All entries for February 2018
February 26, 2018
The following article has been published on Times Higher Education blog on Monday 26 February
Tuesday will be the fourth day of strike action in half of the country’s universities over pensions.
And Tuesday will be the day when the two sides – Universities UK for the employers, and the University and College Union – meet to discuss options. There will be no resolution then. If there is a breakthrough, that will have to be formally discussed in the pensions machinery through the Joint Negotiating Committee. But there are four vital moves that can be made that could take us all further forward towards the resolution to this strike and the achievement of the two goals that everyone shares: the maintenance of a fair and sustainable pensions scheme and the full delivery of education and assessment for all of our students.
First, we need new ideas that allow the Defined Benefit (DB) scheme to continue in practice as well as in theory. The two sides have met many times over the past 18 months, culminating in a split vote in the JNC on the one standing proposal left – which is the one that the strike is about. The onus is therefore very much on UCU to bring forward a series of new proposals: on the valuation process and assumptions, on the level of DB that can be afforded, and on what this might mean for strike action. I believe UCU have ideas, and now is the time to share them as proposals.
Second, UUK’s position is that the time is almost up; that there is a statutory process for the timeline running out this June. If there is the possibility of progress with a new proposal, we would need to see both sides engage with the Pensions Regulator about the timelines.
Third, I would like to see both sides commit to discussions about the future of the pensions scheme beyond this dispute particularly around risk sharing. For the longer term, the joint UUK – UCU agenda could include learning from the Royal Mail pensions process, which promises a novel approach with a collective defined contribution scheme, something that could be valuable to for that element of USS that is currently in DC mode; separately, it could also include employers committing to longer term guaranteed levels of contribution.
And fourth, I would like to see both sides approach the government about the possibility that USS becomes government backed. One reason for the current situation is that there is more risk around the future of universities since the government introduced the Higher Education Act (still less than twelve months ago) with its focus on ‘market exit’ – universities becoming bankrupt. The Higher Education Funding Council’s mission was to avoid such a possibility. The new Office for Students has no such responsibility. Risk is higher, as USS is a ‘last man standing’ scheme. If USS becomes government backed, such concerns are significantly mitigated. Half the country's universities are not striking; their staff are not in USS, but the Teachers Pensions Scheme, which is government backed. Sir Vince Cable lent his voice to the proposition on Saturday. And for the government, facing the costs of Brexit, some £60 billion would move into their assets, were this to be pursued.
This is a big week in this dispute; all want resolution; and the above is an agenda to take us all forward.
February 16, 2018
We are now only days away from a period of industrial unrest which I strongly believe could have been avoided and, with goodwill on all sides, could still be avoided. I have been very public with my criticism of the pension valuation and the subsequent decision by UUK to advocate what is in effect closure of the defined benefit element of the USS scheme. I do not believe that either party to the USS negotiation have exploited the full range of options which could have generated a meaningful pension for University staff without jeopardising the financial future of the sector. I am therefore calling for an early return to negotiations, with a more open and imaginative approach from both parties. A return to active negotiations with a real willingness by all sides to explore every option would of course enable deferral of industrial action until those avenues have been fully explored.
In short, I question the need for the change in the valuation assumptions last autumn which gave rise to the scale of this challenge. Second, I would ask that consideration is given to options which would protect the less well paid in the sector and future entrants, perhaps by restricting DB to those in the national pay framework and placing the higher paid into a DC only scheme. Thirdly, I believe it that instead of focusing on removing everyone’s choice on DB USS should look to give individuals the choice to opt out of DB where their circumstances make this less attractive e.g. some overseas staff. Finally, I would suggest it is time for government to take as close an interest in pension provision as it does in other aspects of reward in this sector. This could be through legislation which enables risk sharing DC schemes or by underwriting pensions for everyone currently in USS in a way that is more reflective of government support for unfunded public sector schemes such as TPS.
I recognise that there is a deadline being demanded by regulators. But it is vital that we find a way of resolving an issue which will be costly, both financially and in terms of reputation, for Universities, the sector and - most importantly - its students and staff.
February 13, 2018
Saturday 17 February sees the national day of action for ‘One Day without us’, which celebrates the invaluable contributions migrants have made, and continue to make in the UK. Here, Provost Chris Ennew reflects on those contributions.
So what have migrants ever done for us……….
Those of you of a particular generation might recall a famous scene from Monty Python’s Life of Brian in which there is a lengthy discussion about what the Romans have ever done for the people of Judea and we encounter the immortal response from one of the characters, Reg
“All right, but apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a fresh water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?”
Several years ago, 'The Economist' posed a similar question in an article entitled “What have the immigrants ever done for us?” And they came to a remarkably similar conclusion. Of course, this being 'The Economist', the focus is a little narrow – the article reports on the positive contribution of migrants to government finances and notes that in the case of the UK, over a 15 year period, migrants made a positive net contribution of more than £4 billion to public finances while native Britons had a negative overall impact of £591 billion.
Important as this may be, it doesn’t really encompass the richness of the impact that migrants to this country and many others have had. Without you, we might not have Marks and Spencer, the Mini, the Muppet Show, the first woman to be awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society, or multiple gold medals for long distance running. Locally in Coventry our theatrical traditions would have been so much poorer without the contribution of Ira Aldridge. And without you we might not, as a country, be able to lay claim to Graphene, The Waste Land, The Water Music or Das Kapital!
Those of you who have come to live and work in this country – and indeed in so many countries worldwide have added immensely to the economic, social, cultural and scientific lives of their adopted homes. And that why its so important that we remember and celebrate the value you bring. And for all those who have come to live in the UK, please remember, we might manage one day without you, but please don’t make it any longer!
There are a number of activities taking place on Saturday 17 February, some nationally and some locally, in support of One Day Without Us. Visit the insite feature to find out more about how you can get involved.