Open letter to Fellows of Trinity College, Cambridge

Wednesday 29 May 2019

To the Fellows of Trinity College, Cambridge

As Fellows of Trinity College, you are aware that your Council, in its capacity as the College’s governing body, has voted to leave the USS pension scheme. I am writing in my capacity as General Secretary Elect of the University and College Union, because the Council’s decision has become a matter of national rather than local significance. You deserve to know exactly what is at stake.

People often speak about the need for different institutions in the Higher Education sector to stand in solidarity with one another. In this case, a small act of solidarity would make a massive material difference for all of us, including you. We have learnt in the last few days that Trinity’s departure gives USS a pretext to downgrade its assessment of the ‘employer covenant’. The practical consequence of this is that if one more similar employer leaves, the Scheme will demand higher contributions from those who remain, or significant cuts in the benefits promised to members.

You have a stark choice. Overturn your Council, or let it threaten the sustainability of the largest private pension scheme in the country: a scheme that provides a good, guaranteed retirement income for you and hundreds of thousands of your colleagues.

Your College will not benefit from the decision to exit. There is no plausible scenario in which USS will need to call on Trinity’s assets. In fact, Trinity’s £1.4bn endowment faces more risk of being wiped out by sudden, unexpected economic downturns and other adverse changes than USS’s globally diversified, £64bn fund, which is backed by many more sponsors, including the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. The reports commissioned by the Council so far are incoherent, inadequate, and often inaccurate. They have not explained or weighed up the risks that actually face the College and the Scheme. You have not been given the kind of expert advice you need if you are to evaluate the Council’s plans properly.

The sum which Trinity is expected to pay to leave USS – thirty million pounds – is a waste. It includes a very large insurance premium. It is twice as much as the amount that would be due to Trinity’s pensioners if the College remained in the Scheme, even on the overly cautious assessment of the liabilities that has been roundly criticised by the Joint Expert Panel (JEP).

The waste of the College’s money will not be the only detrimental effect. As Fellows, you will almost certainly suffer personal losses. If you move to a smaller, College-specific scheme, its trustees and sponsor will encounter far fewer obstacles to reducing Fellows’ benefits than USS employers do at present.

The events of the last 18 months have taught us all the value of sticking together. As a Union, we protected our pension scheme last year by going on strike. Members of your College joined us on the picket lines, from the New Museums to West Road and Sidgwick Avenue. Students occupied the Old Schools, met with the Vice Chancellor, and successfully pressed him to change the University’s position on the USS valuation. If we had not acted, all of us would already be on a vastly inferior ‘Defined Contribution’ scheme. We cannot forget the value of collective action in defense of institutions like USS, that bind our sector together and guarantee a good standard of living for university staff, no matter where they work.

Hundreds of Cambridge academics have already threatened and UCU’s Congress has just resolved that if the College does proceed to sever itself from the rest of the sector, you will be on the receiving end of a boycott. This boycott will target your dependence on the rest of Cambridge and the wider academic community. Along with many other UCU Congress delegates, I voted to make that boycott UCU’s official policy and will pursue it vigorously as General Secretary. Do not let your Council hurt your students and your research by continuing on its current course of action.

My understanding is that at the time of writing, you may still be able to call a meeting of enough Fellows to reverse the Council’s decision, or take other measures against its poorly-informed, irresponsible, and destructive choice. In the meantime, please email me if you have any questions about the decision your Council is taking, or about the Union’s policy regarding USS and your College.

Please do whatever you can in the time you have left.


Dr Jo Grady

General Secretary Elect

University and College Union

What are you going to do about climate change?

More than one member has asked me about this, one in response to my first all-member email, which went out on Monday, and others on Twitter. Here is my answer:

Thanks for asking me about this very important issue. You may have seen that I talk about climate change in the pensions section of my manifesto. Given the size of the USS pension scheme’s fund (well over £60bn at the moment), my view is that the single most important thing UCU can do is to force USS to divest from its large direct fossil fuel holdings and invest in green assets instead. This is an area where UCU could have a lot of leverage in the near future. The Joint Expert Panel is going to issue its second report soon, which will deal with the question of overhauling USS’s decision-making mechanisms, governance structures, and investment strategies. There may well be more industrial action, or threats of industrial action at that point, and that will be the perfect time to put divestment on the table.

