WHY WE SUGGEST YOU VOTE NO
The ballot was released and was accompanied by a lengthy email from Sally Hunt (SH), in which she advocated for a ‘yes’ vote to accept the UUK’s offer. There are many problems with the message, but we feel that the misleading information she relayed surrounding the position we are in now, as well as her misinterpretation and misrepresentation of the Revise and Resubmit vs. No Detriment positions, must be addressed. Please read the points below for our response to her message. We are not including the full text of Sally Hunt’s message but you can find that here. With apologies for the length!
We (KENT UCU) address each of Sally Hunt’s eight points using the headings from her message below:
1. What gains have we made?
SH says: “The employers have taken their ‘defined contribution’ proposal off the table. This would have cost the average UCU member around £200,000 in their retirement. Now the employers say they ‘do not intend to return to the proposal’.”
KENT says: It is certainly a positive sign that UUK has now stated they “do not intend to return to the proposal” but offers no assurances; members need to ACTUALLY know that this proposal is definitely off the table. An intention not to return is not good enough. If the proposal is dead, then UUK needs to say that it is dead.
2. A guaranteed pension
SH: The employers previously said the only affordable defined benefit scheme would have such a small guaranteed element it was not worth pursuing. Now they say that future work will “reflect the clear wish of staff to have a guaranteed pension comparable with current provision.”
KENT: The offer we were given on 12 March, which was almost unanimously rejected by UCU membership across the country, was also described as ‘comparable’ and ‘broadly comparable’ with current provision. It was a defined benefits offer, but it would have drastically cut our pensions. We know that UUK’s understanding of comparable is very different to ours.
3. A joint expert panel
SH: “The employers have ignored UCU’s criticisms of the valuation methodology used by USS for years. Now they have agreed to a joint expert panel, nominated in equal numbers from both sides, to agree key principles to underpin the joint approach of UUK and UCU to the valuation of the USS fund.”
KENT: There is a lot that we do not know about this panel. This was the point that raised the most requests for clarification not only in our branch, but in branches around the country. To date, no clarifications have been given. We understand that not all clarification can be provided at this point but:
We do not know its composition, its scope, whether it will be accepted by USS trustees or the Pensions Regulator, its time frame, whether its recommendations will be accepted, when its recommendations will be made in the academic year, etc. We also do not know for certain that the findings of this panel will be retroactive – is this panel working to replace the problematic November valuation and the preceding dodgy employer survey, or is it going to impact the next valuation (see below pt. 4)? What happens to our pensions post-April 2019 if this panel’s focus is the next valuation? There are simply too many crucial unknowns.
Further, in the last pensions dispute in 2015, part of the resolution was “an agreement to continue a review of the contested funding methodology adopted by USS.” We have been made this promise before – it is thus fair to suggest at this point that we need more specifics before we can trust that this review will be (even potentially) meaningful.
4. Reassessed valuation
SH: “The employers said that the debate about the USS valuation was concluded. Now they accept that the joint expert panel “will make an assessment of the valuation” and make joint recommendations to the JNC aimed at providing a guaranteed [e.g. defined benefit] pension.”
KENT: From the information we have been provided, together with expert analysis and commentary, we know that the panel is likely to inform the next valuation cycle, not this one. Thus, the debate about the USS valuation is not concluded.
It appears that, despite the setting up of the joint expert panel, the 2017 valuation will still go ahead, on the November 2017 assumptions, and this is likely to trigger large automatic increases in contributions or reversion to previous proposals to cut benefits.
We do not have a guarantee of the status quo beyond April 2019. The joint expert panel may or may not lead to rational reform of the valuation process for future valuations. If changes are forced prior to a new valuation going into effect in the next valuation cycle, it will be almost impossible to win back the losses. We must have guarantees and clarity about what the process is, and what we are walking into.
5. Comparability with TPS
SH: “The employers said that the unfavourable comparisons made by UCU between USS benefits and those provided by the Teachers’ Pension Scheme (TPS) were inappropriate. Now they have agreed to joint discussions on ‘comparability between USS and TPS’.”
KENT: While we would like discussions about making USS more comparable with TPS, all we are being promised right now are discussions.
