The fight is on

Build the HE strikes: organise to win

UCU has called eight days of strike action over Higher Education pay and USS pensions before Christmas, one full week: 25-29 November, culminating with the next school student climate strike day #29November, and three days: 2-4 December, ending on UCU’s Disability Day of Action.

Once again, UCU Left members on the HEC were instrumental in ensuring that the union stayed on track. Our strategy of balloting on pay and pensions together has paid off, with the biggest ever vote in HE for action over pay, casualisation, workload and equality. Now the strategy is to bring members out, united, on the same days over both disputes. A work to contract begins at the same time.

Across UCU, in branch after branch, members voted overwhelmingly YES for action. The reason that some branches will not be on strike is only that their turnout was below 50% of their membership (the anti-union threshold). For example, De Montfort University got a 74% yes vote but a 49% turnout. King’s College London got 81% yes on a 48.7% turnout, and so on. Before the Tory Anti Union Law, these votes would be considered outstanding!

Despite this, this strike call means that 80% of members in USS institutions are being asked to come out on strike. On the Four Fights dispute (pay, equality, casusalisation and workload), more than 60% of members across the sector pre- and post-92 are being called out.

At the same time, UCU agreed to reballot members in branches whose turnout was 40% or over, with other branches choosing to opt in. Ballots can begin after re-notification to employers, so can coincide with the start of this round of strike action. A second wave of strike action can begin next year.

The fifth of the nominated strike days coincides with the date of the next mass Friday climate strike called by school students. Striking UCU members will now be able to respond en masse to the call by young people for trade unionists to support the movement for urgent action on the climate emergency.

We may also be joined by postal workers in the CWU, who have already voted for strikes before Christmas in defence of jobs and against plans to dismember the postal service.

Our strikes will also take place in the run-up to the most important general election for decades. The outcome of the December 12 poll will determine the future of post-16 education for years to come. The issues we are fighting over – pay, pensions, equality, casualisation and workloads – have all been brought to crisis point by the marketisation of the HE sector driven by the Tories’ neoliberal agenda. Our strikes can bring the issues of the student debt burden and the corrosiveness of competition between institutions to the forefront of the election campaign.

Branches and Regions need to begin preparation for the strike now.

We need the big lively picket lines which characterised last year’s USS dispute. We need imaginative teach-out events which can involve students and UCU members in joint discussion and activity.

And we need striking branches to help with the reballoting effort in neighbouring institutions that didn’t make the threshold the first time around.

The last USS strike saw the union grow by 50% in the branches that took strike action. Members joined to take part in the strike in large numbers, some joining on the picket line. This strike will be a fantastic opportunity to recruit more members to the union and further strengthen branches.

Strike committees & democracy

UCU’s last protracted strike, over USS, was sustained by strike committees in many branches. Strike committees were the backbone of the strike: they organised pickets from day to day, gave members a place to express their concerns and debate the way forward with fellow-pickets, and took initiatives like lobbying UUK and talks – and even protesting outside the union HQ during the #NoCapitulation moment.

Some branches have organised strike committees before, but for others the idea is new. Strike committees are simply open democratic fora, open to all strikers, to conduct the business of the strike. Ideally they should be run daily during the strike – that way strikers know when and where they need to go to debate the lessons and decide on next steps.

NB. Ahead of the strike, branch reps will need to book warm, sizeable rooms for strikers to come to!

There will be a Higher Education Sector Conference on USS in Manchester on Friday 6 December – two days after the strike, to which branches can send delegates. Note that to book delegate space, branches must submit delegate names (may be provisional and swapped later) to UCU by Friday, 22 November.

UCU’s Democracy Congress will take place the next day. (NOTE. The deadline for booking delegates is this Thursday, 7 November.) Many of the issues of how such strikes should be run will be raised at that conference as well.

Teach-outs & themed strike days

The last USS strike showed tremendous enthusiasm for protests and initiatives. Teach-outs with students and staff were extremely popular. These can also generate material for distributing on themed strike days.

In this strike we can also bring back themed strike days – something that UCU did very effectively in the HE pay dispute in 2016.

To be clear, a themed strike day is not a day when we only strike over one issue. (We will strike over pay and pensions each day in USS branches.)

A themed strike day is simply a day when branches or regions adopt an issue and promote it actively on that day – in banners, leaflets, press material etc.

