Back on the Picket Line 2020

I thought my picketing days were over, but on Thursday I got a message from the Nottingham University UCU branch asking me to speak at their strike rally. I was glad to receive the invitation because, for one thing, it eased my conscience about having missed the last strikes in November and December of 2019 when I was on holiday. Being out of university employment means I can take real holidays – the kind where you don’t have to take work away with you. I can’t quite leave the guilty feelings behind though. But all the same, retirement does offer the opportunity for uninterrupted leisure and time for reflection. I still can’t quite believe my luck at just making it under the wire while I’m still physically able to reap enjoyment.

It’s not that I wanted to appear among distressed colleagues like to worst kind of gloating retiree; the whole point is that I want to campaign for those same rights to a decent, comfortable retirement for younger workers who deserve it just as much as I do. And one which comes before the person is exhausted by overwork, surveillance, career insecurity and old age. I don’t regard ‘OK boomer’ as a jeering denunciation but a welcome summons to check my privilege and contemplate what I can do to make a difference to intergenerational inequality.

Individual vice chancellors and their representative organization, Universities UK, and the employers, UCEA and USS are telling academics and professional staff that pensions like mine – defined benefit with fair and reasonable contribution levels – are not affordable. But they don’t control the narrative anymore. When they mess with academics, they are messing with some people who actually know about pensions and investments. After the 2018 strikes, USS, employers and UCU agreed to form a Joint Expert Panel. It published two reports and came to the conclusion that employers needed to tolerate less risk and revise the way the valuation of the scheme was being conducted. Except the employers have refused to honour the agreement and implement the plan. Worse still, there is a threat that more institutional members of the scheme will quit, as Trinity College, Cambridge announced it would last June. Obviously, the viability of the scheme rests on the fact that risk is shared across the sector. If large universities pull out, the whole of the USS pension scheme is at risk of collapse.

Truth, honour, integrity are all scarce commodities at the moment. We live in a world where a 27- year old can throw out a few pseudo-scientific ideas, get some retweets and call himself a super-forecaster. So, I wasn’t surprised to hear the vice chancellor of Oxford Brookes University (which probably isn’t even in the USS scheme) saying on the Today programme that it is a legal requirement to raise contributions.

Among the academic experts is Jane Hutton, professor of statistics at the University of Warwick She was until June 2019 a member of the board of directors of USS.  But she was suspended and then fired, apparently for applying her curiosity too meticulously to the work of the board. Professor Hutton had questioned the rather large fluctuations in valuations of the scheme, and also the figures on life expectancy which had led to a deficit being overestimated and which had inflated the cost of the scheme to members and employers. She had also formed the view that the 2017 valuation method was flawed – a view shared by many of the scheme’s members and the Joint Expert Panel – and that, in fact, the USS pension scheme is in surplus. In trying to do her duty and protect the interests of members, which she felt was her responsibility, she had raised these reservations with The Pensions Regulator (TPR). This, the board felt, revealed that she was unwilling to work ‘collegially’ and they considered she had breached confidentiality. The report that led to Jane Hutton’s dismissal can be read here . It is shocking to see how the investigation has allowed the condemnation of a board member who was acting within her area of expertise. Truth is hard won, and it is just as quickly buried again. We live in a culture which seeks to cover up wrongdoing and potential for embarrassment with non-disclosure agreements (NDAs), but we cannot normalize a situation in which an expert in statistics is dismissed for discussing serious discrepancies with the regulator.

As Sam Marsh points out  the other board members of USS and the employers were only too keen to eliminate the persistent criticism of the valuation method of the scheme, the evidence of a surplus and the advice of the Joint Expert Panel, and instead, to divert attention towards a whole new narrative in search of a new valuation – based on the same flawed method. This would, of course, keep giving them the same result of a scheme deficit which would continue to bolster their case for increased member and employer contributions, and ultimately will lead to the scheme’s collapse.

It now falls to each of us to inform ourselves because we can no longer trust those charged with protecting our interests to do so. We all need to become experts. We are all Jane Hutton. So, while you’re on strike, follow @USSBriefs on Twitter. Follow Sam Marsh @Sam_Marsh101 and keep following them. Because your pension is affordable and it is not a luxury; it is your right. Solidarity.



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