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Why I will vote Yes to suspend industrial action

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After intensive strike action, Universities UK have now come forward with a proposal to staff in universities on the Universities Superannuation Scheme which the union has put to members to be voted on.

There has been intense argument on social media about which way to vote. It is clearly very important that all UCU members vote in order to come to a sound democratic decision on whether the offer about pensions is good enough, and we can suspend (not end) strike action and go back to teaching as normal, or should we reject the offer and continue to strike.

I have been on holiday and will have to come back onto email in order to vote. I have done my best to look at material about the offer while also taking time off with my young daughter. I am going to vote in favour of accepting the offer.

The offer is a substantial move from the employers' original position, which was that they would not negotiate - they have gone with the union to ACAS to do so, and that they were determined to move from a defined benefits scheme because of a massive deficit in the pension budget. They have now agreed to a joint board chosen equally by the employers and the union which will re-valuate the deficit, and they have recognised that the vast majority of those of us who have invested in the pension fund want a secure defined benefits scheme rather than what one speaker at a rally described as the 'chocolate teapot' of a pension which they tried to make us accept.

Why would we not accept this offer? So far as I can see, people against it have no trust in UUK and expect them to renege on their offer. There has been a lot of detailed unpicking of the wording of the offer, suggesting it is full of little loopholes.

I do not trust UUK either, but I trust the process. I trust that ACAS and the union, who have brought us this far, will watch over my interests. Sally Hunt raised her serious concerns about the pension proposals from very early on and the union worked extremely hard to get us to come out on strike at all. I believe they have a good understanding of what is going on.

People also complain that the proposal should not have been put to members, as it is merely a suggested process not a complete cave-in by the employers. I say: Let's be magnanimous. We, the employers and the British media (see articles not only in The Guardian and Times Higher Education Supplement, but even in the Financial Times) know that the employers were caught with their pants down. They were stupid to assume they could put such a poor valuation assessment of our pension fund in front of university staff, who include Emeritus Professors of Economics, Business Studies, Pension experts, Statisticians and many others who took their chocolate teapot apart in blogposts and explained exactly where the beans had come from. Let's allow them to pull their pants back up in private in the joint re-valuation committee.

We had to be allowed to vote on this proposal now, because if we left the vote any longer, we would not have time to vote before having to take strike action during assessment. We must have a democratic mandate if we are to do that.

Those who say Reject the offer, argue that we should not lose momentum. They believe the employers only want to get us through the crucial exam period and then will renege on their words.

I believe that the process will not allow them to do this, and that they are under scrutiny not just from our union and ACAS, also from interested media and therefore the public (including supportive students and their families). Exams are like spring. They come round every year (eventually). We are suspending our action, not ending it. If as the months go forward, UUK do renege on their recognition of the kind of pension we want to invest in, we will be able to strike during exam period next year.

We would be able to do that with continued popular support. I believe that if we drag the strike on this year in the face of an offer from the employers, we will lose the vital support we have had from students and their families, the media and many key politicians. (Perhaps that is what the employers hope will happen.)

But yes - we need to keep up pressure.

We need to do this by moving on from the battle over pensions. Perhaps it is not won yet. However, we need to leave picked personnel to take care of that for us (like union officers and our chosen members of the committee to re-consider the valuation of the pension fund, and lawyers who could oversee the process for us).

We should move on to other aspects of the neoliberalisation of universities. This is where the real deal is. Issues over our pensions arose because of the general trend of universities towards marketisation. There are several other fronts where we need to focus attention in order to win the war.

  1. We at the Open University are dealing with a vote of No Confidence, not just in our Vice Chancellor in person but in the whole Executive who have sought to introduce neoliberal principles to the detriment of our social justice mission. I regard this as a test case in education values: should education be market-driven, or driven by humanism.
  2. Coventry University have had an organisation imposed on them which means they can't stand collectively with the rest of us in the University and Colleges Union. We must defend our collective bargaining position.
  3. Casualisation blights our teaching and research provision.
  4. Our workloads have gone through the roof. Tiredness and stress are leading to health issues which affect most academics - while universities trumpet their support for student mental health initiatives.

I want to shift my efforts now to raising awareness of those problems, with my voice and my political will. (After I have had what's left of my holiday! wide eyes So far I've only had to sort out one poor student in difficulties so it's been a good break smile Oh, and I recruited another student for the Open University in Scotland who was unable to access traditional university and thrilled when she realised that she could study with us - for free, and without having to do a lot of GCSEs first. You owe me one @OUScotland.)

From a short walk in Roslin Glen.

