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Martin Paul Eve

Professor of Literature, Technology and Publishing at Birkbeck, University of London

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In the past few days I have spoken with many colleagues with differing views on the offer from UUK. Like many other colleagues, I have been on strike to halt the conversion of the defined benefit pension of the Universities Superannuation Scheme to a market-performance-based defined contribution system. It has been heartening to see so many colleagues involved in industrial action and to see that labour has power in such disputes.

Like many others, I was not impressed at all with UUK’s first offer, which was roundly rejected. The second offer, though, was met with mixed views. There has been a loud cry on my Twitter feed for a “no” vote and I respect colleagues for this opinion, even while I here lay out my reasoning, alongside others, to hold the opposing view (and I expect those colleagues to respect this, in turn). I have been reading all the USS Briefs posts and am grateful for all the considered discussion around this matter.

My thoughts:

1) The union has argued throughout this dispute that the problem is with the valuation. For instance, on the 18th March, UCU said: “what is really needed is a much improved offer which retains a decent, guaranteed pension income in retirement, and addresses our concerns about about the valuation of the fund”. This proposal from UUK seems to me to fulfill the conditions requested at that point. It offers a valuation that is conducted neutrally and transparently. Neither side has a casting vote. This seems to me a fair offer based on the arguments that the union has made.

2) Further action at this stage will be intensely damaging to an entire cohort of students in a way that I do not wish to happen if it can be avoided. Certainly, I understand that industrial action is supposed to be disruptive to be efficacious. But I think we should engage with this offer and, if necessary, go back on strike at a later date. UUK have seen what the union can now do and so they know the stakes. I haven’t actually seen much discussion of this side of things (the damage to students). This is probably because strikes always involve inconvenience and collateral damage. As above, though, I would like us to avoid hurting our students if there is any possibility of the current offer resolving things (which I think there might be).

3) This deal commits the panel to work towards a guaranteed pension income equivalent to the current scheme. This also seems to be what the union leaders said that we wanted (see quotation above).

4) Those urging us to vote no seem to have four reasons (grossly simplified): a. They want a “No Detriment” clause that commits to maintaining the DB scheme regardless of the outcome of the valuation (or a “revise and resubmit” option); b. It is a better industrial relations strategy to hold out for a better offer; c. If we stop now, the momentum will be lost; d. They don’t trust UUK.

I think, on point a, that such a clause is unrealistic but I also worry that it is a change of ask for the reasons in point 1 above. I also appreciate that “no detriment” is not the only option here and that a “revise and resubmit” option has been proposed in which more reassurances are given as to what happens if the valuation doesn’t come out in line with the union view. However, as I see it, if the independent, neutral panel doesn’t come out with the result that the union wants, then there is a substantial hit to the credibility of our previous arguments that there was “no deficit”. It’s also been claimed that this was the “first offer”. But that’s not true: we had a totally different offer before that was totally rejected, to UUK’s shock. This offer, certainly, is not a product of a back-and-forth, but it feels to me much more like UUK caving.

With respect to b, they may be correct. But it comes at the costs outlined in point 2 above, let alone the personal hits to our paycheques right now. I would far prefer that we remain on alert and strike again, giving this offer a chance.

Point c could be accurate - but that doesn’t speak very well of the union and its membership’s commitment. I would strike again if necessary at a later point, but I would prefer not to strike if a viable option is presented.

Point d is fair. UUK seem in the category of “wouldn’t trust them with a barge-pole” at present. In fact, I cant really see how UUK can maintain any future credibility at all. But the stakes are now high and UUK have seen the threat. We should, I think, maintain that threat and explicitly make clear that what we want is the retention of the DB scheme (and will strike again if this is taken away).

Overall, for these reasons, I voted “yes” to the offer.