Strike fund update

Thanks to the incredible generosity of members (thank you – you know who you are!) we have been able to support all claims made to the strike fund so far. If anyone would like an individual acknowledgement that their donation reached us please email rhulucu2018 at gmail.com . Any further applications for support from the strike fund can be made on the form available here.

Any surplus in the strike fund once all authorised claims have been paid will be retained in a separate account and used to support members undertaking future industrial action.

A Representation From RHSU About Exam Papers

At the start of the Easter vacation, representatives of RHUL-UCU met with Katie Normington to reaffirm our commitment to Action Short of A Strike, in the face of repeated pressure from Heads of Department demanding extra Moodle materials, office hours during the vacation and exam paper revisions. The Vice Principal pledged to contact HoDs again and remind them that these demands are provocative and not sanctioned centrally.

A representative of Royal Holloway Students’ Union (RHSU) was also present, and restated their support for our industrial action in defence of decent pensions. However, RHSU has come under a great deal of pressure from students who have unprecedented exam anxiety this year. The RHSU representative made a specific plea about exam papers, given that many students now fear sitting down to exam papers they cannot answer due to lost lectures. RHSU asked if our members might consider whether they needed to edit out any exam questions, to reflect lost teaching time.

This presents a quandary – a university is not the same as a school; some students may have explored concepts scheduled for lectures affected by the strike by using reading lists and/or Moodle materials. For these students editing papers may reduce their choice, so there is no objective way to determine whether editing exam papers will be beneficial or detrimental. We also reminded both the Vice Principal and the RHSU representative that our members are committed to ASoS (which has only been suspended as of today – Monday 16th April) and so would not be able to commit to this additional work. Even now that ASoS has been suspended, many colleagues may have recognised just how much unpaid work they were contributing, which may make them reluctant to attempt to catch up on all their incomplete tasks. However, when we indicated three weeks ago that staff always have an over-abundance of work, the VP suggested members wanting to cut exam questions could prioritise this over other activities.

We explained that we were in no position to formally request our members revisit their exam papers, but that we would pass on this limited request by RHSU. So, for the avoidance of doubt, RHSU have requested that our members consider whether they can make a gesture of support for our students by removing questions from their exam papers that require material that was not delivered last term.

The Vice Principal assured us there would be no penalties for members who did not feel able to do this.

Emergency General Meeting – Wednesday 4th April, 1-2pm

An Emergency General Meeting of the UCU is called for Wednesday 4th April1-2pm

Last Friday UUK released a proposal on the future of USS, which they hoped would end the dispute with UCU members.  A Branch consultation at RHUL showed the majority had reservations about UUK’s proposal, which were raised during the Branch reps’ meeting yesterday, but on the whole were prepared to accept the deal. However, we have had limited time to assimilate the detail, some more information was revealed at the Branch reps’ meeting yesterday, and we are about to be consulted (and likely balloted) on whether to formally accept this deal, so we need to discuss this proposal.

We will be holding an EGM on Wednesday 4th April1-2pm, International Building 244. We appreciate this is awful timing; members have lives to catch up with and are already juggling their research and marking or their vital professional services duties, all whilst not exceeding their paid hours! But we think it is crucial to meet before the ballot.  We will try to produce the fullest possible record of our discussion to share with those of you who cannot attend.

Today’s Meeting of UCU Branch Representatives – 28 March 2018

Our branch delegate writes…

There was certainly a more reflective mood amongst Branch delegates at UCU’s HQ today compared to the meeting held just over two weeks ago. The latest proposal represents an advance on the first potential deal that was so contentiously mislabelled “an agreement”: It confirmed an independent panel of experts, with a broad remit to consider the valuation methodology and the benefit structure; it avoided the bogey in the (USS) room of relying on a non-independent “independent Chair”; and recognised members were determined to hang on to defined benefit pensions, at least as good as currently if not more in line with TPS. And it looked as if the UCU negotiating team were confident that we would be broadly in favour of accepting, as they handed out ballot papers as we registered for the session.

The speeches of Sally Hunt and lead negotiator Paul Bridges reminded us how far we had come from the threatened imposition of defined contributions. Sally Hunt was able to offer some clarifications before the debate, having just received an open letter from Alistair Jarvis of UUK and a copy of a confidential letter from the office of the UK Pension Regulator to the Chair of USS Trustees. The letter from Jarvis  confirmed that the January DC proposal had disappeared and mentioned the need to rebuild trust (a dangerous word in RHUL circles) between, on the one hand, UUK and constituent employers and, on the other, UCU members and supportive students. However, this letter did refer to their preference to “work with UCU on risk sharing alternatives” – without indicating if that simply meant shifting more of it onto staff. The letter from the office of the Pensions Regulator (tPR) cannot be disclosed but we were read an excerpt which stated that tPR appreciated that the proposed joint panel of experts was a valuable opportunity to bring stakeholders together to work for the future of the scheme and that they will engage with the panel at the appropriate time. The General Secretary told us that this meant the trustees have no reason to stand in the way of the proposed jointly convened expert panel. This gave some reassurance to many delegates, but as the questions flowed it was clear that several areas of ambiguity remained, with the lack of trust in UUK a major stumbling block.

Branch delegates then raised questions and expressed the views of their Branches on the UUK proposal, as garnered by E-ballots, Emergency General Meetings (EGMs), and, occasionally in larger branches, both methods. Branches who had managed to hold EGMs explained that the more their members discussed the proposal, the more concerns arose but Branch reps had found themselves unable to answer any questions. Some expressed relief at the clarity provided by Sally at the start of the meeting, especially around the letter from UUK but were left wondering why it had only arrived an hour before this meeting. This reinforced the lack of trust in UUK’s apparent engagement, and was described by one representative as a deliberate “splitting tactic”.

