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.