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Assessment boycott: 5 reasons to join the action

Dear colleague,

On Thursday the union will be asking you to join a comprehensive boycott of assessment and marking. I understand that is a big decision for any educator and I wanted to write to set out why the union believes it is so important that you join this action.

First, without significant industrial action there will be no further movement from the employers and all our pensions will be lower, with losses for some career academic and professional staff running into tens of thousands of pounds. I say this not in a defeatist way nor because I have anything but the highest regard for our negotiators, but because I believe it is true that without considerable external pressure, the employers will not budge.

Second, the democratic ballot conducted by UCU delivered an overwhelming mandate for action with 85% of those voting supporting an assessment and marking boycott. That strength of feeling now needs to be carried through into the action if we are to show the employers we mean business.

Third, because while the boycott will cause you and colleagues considerable difficulties and anguish, if we carry it out effectively it will hurt our employers’ business and reputation more.

Fourth, because despite the disruption they will face our students support us. This is true not just of the National Union of Students, although their solidarity with you is clear, but also of an ever increasing number of local student unions who understand that the downward pressure on pay and pensions within higher education will impact upon the quality of education we provide.

Fifth and finally, the most important reason is that the employers’ proposals are unjust and unnecessary. On the one hand, the scale of the problem with the USS deficit is multiplied because of the unsound methodology used. On the other the employers seek to use this exaggerated crisis to push through radical changes which will be impossible to undo. The result will be that staff working in the richest universities in the UK will have by far the lowest pensions – that simply cannot be right.

I have read like you about the many institutions who now say they are unhappy with the proposals made by Universities UK on their behalf. However, polite ‘behind the scenes’ criticism is not enough. Those institutions who share our concerns must now call upon their negotiators to think again and engage properly with your union.

Those employers, so far few in number, who are seeking to bully staff through threats of punitive pay docking need to think again too. The legacy of this dispute will last for years if employers make a difficult situation worse. No deduction of salary is easy to bear for staff but when major institutions like Imperial College choose to levy a sum of 25% of pay or less for participating in the boycott that just makes the decision of York University to threaten 100% pay deductions all the more obscene. 

The union will support members faced with punitive deductions both industrially and financially and institutions who bully their staff will face sector wide isolation, but there is no point in me being anything other than point blank honest with you. If we cannot resolve this dispute quickly, there is little doubt that members will face significant pay docking and that this will hurt financially. However, doing nothing will be costlier still given the cumulative losses to your annual pension income if the employers get their way.

Many members have already been in touch to ask practical questions about what they should and should not do during the boycott. A list of the questions so far can be found here. If you have questions that are not covered here please let me know and I will add your answered query so others will benefit.

I do not pretend that winning this dispute will be easy. Our first task is  to persuade the employers to negotiate seriously and that will be a challenge in itself. However, I can say that the union is with you 100% and we will do everything we can alongside your branch officers to defend your pensions.

Thank you for your support of the union.

Sally Hunt
UCU general secretary

PS If you know someone not yet in the union please pass this message on. If they join the union here, they can join the boycott.

Bullying & Harassment Awareness Day this Friday

The campus unions will be holding a stall on the concourse on Friday 31 October between 12 and 2pm to raise awareness around bullying and harassment in the workplace and how to tackle these serious issues. We are working with the HR team to develop new policies for the University on this theme and welcome your input. Please get in touch by email or drop by the stall. We welcome volunteers to help staff the stall on the day!

Useful resources:

Key points from the USS Branch meeting 14-10-14

Members heard from Mark Oley (Regional Official) and Malcolm Povey (Leeds UCU) about the threats to the USS scheme.  

  • USS is a healthy scheme.  The deficit calculations ignores the fund’s huge assets, and assumes that the collapse of all UK HE universities is a possibility.  The USS deficit explained.
  • The Employers are shifting the liability for pensions to the individual.  The defined contribution part of the scheme is effectively a gamble as there will be no guaranteed pension benefits.
  • The proposal tares up the contractual agreement made between the employer and staff for the pension provision.
  • We have a good case, and the Employer can afford it.    Improvements have already been offered by the employer in response to the ballot.
  • The proposals are inferior to the post 92 institutions’ TPS pension scheme which is also underwritten by the government.
  •  If we back off they will come for more.  Further erosion will follow if this isn’t stopped now.
  • Our negotiators need a strong mandate from members.

    Vote YES both for strike action and for non-strike action

USS – Your Questions Answered

The employers’ proposals will put an end to the final salary scheme, shift USS members onto career average pensions (on terms inferior to the post-92 universities’ scheme), and introduce for the first time an element of ‘defined contribution’ pension where the risk is on the individual rather than the institution.

Isn’t there a substantial deficit in the USS scheme? Don’t we need to do something about it?

  • Yes, there’s a “deficit”. But the deficit is calculated according to rules designed for single companies not a scheme like USS that includes several dozen institutions.
  • Legislation requires pension scheme trustees to make a simple calculation every three years: if all contributions were to halt, is there enough money already in the pot to pay all current and future pensions? If not, a recovery plan must be actioned. This is because if a company goes bust, we of course want to see all pensions paid over time. But our USS scheme is rare and unique. There isn’t one institution that could go to the wall, but 375 (several dozen large universities and many smaller institutes). The very basis for the calculation of a deficit is not fit for purpose in our circumstances: all universities will not collapse simultaneously. We need regulatory change to adjust this, but as it stands, we are expected to pay out of our pensions for that recovery plan for a disaster that we all know will never happen! Do we really want to make decisions based on the bizarre idea that all USS institutions will collapse at once when many have survived for more than a century and some for far longer than that?
  • To compound problems, the legislation requires the current assets to be calculated at market rate, but not the future liabilities (pensions etc.). These have to be calculated on a ‘prudent basis’. USS has decided to do this by what is known as the ‘gilts plus’ method. So future values are based on the anticipated value of gilts, which do not return as much as other investment vehicles such as equities. This creates volatility – the means of calculating assets and liabilities are so different that they produce unreliable predictions. And the USS scheme is only 20% exposed to gilts, not 100% so any calculation will by default be wrong.
  • Because of this, the USS proposes to buy more gilts, and openly announces that if it does so this will increase the deficit, but at least it will make predictions more reliable. So, a calculation based on a disaster we know won’t happen actually steers investment decisions that deliver poor returns on our money, forcing us to pay more out of our pension.
  • If USS’s health was assessed on the same measures as countries’ GDP, USS would be about the 80th wealthiest country in the world, and it would have no national deficit!
  • The employers say that the deficit is ‘volatile and persistent’. In fact fund assets have been increasing faster than liabilities and 31,000 new members joined the scheme last year. The situation is improving!

The employers say contribution increases are not affordable.

  • Even if they are necessary – which is questionable – we know the sector has ample spare cash to pay higher contributions. Pay rates in pre-92 HE have declined by 18% over the past five years. This money could quite well redress the pensions imbalance.

Finally, the employers are using these reforms to start to shift pensions risk away from universities and on to individuals by introducing a Defined Contribution scheme.

  • Pensions would only be guaranteed on the first £40,000 salary (on a career average scheme inferior to the post-92 universities’ version). Pensions on salary above £40k would be subject to stock market fluctuation with all the risk that entails. And if we let them get away with this it will be £30k in a few years time and soon enough no guarantees at all.
  • With a strong vote for both strike action and action short of a strike we will be in the best position to head off these proposals now.

This is not a premature ballot but a chance for you to make your voice heard right at the start of the process.

Vote Yes and Yes!