Misty trees on a hillside Green bluebell leaves under the trees

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Black cat and pink blanket

Terms and conditions

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Edited by Anita Pilgrim, Sunday, 18 Mar 2018, 17:03

In my previous blogpost I began listing some of the problems which face academics - as well as being asked to swap a 24 carat secure pension for a chocolate teapot because a) USS can't do sums properly and only a few years after assuring us it was very secure, have found a huge hole in it, or b) USS can't do sums properly and failed to predict there would be this huge hole only a few years ago.

Here I look at some life-work (im)balance issues in academic work. Next I'll give a quick overview of 'neo-liberalism' in education, before looking at casualisation and how this undermines academic performance. 

Universities risk their reputations by failing to value teaching staff. This FT article pointed to the business case for treating staff properly. It identified poor pay as well as poor working conditions as problems, and expressed no surprise that when our pensions came under attack, we finally walked out on strike. 

Poster with long list of issues: Research Underfunded, Teaching Overstretched ...

(On UCU Facebook page.) 

One estimate shows 40 million hours of public work contributed by UK university staff in 2015/16. 

Ring chart showing different areas of work university staff freely contribute

(From twitter post)

This willingness to contribute freely to society is worth noting, given that academic pay has persistently slipped in real terms over the years. Academics are not in the business for the money. 

The figures here don't include the overtime teaching and research which staff routinely put in. (Support staff too, I bet.) People sometimes ask me, "Why do you do a part-time job, Anita? A part-time job is full time hours on part time pay." I say: "Yes, but a full-time job is time and a half. I can juggle full time hours and being a mum, but not time and a half." Full time teaching and research staff routinely work 60, 70 or 80 hour weeks - stumbling home late and exhausted. 

In this blogpost, an early career researcher talks about the debilitating culture of over-work and the impact she sees it have on herself and her colleagues. This can be particularly damaging in early career contracts of the kind Grace Krause is working on. Typically short-term and aimed at conducting a project as cheaply as possible instead of supporting junior academic staff into a career, these are desperately sought after by PhD students anxious to get onto the jobs ladder in universities. Grace describes how she was brow-beaten into accepting lower pay for work she had already done when the budget on the project she was working on proved not to have been properly costed. 

My first job after my PhD was on a one year research project funded on a small grants scheme by the Economic and Social Research Council - which was aimed at kick-starting research in new fields. I travelled the length and breadth of the United Kingdom to conduct interviews with a highly vulnerable community with whom I also had to secure trust and access (in just one year). In order to squeeze my salary out of the tiny budget, I was first put on a six month 'probation' so that I could be paid below the required legal amount. Desperate to get this highly regarded work onto my CV, I ended the project in considerable debt. There was no time to write follow-up applications and continue the work after the project, while also making sure I delivered it effectively and so it has sat on my CV in splendid isolation ever since. 

It seems we are no longer human beings, deserving of quality of life either at work or at home. We are not expected to want time to spend with family, friends - or on the public work we contribute willingly.

I am a School Governor. An expert on education and social inclusion, I want to put myself forward to be a Governor at more schools, in deprived areas which struggle to get people onto the Board. But even though I have a part-time job, I have no time to do this. 

I am really envious of the teachers at my school when the Head reports back on the training and support they get: INSET days to come together and discuss how to teach well, secondments to work with government on developing partnership programmes with other schools to disseminate best practice. If they are ill, a supply teacher is found to take their classes. Does anyone wonder why there are no 'supply' lecturers? If there is a system for colleagues to take over lectures when we are absolutely unable to get in to give them, it's an informal one between colleagues. We are made to feel guilty if we can't stagger in to sneeze and cough germs over our students. I have heard women uneasily boasting that they gave lectures with a sick child in a pushchair alongside them. That is not bad parenting - it's inhumane employer pressure and lack of management. How are they hoist on their own petard, if managers were in the habit of employing hourly paid lecturers to come in when permanent staff were ill - they might have been able to use them in this strike! 

One of the most fiercely protested parts of the proposal which came out of the ACAS talks between UCU and UUK was that, in return for lower paid junior staff not having strike pay deducted, staff might consider re-scheduling lectures which had been missed in the strike - without being paid ourselves. Some respondents were clearly close to breaking point as they wrote demanding how they could be expected to squeeze these into lecture schedules densely packed with contact hour teaching. The inclusion of this suggestion demonstrates how far removed the employers are from the intense overload of work at the teaching coalface. 