The ballot of reps was taken off the table without comment as it seemed to be clear, from the 55 branch representatives who contributed, that more than half required additional work to be done on the proposal. This is not surprising given that the proposal was presented to UCU on Friday afternoon, so up to this point it has not been subject to formal negotiation by UCU. The meeting closed after almost three and a half hours, and we were hurriedly ushered out so that the Higher Education Committee could ruminate on what they had heard. They had the unenviable job of reviewing motions submitted by a handful of Branches, debating the views of the Branches which had attended, and identifying a process by which we move forward. We have now learned that they have recommended that this proposal, edited to reflect the clarifications we were given today, go out to a ballot of members. That’s democracy in action and reflects the overall position of RHUL members but it’s not the outcome that I or many other Branch reps expected.

The current branch position on the new UCU proposals

The RHUL-UCU Strike Committee has been reviewing messages from national UCU on Friday 22nd February, the responses of members, and the further details and clarifications provided by General Secretary Sally Hunt on Monday 26th.

The previous ‘agreement’ should have been labelled ‘proposals’ and they were rapidly and rightly rejected by the RHUL-UCU membership and by UCU colleagues across the country. Last week’s ‘proposal’ constitutes a considerable advance on the last ‘final offer’ from the employers. It is even further away from the rhetoric of USS facing a funding crisis for which the only solution was dumping all the risks on to staff through Defined Contributions.

The majority of RHUL-UCU members who have responded so far have expressed a preference for accepting last week’s proposals, with significant reservations and subject to some clarifications.

The replies from UCU branches and members nationally shows a determination if necessary to continue the dispute into the summer term and, indeed, into next year. The employers have at this stage pulled back from proposals they should never have sought to impose on staff. But we have now reached a point where they acknowledge that mechanisms have to put in place for a jointly agreed solution. That approach of course could have avoided the dispute.

Pros

  1. Under UCU pressure, UUK has moved from a review of the USS to setting up a valuation panel on mutually agreed terms of reference. The proposal document comes from UUK but does seem to represent a negotiated position. UUK has for years refused to back down from their valuations, and so the recent decision is a significant climb-down as a result of UCU action.
  2. The UUK’s proposals and consultation to impose a Defined Contribution ‘solution’ has been suspended. UCU has sought for years a joint valuation mechanism, and we have a means of resolving the dispute although we can’t yet have the solution.
  3. The valuation panel will have a jointly appointed chair and equal numbers from each side. It will report back on the timescales for the valuation while current benefits and contributions are held (to April 2019).
  4. The panel will review the assumptions and associated tests of previous valuations, and will recognize that HE staff value Defined Benefits (i.e. some guaranteed decent retirement income). The panel will consider inter-generational justice and equalities.
  5. The aim of the panel is to provide a guaranteed pension ‘broadly’ comparable with current arrangements (our inverted commas). Sally Hunt believes that the employers go further than this statement. Even if the panel reports that changes to contributiuons and benefits are needed, then a ‘guaranteed pension broadly comparable with current arrangements’ must still be provided.
  6. The proposals appear reasonable, and UCU risks losing popular and student support by not accepting the mechanisms for resolving the dispute. UCU has to work with UUK for all the defects that organization has illustrated time again.
  7. Without a resolution, the pension regulator may impose a solution that reflects the risks of single employer schemes and not the situation of USS.
  8. USS board meets early April. If the joint proposals are rejected, the strike can continue for the new term.

Cons

  1. It is not clear that UUK has removed their threat to impose pension cuts.
  2. The promise to keep current contributions and benefits should be extended beyond April 2019.
  3. The recognition of the value of Defined Benefits comes with conditions around ‘affordability’ and regulatory requirements, and ‘broadly’ in line with current provision is vague.
  4. The consideration of ‘intergenerational justice and equalities’ must not be used as an excuse to reduce pension benefits to early career and currently casualised workers on the excuse that they ‘choose’ these working and pension conditions.
  5. The issue has not been ‘risk’ as such but the ‘risk appetite’ and policies of UUK employers. There have been USS valuations in over the last year or so that do not show a long-term funding crisis based on reasonable expectations. Some projections show a very healthy pension scheme. Projections can be debated, but the problem has been the new low ‘risk appetite’ of university managements. Their policies have been based on de-risking their balance sheets in order to raise more bank loans for building projects, not the objective health of USS. Are UUK employers now willing to accept greater ‘risk’ and, to meet the requirements of the regulator, greater contributions?
  6. As the employers cut their pension contributions from 18.55% to 14% between 1983 and 1997, when the fund was in surplus, it is reasonable to expect the employer to take responsibility for this ‘contributions holiday’ and bear at least the brunt of any required increase in contributions.
  7. In the current political climate, a government backed USS is not realistic.
  8. Although the mechanisms for resolving the dispute appear reasonable, it requires UCU members to trust the intentions, representative nature and competence of UUK.
  9. It will remain unknown how the pension regulator will respond. This could be decisive, although we know that the regulator will not yet give an official view. What happens if that decision is detrimental to staff?

The branch is still collecting responses and views, and will take all responses received before about 10.55am tomorrow into account in representing the branch’s opinion to the meeting of national branch representatives. Please do keep letting us know your opinions via rhulucu2018 at gmail.com.