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The USS Valuation – Carry on with the Status Quo, or Remove Almost All Risk for the Employers and Make Pensions a Worse Deal for Members?

In July 2017 the press was full of the news that in March 2017 the defined benefit section of USS (the retirement income builder) had a deficit of £17.5 billion. This number was computed according to the rules for company accounts, and is not used by either the regulators or USS.

USS is now consulting employers on the assumptions to be used to value the scheme (its technical provisions). The resulting valuation is reported to the Pensions Regulator, and is also used by USS. In its annual accounts published in July 2017 USS reported an initial estimate of a deficit of £12.6 billion, but this has been revised down to an estimated deficit of £5.1 billion using the prudent valuation assumptions currently favoured by USS. Instead of using the pessimistic forecasts of USS, a different approach, which is supported by the UCU actuaries, is to value the scheme on the basis of ‘best estimates’ of future outcomes. If best estimates are used USS currently has a surplus of £8 billion.

In planning for the future, USS has put forward a self-imposed requirement which they call ‘Test 1’. This is a radical change to the policy pursued by USS since its formation over forty years ago. It involves making USS self-sufficient under almost all circumstances, which requires moving a substantial proportion of the assets from equities to bonds, thereby lowering the expected return on the scheme’s investments. To prevent these lower returns leading to a large deficit, either the total contribution rate must increase from 26% to 32% or 33%; or the same level of contributions to the defined benefit section must accrue lower benefits.

The options offered by USS to the employers in the consultation document all assume this shift of assets from equities to fixed income to de-risk the investments in compliance with Test 1. The three broad options offered are:-
1          Drop the employers’ 1% match for additional member contributions to the defined benefit section, and increase employer contributions from 18% to 22%, and member contributions from 8% to 10%.
2          The employers pledge additional security to USS, such as a charge on university assets.
3          Reduce the benefits accrued in future in the defined benefit section of USS.

USS is being very risk averse by adopting Test 1 and aiming to make the scheme self-sufficient with almost no chance it will ever have to call on the employers (and members) to make additional contributions.

We must wait to see what comes from of the USS consultation with the employers. Will they seek to radically change USS in order to make it self-sufficient under almost all circumstances and inevitably make members worse off, or will they accept the status quo and leave contribution rates and benefits unchanged, as recommended by the UCU actuaries?

The University of Southampton have publicly announced that they support the closure of the defined benefit section, with all future benefits accrued in the defined contribution section (the investment builder). This would place all the risk on the members, with the employers bearing zero risk. It will also very probably lead to substantially lower pensions for the same level of contributions, and make USS markedly inferior to the Teachers Pension Scheme which applies to the post-1992 universities. Other ideas being considered by the employers include lowering the salary cap from £55,500 to £20,000, and reducing the lump sum payment on retirement (currently three times the annual pension).


The Future of Higher Education

UCU Course: What is an investigation and how to write an effective grievance

Dear members,

Reading UCU is hosting a one day Regional course on 9th October 2017. This day course is entitled ‘What is an investigation and how to write an effective grievance’ .

Date: 9th October 2017
Time: 09:30 – 17:00
Location: London Road

This course is ideal for members who are caseworkers or involved in advising members.

BOOKING – If you are interested in this course please email our Regional Administrator, Pat Brooks, at Bookings will be on a first come, first served basis and there are approximately 20 places per session. Please advise Pat if you have any dietary needs or any other special requirements when you apply.

Thank you!

Thank you!


Excerpts from a message from Sally Hunt, President of the University and College Union:

The future of our profession

During the (recent, Presidential) election, I lost count of the senior staff who approached me to express concern about the fate of the next generation. Locked into exploitative employment with little or no job security, the current model used in …… HE has high expectations of young staff but gives little back to them. They need UCU most, yet their membership density remains low.

With your help, we want to do something about this. Let’s work together and build a trade union culture in low security areas – a culture where the union stands up for staff rights, bargains for better pay and conditions, and helps young staff to get the best out of their careers.

Pushing for better conditions from the bottom benefits both established members and the profession as a whole. We all know that this exploitative employment model is creeping upwards.

Effective from 1 October 2017, if you are a PhD student teaching in HE, ….., UCU will make your union membership free.We think this covers around 70,000 (mostly younger) staff – the majority of whom are struggling at the start of their academic careers.

