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UCU Left, the Socialist Workers Party, and National Executive Committee Elections

At the UCU Higher Education Committee (HEC) meeting on 12 January, members of the UCU Left faction voted for an indefinite strike starting 1 February. Only two days previously a meeting of UCU branch delegates (BDM) voted almost 2:1 to reject this proposal, with less than one third favouring an indefinite strike. Thanks to UCU Left it is now union policy that the views of a BDM should give a ‘strong steer’ to the next meeting of HEC, yet the UCU Left faction deliberately flouted this prescription and ignored the majority view. Why did those who claim to advocate a ‘democratic’ and ‘member-led’ union so egregiously ignore the views of the majority of union members, as reported at the BDM? And how do their actions relate to the policies and objectives of the UCU Left candidates who are standing in the current elections to the UCU National Executive Committee? 

Socialist Workers Party influence in UCU Left

To answer those questions, we have to dig a little deeper into the origins and objectives of UCU Left. With its own website, regular posts, occasional meetings, AGMs (the most recent on October 6), lists of candidates for union office and an annual membership fee of up to £30, UCU Left is an exceptionally well-organized trade union faction.[1] Less well-known, and absent from its website, is the fact that it was initiated and has always been controlled by the Socialist Workers Party (SWP)[2], a small Trotskyist organization dedicated to the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism and the suppression of parliamentary democracy.[3]

Whilst many UCU Left candidates are not members of the SWP, and may not even support that organization, the core leadership of UCU Left comprises long-standing members of the SWP who control and direct factional policy in line with, and under the guidance of, senior members of their party. 

This is nothing new – the SWP internal bulletin discussed their strategy as long ago as 2007 (see p27 for ‘Our work in UCU – a balance sheet’). In the same bulletin a statement from the SWP Central Committee stated “Every comrade elected to a union post is accountable first to the party caucus and the SWP generally. ….we cannot allow bureaucratic pressure to blunt our politics”

For the SWP, trade unions are ‘schools of war’ and strike action is the principal mechanism through which ‘non-revolutionary workers begin to change their thinking.’ The SWP describes itself as ‘a party of leaders’, the vanguard of the working class, whose role is to give ‘direction to the struggles around them’ in order to help fuse ‘militant workplace action and revolutionary politics’ and ‘recruit people to revolutionary organization [the SWP]’.[4] Trade union action alone is inadequate for workers because it does not set out ‘to destroy the [capitalist] system.’[5] In contrast, the reason most university employees join a union is for ‘protection at work in case of a problem’. Their purpose in undertaking collective action is to secure an improvement in terms and conditions of employment through a negotiated agreement with the employers. SWP activists are far less interested in these issues and wary of negotiated agreements that end disputes; they are far more concerned to press for total victory and typically dismiss anything less as a ‘sell out’ by the ‘union bureaucracy’. Above all they seek to promote strikes as the means for developing class consciousness and building the revolutionary party, the sine qua non for the revolutionary seizure of power.[7]

Effect on UCU industrial action strategy

Within UCU, it had become clear by 2017 that the pattern of short one-day strikes, pursued through successive bargaining rounds 2019-20 and 2021-22, was having very little impact. A Commission on Effective Industrial Action was established the same year, but successful mobilization by UCU Left resulted in its numerical domination of that newly-created body. What the Commission should have done was examine the various forms of leverage open to the union, such as assessment boycotts and disruption of university events and income streams, and the causes of UCU weakness, such as low union density: less than 40 per cent of university employees are members of a trade union. Despite some valuable recommendations on dispute planning, its main thrust was to frame the debate about collective action as a choice between short strikes and marking boycotts (ineffective) versus ‘sustained strike action’ (effective).  

The first fruits of this policy emerged in 2018 in response to the employers’ plan to destroy the USS defined benefit pension scheme and replace it with an inferior defined contribution scheme. 14 days of strike action persuaded employers to retain defined benefit pensions and secured the establishment of an independent, Joint Expert Panel to examine and report on the protection and improvement of the existing pension scheme. When the General Secretary declared these outcomes to be a win, UCU Left was repelled by anything less than total victory and horrified at the prospect of a cessation of strike action. Its online posts declared that a ‘growing number’ of branch meetings had rejected the ‘sell out’ settlement. Average attendance at these meetings was just 8 per cent and their unrepresentativeness became clear when a ballot of all UCU members accepted the union recommendation by a clear 2:1 majority on a substantial 64 per cent turnout.

Effect on UCU democracy

What also became clear in the pensions dispute is that when UCU Left talks about a ‘member-led’ union, what it actually means is an organization led by the small minority (perhaps around five per cent) who regularly attend branch meetings. These are typically the more active and more militant members whose views are more likely to coincide with the policies of UCU Left, in contrast to the ‘median’ union member, many of whom, in the dismissive words of SWP founder Tony Cliff, were ‘uninformed and conservative’.[8] The bias towards an activist minority helps explain why UCU Left is content with poorly attended meetings and deeply hostile to the idea of membership surveys or referenda. The UCU Left candidates’ manifesto for the 2023 NEC elections includes the following, which shows their attitude to participation and engagement remains unchanged (emphasis added): 

“Union democracy is not just right in principle. It is the best way to maximise members’ unity in action and the only way to win. Members have a right to decide what action they take and what kind of deal will end the dispute. These decisions must be taken as a result of proper debate, not on the basis of survey questions written at Head Office.”

This reflects the vanguardist approach of the SWP: claiming to be for greater democracy while opposing attempts, by central office or branch committees, to engage with less active members, who are expected to follow unquestioningly the activist vanguard.

The example provided by the University of Manchester branch, UCU’s second largest with over 2000 members, provides further insights. For years the branch was almost faction free and made increasing use of e-surveys to consult, inform and mobilise members while successfully fighting off hundreds of compulsory redundancies in 2015 and 2017 and playing a leading role in the 2018 USS dispute. For example, in March 2018 over 800 members responded to a pre-BDM e-survey (held after a meeting attended by around 200) asking their views about UUK’s offer to set up the USS Joint Expert Panel in return for a suspension of further USS strikes.  

