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In the news: 1 December 2017

USS ballot opens as members warned they could lose tens of thousands of pounds in retirement

Members of the Universities Superannuation Scheme could see the value of their retirement income drop by as much as £200,000 if hardline proposals from universities are brought in. Analysis by independent experts First Actuarial shows that a lecturer starting work today could be £208,000 worse off over the course of their retirement under the new proposals.

The modeling also reveals that the lecturer would be £385,000 worse off than if they worked in their nearest new 'post-92' university where academics' pensions are paid by the rival Teachers' Pension Scheme (TPS) rather than USS. The report looks at a number of scenarios for new starters and staff already in USS.

Times Higher Education reported that a lecturer starting on a salary of just under £40,000 a year who moves up the pay spine to £47,722 and works for 30 years would currently receive an annual pension of £15,400 in retirement. However, under the UUK plans to switch to a defined contribution scheme - in which pension payouts depend solely on stock market performance - that individual would get a pension of just £9,400 a year. That is £6,000 (39 per cent) less than under the current system.

It also revealed that UUK had not done any modelling of the impact of its proposals on staff or the sector.

UCU general secretary Sally Hunt said: 'This analysis reveals just how damaging UUK's hardline plans for the pension scheme would be on an individual basis for people who have planned and saved for their retirement. Already offering worse benefits than other schemes available in the sector, these proposals would devastate USS members' pensions and could create a recruitment and retention crisis as staff jump ship to secure their futures.'

How to solve the USS problem

Writing for Times Higher Education today, Sally Hunt set out three ways in which universities could avoid industrial action in the new year and save the USS scheme. Resisting the temptation to focus on the fallacy of UUK's hardline proposals, Sally asked sensible vice-chancellors to wrestle back control of the negotiating agenda from the headbangers in UUK.

She then warned that UCU would not pushed into accepting a poor deal, or having one imposed on it and USS should back off and withdraw that type of threat. Finally she said there had to be a proper conversation about how the scheme could be properly fixed. She said this was the third time pension cuts had been brought forward in six years and now we had to find a way out of the current impasse before students suffer, and we must then make sure this debacle never, ever happens again.

Vice-chancellors start to break ranks with UUK hardline pensions position

Proposed changes to USS would have "serious consequences" for affected universities and alternative approaches should be explored, the University of Warwick's vice-chancellor, Professor Stuart Croft, warned on the eve of UCU's ballot for action over changes to USS. Writing in a blog post to staff, Professor Croft criticised the "conservative approach" adopted by USS, and called for "greater understanding and explanation" of the process by which the valuation has been made.

Professional Pensions reported that Croft also said shutting the defined benefit (DB) scheme would "require USS's investment strategy to become increasingly cautious" and undermine the scheme's future growth. Speaking about Professor Croft's intervention, Sally Hunt said: 'This confirms our belief that UUK's proposals do not have support across the sector. While divisions in the employer position are beginning to show, UCU is united as we fight to defend our members' pensions.'

It was then revealed that the University of Glasgow has also broken ranks with the hard line position taken by UUK. In a message to staff, the university said it recognised the importance of securing the long-term future of the scheme, wished to retain a defined benefit element if possible and would increase employer contributions. The message concluded with the university saying it believed that its interests were aligned with those of UCU.

Bath sets end date and costly bill for vice-chancellor's pay saga

University of Bath vice-chancellor Dame Glynis Breakwell resigned this week insisting that months of negative press coverage over her pay (now £468,000 a year) and perks (£31,000 car loan that won't be repaid, glorious grace and favour house, £20,000 for a housekeeper - not forgetting £2 for biscuits) had not been detrimental to the university's reputation.

She ended last week clinging on to power after narrowly surviving a vote of no confidence. However, the negative press stories kept coming. Both the Guardian and Observer dedicated a full page to the farce at Bath over the weekend. And by Tuesday, former colleagues were even joining in to have a pop. One former deputy told the Bath Chronicle that her personal ambition had got in the way of her leadership of the institution.

She finally went on Tuesday evening. Having refused interviews during months of criticism, she broke her silence on Wednesday to insist she deserved her pay (the highest in the UK for a vice-chancellor) and, bizarrely, was happy with how it had been decided.

Last week the funding watchdog Hefce criticised Breakwell for cramming a remuneration committee meeting with allies to sign off her pay. Something she then apologised for. That damning report led to staff to join the chorus calling for her to go.