Other members have asked me about other forms of action on climate change, including the possibility of a general strike, and I’ve already said a bit about this on Twitter. There are legal issues around a general strike: since trade union laws prevent workers from striking over anything other than their own terms and conditions, we would need to find workarounds in order to make it clear that we are in dispute with our employers about how they are handling (or rather, failing to handle) climate change, and not directly with the government or any other body. But I think the possibility is there and we have to investigate it. Students have led on this issue, and we need to find ways to support them. And there may be other local opportunities, short of a strike, to make a difference: for example by pushing some of our wealthiest institutions, e.g. the big pre-92 universities, to divest. To my mind that’s bound up with the larger enterprise of governance reform, replacing the corporate figures who tend to direct decision-making at the highest levels of universities with representatives from student and staff bodies.

Can employers afford the higher pay and pensions contributions UCU has asked for?

Your manifesto claims that ‘all Higher Education employers can afford to meet recent national pay and pensions claims made by UCU, and more’. How can you justify this statement?

This question was put to me in a long, politely-worded email from a very senior manager at a pre-92 university. They are still a member of UCU and they were replying to my first all-member email, which went out on Monday 29 April and linked to my manifesto. Their main argument was that universities’ main source of income, tuition fees, has failed to increase in line with inflation, and it was therefore necessary to cut staff pay relative to inflation as well. We decided to ‘agree to disagree’ after their second reply to me, but here is the gist of my argument:

Employers have imposed real-terms pay cuts on staff nearly every year since the financial crisis. They did this even after their per-student funding increased very significantly, when £9,000 fees were introducednot just when the fees were capped and funding stopped rising with inflation. The fact is that employers have repeatedly paid staff less when they could afford to pay them more. But instead of doing that, they chose to increase their capital expenditure and borrowing, while amassing substantial unrestricted reserves.

Either of UCU’s most recent pay claimsa 7.5% salary increase last year, and an increase of 3% + RPI this year (which will almost certainly turn out lower than 7.5%)still would not bring pay back in line with inflation, if implemented. Look at the annual accounts of most universities today, pre- or post-92, and you’ll see a net cash inflow from operating activities which is more than big enough to fund that 7.5% increase on its own. Most universities, to put it in plainer terms, have enough money in their back pocket to fund a significant increase in staff costs. But even those that don’t have the cash upfront can still afford it. Universities now tend to have a ratio of unrestricted reserves to annual income which is far higher than the norm for the charitable and non-profit sector. Our demands are reasonable and the money is there.

The same is true for the USS pension scheme: as information released by the Joint Expert Panel (JEP) has demonstrated, independent reviews by two accounting firms (PwC and EY Parthenon) found that all but one USS employer could increase their contributions from 18% to 21% without making any cuts in other areas of expenditure. And yet throughout the USS strike, employers insisted they had to close the pension scheme because they couldn’t afford to pay to maintain even a half-decent benefit package. In the 12 March Acas deal which UCU branches rejected, employers still only offered us 19.3%. Similar issues are occurring with TPS, too: post-92 universities are already claiming they need to make staff redundant in order to be able to soak up an impending 7% contribution increase, when their accounts are pretty healthy and they haven’t provided the evidence to justify their case, as I point out in my manifesto. So in the case of pensions, just like pay, we simply cannot trust employers when they tell us what they can and can’t afford.*

Another thing that makes it hard for staff to trust their managers is the lack of transparency and, in many cases, good judgement in the ways universities have been spending their money. Most institutions disclose very little to their staff, students, or the general public about their capital expenditure, borrowing activities, cross-subsidies, and the use of external consultancies and other private-sector collaborations.

I think it’s worth bearing the larger political context in mind, too. It really is extremely disappointing to witness just how complicit some of the most powerful figures in UK Higher Education have been in the Coalition Government’s disastrous tuition fee ‘reforms’. There was a reason why I cited the example of vice-chancellors secretly lobbying Labour to keep the current system in my manifesto. That sort of behaviour comes across really badly in the eyes of staff. There is a fundamental divide here: between staff who want a publicly funded tertiary education system, and managers who don’t.

*Of course, in the case of USS, the JEP and subsequent developments have made clear that if USS were governed in a responsible and evidence-based way, staff and employers could enjoy the current benefits at a rate equal to or lower than the one agreed at the 2014 valuationno need for any of the contribution increases USS has imposed on us. Employers should have joined forces with UCU some time ago, before last year’s strike and before the JEP was convened, to try to make the necessary changes. The fact that they didn’t is their fault, not UCU’s, and I believe it’s fair that employers should soak up the costs associated with tolerating USS’s dysfunctional management for as long as they have.