However, in 2019, an SWP member, David Swanson, became branch president, the UCU Left website boasted that the branch had been taken over from the “right-wing” IBL faction, and use of e-surveys more or less ended. Instead, in January 2020, after he and his supporters had rejected another e-consultation on the basis that complicated issues must be debated in person and could not be reduced to binary questions, Swanson reported that 85-90% of members had voted for 14 more days of strikes and making resolution of the USS and ‘Four Fights’ disputes dependent on each other – all on the basis of three 20 minute meetings attended by a total of 40 members, less than 2% of the branch. The latest pre-BDM branch meeting this January was better attended (130 equal to 7% of the branch) but again there was no e-survey of the wider membership.

(In)Effectiveness of recent strikes

In 2019-20 and again in 2021-22, UCU Left delegates argued for further rounds of sustained collective action, and the union took a grand total of 50 days strike action in the USS and ‘Four Fights’ disputes before they petered out in summer 2022. The strikes achieved almost nothing and, more worryingly, revealed clear evidence of union weakness. The number of branches with strike turnouts above 50 per cent declined steadily between 2018 and April 2022; over 40 per cent of members regularly abstained from the ballots; and strike action was heavily concentrated in the ‘old’ universities with involvement from less than 20 per cent of new universities.

The UCU Left policy of ‘sustained strike action’ had clearly failed to move the employers and clearly failed to mobilize large swathes of union membership. Yet UCU Left leaders were undeterred by these problems because of their ideological commitment to the strike as a weapon of class struggle and class consciousness raising. Consequently, the UCU Left members on HEC, who together with a few other independent members hold a controlling majority, voted in November 2022 for indefinite strike action, without any reflection on why ‘sustained strike action’ had failed and without any analysis of likely membership support for the new policy since there had been no consultation with members or branches about indefinite strikes. Their incuriosity about membership attitudes is arguably a reflection of their crude model of leadership: if the militant minority can pass branch and conference motions in favour of strike action, then the majority of members will follow union policy. The reality is that members need to be persuaded and many members think for themselves, about strike outcomes and costs and about the balance of power. Effective leadership involves continual dialogue between different groups in an organization in order to build consensus, not edicts from revolutionary minorities at poorly attended meetings.

Conclusion and NEC elections

In short, UCU Left is an organization built and controlled by Trotskyist militants who are contemptuous of collective bargaining and collective agreements. They are keen to exploit poorly attended meetings and to work with militant minorities in order to promote strike action wherever possible. Strike action may achieve substantive gains in terms and conditions but for the Trotskyist core of UCU Left, the principal benefits of strike action are to be found in the development of class consciousness and the building of the revolutionary party, the SWP. Their primary loyalty is always to the party, not to UCU, and union members may want to consider this fact when voting in the NEC elections.


[1] Information from UCU Left website, https://uculeft.org/, accessed 13 January 2023.

[2] In an interview with John Kelly around six years ago, SWP member Jane Hardy confirmed that UCU Left’s 15-person executive committee normally included 11-12 SWP members; and pre-Covid, three SWP leaders of UCU Left on NEC, Sean Wallis, Sean Vernell, and Carlo Morelli, were observed meeting with the SWP industrial organiser, Mike Bradley, in a café nearby UCU’s Carlow Street offices before they went to the UCU Left caucus meeting in another café before NEC meetings.

[3] See ‘What We Stand For’ in any issue of Socialist Worker. 

[4] Final quote from Socialist Worker 11 January 2023, p.7; others from J. Choonara and C. Kimber, Arguments for Revolution: the case for the Socialist Workers Party, Bookmarks, 2011, pp. 42, 47, 81 and 82.

[5] A. Callinicos, The Revolutionary Road to Socialism: What the Socialist Workers Party Stands For, Bookmarks, 1983, p. 35.

[6] SWP Pre-Conference bulletin 2 (2007) Pay, Brown and the fight in the Unions, Statement from Central Committee p,5.

[7] See ‘What We Stand For’ in any issue of Socialist Worker. 

[8] T. Cliff, The Crisis: Social Contract or Socialism, Pluto Press, 1975, p. 182.

Our advice for HE Special Sector Conference 9th September

It scarcely needs to be said, but we are facing an unprecedented crisis within Higher Education. Our workloads are increasing daily, our pay and the terms and conditions of our employment are gradually being chipped away, and the old promise of jam tomorrow – in the form of a generous pension – is fading with every passing day. We are due to meet this week for a Special Higher Education Sector Conference, where UCU will make monumental decisions regarding the way in which we stand up to these threats. At that SHESC there are three specific motions being debated that we believe are vital to setting us on the right course

Our members have shouldered an enormous burden these past few years; out on strike for 22 days during the 2019/20 academic year, followed immediately by the onslaught of the pandemic. It is not defeatist to admit that we are exhausted, pushed to breaking point by a system that cares little for us, or our futures. The fact that we are tired doesn’t mean that we will give up without a fight, and we all burn with a collective outrage at the injustices that pervade academia. But we must be realistic about the size of the challenge that we face, and the damage that will be done if we adopt the wrong approach when we resist. We cannot go on strike simply for the sake of striking. The motions described below – and which we urge you to support – have been proposed not because we wish to avoid taking industrial action, but instead to maximise the impact of any strike. We cannot ask our members to come out again, as they did in 2019/20, to sacrifice over a months’ wages without achieving a single concession from the employers. 

To try to ensure that the next wave of industrial action leads to meaningful change, we ask that delegates from every eligible UCU branch attending SHESC support the following motions. 

Motion 11 calls for UCU to keep the two disputes separate, to maximise the chances of a victory in each. Please support Motion 11

While the battle over USS and the Four Fights – over pay, equality, casualisation and workload – are of equal importance, they are nonetheless two different disputes. By tying them together into a single industrial action, we simply make a win more difficult. 

