UCU response to the warden’s email to students on picket line behaviour

This is a response from UCU picket supervisors to an email sent to all students on 7 March by the Warden.

Dear Pat and SMT colleagues,

In our capacity as Picket Supervisors we were concerned – and a little baffled – by your communication to the students about picket line behaviour. There have been at least two of us on site at all times during this period of industrial action. Every morning we hold a briefing session where we discuss appropriate picket line behaviour. Throughout the day we move between the different picket lines checking how things are going and asking about whether there have been any incidents. We simply do not recognise the picture of picket line aggression that you convey in your message to the students. In particular, we strongly object to the insinuation that criminal offences may be taking place on the picket line.

The picket line is made up of staff who are dedicated teachers, researchers and administrators and who care deeply about the students at Goldsmiths. In our experience, the picket line has been overwhelmingly a place of dialogue and creativity. However, we would like you to be aware that there have been examples of intimidating behaviour including instances of vehicles being driven at high speed towards the picket line, student supporters being physically shoved and spat at, and union members being sworn at by people crossing the picket line. Despite this, we did not feel the need to write to our members pointing out what constitutes a ‘criminal offence’. In addition, students going onto campus have told us that that they feel pressurised by lecturers, who are not striking, to cross the picket line and feel uncomfortable doing so. Perhaps before issuing any further statements on picket line behaviour, you might consider talking to us about our experience on the ground? This would give you a more rounded perspective.

The instances outlined above are exceptions. The atmosphere is usually one of collegiality and cheer in the face of the freezing cold weather and the prospect of seriously reduced pay packets. Many staff have commented to us that they have never met so many people from across the college as they have over the last few weeks. In fact, the picket line is fostering those connections across departments that senior management are always keen for us to forge. A colleague today described the picket line as ‘Goldsmiths at its best’. Here are a few things that have happened on the picket line that might interest senior management:

  • A workshop on ‘Designing Dissent’ by colleagues in Art, Design and Sociology
  • A brilliant student-led performance/music/art happening ‘Exorcising greed from the university’
  • Free tea and coffee (‘Solidari-tea’) provided everyday from 8am by Fine Art third year students
  • Leading journalists and political figures including Gary Younge, Faiza Shaheen, John McDonnell and Paul Mason have given talks to huge crowds outside of RHB.

In order for you to get a sense of the atmosphere and the behaviour on the picket lines we cordially invite you to come down, to have a cup of tea with us and experience this for yourselves. All three picket supervisors will be on site on Tuesday and we would love to see you then at any of the picket lines, or indeed on any other day of your choosing.

We look forward to hearing from you.

Best wishes,

Emma Jackson, Roger Green, Paul Halliday

Urgent: Letter to Trustees

At a Goldsmiths UCU strike Teach Out last week, a group of staff and students collaborated to write a letter to the Trustees of the College calling on them in terms of their roles and responsibilities and asking for their support.You can read the letter and add you name as a signatory here. Please feel free to circulate this letter to other staff and students at Goldsmiths.

We will be printing and sending it off on Friday 9th March, so please sign by Thursday at the latest. Thank you!

In solidarity,

Students and staff of Goldsmiths

Dialogue with the Warden on USS changes

Industrial Action 2018

4 March 2018

Dear Pat,

Many thanks for your response to my letter and apologies for the delay in getting back to you. It has been a busy few weeks. Thanks also for your statement of 28 February in which you appear to welcome new UCU proposals aimed at maintaining the defined benefit element of USS and which will, presumably, feature prominently in the talks due to take place at Acas this week.

UCU members here at Goldsmiths will be relieved to hear about your continuing commitment to principles of mutuality in pension arrangements and encouraged by your public support, along with approximately 20 other vice-chancellors, for a return to negotiations.

Nevertheless we still have some significant concerns.

First, despite your comment that you are ‘not clinging on to any particular valuation’ of the pension fund, you appear still to cling to the belief that the USS faces significant ‘challenges’ that we collectively need to confront. Yet many UCU members are now coming to realise that the most recent valuations are far from a scientific and reliable guide to the health of the scheme but a highly interested reading of necessarily speculative assumptions. In the most recent valuation, the ‘best estimate’ view, in other words, one with a 50% chance ‘that investment forecasts are met or exceeded’, USS had a surplus of £8.3 billion. The problem for most USS members is that the employers have chosen to accept a different figure – one which is modelled on the highly unlikely assumption of widespread university closures and above inflation pay increases – which shows a £5.1 billion deficit.

We also know that only a minority of employers – a group over-represented by Oxbridge institutions – wanted to press ahead with the terms of this valuation which required the drastic (and unnecessary) changes to the scheme that we are now opposing.

Yet if we look at the basics of the scheme, we see that it has some £60 billion in assets (up by more than £10 billion in the last year) and that the £2.1 billion paid into it is comfortably more than the £1.8 billion paid out each year.

Of course pension valuations can never be wholly scientific exercises but many members are rightly concerned that the employers are acting only on what they like to call the most ‘prudent’ assumptions and not the most likely ones – in other words, only those assumptions that justify shredding our pension entitlements.

