We hope this FAQ guide will be useful for activists and student union officers to understand the ins and outs of the current USS pensions dispute. Please feel free to copy and adapt it for your activist group or student union website.
University bosses are proposing an attack on the USS (University Superannuation Scheme) pension scheme. If they get away with it, the proposals will harm the pensions of every single scheme member – academic and related staff in the pre-1992 universities.
Their trade union, the UCU, has attempted to negotiate, but the employers refused to withdraw these proposals. UCU members therefore voted overwhelmingly to authorise industrial action, potentially including an assessment boycott and strikes. The employers were then given another chance to back down, but refused again. UCU was therefore forced to announce that an assessment boycott would begin on 6 November. Have a look at the bottom of this page to see if your University is affected.
What’s an assessment boycott?
From 6 November, staff participating in the boycott will not set or mark assessments until an improved deal protects their pensions. This will affect coursework, assignments and exams. Trade union members will continue to teach seminars and lectures.
What about strikes?
If the employers continue stubbornly refusing to make a better deal, strikes may be added to the campaign of action. If any institution chooses to victimise staff for taking part in the boycott (for instance, by making disproportionate pay deductions), UCU is likely to call national action in solidarity with members in that institution, which could include striking.
What is the threat to staff pensions?
The employers are proposing that pension scheme members should have their pay-outs in retirement cut – by as much as 27% in some cases. They are also proposing that defined guarantees on part of the pay-outs be removed, so that instead of a scheme where you know what you put in and what you get out, our staff’s financial security in retirement will depend entirely on stock market gambling by fund managers.
This comes on top of the attacks made in 2011. The scheme was split, forcing worse pension conditions onto new entrants to the career, and onto existing staff who take career breaks (disproportionately affecting women who are more likely to pause their careers for childcare). At the time, we said it was just a matter of time before the employers came for the more senior members too and forced them into a worse scheme, which is now happening.
However, it’s not just them but all members of the scheme, new and old, who stand to lose out under the latest proposals. Benefits are being “revalued” downwards – significantly. The result will be that staff in these institutions will be substantially worse-off in retirement than those who worked in the post-1992 universities, even though the older universities are not worse off financially. Presumably though, we can expect the bosses of the newer universities to make similar attacks if these ones succeed.
Are the cuts necessary?
The pre-1992 universities have enough money to support decent pensions for their staff (as well as marketing gimmicks and exorbitant six-figure salaries for senior managers). So why are they imposing these changes?
They say there is a massive deficit in the pension scheme. However, much more money is going into the scheme than coming out, the fund’s investments are growing (by £8bn since 2011), and returns have exceeded inflation and average earnings. They even gave the fund’s most highly paid manager a 50% raise last year to reward their “sustained outperformance”!
So what do they mean? They are talking about a “notional deficit” – forecasting their ability to pay out into the future. So far, so sensible. However, in order to manufacture the massive notional deficit they are using to justify the attacks, the employers have to make some incredibly dodgy assumptions:
- They use what Leeds UCU’s President called a “zombie apocalypse” scenario – imagining that all pre-1992 universities were going to shut, simultaneously, tomorrow, leaving the scheme to pay out all their former staff’s future pensions with no income.
- They misused statistics to falsely claim that staff life expectancy had increased massively.
- They pick and choose the economic assumptions they make in order to make each factor maximise the estimated deficit. So when estimating future salaries, they assume the economy will do well. But in order to say that their investments will do badly and so yield lower pay-outs, in the same analysis they assume the economy will do badly! Statisticians have called them out for this.
The proposals are so bad that even a few employers are speaking out against them! The University of Warwick’s senior managers have said they believe the proposals use “unnecessarily pessimistic assumptions” and are “forcing much starker reductions in benefits than may prove necessary”. They have also been criticised by the University of Oxford for using dodgy statistics to try and cloud the extent of the cuts to benefits.
Finally, even if there really was a massive deficit, education workers shouldn’t be asked to foot the bill. That money should come from university senior managers six-figure salaries, from marketing gimmicks, from the profits of companies running outsourced services, and if necessary from taxing the rich to increase university funding. There is enough money in universities, and in our society more broadly, to provide much better pensions than currently, ensuring a secure retirement for every worker.
So the boycott could be called off?
Yes! If universities simply withdrew their threatened attacks and negotiated a fair and beneficial pension scheme for our staff, the boycott could be called off tomorrow! The action is only being taken because our staff have been left with no choice.
What does this mean for the future?
We can see there are at least three potential goals for the employers and the government.
First, there is the removal of defined guarantees on part of the retirement pay-outs. This is likely the first step – a ‘foot in the door’ – towards further reductions in the proportion of pay-outs that are guaranteed: eventually the so-called “defined benefits” portion of the pension could be reduced to zero! Removing guarantees on payouts is about shifting financial risk away from the collective onto the individual, and away from the employers to the workers – a trend we’ve seen in the handling of pensions across the economy under neoliberalism. About guaranteeing constrained spending on education, at the expense of financial insecurity pursuing retired workers to the grave.
Another “benefit” of this shift is that de-collectivising pension commitments makes it easier to package up groups of workers, lift them out, and outsource them to private companies! The kind of outsourcing we’ve seen universities use to wash their hands of the conditions of cleaners, caterers, security guards and even postgrad teaching assistants, while making tidy profits for private companies, could be coming next for academic staff.