Imagine, for a moment, that we follow the same course as 2019/20, and bind USS and the Four Fights into a single dispute. Co-ordinated action may impact a greater number of employers, but reaching a joint resolution on both issues presents an almost impossible challenge to our negotiators. Improvements to pay and conditions will need to be agreed at Joint Negotiation Committee for Higher Education Staff (JNCHES), and will involve employers from across the sector, as well as representatives from the five trades unions representing HE staff. The future of USS, on the other hand, involves only the pre-92 Universities, will be decided at an entirely different negotiation forum, made up of entirely different partners – including the USS Trustee, working within a regulatory framework set by the UK government. 

By linking the two disputes together, we make a win in each much more difficult. Imagine a situation where our JNCHES negotiators force important concessions from the employers on pay and conditions, but at the same time negotiations over our pensions break down. If both disputes are tied together, then we will all have to stay out on strike until both negotiations bear fruit. A pay offer for the entire sector could end up being rejected, simply because of the intransigence of the USS Trustee. Is it truly an act of solidarity for the interests of the entire sector to be sacrificed, simply to protect the pensions of the pre-92 universities? Likewise, should the complex negotiations over USS be further complicated by the need to find a simultaneous resolution to the workload and casualisation crisis?

All HE branches are entitled to vote on Motion 11. 

Motion 1 calls for UCU to take time to organise for victory, rather than rush into a poorly planned strike on USS. Please Support Motion 1

Since the Spring of 2020, the vast majority of us have been working from home, often isolated from friends, colleagues, and students. For many, the last time that we met in person was on the picket lines of the last strike, which feels like an age ago. The financial impact of the pandemic has seen mass redundancies across the sector, meaning that our branch membership may seem very different to what it did back in March of last year. 

If we are to effectively organise for action, then we need time to re-build our branches. Reaching the turnout threshold for an industrial action ballot is a challenge at the best of times, and to attempt to do so without sufficient time and resources will place us at a serious disadvantage. Should we rush to a ballot, and fail to make the threshold, then this will only embolden the employers. If we are to win this dispute, we must ensure that we are prepared, and passing Motion 1 will allow our elected representatives on the Higher Education Committee (HEC) the time to work with branches to properly prepare for victory. 

Finally, Motion B4 helps UCU prepare for the next stage in the USS negotiations, exploring long-term options for the future of the scheme.Please support Motion B4

The employers representative, UUK, has indicated a willingness to explore Conditional Indexation (or Conditional Benefits) as a possible means of ensuring the long-term viability of USS. Some of our pensions negotiators think that this could be an option that would allow USS to continue as a collective, mutual, multi-employer scheme with an ability to invest for the long term in growth-seeking assets. 

It is likely that the employers will propose this as an option in future negotiations, and it is therefore essential that UCU has a thoroughly researched view on the issue. Motion B4 does not commit the union to supporting Conditional Indexation, but it does enable the union to explore the feasibility of the policy, so that members are able to engage in a well-informed debate on the subject. 

Industrial action, in defence of both our pensions and our pay and conditions, is now inevitable. Rarely have the stakes been higher, and the need greater to ensure that the withdrawal of our labour has the maximum impact. 

Please ensure that your branch sends a full complement of delegates to SHESC and votes YES on Motions 1, B4 and 11.

Delegates will be asked to respect the long-established convention that only delegates from USS institutions vote on motions which relate to USS, including Motion 1 and Motion B4

UCU Politics and Strategy: What next?

A contribution to debate from

Adam Ozanne, University of Manchester

John Kelly, Birkbeck College

Dyfrig Jones, Bangor University

Within two years, UCU has gone from famous victory to painful and costly defeat. How has this happened, who is responsible, and how can the union – with little to show for 22 days of strikes and lost pay – recover from this setback and rebuild for the future?

In 2018, UCU was riding high. Fourteen days of strikes forced employers to abandon their plans to get rid of Defined Benefit USS pensions and agree to the creation of a Joint Expert Panel (JEP) to settle technical arguments over the methodology used by USS to value the pension fund. In September that year, the Panel’s first report (JEP1) found that relatively modest increases in contributions – from 8% to 9.1% for employees and from 18% to 20.1% for employers – would be sufficient to maintain the existing level of benefits.

There can be little doubt that this was viewed by most members of UCU as a major win. In April 2018, 64% voted in an e-ballot with a record 64% turnout to suspend strikes and set up the JEP, a clear vindication of UCU’s criticisms of the USS Executive, whose valuation methodology exaggerated the size of the deficit, and of employers, who had been overly eager to get rid of DB and shift pensions’ risk on to members’ shoulders with a 100% Defined Contribution (DV) scheme. Continue reading

Using the Race Equality Charter as a catalyst for change

Professor Kalwant Bhopal and co-author Clare Pitkin at the launch of the report

The 19th September saw UCU launch a major report on how to challenge and improve the HE sector’s record on race equality. Co-authored by Kalwant Bhopal and Clare Pitkin of Birmingham university it analyses the real impact that engaging with the Race Equality Charter promoted by AdvanceHE, formerly the Equality Challenge Unit, could have, if resourced adequately and handled robustly.

The report, downloadable here outlines the findings of a unique investigation into how the Race Equality Charter Mark (REC) impacts on quality policy and inclusion in Higher Education in England. Despite being restricted to England, the findings of the report can undoubtedly have wide implications for HEIs elsewhere in the UK.

Based on 45 in-depth interviews with individuals with a wide range of roles working in HEIs, some of which have achieved the charter mark and some which are only considering applying, or are in the process of doing so, the report has a number of key findings worth discussing widely. In addition to this, the interview extracts provided, give an invaluable insight into the realities of of trying to move towards achieving a charter mark for race equality.

Amongst the findings are that access to resources such as dedicated staff to work in this area, can be key in whether the process is taken seriously or even gets underway; investment from senior management is key in highlighting the importance of work in this area; a clear focus could be provided by the process if undertaken correctly; addressing the BME attainment gap and understanding the lived experiences of BME students was a key undertaking for success as was investigation of the recruitment, retention and progression of BME staff. The final two findings were the need for the charter to be linked to cultural and behavioural change and that steps needed taken to address the ‘fear of race’ as an area for discussion.

