Response from the VC on USS

Dear members,
In response to our email to the VC on working towards resolution of USS dispute, we recieved the following reply on Friday 17 February.

Dear Sam and Matthew,

Thank you for your email.

Like you, I welcome the ACAS-facilitated talks between UCEA and the joint trade unions in the dispute over pay and conditions, and I hope that they are productive and result in an agreement.

Thank you for your summary of UCU’s position on the USS dispute. As you know, we have reconvened the USS Valuation Working Group, the purpose of which (as outlined in the terms of reference) is to collectively aid the University’s understanding of matters relating to the USS pension scheme, and to inform its response to employer consultations in a way that is evidence based and represents the views of scheme members and the University.

The University’s current position on the USS valuation is articulated on the following webpage, which states our support for:

  • Governance reforms in USS;
  • Development of lower-cost options, to enable more staff to participate;
  • The exploration of other measures to support the scheme’s long-term sustainability, potentially including conditional indexation.

The University Executive Board intends to provide an institutional response to the valuation, and for this response to be informed by the collective views of UEB and the USS Valuation Working Group. Clearly, the outcome of the 2023 valuation will be key, but it remains my view that, if the financial health of the scheme allows it, improving member benefits should be the priority.

I look forward to seeing the reports from the USS Valuation Working Group to inform the University’s response to the USS Valuation.

Kind regards,


How many redundancies are Sheffield University’s management planning to make in Archaeology?

In a recent blog post, we explained how the financial information used in the review of Archaeology and published as part of a Freedom of Information request indicate that the University would be better off in five years’ time were it to keep the department open and invest in four new posts. But this revelation is not the only nugget lurking within the figures, which also contain both an indication of the possible levels of redundancy under consideration and what looks like a worrying standard of financial analysis underlying our university’s decision-making.

Redundancy costs

By comparing the figures from the three different scenarios in the review document (investment, full closure, and the selected option of ‘closure and realignment’), we are able to draw inferences on what the nebulous ‘closure and realignment’ option may mean for staffing levels.

In the case of full closure of the department (by far the worst financial decision the University could make), there are two rows relating to staffing levels. One shows the projected costs relating to redundancy payments, and another the cost savings due to the reduction (to zero) of future salary payments. Redundancy payments are projected to start at £360k in 2022/23 and tail off to £144k by 2024/25, and zero thereafter. Cost savings move in the other direction: £775k in 2022/23, increasing to £1.7m by 2025/26.

Option 3 is based on 80% of the redundancies in Option 2

The interest comes not so much from the magnitude of these numbers than from the comparison with the case that UEB decided to pursue of ‘closure and realignment’. Here, both the redundancy payment and cost saving rows are around 80% of the figures for full closure (precisely so, in the case of redundancy payments). In other words, the ‘closure and realignment’ model used in the decision-making assumes 80% of staff (by total payroll) being made redundant.


Does this mean that the University is planning to make 80% of those currently working in Archaeology redundant? Possibly. But there are other potential explanations. It may be, as the University has indicated to us, that the 80% figure is a prudent upper-bound for the number of redundancies, something of a worst-case scenario.

So, is it prudent to use a figure relating to an upper-bound for redundancy numbers in the financial projections? Not if one uses this same proportion to also adjust the cost-savings! Since the figures for cost-savings are larger than for redundancy payments, using an upper-bound for the proportion of job losses to adjust both sets of figures results in something far from a prudent financial projection, since the gains from the cost-savings outweight the redundancy costs. A lower proportion (a half? a quarter? a fifth?) would be more financially prudent. Over-estimating the number of staff likely to be made redundant boosts the financial summary statistics for the ‘closure and realignment’ case, potentially making it more appealing to decision-makers.

Were the University to take a genuinely prudent approach to modelling potential redundancies in its projections, it would use an upper-bound when calculating the redundancy payments and a lower-bound in the cost-savings. This would skew the figures for UEB’s chosen scenario significantly for the worse. Using, for example, a figure of 80% for redundancy payments and 20% for cost savings would show the ‘closure and realignment’ option as leaving the University over £4.3m worse off over five years (up from the £1.6m in our previous analysis) as compared with investing to keep the department open. It would also push up the projected departmental deficit for that scenario in each of the years from 2022/23 onwards, above those forecast in the situation that the department remained open.

