From the picket lines this week, two committee members offered polite responses to an editorial in the Gryphon newspaper that addressed the causes of the current industrial action. Dr Laura Loyola-Hernández offered a response covering the chief aspect of the aspect: the four fights. Dr Mark Taylor-Batty offered one on the issue of USS. We reproduce them both here.
A letter to my students
On Monday we were meant to learn about feminist decolonial research but instead I will be striking. I would love nothing more than to be teaching you. I did not come to this decision lightly. I haven’t come across anyone striking that is not worried about their students, specially those that are in vulnerable positions. But as we have heard across picket lines nationwide: our working conditions are your learning conditions.
I write this as a response to the editorial letter in the latest edition of The Gryphon. I find in the arguments a reflection of wider debates happening on the picket line. Many of the conversations have concentrated around pensions. Yes, we are trying to fight to save our pension scheme but this is only one of two disputes. The second is about FOUR connected fights. The strike is also about unsustainable workloads, gender and racial pay gaps, and casualisation. These topics are often marginalised in the debates surrounding the current strikes but are an essential component of the structural inequalities in the education system. More importantly, the people that have often raised these concerns are usually the most vulnerable: PGR students and academic and non-academic staff on hourly paid and fixed term contracts.
According to UCU statistics, the average university employee works 50 hours a week. This does not include the unpaid emotional labour that many womxn, especially Black and Womxn of Colour, do to support vulnerable students and Early career colleagues. Similarly, our efforts to decolonise practices within the university and the curriculum and our fight to tackle institutional racism often go unrecognised. All of this happens while being paid less than white colleagues.
Staff pay has fallen by around 20% in real terms over the past decade. These numbers are worse for womxn, especially Black and WOC. Last year a report from the BBC showed that 86% of staff in Russell Group Universities are white, with only 1% Black. The report also demonstrated that while white women are paid 15% less than a white man, Black and Asian women are paid 39% and 22% less than a white man (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-46473269). The statistics are dire. There are only 26 Black women professors in the UK and: “over a three year period just 1.2% of the 19,868 studentships awarded by all UKRI research councils went to Black or Black Mixed students and only 30 of those were from Black Caribbeanbackground” (https://leadingroutes.org/the-broken-pipeline).
According to the University of Leeds gender pay gap report (https://equality.leeds.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/sites/64/2019/11/J000449_Gender- Pay-Gap-Report-2019_Final-Published.pdf), there is an 18.9% gender pay gap in our institution. Despite knowing that 73% of Leeds staff is white (https://equality.leeds.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/sites/64/2019/01/All_Staff_in- post_2018.pdf), there are no formal statistics with regards to the extent of the racial pay gap in our institution. These structural inequalities are also reflected in our student body. Only 17.6% of home/EU students are BME while there is a 12% BME attainment gap. We must understand these numbers not as the cause of inequality but as symptoms of sexism, institutional racism and misogynoir in our universities.
Casualisation is pervasive in our sector with 49% of teaching-only academics and 67% of research-only staff on fixed term contracts. Forty-nine universities still use widely discredited zero-hours contracts for academic staff. According to a recent report by UCU, part time and hourly paid teachers are doing 45% of their work without pay, 71% said that their mental health had been damaged by working on insecure contracts (https://www.ucu.org.uk/media/10336/Counting-the-costs-of- casualisation-in-higher-education-Jun- 19/pdf/ucu_casualisation_in_HE_survey_report_Jun19.pdf).
What about Leeds University? Our institution employs 65% of its research staff and 36% of its teaching only staff on fixed-term contracts, as well as employing 1,343 academics as atypical workers (http://www.leedsucu.org.uk/wp- content/uploads/2019/01/University-of-Leeds-UCU-AntiCas-Claim-Jan-2019.pdf). Many of them are postgraduate students working as teaching assistants and employed as temporary casual workers. They have limited or no sick pay, holiday pay and other employment benefits. How are we to support our students and their mental health when ours is broken?
Workload, gender and racial pay gap and casualisation affect our pension scheme. If we are paid less while we are working, we will receive less while in retirement. Unhealthy workloads, sexism and institutional racism tend to push out Black and POC out of the sector, particularly womxn and non-binary people.
I am a WOC immigrant on a fixed term contract. Many migrant UCU members are striking knowing that we might not be in this country in six months or in one or two years because of draconian immigration policies (Hostile Environment), precarious employment and pay gaps. We are striking with genuine fear of the Home Office. We are also striking for eight days without pay. We have asked that lost pay be given to the Student Hardship fund and support of student mental health. We are striking because we believe that a better university is possible for students and staff.