Amongst the key recommendations are that achievement of the REC should be linked to UKRI funding in the same way as applications in the biomedical area are expected to have achieved a silver Athena Swan award. Mandatory unconscious bias training for all senior staff in HEIs is recommended (but importantly – not as a ‘sop’ for the real challenging of attitudes) as is the finding that HEIs should have a member of senior staff championing Equality and Diversity whose role would be separate and different from that of Equality and Diversity officers. The role of annual reviews and monitoring also features heavily in the recommendations together with improving professional development for BME staff and the phasing-in of applications for the different levels of the charter mark.

Finally, and importantly HEIs are recommended to encourage and develop safe environments to discuss racism something which links in with the theme of addressing the fear of race, mentioned above.

A strength of the report is the wide range of interviews with individuals involved in the process of achieving the REC mark,  or who are involved in the consideration of future work towards it. Some of the extracts given below will ring true with UCU members all over the UK.

On the consideration of how collecting data, can often overshadow the chance to actually make change, one respondent reported:

[…]there are a lot of good things that have come out in the questions of monitoring, evaluating, collecting data, which we never did in the past, so that’s a big step forward. But what do we do with that data? So you monitor and evaluate, but what are the systems? Are you creating innovative new things to address those issues and that’s a big gap. You know, people are building processes [ ] but there is a vacuum on leadership, a vacuum on ideas (p26)

On the effect that redundancies and staff losses cause to the successful implementation of action in this area, another respondent outlined:

We’ve just gone through a massive cost reduction exercise where we have actually made twenty percent of our support staff redundant, and we just don’t have any flex in any of our structure, so we have absolutely nobody dedicated full-stop to equality and diversity, let alone to add on somebody who can take an active role in preparation of Athena Swan information [for example]. (p27)

The report doesn’t shirk some of the difficult realities of attitudes found in HEIs and points out that despite HEIs being proactive in positively addressing the BME attainment gap, participants highlighted the negative attitudes of staff towards BME students. This was also related to a lack of understanding of particular issues that may impact of their experiences at HEIs as well as the impact of intersecting issues (such as gender and class). P34

The report strongly argued the need to find a safe space to discuss issues of race openly: Many respondents from BME backgrounds mentioned that they felt the REC would enable individuals to discuss issues of race and racism openly. A culture which encouraged a ‘fear of race’ was paramount in HEIs and discussing race was seen as a taboo subject.

Furthermore there was an assumption from all staff that addressing issues of equality and diversity was the responsibility of BME staff rather than all staff:

I think also the thing that I find when it comes to things about race…it’s seen as an ethnic minority issue, so people who are of the majority groups who are white don’t see race as something they necessarily champion. So if you see things to do with race or that sort of thing, it’s always the ethnic minority people who are really involved in it and I don’t think it kind of reaches to the wider white population that race is also something that is their responsibility. You know race isn’t just about black people or Asian people or Chinese people, everybody is sort of racialised in one way or the other. But it’s kind of left to people of the ethnic minorities to sort of champion race issues. p39

On the day of the launch, the report was attacked in the Mail Online by a Professor from (the private) Buckingham University claiming that he was  ‘horrified at the disrespect shown by the proposals’ and that this was ‘a very concerning development and embodies extreme prejudice’

Hmm. For me this shows the report is spot on, and deserves not just wide dissemination and discussion, but also to be acted on by our members throughout the whole of the sector.


Professor Kalwant Bhopal is the author of White Privilege – the myth of a post-racial society. Published by Policy Press in April 2018

The JEP report and it’s implications – some first thoughts

Following the report of the Joint Expert Panel on USS on 13th September, UCUAgenda asked Douglas Chalmers, Chair of the HEC, to give some first impressions on the report.

“I welcome the publication of this report. I think two things stand out – firstly it’s a vindication of our members refusal to accept the scrapping of our Defined Benefits Scheme and the shift to DC – now off the table completely as a result of the hard fought campaigns through the 14 days of strike action. Having just returned from the TUC yesterday, where our delegation made some key contributions in debate, I was asked to pass on congratulations of more than one union for the example our members delivered to the whole movement in this campaign. Secondly I think that the fact that the report is unanimous, including the views of both the managements Actuarial firm Aon, and our own First Actuarial, vindicated the fact that there is an alternative to the bankrupt view which USS and the pensions regulator were trying to push onto us all, and which we have now roundly rejected.

Branches now need to meet and discuss and feed their point of view into the debate, which both our Superannuation Working Group and our National Disputes committee will take forward – the latter meeting for the first time on October 5th. And colleagues should not forget the Special Conference on November 1st where these issues will be further debated, together with our views on the current Pay campaign.”

Report of the Joint Expert Panel examining the 2017 Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) evaluation – September 2018. Available from here

This outlines the unanimous conclusions of the Joint Expert Panel set up by UCU and UUK, the university employers, following endorsement of this approach by 64% of the UCU members in the scheme.

Below I’ve highlighted some of the key contents of the report (the emphases in bold are my own):

Joanne Seghers, the chair suggests  in her introduction that if followed, the recommendations reduce the valuation estimates of the scheme to a point where it may be possible to reach agreement on the issues faced by the scheme:

On the basis of our analysis we have made a number of recommendations, the overall effect  of which would be to reduce the valuation estimates of the future service cost and deficit to  the point where the increase is small enough to allow the Joint Negotiating Committee  (JNC) to be able to reach an agreement so that the issues currently facing the Scheme can  be resolved, recognising that compromise may be needed on all sides. p5  

She continues: 

We recommend that the JNC and the Trustee come together to work at speed to agree a  process that will enable any changes resulting from our recommendations to be  implemented early in 2019. It will, of course, be for UCU and UUK (through the JNC and  their respective democratic structures) to determine the best way forward 

And adds:

This report is confined to the issues relating to the 2017 valuation, as defined in our Terms of Reference (ToR).  However, it is clear from our assessment of the issues that further work is required. This  should aim at delivering an approach to future valuations that is clear (and clearly  understood by stakeholders) and which can deliver both a sustainable Scheme and a shared  set of principles 

Some extracts from the report itself are below:

The remit:

This report focuses on the first phase of the Joint Expert Panel’s (JEP’s) ToR, namely to review the basis for the Scheme’s 2017 valuation, assumptions and associated tests.  This has included:   

A review of the 2017 valuation to date, including an assessment of the methodology, assumptions and process underpinning it; and exploring the scope for possible revisions to the methodology and assumptions to  allow the valuation to be completed without invoking cost sharing through rule  76.4-8 of the Scheme Rules.    

