University staff are right to strike over Pensions!

Thursday 22nd February 2018


Sheffield TUC supports UCU members on strike across UK Today

Join the UCU strike rally at 12 midday on Friday 23rd February outside Firth Court, University of Sheffield, Western Bank S10 2TN

Open this link for UCU strike leaflet USS_Strike_A5_flyer_Jan18


Sheffield Trades Union Council gives its full support to University College Union (UCU) members on strike today and tomorrow (22nd and 23rd February) at University of Sheffield and over 60 other “red brick” universities nationwide. Subsequent strike days are planned over the next few weeks (see below for details).

“We support UCU members striking today in defence of their USS final salary pension scheme” said Martin Mayer Sheffield TUC Secretary today as hundreds of lecturers and admin staff at University of Sheffield walked out on the first day of this national dispute. “If the university employers get away with this, university staff will be left with the worst pensions in the entire education sector, and be upwards of 40% worse off in retirement” Martin Mayer added. “Instead of a high quality USS final salary scheme which gives security in retirement, the university bosses want to put education professionals and staff on a mean and uncertain defined contribution scheme, where the eventual pension is entirely dependent on the stock market at the time. University staff are fighting for their future and we support them!”

Background to the dispute
This is a national strike action involving scores of “red brick” universities in defence of the University Superannuation Scheme (USS) which is under attack. In Sheffield this involves UCU members at University of Sheffield but not Hallam University where pension arrangements are different.

Is USS really in deficit as the bosses claim?
The university sector has become increasingly marketised thanks to Government policy, forcing universities to compete aggressively for students and cut costs. But this only partly explains why university bosses are wanting to slash their funding costs of their employees’ pensions.

The real problem is the fictionalised methodology used in the valuation of the USS scheme. This makes it appear heavily in deficit when in reality it is in a healthy surplus!! The reason is that in a “free market”, any “business” can go bankrupt and must put in place plans to fund its future pension liabilities if that were to happen. It is totally impossible that all universities in the USS scheme will go bankrupt simultaneously, and no pre-1992 university has ever gone bankrupt yet or is likely to. However, the actuarial assumption is based on this totally impossible scenario. It predicts therefore a massive fictionalised deficit, exaggerated by the fact that following the fictional closure of all universities, the USS fund’s assets would have to be transferred from profitable but risky equities to secure but low return assets like government bonds (which are paying historically low returns due to the Bank of England’s low interest rate policy). It would require university bosses to pay up huge sums into the fund to secure it now against this hypothetical risk.

By shifting to a defined contribution (sometime called “money purchase) scheme, university employers are planning to make pensions entirely stock-market based, a move they accept will slash pension income in retirement. The University and College Union estimates this will result in cuts of 40%, or £200,000, over the course of retirement for the average member.

Over privileged academics or poorly paid lecturers and staff on worsening conditions?
It is not true that this strike involves highly paid professionals who should be grateful to have such a good pension. UCU members have been partly motivated to strike because this comes after a period that has seen steadily deteriorating working conditions. Precarious working conditions, long working hours and poor mental health have become the norm. Those at the bottom – postgraduate teaching assistants and those who have not yet entered the pension scheme – face the worst outcome: zero security in old age. In addition, 54% of all academic staff are on insecure contracts, there is a serious gender and ethnic earnings penalty, and lecturers working on casual contracts often have to survive on benefit support and freelancing.

The first national strike under the Tory Trade Union Act 2016
UCU “red brick” university pensions dispute comes after a successful postal ballot for industrial action which more than met the government’s new voting thresholds. Ballots in 68 sites returned 88% in favour of strike action on a 58% turnout. Because of fears of a national vote not meeting the new thresholds, it had been decided to ballot universities separately. Just 9 ballots failed to meet the threshold and these are being reballoted. In one university, the ballot was overwhelmingly in favour of strike action but was 2 votes short of the Government’s arbitrary threshold.

The pension scheme is either £6B in surplus or £7.5B in deficit – according to who you speak to! There is serious concern that very conservative estimates about the fund are predicting a false deficit. This follows the increasing marketization of higher education and the potential assessment of a “failing market” and consequent losses. What is clear is the university employers want to get out of paying into a very high quality pension scheme.

Strike dates are as follows:
Week 1 Thursday 22 and Friday 23 February
Week 2 Monday 26, Tuesday 27 and Wednesday 28 February
Week 3 Monday 5, Tuesday 6, Wednesday 7 and Thursday 8 March
Week 4 Monday 12, Tuesday 13, Wednesday 14, Thursday 15 and Friday 16 March

There will be pickets at all the major University of Sheffield buildings: Firth Court, Hicks, the Arts Tower, Jessop West, the IC, and probably a number of smaller buildings. Anyone wanting to know which pickets need support can go to the union office at 2 Hounsfield Road from 7.30 in the morning on strike days.

The main rally is at 12pm on Friday 23rd February outside Firth Court – there may be more as we go. Banners etc. strongly encouraged.

There’s also a teach out programme for the first five days – this will run for the duration of the strike and further flyers will follow.

Martin Mayer
Sheffield Trade Union Council