Letter to the Warden

Industrial Action 2018

Dear Pat,

Many thanks for your letter concerning the College’s reaction to the forthcoming UCU strikes in opposition to what we believe are unjustified and unnecessary proposals to change the fundamental nature of USS. In particular, thanks for your call for a return to national negotiations though I fear that your comments in the rest of the letter actually undermine such a call and dilute the impact of your claim that ‘all of our staff have a right to good pensions.’

Your main argument appears to be that the College simply cannot afford the increased employer contributions that are apparently necessary to sustain USS at the present levels. In my view, this misrepresents the situation in some important ways.

First, while you state that ‘unlike many other UK universities, we do not consistently achieve financial surpluses’, this contradicts the fact that, as I understand it, the College has achieved surpluses in every year bar one since 2007.

Second, when you argue that ‘what we receive in fees and grants gets paid out in salaries, overheads and interest costs’, this neglects to mention that staff costs, as a proportion of total income, have declined from 62% in 2007 to 60% in 2017. This decline has occurred at a time when income has enormously increased: from £64.4 million in 2007 to nearly £115 million last year. And I would be really interested to know how much we spent on ‘non-staff costs’ back in 2007 as compared to the 29% of income that is devoted to these costs today.

Third, you insist that the proposed increases in employer contributions to USS of between 5.5% and 7% would cost up to an additional £2.8 million a year. In this scenario, you state that the College’s cash balances ‘could soon be exhausted’ if we ran significant deficits each year. This makes no mention of the £25 million in unrestricted reserves identified in the most recent financial report but, more significantly, it simply accepts at face value the highly contested valuation figures adopted by the Universities UK and opposed by UCU.

You argue that this is a really complex area and that ‘we lack the skills to decode and interpret the problem’. I am far from a qualified actuary but even I know that the idea of a pensions deficit is a pretty fluid thing when, only last week, the Pension Protection Fund revealed that the combined deficits of Britain’s remaining final salary pensions schemes – the kind of scheme that UCU members were told was unaffordable back in 2015 and that we were forced to sacrifice – halved in one month alone, from £104 billion to £51 billion.

Yet so certain are Universities UK about the figures in the November ‘Technical Provisions’ that identified a £7.5 billion deficit (mysteriously up from £5.2 billion in September) that our employers are insisting that we all have to wave goodbye to the guarantees of a defined benefit scheme in favour of a much inferior, individual pension pot. Actually, you’re right: it is a very complicated area but why is it – given the uncertainty of the situation – that the employers are so determined to ‘de-risk’ even when they admit that, in the words of USS, ‘the scheme actually has a significant surplus’? Why are the employers so keen to shed the principle of mutuality that has long underpinned USS to move the burden of risk onto individuals and not institutions? Why do you cling to the current valuation instead of challenging the fundamental assumptions that underpin it?

You wouldn’t be alone in asking some tough questions. Recently, the vice-chancellor of Warwick, Stuart Croft, publicly questioned the ‘need for the change in the valuation assumptions last autumn which gave rise to the scale of this challenge’ and called for a ‘return to active negotiations with a real willingness by all sides to explore every option.’ And you certainly wouldn’t be alone in thinking that this move to ‘de-risk’ speaks more about the desire to foster a competitive market inside higher education than it does to protect conditions for staff and to improve the learning experience for students.

I have a hunch that you’re not at all happy with how things have gone and how the negotiations have been dominated by some of the largest institutions. I’m sure you have seen the figures that show that while 75% of Oxbridge institutions want to take financial control of their liabilities and while 73% want to de-mutualise, only 24% and 14% respectively of other USS universities feel the same way.

I know that lots of us at Goldsmiths who are fiercely proud of the ‘Goldsmiths way’ would love for you to take a clear public stand in support of your staff in a way that would also not jeopardise our economic viability. But then I’m sure that the Master of Birkbeck is just as committed to the economic viability of his own institution except that he publicly called for a return to negotiations on the basis of clear support for the existing defined benefits scheme:

The future of the USS pension scheme is a matter of concern to all of us, and I have made clear in the past that my view is that any changes should be based on meaningful negotiation.  Whilst Birkbeck is only one voice, I am now stating publicly that both sides should return to the negotiating table and conduct meaningful negotiations with the preferred outcome being the retention of defined benefit scheme in an affordable form.