Academic staff are like parts in a machine, uneasily made to feel we are replaceable. If we won't work the insane hours which have become normal, our colleague in the next office will overtake us on the fast track. Someone-else can be found - new, eager to show willing - and slotted in to deliver. A neo-liberal system pits us against each other, working us into the ground for short-term outcomes in teaching or research. As academics, we continue to struggle to provide education and research dissemination in many ways outside the classroom. Very few of us ever bought into the neo-liberal approach to education. We know that education - whether developed through lecturing or research - is a 'good' that is more valuable when it's not being sold. 

Striking worker in snowstorm with sign saying 'Academia is for life not just for business'.

(From twitter post: https://twitter.com/DrAdrianBlau/status/968830454563557377)

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Black cat and pink blanket

The ongoing strike for a pension

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Edited by Anita Pilgrim, Friday, 16 Mar 2018, 09:36

This fourth week of industrial action, we are striking for five days. I outlined in my previous blogpost some of the issues in the pensions dispute. I outline some more here, and list other issues academics are concerned about, which I hope to write further blogposts about. I have wanted to write about some of these issues for a long time, but have only just managed to clear space on my teaching desktop. (As I am supposedly on part-time hours that in itself says something about my workload.) 

During this strike, membership of our union (Universities and Colleges Union, or UCU) has doubled and visible presence on the picket line has grown every day of the strike. 

A recent proposed offer by our employer (Universities UK, or UUK) was rejected in the most emphatic terms by every single branch of the UCU at universities taking part in the strike action. The terms of the offer led to emotional outbursts on Twitter and Facebook, with anger particularly strongly expressed at a suggestion that staff could reschedule missed lectures - without receiving back strike pay. 

The attempt to redefine our pension fund was a blatant and inhumane attack on our rights as workers. It is the last of many straws. During the strike, much was written about the neoliberal approach to education in which degree-level studies have been comprehensively commodified. Academics on strike and mainstream media commented on: 

  • The poor pay, insecure contracts and long hours which degrade the lives of academic staff; 
  • A consequent degrading of teaching provision, and therefore of student learning. 

Here at the Open University, our student learning has always been provided differently to the way learning is supported in traditional universities, and our students tend to be mature students from economically poorer backgrounds. Many of my students are mums of young families, and working as well as studying.

I wasn't very good at striking, I'm afraid! I tried hard to make sure my students weren't too badly affected by my being out on strike. I know how hard they have struggled to get to study. Often lacking in confidence, happening to start studying just when we go on strike is the sort of thing that my students can feel is directed at them personally by a force outside of society. "You have the cheek to think you can study and improve your life? Take that then!" My students are often themselves in insecure work with poor pay and no pension provision. They are studying to get out of this situation, so they are generally sympathetic to our cause. (I had many messages of support from my students, who were very patient when I couldn't fully support them as I would ideally want to.) 

Like other academics, I am worried about more than my pension. I took strike action partly to highlight how riven with problems the whole Higher Education sector has become. 

Many of the issues which staff at other universities fear may affect their ability to teach well are already confronting us at the Open University. At the same time as co-ordinating strike action in support of secure pension provision, our union branch is: 

  • Engaged in negotiations for permanent contracts for thousands of Associate Lecturers (that's me!), which have been ongoing for 10 years and which we still hope to conclude this summer; 
  • Tracking and preparing to protest at large scale cuts which the university says will require the loss of thousands of jobs among support staff; 
  • Tracking rapid and wholescale change in the way learning is supported through digital media - which has left many teaching staff exhausted, in need of a period of reflection and absorption, but instead we are facing more rapid wholescale change; 
  • Tracking and protesting at the introduction of MOOCs instead of blended learning, with a possible radical change in the tutor-student relationship - a relationship that is literally vital to many of our students. 

Pensions and the Phantom Deficit

A pension is not a perk. It's 'deferred salary'. I have paid some of my own salary into a pension fund, and my employer agreed to pay some more so that I could collect this part of my salary when I retire.

A number of economists and statisticians have comprehensively demonstrated that there is no credible evidence of a deficit in the Universities Superannuation Scheme. Back in November 2017, Dennis Leach, Emeritus Professor of Economics at Warwick showed that the USS pension scheme is not in crisis and it is not in deficit. There is no justification for massive pension cuts or gambling on defined contributions: https://henrytapper.com/2017/11/25/is-the-uss-really-in-crisis/

So secure was the fund that in the 1990s, it was judged over-funded and employers took a 'contributions holiday' - paying less into the fund. Some argue that this sum alone is more than enough to cover the Phantom Deficit. 

Protestors at a rally, one dressed as Darth Vader, another holiding a sign about 'The Phantom Deficit'.

(Photo from Tweet: https://twitter.com/EdGarethPoole/status/971702270286057472

The valuation of the fund as being in deficit seems to have been partly influenced by the UK government's Pensions Regulator. For this and many other reasons, it looks like the government ought to be taking part in the negotiations - lending support to those of us who may be very badly affected by the changes being proposed. We have had excellent support throughout from the Leader of the Opposition. 