Finally, the changes will help them to make spending cuts in education later. Because the alleged deficit has been massively exaggerated, reducing future pension pay-outs actually means that the fund won’t need as much income to sustain retirees. That extra slack could be used to cut the employers’ cash contributions to pensions (a leak in 2011 revealed that, in the long-term, the employers are aiming to do just that). Or, they could cut future staff numbers by downsizing departments, or cut future staff pay, since they won’t need so many contributions from those future workers to sustain future retirees’ pay-outs.
Why should students support the campaign?
The people who make our education happen are under attack. That affects the quality of our education too! When staff are treated badly, subjected to financial security, and overstretched trying to make ends meet, education suffers. Moreover, talented staff could be forced to consider leaving for jobs where they are treated better.
Moreover, as explained above, the changes will make it easier to outsource teaching to private companies that will prioritise their profits over our education, and to make education spending cuts in the future.
Finally, we all have a long-term interest in our society providing decent jobs that we can go into, with good pay and good pensions, in academia and beyond. Fighting for decent pensions in universities is part of fighting for decent pensions for all workers.
The stronger our support for our staff, the stronger their campaign will be and the sooner we can force the university bosses to give in – and so the sooner the marking boycott can end with a positive resolution, benefitting both students and workers.
Won’t we just have to pay for better pensions with higher fees?
We shouldn’t have to. As explained above, the cuts aren’t really necessary. And the universities certainly haven’t been linking pensions to fees – this isn’t the first attack on staff pensions in the last few years, but at the same time, undergrad, postgrad, UK and international student fees have all been going up massively.
Like us, the UCU oppose tuition fees and support free, funded education. Students and workers should fight together for a decently-resourced, democratic education system where everyone is treated well and nobody has to scrape by in financial hardship.
Don’t lecturers have really good pay and pensions anyway?
Some senior academics certainly get comparatively good salaries (after decades of precarious work). But a huge number of staff are in increasingly insecure work, under pressure from successive years of pay cuts. Academia is now one of the most casualised industries in our society! Women workers are particularly badly treated, on the sharp end of a 17.3% median gender pay gap which translates into lower pension pay-outs in retirement too.
Yes, the pension scheme they are defending is better than the ones many other workers have – but that’s only because similar attacks have already taken away other workers’ pensions! If these workers lose their pensions too, other ordinary workers won’t benefit – the only people who benefit are the ones at the top. The solution is not to drag everyone down, but to come together to defend what we still have, and fight for better for everyone – because every worker deserves a decent pension.
What can students do?
- Make contact with your local UCU branch and activists in it, if you haven’t already, to discuss how you can help.
- Propose the model motion below to your student union’s general meeting, council or executive, and try to spark debate about the issues.
- Produce material (online, plus leaflets and posters) that let students know what’s happening and why they should support their staff. You could adapt this FAQ and post it on the website of your student union or activist group, including information about activities students can do locally. Organise leafleting sessions and lecture shout-outs to spread the word.
- Organise a student petition to your Vice-Chancellor, demanding that they publicly come out against the attack on pensions, and that they lobby within the employers’ forum to stop the changes so that the industrial action can end.
- Consider protests, stunts and direct actions in your university to draw attention and to place pressure on your Vice Chancellor.
- If there are strikes, join the picket lines and help workers to shut down your university.
- Emphasise mutual solidarity in the campaign: try to link the fight for pensions to the fight for free education. Both students and workers are under attack from the same people, and we stand a better chance of winning both battles as a joint force, supporting one another.
Model motion for student unions
“Support our staff – stop the pensions raid”
This union notes:
- Academics and related staff at this and other pre-1992 universities currently face a raid on their pensions in the USS scheme.
- University managers claim there is a black hole in the scheme – however, their estimate is based on dodgy statistics, as well as the ridiculous assumption that every university in the country will close immediately and simultaneously; in fact the scheme is sustainable.
- To address this alleged black hole, university managers are demanding that pay-outs to staff once they retire should be massively decreased.
- Some staff will have up to 27% of their pension stolen if the changes go through.
- Staff have tried to negotiate through their union, the UCU, but their employers’ persistent refusal to listen has forced them to vote for an assessment boycott.
This union believes:
- When there is so much wealth in our universities and in our societies, it is wrong that people’s right to a decent retirement is undermined in this way.
- When the people who make our education possible are over-stretched and under-paid, or pushed to leave for better opportunities elsewhere, the quality of our education suffers.
- These changes to the way pensions work would open the door to privatisation and cuts in education funding later on.
- Education workers lose pay when they take industrial action, and they do it as a last resort. Senior managers are to blame for leaving them with no choice. The short-term disruption is more than worth the long-term benefits to education, so we should support them.
- Students and campus workers are strongest together. The UCU trade union has supported our campaigns against fees, we should back them on this.
- The stronger the support for our staff, the more likely we are to see a fast, positive resolution to disruption.
This union resolves:
- To write a letter from the sabbatical officers to the Vice-Chancellor, demanding that they intervene in the employers’ forum to halt the attack on pensions and so prevent the industrial action affecting students.
- To support our staff if they are forced to take industrial action.
- To inform students as widely as possible about the reasons for the dispute and why it is in our interests to support staff.
- To endorse, support and pro-actively organise student petitioning, protest and direct action in support of our staff’s right to a decent pension.
I’m a postgraduate teaching assistant as well as a student, what can I do?
You should not only support the action, but if possible take part yourself! If you fill in for other workers who are boycotting marking, you are actively undermining the campaign. You will need to join the UCU if you aren’t already a member. Workers in certain types of more casualised employment situation may need specific advice about participating in the boycott – just ask your local trade union reps what to do. You can also find guidance about participating here.
Check here to see if your University is involved
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