We do not know whether UEB is planning to make 80% of staff in Archaeology redundant, or whether they believed the figures represented a prudent estimate for the purposes of decision-making. As the University of Liverpool’s UCU branch has shown in its successful recent dispute, one compulsory redundancy is one too many, and members are unlikely to tolerate any threat to jobs. A plan for 80% redundancies in the department will pour petrol on a ballot for industrial action. On the other hand, if the calculations were intended to be a prudent approach to financial planning, then they raise serious questions over the quality of the decision-making at the University and, ultimately, the soundness of basis on which the decision to close Archaeology was made.

Does the decision to close Archaeology make financial sense? Not on UEB’s figures.

In May, the University’s Executive Board (UEB) announced the results of a review they had conducted into the future of Sheffield’s Department of Archaeology. The review proposed choosing from one of three options:

  1. invest in the department with four new posts;
  2. close the department outright;
  3. close the department, moving some areas of research strength elsewhere.

The three-option set-up was plain for all to see, and to no great surprise UEB recommended the ‘compromise’ of option 3 to Council: Archaeology would cease to exist as a department, though small amounts of its activities would continue in other departments. As expected, Council backed its executive board and rubber-stamped the decision.

There has been much discussion over the processes that led to this decision (were students treated ethically during the review? why did Senate not provide a clear recommendation to Council?), but the financial aspects of the decision-making are yet to receive much scrutiny. If you assumed the decision to close Archaeology was in the best financial interests of the University, then think again: the numbers tell a different story.

Financial implications of closure

You could be forgiven for thinking the financial case for closure would be clear cut. Archaeology was making a loss as a department, so closing it and retaining its strongest elements would cut the losses and retain the profitable elements, putting the University in a better financial shape over the long-term. Or so the story goes.

The review document contained 5-year financial projections under the different options. It claimed the figures show “immediate cost savings and further saving realised following teach out which could be re‐invested into retained areas of strength and into other academic departments” in option 3 (closure and realignment). Meanwhile, option 1 (investment) “requires a large upfront investment, with limited evidence that the investment will address the challenges faced by the Department”, and warns that “the university will not recoup the investment if a) cross disciplinary programmes are not viable; and/or b) the department is unsuccessful in the development and expansion of the consultancy offer”.

A version of the review document was released as part of a Freedom of Information request (look in ‘FOI’, document 6). While it has some redacted figures, it contains enough information to assess the validity of the claims made. Interestingly, Senate wasn’t trusted with the full figures, and also received the redacted version.

Immediate cost savings?

First, the claim that closing the department generates immediate cost savings. On first glance, one can find in option 3’s figures a row for “cost savings” versus the status quo, which start at £620k per year in Year 2, rising to £1.2m per year in Year 5. But these cost-savings are more than offset by redundancy payouts and a projected loss in income of £1.2m in Year 2, rising to £1.5m in Year 5 (see Figure 1). In other words, there are no “immediate cost savings… which could be reinvested into retained areas of strength and into other academic departments”: quite the opposite. Closure of the department will cost the university hundreds of thousands of pounds per year.

By 2025/26, our analysis of the figures (not refuted by University management in our dispute meetings) shows that choosing option 3 over option 1 has a cumulative detrimental impact of over £1.6m. That is, by recommending closure of the department, UEB expect to be worse off to the tune of around £1.6m in five years’ time. They may have found a way to send the departmental deficit towards zero (after all, a department that doesn’t exist can’t lose you money), but the University as a whole takes the hit. Shared costs will be passed on to other departments. We all lose out.

Figure 1: Sheffield UCU analysis of the financial implications of options 1 and 3, based on UEB figures
(Spreadsheet available here)
Option 1 shows a better financial position than option 3 by £1.6m over 5 years

Recouping the investment?

Next up, the claim that the University may not be able to recoup the investment inherent in option 1. And again, one can see a row for the planned investment under option 1, starting at £178k in Year 1, rising to £402k in Year 5. In total, this represents a cumulative investment of £1.7m by Year 5.