This dispute will only be resolved if there are enough individual vice-chancellors prepared to stand up to the ideological intransigence of Universities UK and demand a return to negotiations on the basis that the current proposals exaggerate the scale of the USS’s problems and undermine higher education’s reputation as a desirable and rewarding place to work. I encourage you, once again, publicly to challenge the UUK position and to call for meaningful negotiations on the basis that we need seriously to re-examine the basis for such drastic and unfair proposals.

With best wishes

Des

Des Freedman (Vice President, Goldsmiths UCU), written in a personal capacity

 

Goldsmiths UCU Teach-Outs

Here it is! The timetable you’ve been waiting for that lists our teach-outs and activities during the proposed 14 days of strike action to defend our pensions.

The timetable is HERE and includes appearances from Gary Younge, Paul Gilroy, Dawn Foster, Faiza Shaheen, Paul Mason, Jeremy Gilbert and even some well-known faces from Goldsmiths.

Events take place either outside the Library on Dixon Road or in the Students Union.

If you have suggestions about other activities, please email gucu-admin@gold.ac.uk

Thanks to our wonderful students at Goldsmiths! Student Assembly passes motion in support of pensions strikes

A packed Student Assembly meeting of over 250 students overwhelmingly passed the following motion. We are hugely grateful to the sabbatical officers and all the students who attended for giving us such amazing support. This fight is for all of us!

Goldsmiths Students Union motion

8 February 2018

SUPPORT UCU ACTION AGAINST USS CHANGES

 Union notes

  1. University leaders have proposed significant detrimental changes to the agreed terms of the USS (Universities Superannuation Scheme) pension scheme – both to the staff contribution, and the subsequent pension that is received.
  2. Universities UK reported that the changes to the scheme would mean dropping the current ‘defined benefit’ pension; staff will no longer have an assured pension after retirement.
  3. UCU, negotiating on behalf of their members, estimate that a typical lecturer would be more than £200,000 worse off over the course of their retirement under the proposals.
  4. Proposed changes to the pension scheme also mean that someone starting work today could lose £9,600 a year from their pension. This will push lower and working class lecturers out of academic institutions, effectively socially cleansing the sector.
  5. NUS (National Union of Students) and UCU (University and College Union) have united in calling for university leaders to engage in open, faithful and constructive negotiation for as long as it takes in order to resolve this dispute, as a matter of urgency.
  6. UCU balloted its members on the prospect of industrial action, with Goldsmiths UCU branch voting 95.4% yes; one of the highest votes for strike action in the country.
  7. UCU plan to take sustained and incremental strike action to fight against these changes, to take place on  22-23rd February, 26th-28th February, 5th-8th March, and 12th-16th March.

Union believes

  1. Proposed changes to the USS pension scheme is risking the financial future and security of our lecturers.
  2. That the proposed changes to the USS pension scheme is classist, and acts entirely in the interest of the company itself, not its members.
  3. UCU Goldsmiths reached out to our warden, Pat Loughrey, to stand up and speak out against the proposed changes, but he has failed to do so.
  4. This strike has come at the fault of our management team; it is a decision that our lecturers have been forced to take in order to save their future, and the future of higher education.
  5. Goldsmiths belongs to the University of London; it is no excuse to say that Goldsmiths’ warden speaking out will lack value or impact.
  6. Our warden must stand up to the progressive institution that he markets us to be, and speak out against the detrimental UCU cuts.

Union resolves

  1. To support the UCU and NUS united fight against proposed changes to our lecturers pension schemes.
  2. To support any action that our lecturers will take in the fight against the changes to their pension scheme.
  3. To encourage Goldsmiths students to be in partnership with their lecturers in the fight against these changes – impact on the lecturers will consequently impact the students. We must be united in our fight against cuts to the higher education sector.
  4. To encourage students not to cross the picket line.
  5. To redirect students to other alternative study spaces that are not behind the picket line.
  6. To ensure that the library and art/design studio spaces are not behind the picket line.
  7. To be completely transparent with students during the entirety of the strike; keep them informed on the current situation, how they can take action, and how they can be supported.
  8. To seek ways in supporting both staff and student interests during any time of staff action against the pension cuts.
  9. To directly contact the warden on coming back to the negotiation table, and standing against the USS cuts.
  10. To collaborate with UCU on communicating with students on how they can ask for assessment extensions and fee reimbursement