It is a big offer and valid for four years (or until a more secure job is achieved). We need to remove every possible barrier in the way of young staff joining our union in the hope that positive, valuable, UCU experience will spark a lifetime habit.”

Joining only takes a few minutes:

Details on UCU CPD can be found here:

Sally Pellow, Branch Secretary, Speech to Congress 2017

We’ve had a rough couple of years at Reading. Our senior management wanted to make us ‘Effective and Efficient’.  To achieve this, they brought in PricewaterhouseCoopers, PwC, as external consultants. PwC in turn sent in quantities of shiny suits who appeared in droves on campus, calling three hour meetings with teams at short notice, and examining our processes, without explaining why. Staff were puzzled, defensive, irritated and stressed. Basic concepts – ‘what is a student’ – had to be explained over and over again. The PwC people had no previous experience of working with the HE sector.

The net result was that, as shown in the accounts, the University spent AT LEAST £36 million pounds, with most of that being pocketed by PwC. Public funds going to the private sector. The changes then introduced led to the voluntary redundancy of 200 admin staff, and at least a further 100 staff (these are rounded figures) leaving without a payoff, in many cases because they had reached the end of fixed term contracts. We calculated that on VR alone this equated to the loss of 2000 years of experience. The Branch was able to reduce the number of statutory redundancies to 3, though senior management then claimed this was a sign of caring leadership on their part.

The changes were that administration was centralised, pulling all admin staff out of departments and schools and putting them in support centres where roles were standardised across schools and staff could be interchangeable. With so many job losses, lots of these jobs were filled by temps from agencies. We were left with very few – if any – admin staff who had worked through the academic cycle. Building managers were dispensed with. Finance teams were all downgraded – and at the same time, management and control of budgets was moved from central Finance to schools. This led to problems.  Simple ordering processes which used to take two days from request to delivery now take six weeks. With no building managers, an undetected power failure in one Life Science building resulted in damage to research costing at least half a million pounds. Technicians were lost: but PwC explained that the glassware used in labs could be sent to central catering for washing up. No risk of cross-contamination there. Some of the extremely stupid decisions have now been reversed but the expertise is lost.

The warning signs, in retrospect, were clear. The University derecognised Unite and Unison a few years ago, leaving the vast majority of admin staff unrepresented by a trade union in collective negotiation. Lots of jobs were altered on fixed term contracts – all ending on the same day. As the plans became clearer, a well-honed explanation to staff emerged to hide the impact of the changes coming through. We set up and supported all-staff protests in solidarity with our unrepresented colleagues, and ran a very high profile vote of no confidence in our VC.

We know PwC are trotting round other Universities, showing slides of their work at Reading. We disagree with a lot of what we believe they are saying about the level of success. We need as a Union, to know where they are and who they are targeting next. We want to hear of what else they are getting wrong. We want to know if other staff are being demotivated, stressed, angered. We want to hear if other public funding is being paid to private sector consultants. And we feel this needs to be addressed at higher levels, at the National Audit Office.

RUCU Meeting to discuss the UCU e-ballot on higher education pay

Dear Members,
Hopefully you will all have seen recent correspondence from central UCU as to the live consultative e-ballot on pay.
Please note that this ballot will close on Friday 28th July.

In order to inform our members here at Reading UCU, we have organised a meeting with Denis Nicole, one of our Regional Reps on the Higher Education Committee. The meeting will take place:

 Date: Wednesday 19th July
Time: 13:00 – 14:00
Location: JJT RH  (This ‘Right Hand’ Lecture Theatre is on the ground floor of the JJ Thomson Building.  If you access the building through the main entrance opposite the Chaplaincy, please turn right down the corridor and pass the new student hub). JJ Thomson is building 3 on the campus map:
We will update you with any further information as and when we can, and we hope to see you all there Wednesday 19th July.
Thank you

Motion Passed at Congress: Use of consultants in HE – University of Reading

The Reading UCU Motion was passed at Congress 2017. Please see the final version below.

HE41  Use of consultants in HE – University of Reading

Conference notes a trend in university senior management to spend significant public funding on private sector consultancy firms, as evidenced by the £36m spend at Reading. These firms recommend the implementation of ready-made business solutions, inappropriate for the HE sector, which generate redundancies, de-skill the workforce and increase workload. Institutional expertise is ignored, devaluing the sector and demotivating staff. The HE sector should use its in-house expertise in order to achieve from its staff and arrive at recruitment, teaching, financial and other processes that buy-in are fit-for-purpose.

