Sunday 25 February 2018

Why I'm striking for USS Pensions - And why I think you should too

This post is inspired by, not as good as, and much much longer, than: a wonderful post by Kate Cross about why she would encourage everyone to strike in the current UCU-UUK pensions dispute.  Feel free to just read that one instead. Or even just watch this amazing minute of her speech in Dundee a few days ago. 

Being on strike for a couple of days has given me a bit of time to read more about the situation.  I always thought a strike was the right thing to do, but I am completely surprised at how strongly I now feel.  This is because I've been following what's been happening and have been shocked by what I've found out. In some cases these have been out there a while and I only now know about them. In others things have come out recently.   

So here are the things that have made me ever more certain that striking is the right thing to do.  Please join me.  

[Citation Needed]

I really really wanted to put in all the links to justify everything, but eventually it got too late on Sunday night. Feel free to query me about anything. 

Absurd Assumptions 

A group of eminent statisticians wrote a letter to the FT, which among other things skewers some astonishing assumptions like these
  • University salaries will rise 1% above RPI, i.e. 1% above inflation. I can't remember our most recent pay rise that even matched inflation, never mind went above it. At a guess it was before the crash in 2008.   
  • Life expectancy will increase by 1.5 % per year, when if anything they are declining. This assumption was so absurd that when somebody challenged the online pensions model based on this, they changed it to 0.5%.      

The Oxbridge Effect 

Part of the process leading to this disaster was a survey of employers by USS about what risk they wanted, which came out in favour of reduced risk with 42% favouring that option. Except that 
  • One of those for that option was Cambridge university, which declared that it was not the official position of the university because ... I don't know, I suppose they couldn't be bothered.  
  • Several others were individual colleges at Oxford and Cambridge, who were treated as equal voices with all other universities in the system.  One estimate was that about a third of the 42% came from Oxbridge alone.  

USS is doing really really well. 

How badly has USS been doing over the last five years?  12% a year. 

Wow. It's been falling by 12% a year?? Incredible.  No wonder there's a problem. 

No, sorry, I misled you.  It's been growing by 12% per year for five years.  Growing.  That's how well it's doing, even though apparently it's headed for catastrophe.  

And another metric of how well it's doing is the news, discovered on the first day of the strike, that the boss of the USS received an £82,000 pay rise precisely because the USS is doing so well. Just take care to read that right, the rise is £82,000.

Really Really Bad Spin. 

On Friday, the UUK (employers organisation) announced that they wanted to resume talks.  Excellent news.  Except ... they are not prepared to discuss the key issue of reverting the decision which led to this strike.  Which they didn't want to reveal but I found out when the University of St Andrews accidentally forwarded a private email to all (or at least many) staff. 

Or take this headline from a left wing rag: "Vice-Chancellor suggests he deserves salary of £360,000 as he has to oversee huge staff redundancies".  Oh wait, that was the Daily Telegraph.  When the Telegraph is mocking employers in a dispute in their headlines, you know how ridiculous they employers are being. 

Nobody's Proposing the Status Quo

You might think that the union position is pie-in-the-sky everything-is-fine don't-touch-it. Not at all. If the universities suddenly agreed to the union position, we would get pensions that we had to pay for more and then delivered us less.  We are striking for a worse pension, against the alternative of a pension which puts all the risk on staff.  

And the more the employer position is that the current scheme is unaffordable, of course the more their arguments confirm that they are seeking to massively reduce our quality of life in retirement.

The Rewards for Failure as a Principal 

I never used to mind the extremely high salaries university principals get.  Indeed even now I don't think the money a principal or a vice-chancellor gets is a problem.  But there is a very big problem, which is that failure as a principal seems to attract very high rewards.  I think my former boss, now vice chancellor at Oxford, is a wonderful case in point.

I thought she was a pretty good principal and people weren't rude about her while she was here. But on the other hand, the number one goal of her tenure was fundraising around the 600th anniversary in 2013. And she had the most wonderful free gift at the exact start of the campaign, of William and Kate getting engaged.

