Time for a new USS valuation

I have been reading a couple of books about authoritarian threats to democracy: Anne Applebaum’s The Twilight of Democracy, and Mary Trump’s The Reckoning (thank you to John R for sending me the latter). The common thread in these books is the centrality of The Big Lie in political cultures at particular risk from authoritarianism. When a conspiracy theory based on falsehoods is strategically adopted by a government or political party seeking power, espousing it becomes a test of fealty. Applebaum traces one such Big Lie in Poland, regarding the loss over Smolensk of the aircraft carrying the president in 2010. In contradiction of all evidence arising from the independent investigation, the Smolensk conspiracy has seen a great many Poles believing that it was a deliberate act – the result of a plot to assassinate the president and it has now cemented itself as a defining belief of the ruling Law and Justice party. Applebaum notes that it has polarized opinion and poisoned the political climate in Poland. Its tokenistic status is clear when she reports how many of her former friends in government repeat the Big Lie while privately acknowledging they do not believe it.

More recently, the same tactic was used by former US President Donald Trump in his failed insurrection. Only 21% of Republican voters believe the 2020 election of Joe Biden was legitimate. It is one of the most disturbing tactics to use in a population awash in information of dubious provenance. When even basic, observable facts are open to dispute, it is profoundly destabilizing to a democracy. Mary Trump argues this is not the first Big Lie in American history and it remains a country that cannot come to terms with its history of slavery, racism and inhumanity. Even today, the teaching of documented evidence of atrocities is being criminalized by banning ‘critical race theory’. Rather like our own history in the UK of teaching under Section 28, the idea is for teachers to self-police and back away from discussion of race in America’s classrooms which discomfort the white majority.

Perhaps in UK academia we have our own version of The Big Lie. It is depressing to think that members of UCU are having to take strike action again in a campaign that has endured since 2018 and in which the intransigence of the employers’ representatives, USS executive board and many of the scheme’s trustees has continued to draw strikers to the picket lines. Today, a group of women professors has written to Universities UK pointing out the disproportionately damaging impact of a cut to their pensions of 35-45% on women in the scheme. The letter repeats the request made by UCU that there should be another valuation of the scheme and that an equality impact assessment should be carried out. The last (disputed) valuation of the scheme was conducted in March 2020 when markets fell as the pandemic led us into new territory of uncertainty.

Most of us will have followed the discussions on Twitter in which academic pensions experts present their evidence disputing the deficit that USS has claimed. I refer you to the many detailed and informative threads by Mike Otsuka @MikeOtsuka and Sam Marsh @Sam_Marsh101.  The lone voice on the Board of Trustees who alleged a miscalculation of the deficit was Jane Hutton, a professor of statistics and an employee non-executive director. She was rapidly silenced and her dismissal from the board expedited. Also, Josephine Cumbo, the pensions expert of the Financial Times has been persistently sceptical of USS executive/ employers’ allegations of fund deficit and urges a revaluation.

Possibly feeling the weight of evidence is against them, vice chancellors and pro vice chancellors at pre-92 universities have reached out to quell opposition at ‘town hall’-style meetings or more ‘intimate’ departmental visits. They offered reassurance that pension losses would only be around 10% of current benefits. When members tried the projection tool for themselves, the losses were dire and unaffordable. It turns out, you’d need to be earning a senior manager’s salary for the pension losses to be at the smaller end. One VC was reported to have shut down debate by refusing to ‘engage in a back and forth about the ‘facts’ – as if facts don’t matter in a university. As if facts like a new valuation of the USS scheme could not end this particular dispute. But instead, entirely counter-productively, VCs are now spending millions on shoring up a deficit few of them believe exists, preferring to use this opportunity to exhaust the resolve of union members. Academic Twitter reports that privately, many senior managers express sympathy with the position of scheme members who face poverty in old age, and yet, they appear afraid to break ranks with the USS board establishment position. It has all the hallmarks of a Big Lie deployed to crush reason and democracy.

We seem to live in a culture of impunity for lawbreaking and lying in the service of power grabbing. We have been treated to a masterclass this week in the shape of the P&O ferry operator who summarily sacked 800 staff to replace them with cheaper workers from overseas. Despite admitting this was illegal when hauled before a parliamentary committee, the CEO appeared to feel safe from any legal consequences. He may be on less solid ground with the port workers in Rotterdam, or indeed the health and safety inspectors in Belfast and Dover. And the betrayal of trained staff does not seem to have endeared P&O to the travelling public either.

There may be a lesson there for vice chancellors too. You wonder how their persistence will repay them when academics vote with their feet and leg it to universities offering the government-backed, final-salary TPS pension scheme. They will find it difficult to remain attractive as employers when one half of the sector benefits from an OK pension scheme, while the other offers returns worth a couple of bus fares into town for 40 years of work. La trahison des clercs indeed.

I am cheered that as part of the UCU Four Fights action, hundreds of external examiners have publicly resigned on Twitter. External examiners perform many tasks central to the process of awarding degrees: the certification of degree results; the endorsement of assessment reliability, fairness, consistency, and compliance with standards. This work is carried out, usually, for a fee that barely reaches minimum wage when we reckon up time spent. And so, academics have chosen to withdraw their labour from a process that most of them do from a sense of service to the sector. It is often enjoyable and rewarding, but it is voluntary in that it is not directed by one’s primary employer. Most university quality and standards regulations will insist that a qualified and ratified external examiner signs the decisions of exam boards that award degrees. Without them, the standards and academic integrity of those degrees cannot be verified. In response to the mass resignations, some university managers are adopting policies to permit some external ‘representation’ at boards of examiners. So a mathematician from Durham can pronounce on the quality of history degrees at Birmingham? Is this really a legitimate solution?

Maybe the kind of contingent adaptations made to teaching and learning during the pandemic have lent justification to other expedient variances with the orthodoxy, but tampering with the one bit of the quality architecture that requires subject expertise and academic judgement will weaken the reputation of UK degrees internationally. UCU members could go further and, in the same way as safety officials are refusing to let P&O ferries sail, they can refuse to endorse the decisions made at exam boards and insist, on the record, that degrees awarded without external moderation are not safe. The clercs can fight back, especially on their own terrain.

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