UCU members would be thrilled, therefore, if you followed up your call for more negotiations with a clear commitment to maintaining the existing defined benefit element of the scheme. This is a little bit different to what you have previously said. For example, in your response to me, you wrote that

Goldsmiths would certainly be supportive of a plan that delivered some element of an affordable defined benefit, if such a scheme and associated valuation assumptions can be mutually agreed.

Given the arguments above, I’m not sure why we would want to accept only ‘some element of an affordable defined benefit’ as we believe the scheme is fundamentally sound and that both employer and employee contributions, as currently constituted, are affordable.

I don’t want to tie this broader debate exclusively to the state of Goldsmiths’ finances (as this is effectively a national and not a local issue), but I do think that many people will contest the notion of what is ‘affordable’ and what is not. While we are not cash-rich like some other institutions, neither are we on the verge of destitution. You point out that staff costs have increased by 74% in the last ten years but then this is not as much as the growth in income overall which has risen by 80%, from £64 million in 2007 to £115 million in 2017.

My second point concerns the attitude of the Senior Management Team to the ongoing industrial action. While SMT has taken the bold step of agreeing to deduct 1/365 of annual salary for all members of staff, including Associate Lecturers, its more recent announcement on ‘partial performance’ is more worrying. The statement on industrial action on Goldmine makes it clear that UCU members engaging in action short of a strike, including refusing to reschedule classes disrupted as a result of strike action, may be deducted 25% of pay each day and that this could rise to 100%. Many members are deeply upset by this.I urge you to rescind this threat and to join those vice-chancellors, such as Sheffield’s Keith Burnett, who have promised not to punish staff twice for engaging in legitimate industrial action.

Thirdly, while I’m sure that you have been very busy behind the scenes, there are some other important things you could do to help bring the dispute to a successful resolution. I would encourage you to join with Stuart Croft, the vice-chancellor of Warwick, in calling on the government to request that the Pensions Regulator relax its statutory deadlines and indeed demand that the government itself step in to underwrite USS, as it does with the Teachers’ Pension Fund. This would help to minimise the ‘risk’ that the employers have argued is at the heart of the proposals to restructure USS. And I would heartily encourage you to have very robust conversations with those vice-chancellors who show no signs of backing down and to attempt to persuade them that there is a very big difference between permanently (and dangerously) ‘de-risking’ USS and simply seeking ongoing valuations of the fund when required to do so. I’d also like to ask that you report back to staff and students on what conversations you’ve had and what steps you’ve taken to lobby for a swift conclusion to the dispute.

Finally, I’m sure that many members would like to see you join our picket lines, just as Loughborough’s VC did, in order to participate in these really important conversations. Now that we are seeing a thaw, perhaps it’s the ideal time to come and talk to us.

With best wishes

Des

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


21 February 2018

Dear Des,

Thank you for your response to my open letter calling for a return to national negotiations on the USS pension scheme.

Our correspondence demonstrates the complexity of the matter at hand and the importance of my call for us to work towards a shared understanding of the challenges faced by the USS. My initial letter expressed frustration at the fact that all parties have expended considerable energy in their analyses of the scheme, while leaving many in the sector none the wiser as to the true extent (or otherwise) of the USS’s problems. This is why I called for a clear account to be given of the reasons for such divergent views on the state of the USS. Contrary to the suggestion in your letter, it should be self-evident that I am not clinging on to any particular valuation, but genuinely wish to see clarity and resolution. By extension, that includes challenge of the fundamental assumptions (particularly those covering long term interest rates) if necessary to aid understanding.

I suspect we are in agreement on a number of points. I noted the extract of Professor Latchman’s statement you sent me with interest (although I have not seen the full text) and I have no problem with its conclusion that the “preferred outcome [should be] the retention of a defined benefit scheme in an affordable form”. But the word “affordable” is highly significant in this statement. Goldsmiths would certainly be supportive of a plan that delivered some element of an affordable defined benefit, if such a scheme and associated valuation assumptions can be mutually agreed.

Where we clearly disagree is in the state of Goldsmiths’ finances and our ability to support further significant financial contributions to the USS. I will aim to address your points in turn.

First, you dispute my claim that we run on a broadly break-even basis (i.e. neither making a consistent surplus or deficit). Many readers of this correspondence will be keen and critical scholars of the changing nature of the higher education sector. The idea that an analysis of the College’s finances going back to 2007 could shed light on our current financial predicament does not bear close scrutiny as the external environment has been transformed, and not for the better. I draw my conclusion based on recent financial data and the College’s current forecast, which I summarise in Table 1 of the appendix to this letter. This shows a broadly break-even financial position.

Second, you refer to the small decline in staff costs as a proportion of total income over the last decade (61.8% in 2007 to 60.4% in 2017). Yet, over this time, a reading of our financial statements also shows that staff costs have increased from £39.8 million to £69.4 million (a 74% increase). If your percentages are being presented as evidence that we have under-invested in the staff base, then I would counter that the increase in actual staff costs tells a very different story. In understanding our considerable investment in staff, it is also worth noting that our 2017 figure of 60.4% is still significantly higher than the sector average.