In undertaking its work, the JEP has been asked to take into account:  

the unique nature of the HE sector;
considerations of intergenerational fairness and equality;
the need to strike a fair balance between stability and risk; and  
the current legal and regulatory framework.   

The JEP has not, in this phase of its work, considered valuations beyond the 2017 
valuation. That would be the subject of a follow up report. However, we have taken the 
opportunity in this report to suggest areas for future investigation and consideration.  p6

The JEP itself has had 11 day long meetings between May – Sept, with 11 oral evidence sessions and considered 55 submissions from scheme members and participating employers.

On the considerations of the three ‘tests’ used by USS to assess the valuation, and particularly in relation to Test 1, which many have focused on as one of the key problems in the current valuation, the report says:

  • The Panel has spent a significant amount of time understanding and assessing the 
    three Tests, and Test 1 in particular. The Panel has concluded that the outputs of Test  1, while very specific and quantitative, are highly sensitive to the input assumptions,  many of which are very subjective. Consequently, we believe that Test 1 is given too  much weight in determining the valuation and its effects extend beyond its original  purpose. Rather than being used as a “stop and check” reference point, Test 1 is being  used as a constraint on benefit design and driver of investment strategy. The Panel  does not consider this helpful. It would be far better if Test 1, were its use to continue,  was used as a test that informed other aspects of the valuation and funding strategy  rather than acting as its lynchpin  (my emphasis) p8
  • On the valuation process and governance, the report states (p9):
  • One of the unique features of USS is its governance structure. Amongst other things, 
    this gives the Trustee unique powers through a unilateral right to set contributions  (subject to consultation). It is beyond the scope of this report to examine whether this  should change, but clearly the process does need to be managed more effectively in  terms of interaction with, and gaining the support and confidence of, employers and  members.  
  • With respect to assessing employer covenant, the Panel acknowledges it is not a  simple task to consult with 350 different institutions or to ascertain their risk appetite –  a consultation will inevitably generate a wide range of views and possible outcomes.  However, the framing and context of the questions asked of employers have, in our  view, produced misleading results. These results have been distilled into a single  number which feeds into Test 1, and which in turn affects contribution requirements,  future Scheme benefits, the investment strategy and the estimated deficit. These are  outcomes which, on exploration, appear to be inconsistent with many employers’  wishes.  p10 (my emphasis)

  The report goes on to say:

  • There is no formal mechanism for involving Scheme members in the valuation process or assessing their appetite for risk. This is of great relevance in the USS context given  the existence of cost sharing when additional contributions are required. It is beyond  the scope of this report to consider how member involvement could be achieved, but  this is an unresolved issue for the management of the Scheme.  

In consideration of future adjustment, the report states:

The Panel has developed five principles against which adjustments could be  considered 

  1. A re-evaluation of the employers’ willingness and ability to bear risk – this 
    would mean re-assessing the reliance on sponsor covenant.  
  2. Adopting a greater consistency of approach between the 2014 and 2017  valuations – this would mean changing the approach to deficit recovery contributions.  
  3. Achieving greater fairness and equality between generations of Scheme 
    members – this would mean smoothing future service contributions.  
  4. Ensuring the valuation uses the most recently available information – this would 
    mean using latest available data and taking account of recent investment 
    considerations and outcomes. 
  5. Taking the uniqueness of the Scheme and the HE sector more fully into 
  • The Panel believes that making adjustments in each of these areas would have a  material impact on the scale of the 2017 deficit and resulting contribution increases.  We also believe this would create a space within which employer and members can  find common ground so that the issues around the valuation can be reconciled. It is  also our view that the adjustments proposed are consistent with the Trustee’s  fiduciary duties and the objectives of the Regulator.  (my emphasis)
  • If agreed and implemented, these changes would avoid the need for the very steep contribution increases envisaged in the Scheme Rule 76.4-8 (cost sharing) process.  This would create the space for the stakeholders, through the JNC, to consider  some of the longer term issues facing the Scheme and establish a stable platform  for a further review of the Scheme by the Panel.  (my emphasis)

Looking forward the panel suggests:

  • We have also made recommendations as to revisions to the 2017 approach that would enable the 2017 valuation to be concluded, whilst creating some space for the Trustee and JNC to consider the necessary short and longer term reforms to the  Scheme.  
  • However, it is clear that there are a number of issues that remain to be resolved. Whilst  the JEP has commented on the many elements of the valuation, we have not opined on whether there is a different way of reaching a conclusion that could provide long term  stability to the valuation process and have the support and confidence of all parties.  The Panel believes this should be a core element of the second phase of its work.   
  • The second phase of work should also include a wider review of the approach and involvement of UUK and UCU in future valuations so that a more collaborative  approach can be adopted and industrial action, such as that witnessed earlier this year,  can be avoided. This would require examining the interaction of the various bodies with  a formal role in the valuation process; considering the potential for the involvement of  Scheme members in the valuation process; and considering how more effective  engagement with employers can be achieved.   (my emphasis)
  • We have recommended that in view of the need to start to prepare for the 2020 
    valuation, work on Phase 2 should start as soon as possible. However, this work will  require a firm foundation and cannot, therefore, be concluded until the 2017 valuation  itself is concluded.

