February 26, 2018

USS – Four vital moves

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

An update on USS and strike action

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

One day without us…

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[1], 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.

Christine Ennew Provost sig

[1] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/expat/expatpicturegalleries/9403459/Famous-immigrants-to-the-UK.html?image=3

January 03, 2018

New Year

I hope that you had a peaceful and enjoyable break. Christmas and New Year is a time of year I usually relish; I love the traditional food, the carol singing (a feeling never shared by those standing near to me…). And I enjoy the seasonal football rituals, topped off for me by a 5-0 win on New Year’s Day.

A New Year gives us time to reflect on the previous year. We have many successes to celebrate – including the enormous triumph of Coventry becoming the UK City of Culture 2021. So much effort has gone into this across the city and through both universities. The city of culture is about entertainment, culture, tourism; but it provides the platform for transforming educational, health, housing and employment prospects for the city and the region. That is a goal well worth working for over the next four years.

Also close to home, the Business Secretary announced just before Christmas that the new national centre on battery research will be in Coventry, with an initial investment of £80m. This represents the extraordinarily close working relationship between Coventry City Council, the Coventry and Warwickshire Local Enterprise Partnership, and the University of Warwick -through the exceptional efforts of WMG. It gives us the opportunity to be truly world-leading in battery technology.

It has been a difficult 12 months too though, in many ways. On a personal level, my father has had a serious stroke, and that casts a long shadow. I think it has also been a difficult 12 months for the university sector. In so many conversations in London about critical policy decisions – Brexit, funding, TEF, the new Higher Education Act, USS pensions – all I seem to have heard is contempt for what goes on in universities. We have seen an extraordinary amount of negative press about the university sector – and about Vice-Chancellors in particular, driven in part by that institutional contempt. One mistake I made last year was spending too much time trying to engage with a government on issues where its mind was already set.

Looking ahead, we are working on our University strategy, and an essential part of this for me is a confident re-statement of our values. Everything we do is to support and advance excellent education and research. All colleagues at Warwick play their part in this, for which I’m extremely grateful. We also welcome two new colleagues shortly – Chris Twine will join as Academic Registrar and Richard Hutchins returns to Warwick as our new Strategy Director; both are very welcome.

We face challenges this year, of course, but we also have much to look forward to, and I wish you all good health in 2018.


December 07, 2017

An update on USS

As you may know, a deadline of 18th December has been set for the negotiations and discussions around Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS). This deadline has been set to ensure the Trustees can finalise their valuation by the due date of 30 June 2018. I am concerned that there is insufficient information available to us for us to form a view on possible options. We need to find a way for the two sides to come more closely together. In that light, I have today written to UUK to ask for some urgent modelling on different salary thresholds for future defined benefit accruals and the contribution rates they would require as well as the sensitivity of these models to key assumptions.

Pension valuations are very complex and there are significant interdependencies so it is difficult to reduce them down to simple models and preserve accuracy. However this modelling should provide indicative results of what might be possible.

I think it is important that we move away from the proposals for a zero threshold for the defined benefit scheme and consider more realistic thresholds and their associated contribution rates quickly before time runs out.

Although I am proposing the urgent modelling of different salary thresholds with the aim of securing a breakthrough before the 18th December deadline, this work should not preclude the continuing exploration of the possibility of obtaining government backing for the pension scheme in the future and the possible benefits that might bring. As I have said before a government backed scheme becomes an asset for the government, but would provide vital underpinning for the scheme’s members.

I will continue to keep you informed on progress.


November 28, 2017

Which way forward for USS?

A couple of weeks ago I was surprised to learn that Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) trustees have adopted a more conservative approach to the valuation than had been the case in the last consultation, and that the collective response from the Universities UK (UUK) consultation is now apparently supportive of the removal of the defined benefit element of the current scheme, at least for the immediate future.

It is a very significant change, that if implemented, will greatly impact on a large number of colleagues in Warwick, as well as in other universities around the country.

I am sure that I am not alone in being mystified at this change. After much work and consideration, we were relatively comfortable with the level of risk proposed previously by the trustees and broadly content with assumptions which appeared valid in the round. We reported as much in the consultation formally. USS is now the largest remaining defined benefit scheme in the country not backed by government (on which, more later). There has been a market logic to a number of private sector defined benefit schemes being closed. There are concerns about the levels of funding required to keep it functioning, and these concerns seem very widespread at the moment.

