UCU message on the USS pensions dispute for all staff at Imperial College London

Message for all Imperial College staff from branch UCU, 25/11/21

Dear Colleagues,

The Provost, Ian Walmsley, emailed all staff last Wednesday about next week’s industrial action by the University and College Union (UCU) over cuts to USS pensions. Vice-Provost (Education & Student Experience), Emma McCoy, also sent a separate email about the action to all students.

UCU officially represents all staff in USS who are about to see very significant cuts, on average more than 20%, to their pension imposed by the College. I am therefore writing to tell you why UCU believes industrial action is necessary.

First some background: UCU, together with Unison and Unite, negotiate the pay settlement for all staff, not just our members, every year. We also represent all staff in many workplace matters including policies over bullying and harassment, health and safety issues, precarious jobs, nursery fees, compulsory lecture capture as well as tackling gender and ethnic pay gaps. With almost no staff representation within senior management and governance bodies compared to our peer institutions, UCU plays a vital role in challenging the democratic deficit at Imperial. If you want your voice heard more clearly and are not a member of UCU, please consider joining us!

Back to pensions, these should be considered as deferred pay and a cut to pensions simply represents a cut to pay. Every member of staff needs to ask: what would I do if College threatened to cut my pay?

The first step would be to ask why such a cut was necessary. On this issue at least management and the unions agree:  as the email to students stated: “For several years, UK universities and trade unions have disagreed with the valuation placed upon the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS).” For example, the risk that USS might not be able to pay our pensions is based on assuming that it underperforms compared to any 30-year investment period since 1900. That’s worse than over the 30 years that includes the first World War, the Spanish Flu epidemic and the Great Depression!

The second step would be to understand the effect of the cuts. I urge you to find out how this will affect you personally using either the UCU modeller https://www.ucu.org.uk/ussmodeller or the USS modeller  https://www.ussconsultation2021.co.uk/members/impact; with the latter, you can include the effect of the 2.5% inflation cap based on the historical average rate of inflation of 3.5%. Both modellers show that the cuts are worse for younger staff, in part because the eroding effect of this cap.  For example, a typical 37-year-old academic would experience a cut of between 23-35%.

The third step would be to challenge management’s response.  Rather than try to force a new valuation, Universities UK (UUK) have imposed nearly all of the burden onto staff. UCU has proposed alternative short-term proposals for a more balanced sharing of the cost of the 2020 valuation, while a long-term plan for USS is established on a more credible footing. Imperial management must take the lead and publicly call for these alternative proposals to be explored, for the sake of the staff that they claim to value.  Instead, rather than work with UCU in retrieving the pension they say that they value, management have attempted to drive a wedge between the staff and the students that we teach and support. On that score, students have good reason to be sceptical of the claim that “funds will be reinvested to directly benefit students and your education.” UCU has previously requested that pay withheld from striking staff be paid into the student hardship fund, but this request has been refused.

We now believe that the only path open to us to defend our pensions is to take industrial action. We do not want to disrupt the education of our students: we are the ones who know, teach, and support them. But the responsibility for the disruption lies fully with our employers. We are taking this action on behalf of all staff at lmperial, particularly our younger and future colleagues, many of them currently our students, who will lose the most. I urge you to join us, join UCU and support the action necessary to defend our pensions.

Vijay Tymms, President Imperial UCU

On behalf of Imperial UCU Branch