The reason that staff costs have decreased in percentage terms from 61.8% to 60.4% is straightforward. Depreciation and amortisation costs have grown as a share of cost as we have invested in the Estate and IT infrastructure. The problems which gave rise to this investment may not be obvious to newer members of staff, but they were very real and live issues at the time and the investments made have done much to improve the experience of students and staff. The cost of estate improvements, new teaching room audio visual equipment, the Professor Stuart Hall Building and the like are recognised as depreciation and amortisation over the life of the assets acquired. This is summarised in Table 2 in the appendix, which also addresses your question on the percentage of income devoted to non-pay costs in 2007.

Third, you refer to our unrestricted reserves. However, our spend is limited by the amount of cash we have in our bank accounts, so the better figure to focus on is our actual cash position as at 31 July 2017, which was £29.9 million. This is a finite pot of money which, for the reasons explained in my initial letter, is declining year-on-year (for example, cash balances stood at £34.5 million at 31 July 2016 and are currently forecast to be £24 million at 31 July 2018). The notion that a finite (and declining) sum of money can fund a permanent and recurring increase in pension contributions doesn’t make financial sense, not least because it begs the question “what happens when the cash runs out”? There are also a great many potential claims on that cash, of which additional pension contributions would be just one.

The reference to the 5.5% to 7% increase in contributions reflects my understanding of the widely reported proposals tabled at the December round of negotiations between UUK and UCU (with the 5.5% presented as UCU’s proposal for the increase to employer contributions). My “insistence” is born of a simple calculation. Our pensionable payroll for USS is around £40 million, so the UCU’s 5.5% proposal would cost £2.2 million.

Fourth, you raise a point about some of the employers wishing to end the concept of mutuality. This is not, as you state, an attempt to move the burden of the scheme’s risk onto individuals and away from institutions, but rather a move which would see risk transferred from the institutions collectively to the institutions individually. Goldsmiths benefits greatly from the principle of mutuality and we have always sought to defend it as it is clearly in our interests to do so. I hope this offers a degree of reassurance. Your questions as to why other employers may differ in their view of mutuality are probably better addressed to them.

Finally, you note 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.” I believe that is exactly what I did in my initial letter, but I also owe it to staff and students (and our wider stakeholders) to explain the constraints of our financial position. My calls for further negotiations to reach a shared understanding of the USS’s problems are precisely because I want to see the correct decisions taken on the scheme’s future, for the benefit of all staff in the scheme.

Best wishes,

Pat


18 February 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

 

SUPPORT THE PENSIONS STRIKES AND DEFEND HIGHER EDUCATION

Why are we taking action?

Staff at universities across the UK voted overwhelmingly for strikes and other forms of industrial action to resist savage – and wholly unnecessary –proposals to cut our pensions. Under the new scheme, our pensions will be gambled on the stock market and the average loss for a new starter is likely to be some £208,000.

Why are the employers so determined to push this through?

Universities are raking in huge amounts of money from £9000+ tuition fees but are reluctant to invest this in things that will improve the quality of education: better staff/student ratios, smaller classes, more motivated and secure staff and fewer temporary contracts. Instead vice-chancellors are being paid huge salaries (Goldsmiths’ contribution to the Warden’s pension in 2017 alone was £46,000). This attack on staff pensions is an attempt to shift pensions liabilities from institutions to individuals themselves, and is part of a wider shift in higher education to embrace market forces and competition. It is a situation in which students are seen as ‘customers’ and staff as a ‘cost’ to be minimised.

But aren’t staff at Goldsmiths paid too much already?

Since the introduction of tuition fees, staff costs as a percentage of total income have fallen from 61.8% in 2007 to 60% in 2017. Student fees have not gone into paying staff more!

But isn’t the pension fund in debt?

It depends whose figures you believe. The employers have chosen to use the most pessimistic (and unrealistic) scenario of widespread university closures that, not surprisingly, shows a deficit. In reality, the scheme receives each year much more than it pays out and runs a healthy surplus.

What are staff actually planning to do?

Members of UCU will be on strike on February 22-23, February 26-28, March 5-8 and March 12-16. We will also be ‘working to rule’ which means not taking on any additional or voluntary duties. We will be picketing the College on all these days and organising ‘teach-outs’, short talks by staff and visitors, about a range of relevant topics.

Won’t this hurt students unnecessarily?

The dispute comes about as a result of the refusal of the employers to negotiate seriously. We know that this will have an impact on students, but hope that they will direct their understandable frustration at the employers and not at staff who are seeking to maintain a high-quality university education system. Students can take up their grievances by emailing warden@gold.ac.uk.

What can I do to support the strike if I’m not a member of UCU?

If you’re a member of staff in a relevant grade or a postgraduate student, please join UCU! Whoever you are, please spread the word about the dispute. During the strikes, we would ask everyone NOT to cross our picket lines if at all possible and to take part in the activities we plan to organise. Please email the warden@gold.ac.uk to ask exactly what Goldsmiths is doing to bring the employers back to the negotiating table and how it plans to address the real concerns of staff and students at such a critical time. You can visit www.goldsmithsucu.org to find out more about the dispute.