The first thing to note is that there is no allowance for any improvement in income as a result of this investment, either in terms of improved student recruitment or improved grant or consultancy income (this is put down to “prudence”). But even without any allowance for this, option 1 still beats option 3 to the tune of £1.6m cumulatively over 5 years, as described above. In other words, the £1.7m investment to keep the department open will recoup itself and provide a £1.6m improved financial position over ‘closure and realignment’ over the next five years, representing a 96% return on the investment. In taking option 3, the university is implicitly setting itself a challenge of being able to find an alternative investment that doubles its £1.7m stake. It won’t manage it.

And then we get to the investment outlay itself, which is included under option 1 but not under option 3, despite UEB’s commitment to targeted investment in the areas it proposes to realign. If this unspecified level of investment were to be included in the figures for option 3, the financial benefits of keeping the department open would be even more pronounced.

Were the financial best interests of the University taken into account in the decision-making?

We are yet to see evidence that the financial best interests of the University as a whole were properly taken into account in reaching the decision to close the Department of Archaeology. There is no indication that UEB discussed them in reaching its recommendation (see the minutes of the 25 May meeting), and Senate had the necessary information redacted. We are used to seeing financial arguments as central justification for decision-making, so it seems unusual for them to be kept out of the picture here. It is hard to shake the feeling that the financial best interests were at odds with the recommendation UEB was keen to make, so they were kept out of sight and out of mind.

We are yet to see minutes of the Council meeting where the final decision was made, which will not be publicly released until October. Whether Council properly interrogated the financial implications of the recommendation they received from UEB, time will tell.

UCU Congress 2018: Delegates’ Report

UCU Congress this year did not go smoothly.

There have been many reports published already, including in the press, about what happened at Congress. Some of the substance of it is quite complicated, but in short: Congress was unable to debate motions that were on the agenda due to walkouts by UCU staff. Business was suspended on the first day and again on the last day (the second day is taken up by what are called the sector conferences, one for HE and one for FE, and those went very smoothly). We did not hear the majority of Congress motions that we were there to discuss on the first and third days.

(Before we go any further, you might find this explainer of UCU’s democratic structures useful. It’s by Rachel Cohen of City University and published by the ever-wonderful USS Briefs.)

So, what happened? The contentious motions included one that we submitted as a late motion calling for a democracy review (which was passed at one of our local EGMs), a motion of no confidence in the General Secretary (motion 10), and a censure of the General Secretary (motion 11). Unite, which represents UCU employees, produced a leaflet that was handed out to delegates on arrival to Congress arguing that debate on these motions represented ‘an attack on [their] trade union rights’ and the agreement that they have with UCU – on the grounds that these motions were critical of UCU employees – i.e. the General Secretary – without due process.

Our democracy review motion did not originally appear on Congress agenda due to Congress Business Committee ruling that it was ‘not Congress business’. We successfully challenged this decision and, after securing a 2/3rd majority vote from Congress (necessary within the rules to order a late motion back onto the agenda), our motion was admitted back on the agenda for discussion. This is when the first walkout happened.

Congress was suspended while the movers of the relevant motions discussed things with Unite reps. As a result of those discussions, we agreed to amend parts of the democracy review motion (which later passed in this form). Delegates from the other branches involved also spoke to Unite reps. You can read full accounts from Exeter (no confidence in the General Secretary) and KCL (censure of the General Secretary) of their experiences, including the pressure that they were put under to withdraw their motions.

Business was briefly resumed (and some excellent motions were passed) before a second walkout after Congress voted to hear motions 10 and 11. No further motions were passed that day. When we reconvened on Friday after the sector conferences on Thursday, we were again asked to vote on whether or not we should hear motions 10 and 11. Again we voted to hear them, and again UCU employees walked out. Congress was suspended again, and it was then announced by a member of UCU staff (the Chair did not return) that Congress was closed.

We share the view of delegates from Exeter and KCL that motions which were submitted in line with formal procedures and deemed legitimate by the Congress Business Committee, the body that orders the agenda, should have been heard. Delegates from those branches had no mandate from their members to withdraw their motions, and plenty of Congress delegates who did not support the motions did support keeping them on the agenda. The fact that the General Secretary is an employee does not override the fact that she is elected to represent the members of the union and is therefore accountable to them; she has a right of reply in Congress debate. We would have actively welcomed any intervention from her at any point in the process of discussing whether or not the motions should be heard. The General Secretary did not intervene at any point, despite being invited to by one of our delegates.