In addition to strike days over pensions, for example, we must have a strike day themed on the Environment on 29 November, linking up with the climate movement!

We can also take actions highlighting pension poverty, poverty pay and long hours, casualisation in its many forms, the gender pay and pension gap, race inequality and migrant rights, and disability inequality and access – the last day of strike action is UCU’s Disability Day.

Running through the core of the disputes, we will spell out our alternative: What the University is For. We all know the market madness lies behind most of the evils we are striking against.

We can invite MPs and prospective MPs to participate in teach-outs. The election is a chance to put a spotlight on the crisis in post-16 education.

Strike funds

Members will be concerned about their personal finances. So we will need an effective communications strategy from Head Office outlining the financial support available and how to apply for it.

UCU has already announced national fund criteria:

  • £75/day for every union member earning under £30,000 a year from Day 2.
  • £50/day for union members earning £30,000 or more from Day 3.

Branches should also set up local strike funds (guidance from Head Office will be available shortly), and should reach out to sister unions and supportive organisations to add to these local funds. Many pre-92 HE branches already have local funds, but the same is not true for many post-92 branches. Either way, local funds should prioritise the casualised and lowest paid.

In the run up to the General Election there are likely to be lots of political meetings. Organise strikers to do delegation work. Try to attend and speak at some of these and ask for donations. Ask for a speaker slot at your local Trades Council meeting and at local constituency Labour Party meetings. Contact active pensioner and anti-austerity groups.

Most meetings will be happy to hold a bucket collection for our cause, and every penny will help towards ensuring our members don’t struggle financially while fighting these disputes.

Solidarity & reballots

Both disputes are national disputes with the employers, over pay, casualisation, workload and equality with UCEA; and over USS, with Universities UK. Both employer organisations are supposed to represent the interest of the employers collectively in negotiating with the union. All branches are in dispute, even if they are not on strike.

Branches taking strike action will need solidarity from the wider UCU. They will be striking as a first wave, with the expectation that their colleagues in other institutions will be joining them in a second wave. But for this to work we will need a renewed effort to win the turnouts needed in universities and colleges.

Strikers can visit and enthuse branch meetings, department meetings and even floor-walk with reps to Get the Vote Out – and collect for strike funds.

NB. Venues for strike committee meetings and teach-outs can in principle also be booked in these colleges.

We are one union – and we are united to win these two disputes.

Another Education is Possible, Spring 2018, How the USS negotiations and dispute developed

Hoe the USS negotiations and dispute developed 

Marion Hersh

Is there a deficit?

Think of a pension scheme with an enormous black hole deficit.  Of course, USS.   But wait a moment,  USS assets increased 12.2% from £60 to £67 billion last year, whereas its liabilities only went up by 2.4%. The deficit is supposed to be 7.1 billion, So, hasn’t this massive increase in assets wiped out the deficit?  But what about the increase in the cost of future contributions and short term reliance and …  Something strange is happening here.  By any real standards USS is doing really well – it has a positive cash flow, very high rates of return and a growing membership, with over 190 thousand active members paying money into the scheme.  However, the USS Executive seems determined to show that there is enormous deficit which will require draconian measures and the poverty of many members into old age in order to eradicate it.

The Valuation

USS is legally required to carry out a valuation every three years.  This involves a snapshot of the situation on 31 March 2018 with a statutory requirement to complete the valuation process and the associated decisions on benefits and contributions within 15 months i.e. by 30 June 2018.  This is a mathematical modelling process involving considerably uncertainty.  The choice of assumptions and model is critical and political and ideological factors as well as technical ones affect the decisions made (Meadows et al., 1972).

Unfortunately, the implicit aim of the USS valuation seems to be based on showing that a profitable and successful scheme is experiencing serious problems and requires drastic measures to resolve them.  The approach is designed for a single employer which could go bankrupt tomorrow rather than large stable and financially and otherwise well-established sector comprising 68 universities, some of which are very large, several hundred small employers and 190 thousand active members paying money into the scheme.  The issue of all these employers simultaneously withdrawing from the scheme is not really relevant.  Similarly, bankruptcy is unlikely other than in the case of total economic collapse, for instance due to catastrophic climate change, yet  here USS has not accepted the need for an ethical investment policy.  Finally, large numbers of employers withdrawing simultaneously other than due to bankruptcy is unlikely, as this would require them to make large payments to USS to cover their liabilities, not to mention  the impact on their prestige and positions in league tables etc.

