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February, 2018:

180220 Latest update for Reading UCU members

Dear all,
This one is LONG.  Sorry.  Highlighted text should steer you through if you need to skim read.  Another email will follow about a general meeting on Monday, about the documents you might need, about a buddy system, and about the picketing.
You will all have had John Brady’s email about industrial action late yesterday afternoon: some of you will have arrived in to see it.  If you remember, I’d said yesterday that “at this stage the University will resort to using language that might come over as intimidating” and this email is a lovely example.  Combined with David Bell’s open letter, this is now time for us to stand up to this bullying, and stand together, hand in hand, to make it clear to senior management that we are not taking any of this lightly.
The email John Brady sent is also at, and, indeed, if you go to will find an article which links to the open letter, to John Brady’s two messages, and to a page which holds a pdf of the advice issued to students. I note that the advice to students has now been put behind a username controlled firewall. 
John says in his email that “if you wish to maintain your pension contributions during any period of industrial action in which you are participating please confirm your agreement by e-mail to no later than 12 noon on Wednesday 21 February 2018 to ensure that your pension cover remains in place during this period. Please note that this requirement is distinct from notification of participation in strike action and action short of strike outlined below.”  I have spoken to UCU Head office and they confirm that this is a USS arrangement, not a Reading policy.  You will all see the potential trap here: if you email John Brady to say you want your pension cover to remain in place, then you are declaring in advance that you are a member of the union, and that you are planning to take strike action.  John does say that the requirement is ‘distinct from’ notification of participation in strike action, which simply means that he’s asking you to email again to confirm that you have taken strike action – but there is no guarantee here that this information will not be used by the University to mitigate the action.  To quote the immortal Monty Python here, “our chief weapon is surprise” – well, we have far more weapons than that, but we will only achieve maximum disruption if nobody knows in advance that we will not be here.  UCU Head office advise that the amount of potential loss to your final pension by not declaring in advance is “tiny”.  Our advice is not to email John Brady in advance to say that you want to maintain your pension contributions. If, however, you do email him, please use the wording “Please note in the event I take part in industrial action either in the forthcoming dispute or in the future, I wish the University to maintain my pension contributions during that period.  Please note that this not a declaration of membership of UCU or any other trade union, nor is it a declaration of an intent to take industrial action.” This wording can be used by anyone – members or non-members.
In terms of confirming your participation in strike action, our advice is to email John Brady as requested as soon as possible after each period of strike action ends, to confirm that you have taken part.  I will send out a reminder after each period of strike action has completed: please then send your email to him as soon as possible after that.
John Brady says “that on resumption of full duties the University reserves the right to require relevant colleagues to prioritise missed work over other work”.  This is an empty statement.  In some cases it will not be possible to prioritise missed work over other work; in other cases it will be too late.  And in many cases, that’s exactly what you’ll be doing anyway – our staff have integrity and professionalism and a clear sense of the priorities of their roles. Bear in mind, too, that there may be no way of monitoring this in some cases. It’s just a sentence that is being used to bully us.
His approach to the definition of action short of a strike (ASOS) has actually softened slightly as he’s accepted that it’s a case of working to contract.  This does mean working to contract – it means that you’re working the hours you should work, you’re doing the job you’re paid to do, and you’re not taking on other things.  It’s a nebulous thing, a University contract: I know, for example, that if I was asked, for example, to clean the staff loos, I would know that it’s not what I’m paid to do, but on the other hand there might be some aspects of my role which I don’t generally do on a daily or even annual basis, but which I would not be surprised to be asked to take on.
Then he waves his fist a little about ‘partial performance’ and threatens to dock salaries by 10%.  Partial performance would be extremely difficult to prove and would rely on a line manager making a statement to HR about someone not carrying out their duties.  This would probably indicate further issues between you and your line manager, and would be something that we would be getting very involved in and would be defending on your behalf. So you can ignore that paragraph. 
In terms of confirming your participation in action short of a strike (ASOS), our advice is that there is no need to confirm this to John Brady as you are simply working to contract.  You are doing what you are paid to do and just not doing all the extra stuff that you do out of the goodness of your heart.  This is not a disciplinary matter: if you are doing the job you are paid to do, then the University hasn’t a snowball’s chance of taking disciplinary action.

Then, much to our amusement, he threatens to join us 
“as a party to any claim for breach of contract brought against the University as a result of this action”.  Good luck with that!  There has never been a successful case of doing this (and it’s only been tried once, in a colliery dispute in the early 20th century).
The big question is whether the University values us.  It doesn’t seem that way when threats are issued about joining us in legal action, or when threats are issued about docking pay and reserving the right to dock even more for people who have given their time and energy, above and beyond the expectations of their role, who have worked long and hard hours, and who are being told that the University cannot afford to pay them what was promised – but can pay 46 people over £100,000, and can spend £2.5m on a botched redundancy process, £36m on PAS and £53m on Malaysia.
Sally Pellow
Reading UCU

180216 Open letter to the VC Sir David Bell

Dear Sir David,

Many thanks for making public your position over the current pensions dispute. Although this is welcome, we are very concerned over apparent grave errors and omissions in your stated position. This is based on the following considerations to which we call on you to respond.