Looking to the future, Sally Hunt told the Financial Times that the episode had shone an important light on the murky world of senior pay in universities. The BBC asked if her resignation would signal the end of "fat cat university bosses" and the Bath Chronicle looked at how social media greeted her demise. However, the Times and Guardian pointed out that the furore over her golden goodbye, including a protest yesterday involving biscuits, meant that the Bath chapter of senior pay has not yet closed.

University of Southampton vice-chancellor says yes to chauffeur and pay rise while axing staff

We remarked in last week's news round-up that the University of Southampton was seeking to challenge Bath's monopoly on self-inflicted nightmare news coverage after it was revealed that the university was advertising for an executive chauffeur after announcing plans to axe 75 jobs. We think they could be streets ahead of Bath by this time next week. The university's accounts were released this morning and they show that the new vice-chancellor was given a 30% pay rise from the previous postholder.

That means Sir Christopher Snowden earned £433,000 in 2016/17, compared to the healthy £332,000 that Don Nutbeam was paid in 2014/15. Snowden's pay deal of £352,000 last year brought criticism from universities minister Jo Johnson. However, last year Snowden was only in post for 10 months, and that £352,000 deal was part of the £687,000 Southampton shelled out to him and Nutbeam who were both employed for some of the year. Times Higher Education says the rise makes him one of the country's best paid university heads.

Sally Hunt said: 'To accept this kind of pay rise while saying he must axe 75 academic jobs because money is tight beggars belief. As does the fact that he has also recently advertised for an executive chauffeur. Despite a summer of damaging headlines about senior pay and perks in universities, it seems as if vice-chancellors are engaged in some offensive game to see who can shock the most.'

Queen's University Belfast shells out £300,000 on new "brand identity"

In another week, Queen's University Belfast could have been a contender for worst university of the week, but these are strange times. The Belfast Telegraph reported that the institution has splashed out almost £300,000 on a new "brand identity" to better reflect the university and its place in the international marketplace. The redesign, which includes a revamped logo and mission statement, followed an 18-month consultation process.

UCU said: 'University largesse is rightly under the spotlight at the moment and institutions need to understand that students are more interested in substance than style. New logos and shiny buildings are no match for properly rewarded staff.'

How the government's apprenticeships policy is failing

With the majority of apprenticeships at level 2 and most apprentices under the age of 25 starting their training below their existing level of educational attainment, many apprentices are "treading water", warned a report released yesterday by the Sutton Trust.

The report recommends there should be more advanced and higher apprenticeships, targeted at younger age groups. Sally Hunt told Tes that it was increasingly clear that the government's pursuit of its 3 million apprenticeships target was coming at the expense of quality and choice within the system.

The Times said the report also revealed how middle-class teenagers and older people were snapping up the best apprenticeships, particularly those at higher levels.

Vast greed and vandalism in universities

In his Guardian column this week, Aditya Chakrabortty says that we should all be scandalised by what is happening in universities. He describes it as a tale of "vast greed and of vandalism" that is "being committed right at the top, by the very people who are meant to be custodians of these institutions". He warns that if it continues, it will "wreck one of the few world-beating industries Britain has left".

Vice-chancellors' pay is understandably pulled apart, but he also aims his fire on the state of governance in universities. He cites the situation at Bath where the majority of its councillors come from business and finance and says they are unlikely to bat an eyelid at massive salaries for senior staff, or jacking up rents for students.

His article prompted a host of letters, including one from the UCU branch at the University of Manchester, who Chakrabortty also cited as having its governing body stuffed with business as opposed to civic leaders or trade unionists. In it, branch secretary Adam Ozanne says that not only do the board rubberstamp the vice-chancellor's salary and redundancy plans, they barred a union rep from taking part in any discussions about job losses.

 Living wage and top prize in Nottingham

Unions say they are pleased after the University of Nottingham agreed to pay all staff a living wage. While local rivals Nottingham Trent were picking up University of the Year at last night's Times Higher Education Awards, Nottingham has guaranteed all its staff will be paid a minimum of £8.75 an hour.

The Nottingham Post reported that the wage increase agreement came a fortnight after a protest from campus unions calling on the new vice-chancellor to commit to becoming a living wage employer - something the university has not yet fully agreed to.


Last updated: 27 March 2020