It is our view that neither motion 10 nor motion 11 would have passed straightforwardly had they been heard at the time they should have been. It is also our view that those members who were unhappy with the General Secretary before Congress are likely to be considerably more unhappy now. We believe that forcing the closure of the sovereign policy-making body of a trade union to prevent debate, discussion and public accountability for elected representatives is a very serious matter. We respect the right of any trade union to act in the best interests of its members, but we also believe that the General Secretary is accountable to the membership, including at Congress. As delegates we were broadly in agreement that we would vote for motion 11, which called for censure, but not for motion 10, which expressed no confidence in the GS and called for her resignation. In the light of the disruption this week, which surely could have been avoided had the GS been willing to face the scrutiny these motions represented, we are now minded to consider the matter in a different light.

This is a necessarily simplified account of what happened at Congress – there are many more details to share about how Congress was chaired, how senior UCU members responded to events, how delegates were prevented from proper discussion during suspension and so on. We would like to discuss these issues at our next meeting, and to update you on the motions that were passed at HE sector conference, many of which will be very significant over the next few months. You can read all of the motions that were passed here, and we strongly recommend that you do.

There were excellent discussions around building our campaign on pay. There was much discussion around USS pensions and the JEP. We submitted a motion on strengthening of the Superannuation Working Group, which was well received and overwhelmingly passed. Our amendment to motions relating to potential industrial action over pay, calling for the co-ordination of industrial action with FE and with other trade unions in other sectors, was welcomed by the delegates. Unfortunately we have to report that due to the disruption of full Congress our motion on local government austerity and our amendment on sexual harassment in education institutions were not discussed.

In her address to Congress, the General Secretary told us that membership of UCU has increased by 16,000 in the last year. She spoke, repeatedly, about how this has been a ‘turnaround’ year for UCU. We strongly agree. The membership is bigger, and more active; it has been transformed by the USS dispute and the FE fightback. Branches up and down the country are doing amazing work. As a branch we will continue to fight for a more democratic, member-led and campaigning union. This Congress should have been a celebration of our achievements, as well as a chance to strategise around the huge challenges we are facing together. Instead it was derailed, and ultimately we believe responsibility for this lies with the General Secretary.

An emergency motion for a recall Congress was passed on the Friday, which means that Congress will resume at some point to discuss the remaining business, including Motion 10 and 11. Our AGM takes place on Thursday and we’d urge you all to come along, whatever your views about the General Secretary. This amounts to a crisis moment for UCU: we need your views about where we go from here.

Emma Nagouse
Jess Meacham
Sam Marsh
Sam Morecroft

SUCU Congress delegates 2018

Why We Are Calling For a Democracy Review

On the 16th April 2018 at a well-attended Emergency General Meeting of Sheffield UCU, we overwhelmingly passed the motion below calling for a democracy review of UCU. We then submitted it as a late motion to Congress, UCU’s annual meeting to determine national policy, which is being held this year between 30th May and 1st June.  We also shared it with the participants at UCU Transformed, an activists’ day school hosted by London Region UCU on 28th April, which was attended by 150 UCU members from more than 20 branches.

Democracy Review Motion

Congress notes:

  • concerns from many branches and members about the processes behind the consultative ballot on the USS offer of 23rd March
  • the lack of inter-election mechanisms by which to recall or hold elected union representatives to account
  • most senior full time officials of the union are appointed rather than elected

Congress resolves:

  • to undertake a review before Congress 2019 of UCU’s democratic structures via a democracy commission, including but not limited to discussion of the appropriate number of full time elected officials and how elected representatives are to be held to account
  • that the commission should be elected by and from branches, regional committees, devolved nations and advisory committees of the union
  • to empower the commission to recommend changes to UCU’s democratic structures at a one-day special Congress, for discussion and voting on by branch delegates

We passed this motion, after some discussion, because we wanted to try to address the myriad issues raised by the USS dispute in a constructive way. Bath UCU passed the same motion and Bournemouth UCU one very similar. Many branches and many members of the union have expressed concern about the way in which the decision was made to ballot members about the UUK proposal of 23rd March. This included the fact that branch consultation was rushed through without proper time for discussion and debate, the lack of information around the offer, and the way in which the General Secretary’s office was used to encourage a vote to accept, despite no official recommendation being voted on by the Higher Education Committee.

