights the incredible asset growth the scheme has achieved, outperforming forecasts from 2008 when university staff in USS enjoyed final salary pensions on a joint contribution rate of 26%,  but despite this USS managers have continued to underestimate the scheme’s strength. Marsh also provides further recommended sources on this issue.

UCU Branch reps have begun to hold a series of meetings to discuss how we might resist calls for (unaffordable) contributions.  A number of suggestions have been shared, including a legal challenge to USS, joint pressure on USS from UCU and our employers (individually and as UUK) and finally, if necessary, strike action. If you would like to get more involved in activism in UCU, on pensions, workloads, anti-racism and many other fronts, you can sign up for on-line meetings here.

Locally we hope to organise a local meeting shortly to discuss USS, with a UCU elected official who specialises in pensions, so look out for an email with details soon.

Posted on behalf of members of RHUL-UCU Branch Committee

Reminder: the Branch will be holding a General Meeting on Wednesday 17th March at 1pm – come along to hear about the other work we are doing around health & safety, workload, and plenty more!

RHUL and Environmental Sustainability

As we approach the anniversary of the RHUL governing Council’s declaration of a climate emergency, it seems an appropriate moment to ask what has been achieved since then. While the long term environmental implications of COVID may be hard to estimate, it is worth noting that many academics have significantly reduced their carbon footprint this year by flying and commuting far less than normal. The major news story is that the RHUL three year strategy contains several references to environmental sustainability.

The strategy is, however, strategically vague about how any commitment will be implemented. Certainly more attention to detail is needed; on page 8 of this publically available document it states that RHUL is committed to addressing how ‘environmental sustainability should be reduced in our operations’. I hope this is a typo.

If we were running an annual appraisal of RHUL’s performance here we might be looking for SMART goals and at the moment there are none to be seen. Maybe colleagues would like to suggest some. I’d like to request that at the very least

1. RHUL should immediately sign the SDG accord

This essentially is a corporate commitment  to integrating the goals into the College’s strategy and operations, BUT there is annual monitoring to keep track of how an institution is doing and to note which of the many goals are a priority for the institution.

2. RHUL should adopt really clear environmental Key Performance Indicators for college operations e.g. zero waste to landfill campus by when? EV charging point by when? Carbon neutral by when?

The fact that Environmental Sustainability appears in the College strategy means that some level of accountability is possible but KPIs and a timetable for implementation would really increase credibility.

Meanwhile in other news, some important, pragmatic environmental is work going on at RHUL but this is often in isolation. So here’s an update from my point of view:

The RHUL UCU Environmental Sustainability Committee has met several times.

The School of PDA now has Environmental Sustainability as a standing item on its agenda and an Environmental Sustainability Group, with a strong UCU presence in discipline specific subgroups in Drama, Media Arts and Music. One focus for discussion has been curating events in November during Glasgow COPC 26.

UCU continues to campaign for a green new deal and UCU is offering green rep training courses with a focus on negotiating skills. The next one is in June and I hope to attend. Please let me know if anyone else is interested.

Sigrun Wagner and I hope to be offering a pilot RHUL Carbon Literacy Training (CLT) in the summer. This training is free and seeks to widely disseminate carbon literacy; inspire commitment to action; and encourage attendees to become future trainers themselves.  

Please let me know about any other pragmatic environment initiatives that are happening.

Liz Schafer      
RHUL UCU Green Rep

Reject, Reject, Reject

This week we emailed our members recommending a vote to REJECT UCEA’s latest offer on pay and conditions. UCEA (Universities and Colleges Employers Association) negotiates pay and conditions with the unions. On our side, UCU negotiates jointly for workers with the EIS, GMB, UNISON and Unite unions. We promised you some context, to remind you what the UCU claim included and to reflect on what we have lost as workers in Higher Education over recent years. Despite all the claims of hardship by our employers, home fees are £9275 per student, hugely increased from the £3000 that prevailed in 2011. During that period, despite the tripling of fees and increased student numbers, our pay has hardly increased at all while our pensions and working conditions have been decimated. Everything went into shiny new buildings and increased Senior Management staffing and pay.

Continue reading “Reject, Reject, Reject”

RHUL-UCU Emergency General Meeting & notice of UCU training opportunities for members

Happy New year to you all.