Firstly, and most importantly, neither yourself nor UUK have explained why they endorse the extreme degree of risk aversion applied in USS’s actuarial evaluation. The supposed deficit is an artefact of this, as in fact the scheme reaps more revenue in a given year than it pays out in pensions, and also has over £60bn in reserves. In the wake of the 2007-8 financial crisis, UK institutions have generally been asked to adopt a very conservative approach to meeting their pensions liabilities, which in effect asks, “If the organisation goes bankrupt, how will it meet its obligations?” Whilst this might be an appropriate scenario for an individual private company, like Rolls Royce or British Aerospace, it is wholly inappropriate for the University system which pools risk across 68 institutions. In the unlikely event that Reading were to go bankrupt, that is, under the current arrangements the other 67 institutions underwrite its staff’s pensions. This is a key reason why independent actuarial evaluation of USS conducted by First Actuarial gave USS a clean bill of health, concluding “The current employers’ contribution rate of 18% of pensionable pay, of which 15.1% goes towards defined benefits, is prudent. The asset income which is required, in addition to contributions, to pay the benefits in full is low. Indeed, in a scenario of “best estimate” pay rises, the benefits of the USS can very nearly be paid from contributions, without reliance on the assets.”

Please could you therefore explain why UUK have not pointed this out to USS or the pensions regulator, instead of endorsing a “one size fits all” approach which is wholly inappropriate for the HE sector? We also call on you to explain to staff why very different assumptions were adopted in UUK’s commissioned evaluation of its proposed alternative, when as had been pointed out here, applying a consistent approach would more than eliminate the supposed deficit. If the same assumptions were applied to USS, the situation could be resolved simply by agreeing to use this approach. On the face of it, this inconsistency, and the inclusion of the state pension into the estimated benefits from its own scheme, amounts to transparent duplicity on the part of UUK and a crude insult to the intelligence of University staff.

You estimate that UCU’s counter proposal, which was not intended as a fixed position but to get UUK to engage in meaningful negotiation, would cost £500m per year, but neglect to mention that any increased costs would be shared across the 68 institutions, or that Reading is a relatively small University. Please could you therefore estimate a realistic figure for Reading and give full details of how you arrive at it? Staff exposed to the extravagant “Limitless” campaign may find it hard to believe that funds could not be found to secure the future of academic staff into retirement, especially when the University has recently written off over £50m for the Malaysia campus and has wasted £36m on management consultants for the chaotic and dysfunctional PAS restructuring. This would be even more affordable if the University system also stopped squandering precious resources on competitive building projects, which, like the internal advertising, amount to a colossal negative sum game for the system as a whole.

We are aware that getting defined benefit pensions obligations off University books will probably enable more money to be borrowed for such purposes, which is widely understood to be part of the motive for UUK’s uncompromising and non-negotiating stance. Regarding that stance, your letter goes to great lengths to depict UCU as intransigent, whilst anyone following the negotiations will know that UUK have consistently refused to engage with any proposal but their own. We think you owe staff an explanation, for example, of why despite repeated requests, UUK refused to specify which combination of changes they would be prepared to accept in order to preserve the guaranteed pension.

Your letter also does not address the likelihood that the UK will not be able to continue recruiting and retaining high quality academic staff with a third rate pension scheme, given the time out of pensions contributions that academics spend getting their higher degrees, conjoined with the now transparent injustice of very high levels of remuneration accruing to senior management. This comes alongside wider erosions of conditions of work and the political uncertainty surrounding Brexit. Instead of using such a crisis climate to dispense with defined pensions obligations, a responsible approach would be to temper any decline in attractiveness of UK HE by committing to maintain defined benefits pensions.

Finally, we urge you to reconsider UUK’s uncritical acceptance of the one size fits all approach to pensions fund evaluation, and also to endorse a consistent approach to evaluation, across UCU, USS and UUK proposals. If so, we believe you could make an enormous difference to the outcome of this dispute, thanks to your influential position as Vice President of UUK and contacts in Whitehall. Such influence should be used to the benefit of academic staff and students, and the UK University system as a whole, not to further an agenda of privatisation and associated offloading of responsibilities.

Yours sincerely

RUCU committee.

USS Meeting with Sally Hunt 8th February 14:00

USS Factsheet

Letter from Reading UCU to Sir David Bell 26 Jan 18

Reading UCU in the Top 10!