Everything we do involves risk.  Many universities are involved in a number of large and relatively risky construction projects.  Therefore, there is a certain amount of real risk associated with USS, however, this risk is relatively small.   In contrast there is also an excessive amount of risk associated with USS’s model and this is leading to very reduced estimates of assets and inflated estimates of liabilities.  This reckless prudence has also led to proposals for derisking, or investment in gilts (government bonds), which are allegedly very stable and low risk (this is highly questionable), but have very low rates of return.  Thus instead of a potential rate of return of probably in excess of 12.2%, income would artificially be driven down to CPI–0.5% (currently about 2.9%).  It should be noted that the 9% difference in rates of return is close to the estimate additional costs that members and employers allegedly need to pay to maintain current benefits?  Would it not be more sensible to allow the very highly expert and exorbitantly paid investment managers time to do their best work rather than artificially reduce revenue through derisking?  Another area needlessly affected by reckless prudence is Deficit Recovery Contributions (DRCs).  It is generally accepted, including by USS Executive, that derisking increases the deficit and therefore also deficit recovery contributions.  Getting rid of derisking could also remove the need for DRCs.  On the other hand, deriskiing and high DRCs lead to an increase in deficit, resulting in a need for even higher DRCs and more derisking, resulting in a negative spiral and destruction of a successful pension scheme.

Time Line in the USS dispute

September Technical Provisions released showing £5.3b deficit

19 October 2018: result of consultative ballot – 55.8% turnout, 86.6% prepared to take industrial action.

November Technical Provisions released showing £7.5b deficit

14th December:  Employers table proposals to move to 100% DC

18 and 19 December: minor victory for UCU – employers agree not to table DC proposal; UCU agree not to table an alternative proposal for £50 K threshold and 1/80 accrual rate.

22 January:  UCU industrial action ballot result – we have beaten the thresholds.

23 January:  Independent’ chair votes in favour of UUK DC proposal

5 February: First USS JNC after vote for UUK proposals

22 February: First day of 14-day strike action – mass pickets!!!

27 February: Informal talks with employers, UCU presents 10-point proposal for settling the dispute – UUK positive response to last 5 points about the future, not very willing to look at 5 points on present valuation.

5-12 March:  ACAS Talks with UUK

12 March: proposal 42K, 1/85 accrual, 2.5% inflation capping, proposal for expert panel to look at valuation issues

13 March: branch meeting followed by HEC, mass lobby of HEC.  Branch meeting very strongly rejects the ACAS proposal; HEC agrees to continue the action and contact branches about best dates for further industrial action to affect exams and marking prior to notifying employers.

UUK agrees to suspend consultation on DC proposal.

16 March: Last day of main period of 14 day UCU strike action – mass pickets, support from students, leadings role of GTAs and casualised staff throughout.

23 March: UUK proposal presented to SWG as a possible way of resolving the dispute.  This has been discussed by officials with UK.  It  involves an expert panel to evaluate and make proposals on the valuation.  It initially looks good, but on reflection is a rewrite of the rejected proposal without the £42K part.

23 March UUK proposal made public

28 March branch meeting followed by HEC:  Agreement that the approach involving an expert panel has potential, but concerns about the details have not be specified and could therefore go majorly wrong.  No vote on outcome.  Probably the majority feeling was to revise or clarify and resubmit, but HEC agreed to an immediate ballot.

19 April  E-ballot agreed to accept the UUK proposal and to suspend, but not end industrial action.

27 April: HEC agreed that the JEP should have three UCU (and three UUK) members and that SWG should be responsible for choosing UUC members and agreeing the chair.

27 April:  JNC unanimously agreed to withdraw DC proposal – major victory for UCU, as a result of industrial action, but still a lot of work to do.