There have been a range of responses to these concerns. More than 20 branches, including Sheffield, have called for a special Higher Education sector conference; there have been complaints about the General Secretary and some motions of no confidence in the General Secretary passed. As a branch, we believe that there are many questions that need answering about how the USS dispute has been handled, but we also believe that the questions of transparency, lack of information, and accountability raised in recent weeks have characterised previous national industrial disputes as well.

We believe that the best way to address these problems is to involve members and branches of the union in a conversation about how our union should work, and to seriously discuss whether our current national leadership structures are best suited to a campaigning, democratic and member-led union. We want to invite all branches to support this initiative, and be part of the discussion. This is not intended as a criticism of UCU as a union but a constructive assessment of where we are collectively. UCU is just 12 years old – the result of a merger between AUT and NATFHE – and is the biggest higher and further education union in the world. This is a fantastic achievement and is not in our eyes undermined at all by a frank conversation as to how the structures of the union function and how they can be improved.

UCU last underwent a democracy review in 2013, and you can read the report of that review here. However, this was a narrow process involving 10 Congress delegates, and not a wide ranging discussion within the union. We believe that since this review was undertaken, UCU has undergone several important shifts, not least throughout the USS and FE pay disputes currently ongoing. The political context nationally has also changed. We therefore believe that it is both timely and necessary to look again at how we work as a union, and that is why we passed the motion calling for a Democracy Review.

Unfortunately, this motion has been deemed not admissible to Congress by the Congress Business Committee (CBC). We have been told that the motion was ruled out of order because:

“it would involve Congress in decisions about the terms of appointment of the union’s officials, which is outside the scope of Congress under the rules of the union. Rule 29 makes it clear that this is the province of NEC as the employer of the union’s staff. Congress cannot pass motions inconsistent with the union’s rules.”

We are dismayed by this and dispute that it is a valid reason to rule out the motion. Rule 29, titled “Other Employees” does indeed state that:

29.1 Employees other than the General Secretary shall be engaged by the General Secretary under procedures agreed by the National Executive Committee.

29.2 Employees shall be engaged under conditions of employment agreed by the National Executive Committee.

What we are calling for is a review of our democratic structures, which should for us include a discussion on the appropriate term limits of elected full time officials, and also the appropriate number of elected full time officials. We have no interest in discussing or challenging the conditions of employment of “other employees”, which is what Rule 29 relates to, and we do not see this rule as relevant to a discussion about the term limits of elected representatives of the union.

We have also been told that it was the view of CBC that the motion “might be taken to include implied criticisms of staff, which is not allowed under Congress Standing Order 49ii.” Again, we want to make clear that we are not criticising employees of the union, who work hard for UCU and have no democratic authority themselves but can only implement the decisions of Congress, the NEC and the General Secretary. Our issue and the issue for all members as we see it is that we lack a cohesive collective leadership.

We believe that key issues we’re currently facing stem from the fact that UCU’s National Executive Committee is under-resourced, with elected representatives unable to access sufficient facility time to function as a leadership body of the union, and that this, combined with the fact that the only full-time elected official of the union is the General Secretary, means that an inordinate and perhaps unmanageable amount of power is concentrated in the hands of one person. We note that other similarly sized unions in Britain, like the PCS and the RMT, have two and four elected full time officials respectively, and smaller but better resourced and more visible National Executive Committees.

However, we understand that while looking again at the structure and function of our union leadership represents a good starting point to us, that other branches and bodies of the union may disagree. We don’t want to force our solutions on the union, but we do want to begin a discussion throughout the union’s structures on how we can most effectively continue the struggle to build a campaigning, democratic and member-led UCU. We ask that all UCU members discuss this idea, and that Congress delegates seriously consider supporting our challenge to CBC at Congress. We have achieved fantastic things together as a union over the last 12 years. We have a challenge ahead of us, but also an opportunity to develop the most cohesive, responsive, accountable and most importantly collective leadership for our union. Please support our challenge to CBC and our motion for a Democracy Review within UCU.

Jess Meacham (Sheffield UCU Education Officer)

Sam Morecroft (Sheffield UCU Anticasualisation Officer)

On behalf of Sheffield UCU