Some further extracts from the JEP’s findings during their investigation:

On Test 1:

  • Whilst a test of self sufficiency and employer reliance is a useful principle for the basis  of a valuation, Test 1’s formulation, application and implementation is very rigid with  the result that Test 1 has led to a valuation that is model driven rather than model  informed. As suggested by other commentators, alternative ways of arriving at a  valuation of technical provisions are open to USS and should be explored.  
  • Test 1 drives the investment strategy towards a low return investment strategy that  results in a higher deficit and higher contributions than would be the case if the current  investment strategy were maintained.   
  • The Panel believes that the Scheme’s advisers have put forward a clear, reasoned, well evidenced and positive analysis of the sector which provides overwhelming support for  the assessment that the covenant is strong.  
  • However, it is not clear that the employers’ appetite for risk has been assessed  appropriately, particularly in relation to the delicate balance between investment risk,  funding levels and contribution levels.   
  • USS’s approach to meeting Test 1 implies a de-risking of assets. A number of other  paths are open to USS and could be explored.    
  • The assumption of gilt yield reversion has become the focus of attention for some critics  who believe that USS’s assumptions are too optimistic. However, so long as USS holds a  diversified (i.e not ‘de-risked) portfolio, the failure of gilt yields to revert will be  accompanied by a change in the expected returns on other assets. The assumption of  reversion is by no means as critical as some observers believe.
    (Summary page 24)

Effects on contributions:

Here the panel suggests that

  • Based on the Panel’s understanding of cost sharing, the contributions without matching  could result in member contributions of 9.11% and employer contributions of 20.071%.   It will ultimately be for the JNC to determine how any new contribution rate is split between  employers and Scheme members. (P 60)

This compares to the current rate of 26% (18% of salary paid by employers 8% by employees), and the rate of 36.6% from April 2020 which is proposed by USS based on the valuation as it stands.

How will the union take this forward? 

The relevant decisions taken at Higher Education conference can be found here: MOTIONS re USS (HESC2018)

The coming weeks and months will give the members of our union the opportunity to decide the next steps in this process of guaranteeing a decent Defined Benefit Pension scheme worth the name.

Victoria Showunmi – “I’m a black female, passionate about what I do, with a proven track record”

Why you should vote Victoria Showunmi for the vacant black women’s seat on the NEC

In an interview with UCUAgenda, former NEC member Victoria Showunmi outlines why she is contesting the vacant black women’s seat on the NEC and urges members to consider voting for her.

Victoria is a long standing union member with 25 years service in UCU and previously NATFE. She’s a single mother with three girls and has no hesitation in describing herself as a feminist. Living in London although from rural Somerset originally, and working at University College London and Menouth University, her  work focuses on gender, identity and race. 

She is clear on the three main issues facing the sector – Pensions, including the situation for women, and women over a certain age, who had previously worked part time and are thus hit with inferior pension prospects; the Gender Pay Gap – including the often neglected factors hitting women of colour, who are often found towards the bottom of the pay scale; and marketisation both in HE and FE, where academics are facing increasing class sizes with less and less resources, and less time to spend with individual students.

In relation to the issues facing black workers in the sector, amongst the problems she identifies are a definite lack of progression and lack of a CPD structure that reflects what black workers need. Secondly she argues that there needs to be more recognition that issues around racism are real – something not always grasped at a local level.

Victoria argues that an intersectional approach needs to be further developed within the Union – a journey which she believes first got major support under Joanna de Groot our immediate Past President, and which is being continued now. She believes that she was instrumental in pushing for this during her time on the NEC, and hopes to continue this if successfully elected to the black women’s seat.

When she’s not campaigning, teaching or researching, she admits a fondness for the music of Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson – although her reading materials tend to be…. on academic areas. She’s currently reading around critical whiteness and would specifically recommend Unhinged – an insider’s account of the Trump White House by Omarosa Manigault Newman. 

In the odd moment she can plant herself in front of the TV, her favourite boxset would be Law and Order (Special Victims Unit).

Why vote for her? She argues she has a good track record – she’s not pretentious, she’s passionate about what she does – she feels she’s approachable about anything to do with the union and she looks forward to pushing the union further on the issues above.

We recommend – vote for a  candidate with a proven record – vote for Victoria.

The Real Democratic Deficit in UCU

Adam Ozanne

This post – from NEC member and recent Congress delegate Adam Ozanne, gives a point of view, on how in Adam’s words “UCU in three days moved from being the most successful trade union in the UK – one that other UK trade unions look upon as leading the way in fighting back against the deliberate constraints placed on them by the Tory government’s 2017 anti-Trade Union Bill – to one whose Congress degenerated into chaos after its paid regional and national officials, who are members of Unite, walked out three times and declared a trade dispute with UCU as their employer, causing Congress to be suspended twice and then brought to a premature end with only a fraction of its business completed”.

UCU Agenda would welcome comments on this – e-mail to unionadmin@ucuagenda.com

Congress should have been a positive and reinforcing event celebrating the successes of the past year, the union’s reinvigoration and renewed strength. So how was it that UCU trade unionists have found themselves in dispute with fellow trade unionists in their employ? Why did Congress 2018 degenerate into chaos? How can victory have been turned so nearly into defeat? And what role did UCULeft, a faction dominated by the Trotskyist Socialist Worker Party (SWP), and supporters of the Independent Broad Left (IBL) grouping play?

The post is set out in seven sections:

  1. The three contentious motions
  2. What happened at Congress – How Victory can be Turned into Defeat
  3. Analysis of the dispute
  4. A reminder of how the USS strikes came to an end
  5. The UCULeft faction and IBL network
  6. The real “democratic deficit” in UCU
  7. What is to be done?

Continue reading

Coventry – help them on to victory


Coventry UCU have been at the cutting edge of defeating the union busting tactics of local university management.