The Different Proposals

 Defined Benefit cap £AccrualInflation cappingValuation
Employers DC0Kn/an/an/a
UCU £50K50K1/8010%n/a
ACAS42K1/852.5%Independent valuation review by expert panel with independent chair – inform next valuation
UUK JEPn/an/an/aJoint expert panel, non-voting chair evaluate valuation, change the result of this valuation
USS rule 76.455.5K75th5% and half increase of any further inflation from 5-15% upto 10% maxNovember valuation and cost sharing increases in contributions

Current benefits are based on a hybrid scheme with defined benefits (DB) up to a threshold of £55,500 and defined contributions (DC) beyond that.  Inflation proofing increases as CPI up to 5% and then 0.5% for each 1% increase up to 10% for 15% inflation.   The table above summarises the main features of the various proposals made to date.  Reductions in accrual rate affect all members, particularly lower paid members, whereas reductions in threshold only affect higher paid members.  Inflation is already above 2.5%.  Since the effect of inflation capping is multiplicative over a number of years, the effect of further inflation capping could prove disastrous if, as is likely, inflation remains above 2.5%.

The employers DC proposal is clearly the worst. Its disadvantages including significant reductions in benefits.  In addition, DB makes it much easier to plan for retirement, as you know high much pension you will be getting.  This is not possible with DC, as the pension you receive is dependent on the market.  This becomes particularly problematical with derisking, which artificially reduces rates of return.  Therefore, members could potentially put off retirement for several years in the hope of market improvement.  A move from DB to DC also transfers the risk from employers to members and while doing so makes model risk into real risk.  Therefore, rather than employers facing minimal risks, probably lower than those associated with their other financial activities, due to the size of the scheme, members have individual investment pots and therefore face very real risks of a significant reduction in pensions.

Despite the significant disadvantages in reduced benefits and increased contributions of the £50K UCU offer, making an offer within the November technical provisions was the right move in December and January, as it showed willingness to negotiate.  It was also a means to hold the UCU side with its different perspectives on what was achievable together and definitely much better than the £30K threshold and 1/80 or 1/85 accrual rate that some of negotiators considered the likely outcome.  In the event of this proposal receiving the chair’s casting vote, the employers would have been very eager to reduce their contributions to the current 18% through changes to the valuation framework.

However, the successful strike action with mass pickets changed the situation and meant that we were in a position to demand something better.  In addition, the UCU proposal had been rejected by UUK, so we were not tied to it, just because we had already presented it once.  Unfortunately, not all the negotiating team agree with this perspective and there were subsequent references to reintroducing this proposal.

The ACAS proposal was somewhere between the UCU 50 K and UUK DC proposals and so probably seemed a reasonable outcome to ACAS.  However, this ignores the facts that the 50 K proposal is already a significant reduction from the status quo and that the only reason for making changes is the flawed valuation approach.

The Joint Expert Panel for revising the valuation is potentially useful.  However, there are various potential weaknesses which led to the call for revise or clarify and resubmit.  In particular, the commitment to maintaining current DB benefits is not spelt out,


Negotiations are generally a team effort and to some extent we were able to use this to combine skills, maximise strengths and minimise weaknesses.  However, one of our major differences was on differing political/ideological views on whether we should be aiming at maintaining the status quo through attacks on the deficit, making the employers pay more (which would mean us also pay more) or reduce our expectations as to what was feasible.  We managed to maintain unity in the face of the employers, but doing this made it difficult to find a united position.   The strike action totally changed the dynamic of the negotiations and changed what was achievable and what we should be aiming for.  Unfortunately, this view was not shared by the whole team.

However, it is difficult to evaluate the impact of these factors on the outcome of the ACAS negotiations.  It is open to question what the outcome would have been if the whole negotiation team had been committed to no detriment and submitted a proposal showing how this could be achieved early in the ACAS process.

Industrial Action

The strength and unity of members as demonstrated in the strike action was the crucial factor.  Whatever we win will be as a result of it.  The strikes served as a focus for member anger and frustration, about the proposed slashing of their pensions, but not just on pensions.  The USS dispute also focused members’ rage at other linked issues, including marketisation, casualisation, equality, workload and bullying.

The picket lines saw many new members and first time pickets, given confidence to take action.  GTAs and other members on casualised contracts played a central role, though in may cases their abysmal pay meant that they themselves were not in receipt of a USS (or other) pension.  The support, particularly from students was amazing.

This action has transformed the union and we will continue to see the impacts.

