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In the news: 24 November

UCU warns of chaos in universities if pension row not resolved

UCU has warned of chaos on campus as lectures and classes are cancelled in the new year if a row over changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) is not resolved. The union said proposals to remove the guaranteed level of pension benefits for hundreds of thousands of university staff were a bolt from the blue and that it would ask members to back industrial action in a ballot that opens on Wednesday (29 November).

UCU general secretary Sally Hunt told the Financial Times that UUK's proposals were "categorically the worst I have received from universities on any issue in 20 years of representing university staff". Respected presenter of Radio 4's Money Box Paul Lewis said it was a tragedy that, instead of using the combined intelligence of university professors to devise ways to make the only worthwhile pensions - defined benefit - work, universities are scrambling to shut them down largely on questionable forecasts about deficits.

Echoing the shock felt by the union at the proposals, Times Higher Education reported that few had predicted the radical measures unveiled by UUK. Sally Hunt told the magazine that if universities continued to pursue this action, they would face disruption on campus of a kind never seen before.

Also in Times Higher Education this week, Nicholas Barr, professor of public economics at the London School of Economics, described by the magazine as a world authority on pensions design, explains why scrapping pensions that guarantee a certain level of income to university staff in retirement is "outdated" and a "retrograde step". While emeritus professor of economics at the University of Warwick, Dennis Leech, says the UUK proposals would be a disaster for universities, but they are preventable.


University of Bath vice-chancellor clinging on to power

The long-running saga at Bath over the vice-chancellor's salary and poor governance picked up pace this week. On Monday UCU called on the vice-chancellor Dame Glynis Breakwell and chair of council Thomas Sheppard to resign. That call followed a damning report from the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce) that said oversight of the vice-chancellor's pay lacked transparency and that the reputation of the university had been damaged.

Sally Hunt told the Guardian that the report had finally shone light on the murky world of senior pay in universities. "For too long vice-chancellors have hidden behind the supposed independence of the remuneration committee when it comes to defending large pay deals for themselves", she said.

At a hastily-organised meeting of staff on Wednesday, around 400 people crammed into two massive lecture halls to debate the Hefce report and the state of the university. Staff spoke of low moral, a fear to speak out and embarrassing questions from parents on open days about high pay and poor governance. They unanimously backed a motion for the vice-chancellor and chair of council to go and the Times reported that if they did not step aside then staff would join student protests outside a university council meeting on Thursday (30 November).

Wednesday's drama did not end there though as the vice-chancellor then had to chair a meeting of the university's senate where a motion of no-confidence was brought from the floor. After a lengthy debate, the vice-chancellor narrowly survived the vote by 19 votes to 16. UCU branch president Michael Carley told ITV News that Dame Glynis was living in an alternative reality if she thought that meant she now had the backing of staff or students. While he told the BBC that the apology she gave before the vote at the senate meeting was "very little, very late".


University of Southampton advertises for chauffeur after putting 75 jobs at risk

Doing its best to ensure that Bath did not get all the headlines this week, the University of Southampton advertised for a chauffeur just days after announcing plans to axe 75 academics. The Independent reported that the advertisement says the job will involve "providing a chauffeur and car service to university executives and visiting dignitaries".

UCU said advertising for a chauffeur whilst axing jobs showed contempt for the staff and would inevitably invite questions about the priorities of the leadership team at the university. Sally Hunt told Times Higher Education: 'For years UCU has been highlighting how out of touch vice-chancellors look when it comes to their own pay and perks. They are happy to keep down staff pay and conditions yet see nothing wrong with accepting inflation-busting pay rises and all the perks.'


UCU Brighton members walk out on strike

UCU members at the University of Brighton walked out on strike at 1pm yesterday and are striking today in a row over job losses. UCU says the university has not taken compulsory redundancies off the table, despite having a no redundancies policy stretching back 25 years. Ninety staff left the institution in September under a voluntary severance scheme as part of an effort by management to cut the wage bill. 

Speaking to the press on the picket line, UCU Brighton branch secretary Mark Abel said: 'UCU objects to more staff being forced out of their jobs given the numbers that have already left. The University is not overstaffed.'


Thousands of apprentices getting "shafted on pay day" with less than minimum wage, say TUC

Thousands of apprentices are receiving less than the apprentice minimum wage - and most employers have not faced prosecution from the government for short-changing their staff in that way, according to the Trades Union Congress (TUC).

Tes reported that while the national minimum wage for apprentices under 19 or in their first year of training is £3.50 an hour, the TUC says 135,000 of the 900,000 apprentices in England are being paid less than that rate. And the government prosecuted "fewer than five" employers who failed to pay the apprentice minimum wage between January 2016 and June 2017.

TUC general secretary Frances O'Grady told the Independent that thousands of apprentices were "getting shafted on pay day".  She said: 'These figures show why government needs to step up enforcement of the minimum wage - especially for apprentices.'


Budget delivers even less than expected

Despite heavy trails going back months that the Budget would have more details on student funding, there was in fact very little, which Sally Hunt told the BBC was a "glaring omission". Reflecting on the Budget, Sally said: 'Rather than leaving the sector in limbo, the government urgently needs to set out a clear timescale for this review so we can begin to address the problems in the current system.'

Speaking about pledges from the Chancellor for further education, Sally told Tes that: 'While the Chancellor spoke warmly about the importance of skills in his speech, pockets of funding announced for T-levels and a national retraining scheme will do little to plug the hole in college finances left by cuts in recent years. We urgently need proper public investment in our colleges to address the crisis in further education pay, which is causing major issues with staff recruitment and retention.'


Student loan chaos affects further education students too warns Labour

Labour shadow skills minister Gordon Marsden told Tes this week that hundreds of thousands of further education students would also be affected by problems at the Student Loans Company (SLC). While the spotlight has mostly been on the impact on university students, hundreds of thousands of students in further education have taken out Advanced Learner Loans meaning they could have been hit by overpayments of loans and other issues with processes at the SLC in the same way as university students.

Marsden said: 'The money that has so far been given via Advanced Learner Loans from the Student Loans Company at the most recent estimate was £652 million. While I don't have precise numbers of how many students that will affect, it must be in the hundreds of thousands.'

Last updated: 24 November 2017