Further, what is left out of this statement is that in the same sentence in UUK’s latest offer, they also want to continue exploring new forms of pension schemes. For UUK, this has long been a desire to move towards a DC scheme, with a Collective Defined Contribution (CDC) scheme being their current preference. UUK has been offering it throughout this dispute as an alternative to straight DC. The risks for employees are the same as the DC scheme that we went on strike over. They are not acceptable.
6. The Pensions Regulator engagement
SH: “The Pensions Regulator has already indicated in a letter to USS that they will engage with the joint expert panel. Similarly, if there is agreement from UCU members, UUK and UCU will jointly approach the USS Board to seek its endorsement.”
KENT: The Pensions Regulator is a bit of an unknown in this dispute, and we welcome signs of flexibility from tPR. However, there is still time to work out further details and clarity in the terms of this panel before tPR’s 30 June deadline.
7. Can we get more?
SH: “Some members have argued that the union should press the employers for a further step – to ‘review and resubmit’ their proposal so it includes a ‘no detriment’ clause. ‘No detriment’ in this context means that the employers would fund, on their own, any changes required to retain existing benefits and contribution levels which arise from the independent joint expert panel’s report.
I respect the intent but ‘review and resubmit’ contains a significant flaw as a strategy.
Under pressure from UCU, the employers have conceded an independent joint expert panel. They have now even agreed that whatever comes out of the panel, they will work with UCU to retain a comparable, guaranteed pension.
However, while many vice-chancellors are now sympathetic to UCU’s views on the USS valuation and risk, none that I have met have been prepared to discuss a ‘no detriment’ agreement.”
KENT: The revise and resubmit/R+R (not “review and resubmit”) option was proposed by many branches because the offer lacked the clarity and guarantees necessary for it to be accepted. To be clear: the R+R position was asking the UCU Higher Education Committee (HEC) to NOT send the offer to ballot prior to clarifications and guarantees being secured. In essence, it was asking for the UCU negotiators to be able to secure more certainty from what is currently a unilateral UUK offer. Ours was not a straightforward reject, but rather saying progress had been made, but we didn’t have enough certainty or, even more modestly, clarity yet and NOW would be the time to get it.
Incidentally, the no detriment argument is premised on the rejection of the flawed November valuation. The fact that UUK maintains that the November valuation is robust is what is causing the no detriment option to be an “impossibility”.
8. [Sally Hunt’s] proposed approach
SH: “I do not think we should risk what we have achieved to chase a ‘no detriment’ clause.
I believe instead that we should bank the substantial concessions we have achieved from the employers – the dumping of the defined contributions proposal, the creation of the joint expert panel, the agreement to discuss USS versus TPS, inter-generational and equality issues and, of course, the employers’ new found commitment to defined benefit.
Then we should work hard to ensure the joint expert panel comes up with sensible proposals which have the confidence of UCU members.
If the employers behave properly, we should work with them to protect your pension benefits.
If they misbehave, we should use the union’s new-found strength to challenge them again.
I am cautiously optimistic.”
KENT: It is disappointing that the General Secretary of UCU is not keeping all options on the table.
The only concession listed in Sally Hunt’s message is the potential ‘dumping’ of the DC proposal. But again, it is the Employers’ current intention not to return to it, but there is no guarantee that it is dead. If it was ‘dumped’, UUK should say so unequivocally. That would make this process much easier and fair moving forward.
We agree that if the employers behave “properly”, we should work with them to protect our pensions. Statements by the employers suggest that they do not take seriously the prospect of making any serious reform of the valuation. Unfortunately, throughout this dispute there has been significant reason to be wary of placing our futures in the hands of UUK, hoping that it behaves “properly”.
We remain highly skeptical of UUK’s offer and the leap of faith that we are being asked to take. Sally Hunt is not certain either, she is “cautiously optimistic”. That does not dispel our skepticism or assuage our modest concerns.
We want a REASONABLE short period of time to attain greater clarity and certainty about the various elements of UUK’s proposal.
We strongly recommend that you vote ‘No’ to reject this proposal.
Some Helpful Sources
USS Briefs: Papers by a number of academics in response to this most recent proposal and the issues underpinning the current dispute.
Transcript of the Branch Reps meeting at UCU HQ on Wednesday, 28 March
Simple breakdown of branch positions expressed at the Branch Reps meeting at UCU HQ on Wednesday, 28 March
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KENT BRANCH COMMITTEE