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In the news: 19 January

Senior professors warn of damage USS changes will have on next generation

The ballot for industrial action over changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) closes today. The final push for votes was bolstered by a letter from around 1,000 professors to Times Higher Education that says that, in a sector where "many would earn more in the private sector and which has a well-deserved reputation as 'world class', the USS pension has provided compensation for relatively modest salaries and has acted as a powerful magnet to talented staff from around the globe".

Expressing their concern for the next generation, the letter conclude that: "Young university staff work hard yet have endured years of pay restraint and casual contracts, while watching many at the top enjoy great rewards. Now that the USS - arguably the best aspect of the employment package - is at risk, we want to stand shoulder to shoulder with all our colleagues, and especially the next generation, to defend our profession."

Elsewhere this week, the vice-chancellor of Loughborough University ‌Professor Robert Allison wrote to Universities UK to warn that universities must seek to maintain a pension scheme with a guaranteed retirement income and not just shift any future costs onto USS members. Allison also said that he believes UUK must look again at how the scheme is valued and that negotiations should continue for as long as necessary to achieve an agreement.


Vice-chancellors fail the self-awareness test yet again

With common sense in danger of breaking out in Loughborough, other universities were swift to act to shut down any risk of it spreading.  A survey of vice-chancellors revealed that nine in 10 (88%) thought that attacks on their pay and perks were politically motivated, prompting the Telegraph to lead with the headline "War on vice-chancellor pay is revenge for universities' stance on Brexit higher education leaders say". Sally Hunt said that, while the prime minister had openly criticised universities, and former minister Jo Johnson should have done more to defend the sector, there was no getting away from vice-chancellors' lack of self-awareness over their own behaviour. She said that their excessive pay and perks, whilst keeping down staff pay, was creating exactly the kind of embarrassing headlines UCU warned it would.

Elsewhere in vice-chancellor news this week, University of Southampton students overwhelmingly voted for their vice-chancellor's pay to be slashed and said that cuts to academic staff would harm the student experience.

The universities of Aston and Kent were added to the list of universities forced to defend massive pay hikes for their vice-chancellors just before they left office. Sally Hunt told the BBC that the latest revelations were further evidence of one rule for a few at the top and another for everyone else.

Rarely out of the news, the University of Bath vice-chancellor Dame Glynis Breakwell was told to step down immediately, not in February 2019 as planned. A motion passed at the university's council meeting on Tuesday expressed no confidence in Breakwell and called for her to stand down immediately. 


For-profits warning

While vice-chancellors are doing their best to remain in the headlines thanks to their pay and perks, the defence of their pay and perks, and now their reasons behind the criticisms of their pay and perks, Times Higher Education said enormous pay deals at for-profit higher education institutions, which receive millions of pounds via taxpayer-backed tuition fee loans taken out by students, have gone unnoticed.

One director at the University of Law - which received £12.4 million from postgraduate study loans in 2016-17, more than any other institution apart from UCL - was paid £784,000 in 2015-16, as well as £18,000 in employer pension contributions, taking his overall remuneration to £802,000.

However, the highest-paid director at the University of Law in the previous year, 2014-15, pocketed £1.57 million in the form of an "exit bonus". Four directors also shared a bonus worth £3 million after the university's sale by Montagu Private Equity to Lake International, a subsidiary of Global University Systems, a Dutch-incorporated firm, in June 2015, accounts show.


An unusual amount of ministerial jiggery-pokery

Ministers turned down five other people considered good enough to join the new higher education regulator in order to appoint Toby Young, it was revealed this week. In one of his first jobs as new universities minister Sam Gyimah had to respond to a written question from Labour MP Kevin Brennan about the appointment process.

His answer revealed that the Department for Education was given 10 "appointable" names for the board of the Office for Students (OfS) and appointed five, including Young. It was also revealed that ministers were given three names for the student experience board member position, but chose not appoint any of them.

Sally Hunt told Huff Post that if the OfS was to have any credibility it needed a robust board looking out for students' interests. She said that the fact none of the approved student candidates made it on to the board added to UCU's concerns about how the appointments had been made. Speaking after receiving his response, Brennan said there had been an "unusual amount of ministerial jiggery-pokery."


Gyimah to go walkabout

Most likely unimpressed with the Toby Young appointment hospital pass from his predecessor in his first week, Sam Gyimah told the Times this week that he was keen to get out and about and meet staff and students on a tour of universities. 

Writing more as a campaigning Tory than a higher education minister, Gyimah said it was no secret the Tories had performed badly with students at the last election, he believes positive and persistent engagement with students was required to win their trust. Although he also said the Tories had to defend their record to prevent Jeremy Corbyn from "monopolising the student space", presumably with plans like scrapping tuition fees.


Ulster University misses staff compensation deadline

Ulster University has failed to pay compensation to 143 former employees by Monday's agreed date, reported the BBC this week. The university had to apologise for failing to pay out the £1m+ compensation pay-outs despite being instructed to by a tribunal back at the start of December.

The compensation, worth 90 days' salary for each employee must be paid after the December tribunal ruled that the university had carried out a "sham redundancy process" in April 2016. UCU has criticised the delay and said it could leave the university with an even bigger bill as 8% interest a day was now due on each payment for every day beyond 15 January.


Durham University scraps plans to shut social work courses

Durham University has shelved plans to axe two social work masters degrees. A review carried out by the university last year had recommended that two, two-year MA social work degrees be closed. However, a final decision was deferred after opposition to the plans from staff and students, who launched a petition to save the course. The university has now decided against closing the courses.

UCU regional support official Jon Bryan said: 'The social work courses at Durham University have always been highly valued by staff, students and all those who work with them. Social care remains a huge issue both locally and nationally and we are pleased that these courses will continue.'

Last updated: 19 January 2018