And the campaign was an ignominious failure. She set out to raise £100 million between 2011 and 2013. It's so far raised £90 million, which doesn't sound bad except it's now 2018, so about 13 million a year instead of 50.

And that failure led to her getting the promotion of the job in Oxford. And a complete inability to defend on the radio her £350K salary or remarks about homophobic professors

What decisions does a University principal make that matter very much to the future of the University?  This is a serious question, because I have no idea.  The two main drivers of university income are teaching and research.  Both of these are driven overwhelmingly by forces outside the management's control, and most especially by the quality of staff and the work they do.  

University principals are not good value for money. And given the money they earn, that's a very big problem.  

Our Principal's Letter

I don't want to beat down too much on our current principal, but a couple of points in the letter she sent to staff are symptomatic of the disconnect between the presentation of the situation and the reality.  

She mentioned that the University runs a small surplus.  I'm sure that's true, but let's remember: the University of St Andrews is a charity. It's legally required to run a small surplus instead of a big one (and hence the word surplus, not profit).   So if we are making too much money, we have to either spend it or put it against the balance sheet in some other way (like incurring debts for planned things like the move to Guardbridge and a new STEM building).  It's not an accounting trick to say we have a small surplus, but the word "small" is meaningless.  (I'm grateful to the person who made this point to me but I don't want to embarrass them by naming them - if it would embarrass them. If not I'm happy to edit and credit them).  

She also mentioned that the consequences of preserving our pensions would be increased class sizes.  But ... A) what is apocalyptic about increased class sizes?  And B) as everyone in Computer Science knows,  our class sizes have ballooned in recent years due to CS being such an awesome subject and us being so awesome at teaching it.  Does that mean we get to keep our pensions after having already suffered whatever the cataclysm of increased class size is? No, of course not.  

I'm going to be fine (but I'm not sure you are)

Though I'm striking, I am not seriously worried about my own pension.  I have a large percentage built up on the prior rules, live in a dual-income family, and I have a high salary (and indeed got a significant pay rise last week: long story, happy to talk to you separately about that one if you want).   But I worry a lot about younger colleagues who don't have these advantages or only some of them.  The online pension calculator is seriously scary for young staff, and they need my support.  (Thanks to Neil Davies for doing that).

The entire point of the pension change (and there is no argument about this from either side) is to de-risk pensions for the universities and put the risk onto the staff getting pensions.  But academic computer scientists are not notably risk-loving people.  In general many of us are here in part because we like a safe environment which we know and which - while not giving us the rewards of outside jobs in our field - is a very rewarding one with a decent pension.  Take away the second half of the deal and the equation for staying changes against academia. 

Everybody in the School of Computer Science is incredibly smart and talented.  Many of them (and yes that means you if you are reading this) have better reasons than me for leaving academia: they are better programmers so would find it easier to get a job; they are paid less than me so need to find a less high paying job to be attractive; they are younger than me, so have far more to lose in the pension changes; and are not all living in the same country they grew up in so have far less reason to stay in a place which Brexit has already made a less comfortable environment for them. 

So to all of them (and you) I say this: if these changes go through and you decide to leave, then I'll be sorry, I'll miss you, but I won't be able to say you made the wrong decision. 


  1. Thanks for this Ian - nicely put.

  2. So I wonder how "the USS is doing fine", and "the USS grew by 12%" (did the number of Uni employees grow faster?) mix with "we're striking for a worse pension". Why is the UCU's position such a grave hit on our incomes?

    1. Sorry - tried to reply two times before and neither worked for whatever reason.

      Good points. I am pretty sure the 12% growth really is doing very well, it's not because university have just hired 12% staff or anything, and only a small percentage of the USS pot is paid in each year.

      However I guess the UCU agrees that some retrenchment is necessary to make sure the future pension is sustainable (even though the employers guaranteed last time this wouldn't happen). So the UCU's proposal is for a reduction in quality of the pension (e.g. from 1/75 to 1/80 of years * average salary) but nothing like as bad as that proposed by employers.