Academic staff continue their pension struggle

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On Thursday of Week 5, the UCU (University and College Union) members of 69 UK universities, including Lancaster, began an assessment and marking boycott to protest over radical changes to pension schemes for pre-1992 universities.

The union said it had announced this action after talks between UCU and the employers’ representatives in Week 3 had failed to provide a guarantee that the employers were making any effort to protect the pensions of members of the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS).

UCU general secretary, Sally Hunt, said: “The employers failed to convince us of the need for their dramatic changes or the reasons behind the methodology for its deficit reduction plan. Their proposals remain full of holes and the information they are apparently relying on to back them up keeps being exposed as misleading.

“We are setting plans for an assessment boycott in place because USS members have made it clear they are unconvinced by the employers’ arguments as well. We are being asked to buy a pig in a poke and that is simply not acceptable. We hope the employers will come back to the table for genuine negotiations aimed at resolved the enormous gap between our two positions.”

The reasoning behind the boycott is due to proposals of radical changes to the pension schemes of staff in pre-1992 universities, causing uncertainty for members regarding how much money they will expect from their pension. Universities UK (UUK) want to remove the final salary element of the current scheme for all USS members and instead impose a career average (career revalued benefits or CRB) scheme. However, under this proposal, members would receive CRB benefits only up to a salary threshold of £50,000. After they hit this threshold, employers will pay only 12 per cent of income into a defined contribution scheme, which shifts the risk to scheme members, and would rely on successful investments.

Speaking to SCAN about the changes, Acting President for UCU Lancaster, Joe Thornberry, said: “Of course, the career average scheme is very uncertain and people want to be absolutely clear about what they’re going to get”, which is something Thornberry praised the current scheme for being able to offer members. “We had a dispute three years ago about a change to the pension scheme and it was agreed as part of the settlement to this dispute that people who are already in the scheme would stay as they were, would keep the same benefits and it would still be a final salary scheme.”

Thornberry also said that he believed the aim of university employers in changing this pension scheme was about “reducing what they have to pay out for staff… They’ve successfully held down wages below the value of inflation since 2009 so this is yet a further depression on the value of the pension and of course it means more money for senior managers and vice chancellors and vanity projects” which is where, he said, the money seems to be going.

For students, the boycott will mean that it will stop them from being set coursework or receiving formal marks and feedback, as well as halting exams. The boycott will only take place at pre-1992 universities as newer institutions are not affected by the dispute because their pensions are held under the Teachers’ Pensions Scheme, which works differently. Regarding the outlines of the action, Thornberry emphasised: “the assessment and marking boycott refers to all formal assessments that would count towards a qualification. The informal, such as feedback, that will carry on because that’s a part of teaching.” He explained that if a student were to hand in an essay, although they would not get a mark, they would be given feedback such as strengths and weaknesses, and ways the piece of work could be improved.

When a marking boycott was threatened in May/June of this year, the University said that if anybody did not mark students work, they would be deducted 100 per cent of their pay, irrespective of whether they carried on teaching. In light of this, Thornberry said “We’ve made it absolutely clear that if that happens, it will be met by further strike action and we will escalate it and people need to be aware of this.”

In a statement, the University said: “Lancaster University is disappointed that UCU has chosen to initiate an assessment boycott at this time. The USS pension scheme is a national scheme and the consultation with the employers linked to the scheme is still ongoing with a view to firm proposals being agreed by USS in early 2015 to allow formal consultation with all employees eligible for the USS scheme. The University is continuing to engage in the consultation process and is making attempts to influence the reforms to ensure Lancaster University staff continue to benefit from an attractive pension and reward package in the future.

“We appreciate that staff will feel concerned about the uncertainty and the potential effect on their pension. However, a boycott of assessment will be to the detriment of our students and we will do everything possible to make sure that their interests are protected and their progress is not disadvantaged by individual staff taking part in the boycott.”

In terms of how Thornberry said UCU Lancaster will be approaching the University, he said: “What we will be saying to the Vice Chancellor Mark Smith, is that the way to avoid this is quite simple: you need to state publicly what we understand you might be thinking in private, that actually employers are wrong on this one, you need to come out and say that. You need to say to the students that our way of protecting you is we’re going to negotiate seriously with the union.”

However he went on to say: “Now I’m not saying that that will automatically mean that we don’t impose the marking boycott here, but it certainly improves the atmosphere, it certainly makes more things possible.”

With regard to LUSU’s standing on the matter, giving a statement to SCAN VP (Education) Joe O’Neill said: “On behalf of Lancaster University Students’ Union, may I say that I entirely regret that a marking boycott has to go ahead. I regret that Universities UK (UUK) have had the gall to launch an assault on pensions almost a year after their offer for a derisory pay settlement.

“I regret that UCU are having to take action for a fairer future for higher education yet again in the face of eroding conditions for academics in the UK. The fault with all of this lies with UUK. Even individual universities are far from happy with this – both Oxford and Warwick have raised concern with the changes. I expect Lancaster’s Vice Chancellor, Professor Mark E. Smith, to also take issue with UUK’s proposals.

“Nobody wants a marking boycott, nobody gets into higher education to have to take this sort of action but when year on year we see pay crumble, we see pensions undermined and we see universities build up massive surpluses, to not reinvest that into the education system then action will be taken. Industrial action is becoming an all-too common occurrence across the sector and I think UCU and LUSU would both agree that this is the last thing we want to see but with HE pay, pensions and funding in complete disarray, UUK and successive governments have a lot to answer for.

“Until proper proposals to fund the HE sector are put forward by government, and until UUK start to work towards releasing their members’ substantial cash reserves I am afraid I see more and more of these disputes coming up again and again. I stand shoulder to shoulder with UCU members in their fight for a fairer settlement, and call for UUK to ensure our education is not disrupted because of their mismanagement of the HE sector.”

On Friday Week 5, UCU met with university employers to negotiate an alternative to the boycott. Thornberry said that in these negotiations, he hoped that they could talk realistically about the proposed scheme and that being realistic UCU knew that some changes may have to take place. However at the time of publication, any outcomes of these negotiations were not known.

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