No Detriment, Reflections on the JEP and where next for the USS Dispute…

Earlier this week Jack Grove contacted me with a series of questions to help with a piece he is writing for Times Higher Education (THE). I think it’s important when we provide content for publications that are paywalled that we also share those words on a freely accessible platform. With that in mind, I publish below my answers to Jack.

Broad issues enquired about: April 2018 ballot and No Detriment – JEP and possibility of further strikes –  My election to NEC – My affiliations – GS election – My current research.

April 2018 ballot and the feasibility of ‘No Detriment’

Reasonable arguments were made on both sides of the debate over the April ballot to end USSstrike action and set up the Joint Expert Panel (JEP). I thought that the JEP itself was an excellent idea, but I voted ‘no’ because at that time we had the upper hand over our employers, and continuing to threaten further strike action would have won even more concessions on top of the JEP. But in order to explain what I would do differently as GS in a dispute like this, it’s worth stepping back and considering what happened before the ballot period, and where we have ended up since the JEP reported.

When you’re negotiating with employers in an industrial dispute, you owe it to your members to be honest and transparent about what you consider possible. When you reach the sharp end of negotiations, you may have to reach a compromise of some sort with employers. But before then, you need to build a sense of confidence and optimism about what can be achieved if members go on strike. Here’s an example: we know that if the JEP’s recommendations are applied to a 2018 valuation, USS is not in deficit and no detrimental changes (#NoDetriment) are needed. But this is not really new information. UCU’s actuarial advisers, First Actuarial, were saying this in September 2017, before the strike ballot had even started. We had an expert opinion in favour of No Detriment in our pocket from the start, but I don’t think it was ever mentioned in an all-member email. Clearly now the JEP have endorsed this, the official ‘No Detriment’ position of UCU is even stronger.

Equally, we didn’t do enough to communicate to members the fact that USS had deemed all employers to be able to increase their contributions from 18% to 25% for the duration of the valuation cycle. This is why I called for us to demand increases of up to 6.9% in order to protect benefits in my brief about the April ballot decision. If we had started with this as our negotiating position and said so to members, I think we could have won much more. We still would have needed the JEP, in order to fix the valuation and place USS on a firmer long-term footing. But we could have forced employers to cover most, if not all, of the interim contribution increases which we are now facing thanks to USS’s stubbornness. Alternatively, we could have forced employers to repay the strike deductions. As soon as they offered us the 12 March Acas deal, employers were admitting that their proposal to end Defined Benefit was unnecessary. By offering us the JEP, they were admitting that they might have been completely wrong about the unaffordability of USS. By agreeing with the JEP’s recommendations now, they are admitting that there was no need to cut our benefits. We should hold them to account for that, and the damage they did by forcing us to go on strike. We had plenty of time to press employers for an even better offer during the Easter vacation, before the next wave of strikes was due to start. So when I voted to stay on strike in April, I wasn’t voting against the JEP; I was voting to make our employers back up their words with meaningful actions, and start to repair the damage they had done.

JEP and the possibility of further strikes

The JEP vindicated the UCU strike action. We managed to move the narrative about USS significantly during our 14-day strike. The strike demonstrated that all was not well with UUK, and perhaps even less well at USS. Our employers either lacked the political nous to see what was evident to UCU members, or they were happy to see our pension scheme downgraded on false premises. Either way, they must now demonstrate a commitment to helping us maintain it. And that may mean helping us take on the USS executive. Thus, our disputedespite the publication of the JEPis still very much about the extent to which our employers are willing to stand with us and protect our Scheme from its own managers. The JEP has been very important, but it will once again be members and the union leadership who apply the pressure needed for change with our employers. This time around we have a joint union and employer backed document (the JEP) that demonstrates there is no need for detrimental changes to our scheme, but unlike 2017/18, when UUK voted to downgrade USS from DB to DC, in any future discussion UUK must not just vote with us on the JNC, but this must also be backed by tangible employer support and action if required.

We must remember that the Joint Expert Panel was established as a result of a ballot to cease industrial action whilst we seek solutions. The Joint Expert Panel’s first report sought to avoid further industrial action. It is very frustrating that the actions of USS may provoke further action. If we do end up in a ballot situation, and Bill Galvin is still Chief Executive of USS, I would hope UUK and our employers ask questions about decision-making by those within USS, and also consider calling for resignations. Furthermore, if we do ballot and see any future strike over USS we must ensure the long-term and short-term interests of members are secured during that action, and fight to implement phase 2 of the JEP as well as limiting any short-term contribution increases/benefit cuts. As such UCU policy should not just be ‘no detriment’ (which it currently is) because there is no deficit, but also reform of USS. This would involve making structures of accountability and transparency to ensure we do not end up in this situation again.

