Academics in pre-1992 universities who are members of the University and College Union (UCU) will tomorrow be commencing a marking boycott in response to a planned attack by employers on our USS pension scheme.
By any reasonable measure, and despite losses suffered during the global financial crisis (GFC), USS is in good financial health, persistently taking in much more in contributions than it pays out to retirees. However, the arbitrary valuation method favoured by the UK Pensions Regulator – which has an interest in a highly conservative approach, to avoid employers running schemes down then leaving the regulator to carry the can – perversely shows the scheme in deficit. The ridiculous nature of the assumptions behind this valuation have been well explained elsewhere, as has the mendacity of Universities UK, the employers’ association, in using data misleadingly. Put simply, the claim that USS is unsustainable is based on the scenario of all contributing universities simultaneously ceasing to pay into the scheme, e.g. as a result of bankruptcy. By any reasonable measure, the scheme is not in serious difficulty in the short to medium term. Nonetheless, the employers have seized on the valuation to demand radical changes to USS, which will result in a cut in pensions of up to 27%. This follows changes imposed by the employers in 2011, which closed the final salary scheme to new entrants, put new staff onto a vastly inferior ‘career average’ scheme (which was even worse than the Teachers Pension Scheme (TPS), which is used in secondary, further and post-1992 higher education institutions), and shifted the burden of contributions from the employers to employees. It also follows years of minimal or zero pay increases, such that in the years since 2009, real pay has fallen by about 13% nationally and 17% in London.
Given this context, it is obvious that employers are seizing the opportunity of the perverse USS valuation to further cut staff costs. Insofar as the scheme faces difficulties because of the GFC, this represents yet another shunting of the costs inflicted by hyper-capitalism onto workers. And insofar as universities are trying to cut staff costs because of vast reductions in the public subsidy to higher education, it represents yet another indirect effect of austerity, which is again about socialising the costs of bailing out Britain’s financial institutions.
At stake in this industrial action is not just the fate of our pensions, but of our trade union. The marking boycott is just the latest in a recurrent spate of industrial action over pay and conditions, including on pensions in 2011 and pay in 2013/14. This time around, 78% voted for strike action and 87% for action short of a strike, on a 45% turnout – the highest since UCU’s formation in 2006, though still disappointingly low, given the stakes. However, each period of industrial strife was botched by UCU’s national leadership, leaving the union progressively weaker. The earlier action on pensions was lost: despite some minor concessions from employers, they successfully rammed through changes to USS. The UCU Left grouping rightly warned that accepting this would only encourage the employers to come back for more later – as they are now doing. On pay, UCU itself declared that the principle of national collective bargaining – the union’s main raison d’etre – was at risk: UCU’s rejection of miserly annual pay offers had repeatedly been ignored, and employers were increasingly departing from the national pay scale and trying to tempt UCU branches into local-level settlements.
Yet, a comprehensive strategy on escalating industrial action, democratically determined by the union’s Higher Education conference, was simply ignored by the leadership. Continue reading