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In the news: 16 March 2018

Call for external examiners to resign at USS universities

As part of action aimed at causing widespread disruption on campuses across the UK, UCU has today called on members who currently hold external examiner positions at the 65 USS institutions to resign and not to accept any new posts until the dispute is resolved.

The union has issued guidance and a template resignation letter for members and said they must provide the relevant institution with due notice of termination, as specified under the terms of their contract. The Telegraph said the move could see graduations delayed and the i said the move marked a significant ratcheting up of pressure.

UCU rejects Acas proposals as UCU sets out what needs to happen now to resolve the dispute

A proposal that came out of six days of talks at Acas went out for consultation by both sides on Monday evening. UCU branch reps overwhelmingly rejected the proposal on Tuesday at a meeting at UCU HQ. UUK is still consulting its members, but UCU says it will need return to the table with a much improved offer.

Writing for the Financial Times, UCU general secretary Sally Hunt set out why pensions are worth fighting for and what needs to happen now to end the dispute. She said that while the USS dispute is complex, the principle is very simple - staff deserve a decent pension which will give them security in retirement. 

She argues that to secure that, UUK should commit to contributing more to pensions - as many universities have suggested. She says UUK should also follow the recommendation of universities, including Oxford and Cambridge, to take on a small amount of extra risk.

Finally she says that the credibility of USS has been undermined and there needs to be an expert panel to look at how its assets and liabilities are measured. She concludes by saying that unless there is a real commitment from the employers to restore trust now, many believe that we will simply be back here again in three years' time.


Political interference

MPs continue to join the picket lines and rallies at USS institutions. Ben Bradshaw will be at one in Exeter today for example, along with Billy Bragg. While Lucy Powell, who was one of the early strike supporters when she cancelled a lecture at the University of Manchester before the strikes began, will be back in Manchester for picket poetry and speeches after a strike breakfast.

Yesterday Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said university staff taking their 13th day of strike action deserved security in retirement and urged UUK to return to talks with UCU. While at First Minister's Questions in Holyrood, Nicola Sturgeon said the dispute would only be resolved around the negotiating table and urged UUK to go further in an attempt to resolve the dispute.


Keeping up with Cambridge

Ever since the University of Oxford's U-turn over its position on the USS changes, Cambridge has been keen to outgun it. Hours after the Oxford reversal, Cambridge also announced it would accept greater risk in an effort to resolve the dispute, but it has since continued to go even further.

On Monday vice-chancellor Professor Stephen Toope said he was happy to pay more to support the defined benefit element of USS. He also said he was writing to USS to call for full public disclosure of the assumptions and methods behind the current valuation in an attempt to find a better long-term solution.

He followed this up with a statement on Wednesday that called again for USS to retain the defined benefit element. It also said that staff should be paid if they reschedule classes lost during strikes, Cambridge would not deduct pay for action short of a strike and that he is frustrated by the bargaining process. He rounded off the week by writing to the Times this morning saying that "turning universities into businesses caused the pension strike".


UCU calls on Home Secretary to clarify immigration concerns

UCU has today written to Home Secretary Amber Rudd asking for clarification on the right to strike for international staff and for an urgent review of the immigration status of Durham academics Ernesto Schwartz-Marín and Arely Cruz Santiago.

The letter highlights concerns raised by international staff who fear that engaging in strike action could jeopardise their employer sponsorship. The union says that the right to strike is enshrined in European law and has asked the government to provide written reassurance for affected staff.

UCU has also called on the Home Secretary to urgently review the case Ernesto Schwartz-Marín and Arely Cruz Santiago, who have been refused indefinite leave to remain because of time spent abroad for research.


Colleges to be hit with more strikes

Following strikes last month, UCU announced this week that members at 12 colleges will take a second wave of strike action from 27 March. Staff at the colleges - all in London except for one in the Midlands - will walk out on either March 27 or 28 for two or three days of strikes.

Sally Hunt told TES that members at these colleges were taking action in defence of their pay and conditions: 'They will be walking out unless the colleges properly address their concerns. Strike action is a last resort, but staff feel they have been left with no alternative', she said.


More university 'fat cat' headlines for senior staff

Senior university pay was in the news again this week with the Times revealing that pay for principals in Scotland is rising twice as quickly as for staff. Principals received an average 20% pay rise, taking average salaries to over £250,000, before benefits like grace and favour homes and pensions are added on top.

UCU Scotland official Mary Senior told said that staff felt let down by such large increases for university heads, at a time when their own salaries were being held down.


UCU calls for grace and favour homes loophole to be closed

It wasn't just senior pay hitting the headlines this week, with Times Higher Education exposing how many institutions use loopholes to keep housing perks for senior staff out of the annual accounts. According to documents obtained by THE, UCL president Michael Arthur received free accommodation worth £60k a year in 2016-17 but this was not included in the university's financial statement.

Calling for the loophole to be closed,  Sally Hunt said: 'Whether it is grace-and-favour homes, a £2 biscuit expense claim, or sitting on the committee setting their pay or arranging a bespoke pension deal, vice-chancellors' pay and perks scandals have been an embarrassment for too long. The time has come for proper transparency over the spending of senior staff in our universities.'


MP slams college's "crass" jobs loss announcement

Local MP Mike Amesbury this week slammed the decision by Warrington and Vale Royal College to effectively close its Hartford campus and threaten 56 staff with redundancy.

Amesbury told the Northwich Guardian the way the college announced the plans was crass and insensitive. He said he had already raised the matter in Westminster and written to the college asking them to reverse the decision.

UCU regional official Martyn Moss welcomed the MP's involvement and told the Tes that the college needed to explain how the Hartford campus had gone from being secure to facing closure in a matter of months.


Part-time student numbers continue to drop

The decline in part-time and mature study can be linked to the increase in tuition fees, said a report this week. According to the Sutton Trust, between 2010 and 2015, the number of part-time students in England fell by 51%, with the biggest drop in students aged over 35, whose numbers went from 95,000 to 39,000 during the same time.

Sutton Trust founder Sir Peter Lampl told the Independent: 'Part-time study is a crucial second chance for many people. This report shows that it has been decimated. The major reason for this dramatic decline is the introduction of big increases in tuition fees.'


300,000 higher education places needed by 2030

A report by the Higher Education Policy Institute this week revealed that around 300,000 full-time higher education places would be needed by 2030 if universities are to keep up with projected demand and the rising number of 18-year-olds.

Speaking to the BBC one of the authors, Bahram Bekhradnia, outlined the problems of the current public expenditure restraints and called for increases in the higher education budget.


Last updated: 16 March 2021