This week, saw a second, significant demonstration demanding that the Coventry University scrap their ‘sweetheart union’ imposed on the university’s subsidiary organisation ‘CU Group’ – a company wholly owned by the university, but where staff are paid less, have no proper pension scheme, and inadequate time to prepare courses – not to mention to to give pastoral support to students.

This weeks demo, featured UCU President Joanna de Groot, with Douglas Chalmers, UCU VP speaking for the second time at Coventry and also backed up this time by VP elect Nita Sanghera. An outstanding speech was once again given by branch chair Stephen Cowden, who had previously given a video interview to UCUAgenda on the fight for recognition

Speakers from Coventry TUC who have also been outstanding in their support spoke again, demanding that the Board of Governors, who were meeting that day – tell management they need to sit down and talk to the UCU, on the basis of granting the full recognition that the staff have repeated shown they have demanded.

The branch have consistently worked closely with the local community, the media, the wider labour movement and UCU regional and UK officials to build up the type of unstoppable campaign that will undoubtedly ensure victory in this campaign. They’ve also been heartened by the widespread support from UCU branches throughout the UK.

It’s a template that other branches can learn from.

The USS Joint Expert Panel and more:

Report on UCU Higher Education Committee on 27 April 2018

Adam Ozanne, an elected member of UCU’s Higher Education Committee (HEC), its Superannuation Working Group and the USS Advisory Committee, has written the following account of the discussions regarding  the setting up by UCU and UUK of a Joint Expert Panel that took place in HEC on 27 April together with some observations about UCULeft.

Paul Bridge, UCU’s Head of HE, presented a report summarising the following:

  • the result of the consultative e-ballot: 64% of pre-1992 members voted on a 64% turnout (the highest in the union’s history) to accept the UUK offer of March 23rdand set up a Joint Expert Panel (JEP) that will assess the validity of the 2017 valuation and investigate alternatives to the current DB/DC scheme;
  • subsequent discussions within UCU’s Superannuation Working Group (SWG) and with UUK; and,
  • the response of Bill Galvin, the USS CEO, to the agreement by UUK and UCU to set up the JEP.

The report noted that there was a meeting of the JNC at 3.00pm and made a number of recommendations that were accepted by HEC and can be summarised as follows:

  1. HEC approved the setting up of the JEP with three members nominated by UUK and three by UCU, as well as its Terms of Reference, operational timelines and reporting mechanisms.
  2. HEC delegated to the SWG the endorsement of an ACAS recommended Chair of JEP.
  3. HEC agreed that anyone interested in being one of UCU’s three JEP members may nominate themselves by submitting their CV and a 500 word statement, and that the SWG (minus the three USS Trustee Directors) would act as the selection and appointment panel and, in consultation with the HEC officers, take all other actions necessary to set up the JEP. SWG will seek recognised subject leaders with expertise in and knowledge of pensions, finance, the HE sector and the legal and regulatory context.
  4. HEC directed the USS negotiators, in the JNC meeting that afternoon, to vote to revoke the DC-only resolution reached at its meeting on January 23rd, and against any move by USS to trigger a consultation of USS members on Rule 76.4 before the JEP has time to complete its work on the 2017 valuation (Rule 76.4 says that if JNC does not agree reach agreement on how to deal with the results of a triennial valuation USS may seek to raise employer/member contributions on a 65:35 basis).
  5. The Chair of HEC and Head of HE will liaise with the Congress Business Committee with a view to providing time at HE Sector Conference for a report of the first meeting of the JEP and related matters.

All the above had been discussed and unanimously agreed by the Superannuation Working Group, which includes the four elected USS negotiators, the two alternate negotiators from the USS Advisory Committee (including myself) and the three UCU nominated Directors on the USS Trustee Board.

Several motions relating to the setting up of the JEP had been tabled by HEC members. One, that committed the JEP to robustly challenging the current USS valuation and methodology and HEC to pursuing changes in pensions’ regulations, was passed; and an amendment to the Head of HE’s report to include recognition of the equality and diversity implications of any changes in USS was accepted.

The proposers of the other motions were all allowed to speak to them, with no contrary speeches against,  but, after the main USS report was passed, fell either (as “consequentials”) because they were incompatible with the above recommendations or because they involved constitutional changes to UCU’s decision making processes that can only be made by Congress.

This, it has to be said, caused a good deal of acrimony with many formal challenges to the Chair by the proposers of the motions which had the unfortunate effect of reducing the time available for discussion of the main report and its recommendations – especially as the SWG members of HEC had to leave the five hour meeting after three hours to prepare for and attend the JNC meeting. With the benefit of hindsight, it might have been better if all the motions had been withdrawn and if debate had concentrated on the main report together with, perhaps, additional amendments to its recommendations being proposed and considered; however, nobody suggested this and much time was wasted in unproductive argument and formal challenges to the chair..

Nevertheless, my personal view is that, despite claims made subsequently on the Activists list by some of those who disagreed with the above recommendations, the motions had to fall once the main report was accepted. This is because – despite claims that they “complemented” the main report – they all contained elements that were incompatible with the main report and/or UCU’s established democratic decision making processes.

For example, three of the motions sought to replace the elected HEC as the relevant decision-making body of the HE part of UCU with an ad hoc national strike committee or a branch delegate meeting with voting powers. Others would have delayed the setting up of the JEP until after HESC at the end of May, which would be too late given the time pressures we are under, or only allowed UCU members to be JEP members, which would unnecessarily exclude leading experts who do not work in HE. All these points were either incompatible with the recommendations in the main report, which had already been voted upon and accepted, or would have undermined UCU’s established decision making bodies. Logically and procedurally, it was not sensible to consider them any further.

In my opinion, therefore, the outcome of Friday’s HEC and the manner in which decisions were reached were appropriate. This is not, however, what you might think from reading some of the reports on Twitter etc. which seem to suggest that those who take a different view must be acting undemocratically or, even worse, are a “powerful right wing faction” in UCU that “believes in the deficit”. (Full disclosure: I first joined the Labour Party in 1976, and have never been a member of any other political party, though I have on occasion voted Green, Communist Party (for a friend was standing in a local election) and LibDem (after the Iraq invasion)).