I am striking for migrant students who can’t and whose immigration status is being weaponised to break the strike. I’m striking for students who do not feel heard, seen, that have been invisibilised and made to suffer because of their race, gender, immigration status, religion, sexuality, mental health, disability and chronic illness. I am striking for those who have not felt heard and supported by our union. I can only continue to push for change both within UCU and our universities. And yes, I also strike for those who can and choose not to. I believe in the power of collective action. I’m striking for the ones coming behind me, for the future generations because our working conditions are your learning conditions.
A pension-focussed response to the @TheGryphonLeeds editorial, politely to offer some granularity and fact-checking to the soundbites.
Pensions are dull as dishwater, and complex in structure. But in recent years, they have fired up staff, because of the needless damage that employers have sought to visit upon them. Last year’s 14 days of strikes specifically concerned defending our pensions, and that dispute was put on hold with the forming of a Joint Expert Panel. It is true that UUK institutions broadly welcomed the setting up of the JEP, and then its recommendations. However, all but a couple of those recommendations have now been applied to the valuation, and it is a fact that UUK has done little to nothing to urge USS to apply all those recommendations, which were approved by both their and UCU’s auditors and actuaries. We know that if those recommendations could have been applied to the 2018 valuation, then we would already be in a position of ‘no detriment’ and there would be no dispute in that corner. It was this ‘bait and switch’ behaviour that led us to the current situation, and pensions being one of the disputes this year.
There has been plenty of discussion of the UUK proposal to increase our contributions to 9.1%, but it has been clear that the purpose of the late-in-the-day 9.1% ‘offer’ was to fabricate an illusion of the employers being reasonable, which only those not properly paying attention could really be convinced by. The reality was that we had already seen a historic 10% rise in their contributions from 8% to 8.8% earlier this year, for no extra gain. Crucially, we should also recall that the employers gave themselves a ‘contribution holiday’ by lowering their contributions by 4% from 1997 to 2009. Had they not done so, there would never have been any ‘deficit’, however badly it is calculated. What is more, their own actuaries indicated in responses to USS that they could afford the kinds of increases that would cover these losses which their contribution holidays were instrumental in constructing. Employers in the post-92 sector are already paying the kinds of contributions (to the TPA pension) that our more established universities are arguing are ‘unaffordable’. There is little mention of these facts in reporting around this issue, sadly.
Let’s look at the valuation, from which the notion of our pension being in ‘deficit’ arises. The current value of the pension pot is £68.5 billion. Under £3 billion each year goes to pensioners and all other scheme costs. More than that £3b amount actually comes in annually from contributions – what we and the employers pay in each year has pretty much always more than covered what needs to go out of the scheme. So, the now £68.5 billion remains untouched, year after year, and just keeps growing in value (and the net returns on investments also more than covers what goes out). This has been the situation for decades.
Now, there is a regulatory requirement to consider what would happen if a business goes bust, and that is as it should be, but in this situation that means applying a single-employer regulation to a multi-employer scheme. The ‘deficit/surplus’ is simply a calculation of whether there will be enough money in the future to pay all pensions if Universities start going bust. You can calculate a ‘deficit’ in twenty years’ time if, for example, you assume wage growth way beyond that you are actually willing ever to concede, and if you insist on selling high yielding stocks and replacing them with low-yielding bonds (so-called ‘de-risking’) (stop yawning at the back). Yes, there is important talk of the the Pension Regulator, who are currently investigating behaviour in the scheme, but they absolutely do not require USS to calculate the ‘deficit’ in the way that that do.
When Universities pushed to shift our pensions scheme away from a ‘final salary’ scheme earlier this decade, people of my generation saw a drop in the value of their pensions of tens, even hundreds of thousands of pounds over the course of their future retirement. The employers used to argue that if we didn’t get inflation-beating pay rises, that we at least had a strong pension waiting for us. That argument unsurprisingly and noticeably has evaporated in recent years. The concerted shift to push to switch us to ‘defined contribution’ pensions last year (that is, a pension in which all we know is how much money goes in, not at all what comes out) caused that dispute, and that threat is still very much in the balance now if we fail to hold ground this year. This will have disproportionate impact on the pensions of younger members of staff. None of this was necessary, and the blame and onus to correct is on the employers. Thanks for your time reading this.