On Wednesday 20th January RHUL-UCU held a well attended Emergency General Meeting, primarily to put two resolutions to members. The purpose of resolutions is to  direct the activities of the Branch for the coming year. Resolution 1 focuses on health and safety at work, in terms of the Covid 19 risks on campus and the increasingly intolerable workloads which flow from adapting our work to new conditions with a workforce depleted by both overt job cuts and the unwillingness to replace departing colleagues. It also identified bullying as an increasing problem across HE. Resolution 2 focuses on the College’s three year strategy which was distributed, with minimal fanfare, in November 2020. Whilst the Branch welcomes the fact the College has achieved financial stability, in part from delaying capital projects, we call for the expansion of in-house jobs to alleviate unbearable workloads and to ensure all staff enjoy decent terms and conditions of employment.

Both Resolutions were shared with members in advance of the meeting, with some last minute amendments to ensure all staff were included and that we were as comprehensive in our objectives as possible. Resolution 1 achieved 96% support, and Resolution 2 achieved 95% support. Both Resolutions were therefore carried and will be pursued with enthusiasm by the Branch Committee. We have sent these resolutions to Senior Management, so they may prepare their responses, ahead of our scheduled meeting with them in early February.

Our Environment Officer, professor Liz Schafer reported on sustainability issues at the College. It was noted that the College’s 3-year plan for environmental sustainability had not yet been completed. Our Environment Officer highlighted some “interesting” wording on environment sustainability which appeared to need amendment. We requested volunteers for the branch environment and sustainability working group and suggested that any supportive members might wish to encourage their school boards to add environment as a rolling item for all school and department meetings.

Our next General Meeting will be on  Wednesday 17 March 2021; details will be sent out well in advance.

Training Opportunities

UCU Branches are always on the look-out for more activists to contribute to the life of their institution. We recognise that Branch Committee membership is not the preference of some of our members, strangely, but there are other options for members who are still interested in playing a full role in the Branch. Some of our members focus on case work, supporting individuals with issues around their employment, or manage our communication channels. Increasingly we are inviting members to join a specific working party, for instance on reducing casualisation (led by Dan Elphick) or improving campus sustainability (led by Liz Schafer). UCU has publicised three short webinars coming up in the next few weeks which will give members an insight into key areas of employment. As a result you may feel more in control of your employment and you may then be ready to work with colleagues to make this a better place to work. 

UCU are offering three webinar sessions on Tuesday 02 February 2021. Each session will start with a presentation of the issues by a UCU specialist lasting about an hour, followed by a discussion of issues arising. So, your overall time commitment is just under 90 minutes!

You can choose from:

  • Working Safely During the Pandemic at 10.30am
  • Introduction to Sustainability at 1.30pm, and
  • Embedding Climate Education in the Curriculum at 3pm.

Working Safely During the Pandemic will explore, through a collective lens, everything that needs to be done to keep us safe. You might also find comfort and support from knowing that other members are facing the same challenges as you and what they are doing about it.                                     

The full aims of the interactive webinar are to:

  1. understand why it’s important to unapologetically protect your health and wellbeing at this time
  2. identify some of the challenges you face in working safely whether from home, back in the workplace or a blend of the two
  3. Be clear about what support you can expect from your employer
  4. Identify support available from UCU.

Sign up here.

Introduction to Sustainability is the first in a series of webinars on UCU’s response to the climate crisis.

The full aims of the interactive webinar are to:

  1. understand student demand for sustainability and climate education
  2. Explore the meaning of sustainability
  3. Make the connection between sustainability and climate education
  4. Understand the relevant frameworks defining sustainability, and how to apply them.

Sign up here.

Embedding Climate Education in the Curriculum is the second in a series of our webinars on the climate crisis, and how we can play our part in resisting it.

This webinar will look at detailed examples of how UCU members are incorporating climate education in their classroom practice in a way which we hope you will find exciting and empowering.

The full aims of the interactive webinar are to:

  1. Understand why sustainability issues are so important to students and UCU members
  2. Explore how sustainability issues have been incorporated into a range of learning programmes
  3. Reflect on how to amend your own practice
  4. Consider how you could use your experience to support other UCU members around sustainability issues.

Sign up here.

Don’t forget, the more of us who get involved in our Branch the stronger we will be; the stronger our Branch, the better our working environment.

Your Branch Committee