Conference calls on HEC to:

  1. investigate the increasing use of consultants in HE
  2. collect examples of recommendations that have already failed and been reversed
  3. investigate the additional stress caused to employees and the lowering of morale.

Conference further calls on HEC to:

  1. call on the National Audit Office and government to conduct value-for-money audits on consultancy spending across the HE sector.

Motion taken in parts.
Numbers 1-3 CARRIED
Bullet a. REMITTED


HE41A.1  Academic Related, Professional Staff Committee

In second sentence after ‘firms’, insert:  ‘utilise statistically suspect benchmarking methodologies and’.

At the end of point 1. insert before the semi-colon:

-‘for example: a) research which HEIs are using consultants eg. auditors, benchmarking and IT; b) Identify how much such institutions are spending on these consultancy services.’


Substantive motion

Conference notes a trend in university senior management to spend significant public funding on private sector consultancy firms, as evidenced by the £36m spend at Reading. These firms recommend the implementation of ready-made business solutions, inappropriate for the HE sector, which generate redundancies, de-skill the workforce and increase workload. Institutional expertise is ignored, devaluing the sector and demotivating staff. The HE sector should use its in-house expertise in order to achieve from its staff and arrive at recruitment, teaching, financial and other processes that buy-in are fit-for-purpose.

Conference calls on HEC to:

  1. investigate the increasing use of consultants in HE
  2. collect examples of recommendations that have already failed and been reversed
  3. investigate the additional stress caused to employees and the lowering of morale.


More details on Congress 2017 Motions can be found here:

Programme of RUCU Events – NRW w/c 15th May

The RUCU Committee has arranged the following events for National Recruitment Week (w/c 15th May). Please do come along to events that will be helpful to you and take the opportunity to meet members of the committee. Please also forward on details of these events to colleagues who will find the meetings useful. 

Tuesday 16th May 12:00 – 14:00. Recruitment Stall – HUMSS Ground Floor Foyer (or outside if it’s sunny!)
Find out what UCU can do for you!
Tuesday 16th May 13:00 – 14:00. Casual/Insecure Contracts at University of Reading. 


This open meeting is for all colleagues on casual or ‘atypical’ contracts (this includes hourly paid, fractional, only-research, only-teaching, variable-time). The UCU Committee at Reading is collecting information about the experience in different departments and schools,  and would like to discuss rates of payment, grade, and workload with staff members. Please do come along even if you are not on a casual contract, especially if you can share the experience of colleagues within your department. The UCU Committee is committed to improving the conditions for staff on insecure contracts. Please pass on this information to non UCU members.
Thursday 18th May 12:00 – 14:00. Recruitment Stall – HUMSS Ground Floor Foyer (or outside if it’s sunny!)
Find out what UCU can do for you!
Thursday 18th May 13:00 – 14:00. Bullying and Harassment Meeting


Please come along to this open meeting to learn about the issues of bullying and harassment. These issues may affect you directly, or you may be aware that they are affecting colleagues around you. This meeting will be run by a UCU Regional Official, and this will be a chance to ask questions and learn about proactive steps that can be taken for those facing bullying and harassment in the workplace. You can also learn how UCU will support you if you encounter these problems. Please note that all staff are welcome and you do not need to be a UCU Member to attend this meeting. 
Thursday 18th May 14:00 – 15:00. Bullying and Harassment Drop In/Workshop
This an opportunity for UCU members to book a slot to speak to a Regional Official on a one to one basis,  if you have concerns related to Bullying and/or Harassment for yourself or a colleague. Please contact to book a 10 minute slot.

RUCU AGM 2017: Wednesday 31st May

Dear Members,

The Reading UCU Annual General Meeting 2017 will take place:

Date: Wednesday 31st May

Time: 13:00-14:00

Location: HUMSS Van Emden.

Please make every effort to attend, especially as RUCU is celebrating its 70th year – a Union Branch was established here at Reading in 1947!

An agenda will be sent out nearer the time. If you want to raise anything under AOB, please let me know by Thursday 12th May and this can be included on the agenda. Please also get in touch if you would like a Nomination Form for Committee members and officers.  All positions are up for re-election every year and we would like to encourage you to think about joining the Committee and/or standing for one of the officer posts. We would particularly hoping that members who are working or have worked on a casual contract – zero hours, hourly-paid, part-time or fixed term – will be willing to bring that perspective to the Committee’s work, as this is currently an important area of focus for RUCU.