The assumptions in the consultation with the sector have now been altered, and so I support calls from others for more transparency, particularly on issues such as self-sufficiency, mortality assumptions and projections for gilt yields, since these are the building blocks upon which a new greater conservatism has been placed.

I can assure Warwick staff that we will reiterate our previous concern that the proposed de facto end to the defined benefit scheme will require USS’s investment strategy to become increasingly cautious, which would materially inhibit the future growth of assets out of which pensions will ultimately be funded.

The latest iteration of the valuation has very serious consequences for staff and for employers in the sector, and we want to explore how we can get to a position where there is a threshold for the defined benefit scheme which is workable and supports early career academics in particular.

We are very conscious that there are alternative more attractive schemes in place elsewhere in the sector (e.g. Teachers’ Pension Scheme which is available to the post-92 sector) and are increasingly concerned that a very large multi-employer scheme, such as USS, is being placed in the same regulatory regime as that applied to more traditional private sector schemes, with far reaching consequences for staff in pre-1992 higher education institutions.

So what is to be done? First, we will press, as above, for greater understanding and explanation as to what has changed in the process. But second, I think we should also explore the possibility of obtaining government backing for the pension scheme and the possible benefits that might bring. A government backed scheme becomes an asset for the government, but provides vital underpinning for members.

Whatever happens we will not let the current increasingly conservative approach to USS go unchallenged. As a University, we need to be able to offer a competitive and high quality pension scheme and we will seek to work with any other interested parties to identify whether any alternative, more innovative, solutions may be feasible.


November 23, 2017

Our new student research hub

We often talk about ‘teaching’ and ‘research’ as two entirely separate activities within universities – the extent of recent regulatory intervention around teaching such as TEF and the Office for Students demonstrates how little apparent connectivity there is seen to be between our already well-regulated research and impact, and the teaching experience we deliver.

In reality, research and teaching work best when we look at them hand in hand, each enriching the other, and both at the heart of a university’s mission. At Warwick, we are absolutely committed to research excellence, and to ensuring this is brought to life in the educational experience we offer our students.

This is one of the characteristics which I think sets a Warwick teaching and learning experience apart – our students are able to benefit from access to world-class research and researchers, to work with individuals who are genuinely advancing knowledge in their areas and take up opportunities that inspire them intellectually, and make them stand out in the future in their chosen career path with prospective employers.

In that context, I have been pleased this week to see the development of our Student Research hub. It directly links our research and teaching by shining a light on what research is, and showcases the range of research-related opportunities available to students at Warwick. The hub shares video testimonials from students, employers and academics to give perspectives on the benefits of getting involved in research in an extra-curricular setting. Even better, the hub was built by two recent Warwick graduates.

Whether you’re a student looking for expertise to help get your research ideas off the ground, looking at research as a future career, or – simply – a student wanting to make the very most of your studies – I’d urge you to take a look. It’s going to be fantastic resource and I’m proud that we have it here at Warwick.


November 15, 2017

Creating knowledge post–Brexit

Warwick is a founding member of the Guild of European Research Intensive Universities. The Guild was established in 2016 to bring together 19 of Europe’s most distinguished universities across 14 countries to enable us to develop a new, distinctive voice in Europe. Through the Guild, we can engage proactively and collectively on the major opportunities and challenges impacting our institutions, our researchers and our students - including Brexit and the EU’s research and mobility programmes. Warwick’s membership of the Guild underlines and supports our commitment to be a leading global research and teaching institution, working with our partners to set new standards for collaboration in research, teaching, innovation and public engagement.

I wanted to share with Warwick colleagues and friends a blog from the Guild’s Secretary General, Jan Palmowski, giving his perspective on the critical contribution our academic communities must make through research collaboration and the movement of ideas and people.

The Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities blog


November 10, 2017

World Kindness Day

Having just read this week’s issue of Insite Inbox – Warwick’s staff newsletter, I’ve been reminded that Monday 13 November is World Kindness Day. Of course, it’s easy to be sceptical about the value of the growing number of “awareness” days, and yet their existence does prompt constructive action and reflection in some quarters of our society and in my view that has to be a good thing! For me, the announcement reminded me that it was about a year ago when I wrote my blog on kindness so it seemed like a good time to revisit this theme. Looking at the web coverage of World Kindness Day, I was struck by the focus on doing good things – kindness as positive acts (giving out chocolate, flowers, helping others). And while we should never restrict such positive acts only to one day a year, it’s great to see something that encourages a proactive approach to “doing kind things”. (And for Warwick colleagues wanting to do your bit within the University - look out for Warwick Kindness cards!)

kindness_cards.jpgBut we shouldn’t forget something that I think is equally important and that is the importance of “doing things kindly” – a way of behaving that I think can help us create a better working environment. When I blogged on this previously, I was at pains to stress that whatever we have to do in our working lives – even if it is the tough, difficult and painful decisions we may have to take – we should do so in a way that respects individuals, is supportive, constructive and compassionate.

It’s certainly a mantra that I try to live up to. Do I always succeed? Sadly, I probably don’t and I suspect that’s because sometimes it just isn’t easy and sometimes I’m perhaps careless or rushed. But I like to think my intentions are always to act kindly. And of course therein lies a challenge for all of us – what determines whether something is “done kindly” – is it my intention when I do something or is it your experience of what I do? Now, maybe this is a question that our colleagues in Philosophy are best placed to answer, but it reminds me that if we really do want to try to create a kinder working environment we do have to try to understand both the intentions and experiences of others. And I think this is about trying to see the best in people and trusting that they mostly have good intentions; it’s also about being sensitive and aware that even the most well-intentioned acts can sometimes have unintended consequences for the person who experiences then.

So if there is a message that’s going to be uppermost in my mind for World Kindness Day, it’s probably going to be one that focuses on the way I do things and, my experiences of things that others do. And a big part of that message will be a reminder to myself always to try to act kindly, always to be willing to learn from the experiences and responses of others if I am unintentionally unkind and finally try to be tolerant of others if I think they are not being as kind as they intended to be.

Christine Ennew Provost sig

October 25, 2017

Learning to respect and celebrate our differences

We’re currently waiting to hear if the University has been awarded Race Equality Charter Mark (RECM) status. The accreditation gives a framework to identify how we’re doing, and it provides confidence to people to show our commitment to continuing to improve diversity and inclusion.

For me, it runs far deeper than whether we secure this benchmark or not, however credible it undoubtedly is. Warwick has always sought to attract and support a diverse community. The University was built in 1965 to serve the local community; our multi-faith Chaplaincy has always been at our core; we received our first institutional Athena Swan award in 2010; we’ve held the HR Excellence in Research accreditation for the last four years; we have committed to paying the living wage; and last year we moved up 117 places in the Stonewall Workplace Equality Index. Each and every one of these indicators give a clear statement about the importance of inclusivity within our community. We are a global institution. It should go without saying that we respect and celebrate our differences, and that we are fundamentally committed to diversity. Recognition like RECM, and the value system that underpins this sort of indicator, is not easily won or maintained however, on a personal or organisational level.

It matters to me that we are open about what we still need to learn. Societal changes and attacks on our way of life, like the atrocities we’ve seen closer to home and further afield in Europe this year, drive fear and doubt. It can feel easier, sometimes, to turn the other cheek to unacceptable behaviours, to retain processes and systems that are unintentionally biased, to avoid debate or challenge on differences, or to default to language or habits that disguise what is, actually, racism or other very real prejudices – whether conscious or not.

I’m very hopeful we will receive RECM accreditation. Like many members of the University, I will feel proud, and reassured. We all want to think of Warwick as a welcoming, challenging, global, successful, institution. Regardless of whether we are successful in securing the RECM benchmark now, the challenge for all members of our community to continue to do more is as real as ever. We are in this learning space together.


March 2018

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  • Thanks for continuing to make a constructive contribution to this issue on behalf of Warwick, Stuart… by Liz Timperley-Preece on this entry
  • Well done, Stuart! Let's hope the talks today will be as constructive. by Robert MacKay on this entry
  • I think Louise Wadsworth raises a very relevant point. It seems that until something affected people… by Beverley Cannell on this entry
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