My election to the NEC

I remain really pleased and honoured that I was elected to the UCU National Executive Committee (NEC) and with such an overwhelming majority and endorsement from those who voted. Additionally, the 14% turnout was significantly higher than in 2018, when it was 9.7%. I think this shows that when you engage with people directly, and on issues that matter, then people are willing to vote. I won far more first preferences than the second-placed candidate (3843 to 2134). My second preference votes were quite evenly distributed amongst the remaining candidates, which suggests I have broad appeal across the UCU membership. I think the reason for this is because I ran on a strong platform, that highlighted my expertise, and how this would be practically applied if I was elected. I want to see more people like me, who are committed branch activists and all the experience that brings, coming forward and standing for national roles. I think to many members it is a mystery what happens at the NECthis was certainly the case last year for many in HE and involved in the USSstrike. It would be good to avoid a situation like the mass demonstration outside Carlow Street again, and I think making the business of the NEC (and its subsidiary committees) transparent and therefore our committees more accountable to the membership, would be helpful in this regard.

My affiliations

I confess when it comes to affiliations and membership the track record from my early years is a little embarrassing. When I was younger I was a card carrying member of the Beano fan club, though I let this membership lapse circa age 9, and I have dabbled in the Sheffield Wednesday supporter club (though to my shame this has always been transactional, and purely to build up points for away games). At other times I have been a season-ticket holder, but sadly in recent years this has been a labour of love, and not to watch the quality of football on display at Hillsborough. I have a string of academic and professional memberships including: British Universities Industrial Relations Association (BUIRA), British Sociological Association (BSA), and Chartered Institute of Professional Development (CIPD). Politically speaking, I am also a member of the Labour Party, though sadly the demands of my job and my considerable union work prevent me from being as actively involved as I would like. I am not a member of any other political group, nor any community or political groups that support or affiliate to Labour, such as Momentum, the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition (TUSC), Socialist Workers Party (SWP), etc. Nor am I a member of any faction within UCU.

GS election

The GS election is taking place in a crucial moment for UCU members. Post-16 education is in turmoil, but not every candidate in this election knows what it feels like to work in this highly volatile sector. I think it is important we have somebody heading our union who genuinely understands the sector because they have lived and worked it. Obviously I’m running because I think I am the best person for that job. But even if I don’t win, I would like to see a winner who represents the sector. We are about to enter tough times, and we need a champion from the membership to lead our union.

My current research

My current research project with Professor Phil Taylor was inspired by the first seminar I taught after the USSstrike finished in 2018. In the seminar I used one of Phil’s (Taylor and Bain 2003) old papers on call centre case studies, which analyses the contribution of subversive, satirical and countercultural humour to a union organising campaign, specifically centred on the role of humour in industrial conflict. Having just spent an extended period of time on strike, on mostly jubilant picket lines, I realised that only a handful of seminal studies (e.g. Lane and Roberts 1971; Fantasia 1988) theorise the role of humour, the carnival atmosphere on picket lines, and the feelings of liberation and elation which striking workers experience. But yet humour is a key part of all picket lines. The Fire Brigades Union strike of 2002-3 and the British Airways-BASSA dispute provide compelling examples of firefighters and cabin crew in turn engaging in satirical, clowning and subversive humour directed at the specific targets of government and employer, with particularly sharp barbs fired at the political and corporate leaders (Chancellor George Brown and Willy Walsh, British Airways, respectively) as personally responsible for the workers’ plight. Phil and I have spent time collecting data on the humour deployed during the USSstrike period of February-April 2018. The visual and verbal humour publicly displayed by workers on picket lines, at mass rallies and demonstrations in the form of slogans on placards and banners, costume and dress, artistic expressions, music, song and dance. Some of this was on Twitter, but a large part of our data is about humour directly experienced and performed on picket lines. We present a chronology of the strike and how humour was used differently during different parts of the strike, to inform, educate, mobilise, create a sense of community, and foster what we are calling ‘attribution’: an understanding of what causes detrimental changes to working conditions, pensions, pay (and so on), and the people identified as being responsible for them.

Dr Jo Grady
University of Sheffield UCU and UCU General Secretary Candidate 2019