Openness, Transparency and Accountability

There was an agreement with UUK and in SWG that negotiations would be totally confidentiality.  To this end the negotiators agreed not to post on the UCU activitists list and not to reveal the location of the ACAS talks.  A well-attended lobby of earlier informal talks had upset the employers.  However, there has been no real discussion of whether total confidentiality is really necessary for negotiations.  The employers’ reaction to the UCU lobby indicates that member awareness of what is going on and a member presence could change the dynamics of negotiation.  This would also make it clearer to negotiators what is and is not acceptable to members and could possibly put pressure on the employers to respond more in line with member expectations.

Until the rejection of the £42K offer by members there was at least transparency within the SWG and involvement of all available negotiators.  Following this rejection the process was taken over by the General Secretary.  While there is a role for informal discussions being initiated by the General Secretary, at some point, preferably early on, negotiators need to take over.  The UUK JEP proposal was presented to members without any involvement of negotiators with UUK.  The negotiators saw the proposal for the first after the end of the informal talks with UUK and a few minutes before the start of a conference call to agree putting it to HEC.  Similarly there was no negotiator or wider Superannuation Working Group (SWG) involvement in drawing up the terms of reference of the JEP.  This is problematical.  The process for electing negotiators was agreed by HE Sector Conference (HESC) and therefore negotiators are accountable to HESC and through it to the wider membership.  However, this accountability mechanism breaks down when negotiators are excluded from discussion and decision making.

A related issue is the pressure for immediate decisions.  While there are times in negotiation when rapid decision making is required, the pressures are often artificial and should be resisted.  Excessively fast decision making without an opportunity to consider or consult can lead to serious errors.

UCU: A Unity Statement for Democracy

UCU: A Unity Statement for Democracy

UCU: A Unity Statement for Democracy

Dear colleague

The UCU e-ballot over the UUK offer that closed on Friday (13 April), the nature of the offer and the manner in which members were balloted, all expose a deep democratic deficit in our trade union. Despite the Higher Education Committee voting to put the ballot out to members with no recommendation to vote, the General Secretary wrote three emails to members, complete with links to voting, strongly advocating a YES vote.

This intervention followed a previous attempt on 12 March by the UCU leadership to present an “ACAS agreement with UUK” to members that would cut more than 18.5% from the value of members’ pensions (before the CPI cap and DC threshold is considered). This attempt was overturned by a spontaneous grassroots revolt, aided by the fact that branches were already mobilised on picket lines.

Whatever we win, it will be as the result of a strike movement that has seen union membership surge by as much as 50% in participating UCU branches, and members taking the hardest-hitting strike action in our history. This produced a transformation in our union in just a matter of weeks, creating a broad layer of new activists and leaders throughout our union.

We, the undersigned, believe now is the time for the union to unite to defend our pensions and to ensure that we have democratic structures that are fit to do so.

To this end we call on UCU to

  • Call an Emergency Delegate Meeting and HEC to discuss the aftermath of the ballot and the immediate next steps
  • Call a Special Higher Education Sector Conference for USS branches to allow delegates to properly debate the future of the dispute*

We must take the argument for democracy and organising in our union into every branch. Naturally, if the vote is No then the first task of activists will be to focus on putting the April strikes in place. Either way, every union member should be part of this debate.

We will urgently need meetings for members and reps to discuss ‘what next after the e-ballot’. London Region UCU has called one such meeting on 16 April. We hope reps will attend and branches and regions will follow this example.

We encourage activists to add their name to this unity statement, and to work together to organise meetings and debates about the future of our union, union democracy, and the direction of our dispute.

Colleagues are warmly encouraged to attend the London Region A Union Transformed activists assembly on Saturday 28th April where such a debate can take place, alongside discussing the positive lessons of the dispute.

We have created a new website,, to advertise such activities.

Saladin Meckled-Garcia, University College London, UCU branch president
Sean Wallis, University College London, UCU branch vice president and NEC member
Carlo Morelli, Dundee University, UCU NEC member and USS negotiator
Jim Wolfreys, King’s College London, UCU branch president
Andrew Chitty, University of Sussex, UCU member
Prof Des Freedman, Goldsmiths University of London, UCU branch president
Rachel Cohen, City University of London, UCU NEC member
Marian Mayer, Bournemouth University, UCU NEC member-elect
Feyzi Ismail, SOAS, UCU branch executive member
Jo McNeill, University of Liverpool, UCU branch president
Anne Alexander, University of Cambridge, UCU member
David Treece, King’s College London, UCU branch executive member
Prof Satvinder Juss, King’s College London

Add your name to this statement