If you would like more information, there is a description of the responsibilities of the roles currently in the Local rules section of our website at in Appendix 5, or have a chat with one of the existing Committee members (names and contact details also on the website). You could also come along to one of our regular Drop In sessions (Thursdays, 13:00 – 14:00) where Committee members will be happy to talk to you about how you can help the Branch, whether as a Committee member or in some other way.

Anyone being nominated needs to give their written consent by completing the Nomination Form, which must also be signed by two RUCU members. Nominees and proposers must all be Branch members paying appropriate subs.

Please return the Nomination forms to me by 5.00pm on Thursday 4th May (Room 105, JJ Thomson Building, Whiteknights).

Thank you


Colette Maxfield

RUCU Branch Administrator /

Becoming a UCU Rep

Professor Eleanor Dickey became the UCU Rep for Classics in March 2017. We asked her to tell us a bit about her experience and why she undertook the role:

Becoming a UCU Rep

When it became clear last year that the university administration was going to impose new contracts on us all, force PAS through despite overwhelming opposition, and ignore a resounding vote of no confidence, I was as angry with the union as I was with the administration. Why, I asked myself, isn’t the union for which I pay all those dues doing more to protect us? But the answer was so obvious as to be painful: a union is only as strong as its active membership, and people like me, who paid our dues and thought that entitled us to full protection, were being completely unrealistic given the tiny number of people at Reading who actually do things on behalf of the union.

So I figured that if I wanted a strong union to protect me, I’d better help the union be strong, and I volunteered to help out. The Reading UCU branch administrator, a lovely woman named Colette, recommended some training courses in how to be a rep, which sounded like a sensible idea because if you end up facing the administration across a table, with other people’s futures in your hands, you would prefer to know what you are doing. In the end I did three training courses, Rep 1 and Rep 2 offered by the national UCU (each a 3-day class held in Oxford) and a day devoted specifically to casework (offered by the regional office and held at Reading). They were not, er, the best classes I’ve ever attended (to be honest I much prefer my own subject, which is why I went into it in the first place), but between them they did the job of equipping me to tackle the simpler end of union work, and along the way they enabled me to build up a network of union contacts at Reading and elsewhere.

Once I was trained Colette asked if I wanted to be an official rep; it would have been perfectly possible for me to say no, and no-one put me under any pressure (which was noble of them considering how short-staffed they are), but after some reflection I said yes. Now, therefore, my department has its own rep for the first time in as long as anyone can remember — and in the first week I signed up five new members simply by sending around an e-mail pointing out the benefits of union membership in the present uncertain climate.

But the really satisfying thing about being a rep is the casework, in which I have been able to make a positive difference to the lives of individual Reading academics while also gaining skills and confidence in dealing with the administration. Some dreadful things go on here, leaving members distraught, anguished, and confused, unable to find out why disaster is striking them. This can happen to anyone: you don’t have to have done anything wrong at all. Once, before coming to Reading, I was in that position myself, and I’ll never forget what it feels like not only to be in a terrible mess but to have no idea how you got there. You are completely isolated, unable to trust your friends (after all one of them may be the reason you are in this mess) and unable to decide what to do (since you may not even know what the root of the problem actually is). But a rep does not have those handicaps: the rep is backed by a solid support network and has the emotional detachment and external standing to conduct an investigation and find out what has actually happened to the poor member and why — and what to do about it. Such detective work is intellectually rewarding, like solving a problem in research, and at the same time emotionally rewarding, because you can make such a difference to the member. And once you’ve done this a few times for someone else you know how to do it, and you realize that if this kind of thing ever happens to you again, you’ll be able to help yourself as well. Which makes one feel a lot safer!

One thing that worried me before becoming a rep was whether I would be compelled to take on cases that I did not want because they would take too much time, or because they were too difficult, or because the member was manifestly in the wrong. But in fact no-one has put me under any pressure to take on particular cases; I am free to select ones that fit my skills, interests, and schedule, and also free to sit in on some of the meetings the more experienced caseworkers have with members whose cases are beyond my skills, in order to learn how tackle more complex issues.

In other words, becoming a rep has given me new skills and opportunities, but no fixed obligations. This is a pretty amazing deal, and it is open to all RUCU members. We need more reps — come give it a try, because you literally have nothing to lose and a lot to gain.

I would be more than happy to talk to anyone who wants to know more; I can be contacted at