(Link to tweet: https://twitter.com/jeremycorbyn/status/974213079008514048


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Black cat and pink blanket

Striking for Pension Rights

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Edited by Anita Pilgrim, Monday, 12 Feb 2018, 17:35

In the upcoming weeks, I and my colleagues in the Universities and Colleges Union will be striking for the right to a fair pension. Proposals are being put forward which ask us to put far more personal contributions into our pensions, and to invest that money in much riskier funds.

The Universities Superannuation Scheme, the universities as employers and the Union have been unable to come to an agreement and although the Union has offered to go to ACAS to resolve the matter, the other parties are not willing to do this. I believe that the government should intervene. Working in Higher Education, we are public sector workers. We provide the education support for the skilled workforce in the UK today. Many people we depend on in society: lawyers, doctors, physiotherapists, even MPs, have been trained by those of us working in universities. 

I call on my students who are affected, to write to their MPs - and here in Wales, their Assembly Members too - and ask for support in this matter. 

I see that the situation is not easy for any of these parties, but it is grossly unfair for Higher Education staff to have to bear the brunt of decisions about our pensions being made without our consent and against our interests. We have already seen our salaries sink dramatically in real terms as against other professionals, and a secure pension in our old age is not much to ask in return for the dedicated support we provide to our students. 

We are all reluctant to see an impact on our students, and I feel particularly unhappy about any effect my action might have in the Open University, where students are often from more deprived socio-economic backgrounds, lacking self-confidence and anxious about doing degree level studies. However I feel very strongly about pension rights. We have already seen large private pension funds like the ones for Tata Steel Workers run into difficulties, and I am highly concerned that our pension - which until a couple of years ago was regarded as a very desirable pension package to be part of - appears to be in sudden danger of going aground. 

The USS is in such difficulties that it has been hitting the front page of the Financial Times, where writers have pointed to the way that the value of its investments have sunk after these were taken over by an in-house team, instead of out-house fund managers. That we should be asked to continue to trust a team which has already made less successful investment decisions, who are proposing an even riskier investment strategy, is deeply worrying.

I have also heard it said that some of these investment changes were made because of recommendations by the Pensions Regulator. If this is the case, government has a duty to explain to us why this was done. 

The universities as employers say they won't be able to make up contributions for us into the fund. Some of us suspect this strike is also being viewed as an opportunity by hawkish employers to break the union, and get rid of national pay scales. This means of reducing costs of university fees by introducing cheaper, local and perhaps casual contracts for lecturing staff will only end in poor quality degrees in UK universities. There is already a motion in parliament calling attention to the significant problems for academic staff caused by zero hour and casualised contracts in universities. This situation should be looked at to improve our working conditions, and therefore the quality of teaching we can offer, not to worsen them. 

Universities are in a tough place. Brexit has meant not only that we lost access to European research funding, but also to many European students who used to come to study in the UK. The call for lower tuition fees does not take into account that those fees don't even now cover the full costs of delivering a good quality degree. (NB It's having to borrow for maintenance costs that puts student debt up so high, not tuition fees.) Universities have tried to square the circle by supplementing domestic student fees with higher overseas student fees, but crackdowns on immigration have always made this difficult. 

I have a very small pension myself. For the whole of my working life, I have been on fixed term and casualised contracts, and much of my life I have been a mum on part-time work. I am still working on a set of small contracts, with a variable income and a child to support. Losing strike pay will hit me hard, so you can see how seriously I take this issue.

My small pension is vitally important in securing decent provision for me as I get older. However if I am asked to contribute much more into it, I will have to cease paying into a workplace pension. I am already struggling to keep my daughter in decent school shoes, while maintaining and replacing my own computing equipment - absolutely necessary in order to do my job - and keeping up many other necessities of life. Like many women, my pension is going to go down the list of priorities if the price of it rises much further, even though I value the additional contributions made into my pension fund by my employer. 

Employer contributions to a pension will be of no use if the pension fund is invested in something so risky that I never get it in the end. 

If others like myself lose confidence and pull out of the USS, it will fail as a pension fund. 

This will be catastrophic not only for those in Higher Education who depend on that fund, but for confidence in the pensions industry. We all need a pension to support us in our old age and successive governments are increasingly anxious about those of us (many women) who have not been able to take out a private or workplace pension to support ourselves as we get older. 

For that reason too, I would call on the government to look very closely at this situation, and make sure that we in Higher Education get our fair rights to a decent pension, which we work so hard towards. 


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