I am afraid it is also the case that the conduct of some in the HEC meeting – disrespecting the Chair’s efforts to limit speeches in order to allow others time, shouting or speaking unnecessarily loudly into the microphone, showing obvious irritation with having to use a microphone and calling a point of order even after it had been called to an end, made the meeting unnecessarily drawn out and acrimonious and limited the time available for proper debate.

The chair had already had to draw attention at the start of the meeting to incorrect reports of the previous HEC on the activists list, which erroneously claimed he had not allowed discussion (13 colleagues had in fact taken part in discussion), and that he had ruled motions out of order (simply did not happen).

I find all of this deeply disappointing, and will go further by stating the following. UCULeft’s claims to being for a democratic and member-led union are inconsistent with its efforts on 27 April to undermine HEC as the legitimate decision-making body in the USS dispute, its opposition at the end of March to the e-ballot of all post-1992 members on the UUK offer, not to mention its opposition to local and national e-ballots and GTVO (Get The Vote Out) were when they were first introduced.

Just as there are good, democratic reasons for rules stating quotas and minimum numbers of days for giving notice of AGM and EGMs, so there are good reasons for using modern technology to enable timely member participation in decision making and for limiting the ability of meetings to change decision making processes and structures on the hoof (as in replacing HEC with ad hocstrike committees and “branch meetings with voting rights”).

Such rules prevent small unrepresentative but well organised factions from taking control of political organisations and leading them in directions the majority of members (who may be unaware of what is happening or too busy to attend in numbers at short notice) would not agree with. Similarly, insistence on the use of microphones when speaking is not a bureaucratic obsession but an equality principle that enables the hard of hearing to participate fully while rules prohibiting angry outbursts, repeated interruptions and shouting limit intimidatory behaviour and promotes free debate. Such rules and conventions are profoundly important for the well-being of the union.

What every member of HEC, regardless of whether they are a paid up member of UCULeft or not, recognises is the huge success of the USS industrial action. From GTVO trouncing the statutory ballot 50% turnout requirement to vast numbers of new members and the mobilisation of tens of thousands on strike, on picket lines and in vibrant meetings, UCU is leading the UK trade union movement in opposing the Tory government’s anti-trade union legislation. We are showing the way in reinvigorating trade unionism in opposition to the marketisation of the public sector and the erosion of traditional values of collegiality and public service that are the bedrock of the success of UK universities.

The setting up of the JEP is the next step in the defence of decent pensions in universities – and, indeed, elsewhere, because a successful JEP could well influence what happens to other pensions schemes, so we must get it right. The plan is for it to report in two stages: first, on the 2017 valuation in the Autumn, in time to forestall the USS making changes in 2019 based upon a disputed deficit; the second on alternative risk sharing mechanisms to the current hybrid DB/DC scheme. Friday’s HEC and the JNC the same afternoon set that process in motion and I for one am more than a little content with it and relieved that arrangements for setting up the JEP can commence immediately.

After the ballot – where are we now with our USS dispute?

What a fantastic and enthusiastic campaign this has been for our union. We have shown by our sheer determination, organisation and hard work, our ability to force the employers back to the drawing board, and to withdraw their decision to scrap Defined Benefit and impose Defined Contribution on us. Where do we go to from here? Below you will find some thoughts that we hope will be helpful. 

We got to where we are by combining the enthusiasm, commitment, and creativity of thousands of activists with the hard work of UCU staff,  the policy framework established by our lead elected committees, the persistent efforts of branch committees, and the seen and unseen work of negotiators.

While there has been plenty of friction between the different players ( not surprising in a complex dispute ) it is a fact that all have contributed to getting us to a point so different from where we were when the employers looked like getting away with imposing a DC version of the USS scheme.

Students were key supporters of our struggle

It’s important to remember that the proposal which a massive majority of members have accepted was shaped by the priorities made very clear by the branch representatives who rejected an earlier set of proposals emerging from ACAS.

Rather than seeking to add to or alter those earlier proposals  they wanted to focus negotiations on the key objectives of a full review of USS procedures and the defence of a guaranteed pension. Those priorities were taken into negotiations and are embedded in the outcome.

Of course the independent review is just the start of the next stage of our struggle for a better USS.

Support was widespread and enthusiastic

In accepting it members have shown not confidence in their employers (which is not great) but in our own ability to keep up the pressure for members’ interests, including future use of the industrial strength which we (and of course the employers ) now know we have.

Full involvement in the review will need to matched by unremitting vigilance by our branches, our elected committees and our industrial negotiators.

It seems odd and unhelpful that so much of the visible debate about the proposal and the ballot focussed on who said or did what inside UCU, rather than on our dispute with our employers or the interests of members.  In any dispute the participants will have such concerns but do let’s remember that we launched this dispute for a big industrial reason –  to challenge the employers’ outrageous and damaging attack on our pensions scheme which both threatened the size and security of our pensions and also pulled the rug out from under the co-stakeholder structure of USS.

SO – members took action because their wellbeing was threatened but also because this threat was just the latest step in the employers’ wrecking of the collegial and professional respect and co-working which should shape our workplaces, and they did this in the name of managerial authoritarianism and credit ratings. Many activists have said that the attack on their pensions was the last straw on top of a burden of managerialism, disempowerment, precarious wok, and excessive hours. Now they are energised to start organising challenges to this burden in  their institutions. Real issues to take up, not internal wrangles and sectarianism.

We balloted over 53 thousand members, over 33 thousand of whom voted on the proposal The dispute and the ballot involved members: it was about members. and the outcome allows members to continue to pursue the issues which they have said mattered to them.

Together we have achieved something for ALL members in USS whether or not they agreed with every particular view, whether or not they were at rallies as well as striking. There is a crucial link between these two because activists have used  both their power and their responsibility to use their commitment time and energy on behalf of our growing wider membership.

Lots to celebrate, lots to digest, lots to get on with. . .