A New Leader: A New Era for UCU?

Isn’t democracy exhausting? Just as MPs are constantly having indicative votes on Brexit, it seems to some that UCU is always involving us in a ballot of some sort. The latest invitation to participate in UCU matters involves the current postal ballot for a new General Secretary. This opens today, closing on May 23th. This time we have three candidates, Jo McNeill from the University of Liverpool, Jo Grady from the University of Sheffield and Matt Waddup who is currently UCU’s National Head of Policy and Campaigns. Last time our General Secretary was challenged, in 2017, participation was a shocking 13% (just 13,700 members), so let’s see if we can generate a little more enthusiasm around this contest.

Few of us have met all the candidates, so let us sketch them for you. Jo McNeill is an established activist in an academic-related role, she is well known amongst elected UCU members who attend union meetings and she captured more than 40% of the vote when she challenged Sally Hunt just two years ago. Jo has long argued that UCU needs to both reflect its members’ interests and find ways to engage their commitment to win various campaigns. Jo Grady, a senior lecturer, emerged as an activist during last year’s USS dispute and is a leading force behind USS Briefs, a portal established last year to publicise research into and arguments about the state of UK universities. Both Jos have agreed to ask their respective supporters to give second preference votes to the other Jo. Matt Waddup does not work in HE, prisons education or FE; having been employed by UCU for some time, he worked closely with the last General Secretary. The candidates’ manifestos can be found at:

Jo McNeill

Jo Grady

Matt Waddup

Although it is short notice, hustings will take place tonight at Goldsmiths University, in RHB 251, from 5pm-7pm; Jo McNeill and Jo Grady will be attending.

Members will be aware that there are many crucial issues before us, challenges for which we need the right leader. Our pension dispute last year led to agreement by UCU and Universities UK (UUK) to set up a Joint Experts’ Panel to explore how best to safeguard a decent retirement income. University Superannuation Scheme (USS) has rejected two crucial recommendations from the first report – despite acceptance of the report by employers and UCU – so the fight for a decent pension may resume. Meanwhile the sector as a whole remains on tenterhooks waiting for the Augar report to offer recommendations on student fees,  which could threaten VCs’ lavish remuneration packages and the vanity building projects now so beloved across English universities. Such an environment, coupled with Brexit uncertainty, makes is harder for UCU and members to battle against the established university “evils”: ever increasing workloads, outrageous levels of casualisation and a continuing gender pay gap.  Pressures within universities themselves and from government and wider society mean this General Secretary will face great challenges, so it is fortunate indeed that three candidates stepped forward.

Members of your Branch Committee were happy to support the nomination of Jo Grady, to enable her to gather enough signatures to stand as a candidate for General Secretary. At our Branch Committee meeting, next week, we will discuss whether to formally endorse a particular candidate.  The role holder will be in post for five years, at a crucial time for HE, prison education & FE in the UK, so let’s get the leader we need. Please use your vote in this ballot. And don’t forget, at RHUL we will be reporting back on the year and electing a new Branch Committee at our AGM on Wednesday 29th May. Details of the AGM will follow soon.

Posted on behalf of members of the RHUL UCU branch committee.

Local reasons to vote in the Pay and Equality ballot

With reasons like these, we hope we don’t have to convince you to vote YES to strike action and YES to action short of a strike in the UCU pay and equalities ballot! Help get the vote out – talk to colleagues and make sure they know the date to return their ballot is 22nd February.

Report from the Special Higher Education Sector Conference

Last week’s conference in Manchester was in two parts. In the morning, pay was discussed in a quorate meeting. In the afternoon, the work of the Joint Evaluation Panel (JEP) and the USS valuation was discussed. The Chair ruled that the meeting was not quorate and therefore any votes taken were simply advisory to the Higher Education Committee. It has to be acknowledged that there was considerable concern expressed by delegates in both sessions about the Chairing of the meeting. Continue reading “Report from the Special Higher Education Sector Conference”

Feedback requested: proposed branch motion for the HE Sector conference on pensions

The branch is currently preparing a motion for submission to the HE Sector Conference on Pensions, to be held on 7th November 2018. We welcome feedback from members on the draft motion -if you have comments, please e-mail rhulucu2018 at gmail.com by Wednesday 31st, 5pm, so the branch committee can take suggestions into account before submitting the motion.

Draft Motion for HE Sector Conference on Pensions 

RHUL notes:
1. The historic 14 days of strike action and the threat of further action that forced the employers to abandon their plans to replace a Defined Benefit scheme with Defined Contribution pensions;
2. The contents of the first Joint Expert Panel (JEP) report that revealed the scheme was not at imminent risk of default;
3. Analysis by JEP and Sam Marsh of Sheffield UCU showing Universities UK (UUK) appears to be manufacturing the apparent Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) deficit;
4. Current cost sharing plans place too high a burden on employees and fail to take account of the historic underpayment by employers;
5. The dispute is not yet resolved.

RHUL calls for:
1. A ballot of members for industrial action if either a) the employers fail to accept the first JEP report in full or b) the employers attempt to pass on costs they have generated onto employees.
2. To generate confidence again amongst our members, for the National Disputes Committee to guide future campaigns on saving our DB pensions, based on policy determined at Special Higher Education Conference (SHEC).

(With thanks in formulating the structure to UCU Branches at UCL & Lancaster.)

The Report of the Joint Expert Panel (JEP) on Pensions

Members will be all too aware that we were forced into industrial action earlier this year, at great cost to students and staff.  We had no choice, since UUK (the employers’ body, Universities UK) was proposing the ending of the defined benefit pension scheme.  Given that our incomes had been frozen for years under the public sector pay cap, and tuition fees had tripled, it was simply not credible that universities could not afford any necessary increase in the employer contribution.  Instead, Vice Chancellors wanted us as individuals to take all the risk of stock market investments with a defined contribution scheme, rather than efficiently spreading out the risk across generations and retirement years.

As a result of the hugely successful strike, a Joint Expert Panel (with nominees of both UUK and UCU) was appointed to look at valuation issues for the pension, the risk level and what was affordable going forward.

Without wishing to utter the words ‘we told you so’, the JEP report is to be welcomed since it unanimously – with both UUK and UCU representatives – shows that sensible approaches to valuation mean that current defined benefits (with the exception of the 1% match) can be preserved in full.  In other words, the UCU position before, during and after the strike.

In order to arbitrarily shut down our defined-benefit pensions, UUK adopted the worst possible interpretation of the scheme’s finances.  Strangely, this new-found love of austerity did not apply to VC salaries and massive building programmes throughout the sector.  It is also not well known that – when the Government changed the pension tax laws – Vice Chancellors (including our own) typically received a large salary increase specifically justified to make up for their personal tax loss.  The new VC appointed at Bath receives a more realistic remuneration package than the well-publicised excesses of his predecessor but it can be seen that he receives an ‘Enhanced-Opt Out of USS’ of £37,000.

It is true that some universities have greatly overstretched their balance sheets, with debts of 70% or more of annual income.  Royal Holloway is one of the most overstretched.  That may be why, initially, Senior Management and HR adopted a hugely aggressive approach to both students and staff, totally out of line with the consensus tradition at the College.  Even with a freedom of information request from the local branch, Senior Management at Royal Holloway has refused to reveal what position they took (on behalf of the College) when surveyed by UUK about the pensions issues.

Continue reading “The Report of the Joint Expert Panel (JEP) on Pensions”