Made in Westminster – Sean Wallis

Made in Westminster:

The source of the USS ‘crisis’ – and the solution

In our letter to the Guardian we wrote that

[The USS ‘crisis’] is the result of the misrepresentation of the finances of the USS, and the desire of a new breed of university managements to cut their pension liabilities and thereby ease the financing of new buildings and campuses.

Successive Pension Acts have encouraged managers of private sector schemes to exaggerate the risks of default. Combined with Quantitative Easing, this has led to a headlong abandonment of Final Salary Defined Benefit to “Defined Contribution” schemes, where employees rather than employers bear investment risk.

Higher Education today is shaped by frantic competition for students and huge building projects. Universities can recruit unlimited UK undergraduates paying an annual £9,000 plus, backed by taxpayer loans. The Higher Education and Research Act 2017 even allows universities to go bankrupt.

Much of this argument will be familiar to colleagues. The debate about the University Superannuation Scheme (USS) deficit has been an active subject of discussion on campuses since last summer when the press first announced that the pension scheme was at risk. Initial press claims were of a deficit of £17.5bn, while at exactly the same time USS themselves reassured pensioners that the scheme was in surplus.

But it is worth considering the source of this deficit in more detail than the Guardian letter’s pages will permit.

Is the deficit real, as the employers and USS themselves have asserted, or is it an accounting artefact, as the UCU trade union has claimed?

This is a key question, of course. Most important of all, until we know the source of the deficit we cannot begin to propose solutions. Continue reading

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Letter to Guardian


University pension ‘crisis’ triggered by HE market madness

Published in the Guardian as University staff are right to be striking (30 January 2018) 

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The university employers have provoked the largest vote for industrial action ever seen in the Higher Education sector. They have done this by overseeing what they present as a financial crisis for the University Superannuation Scheme (USS), and by threatening enormous cuts to the pensions of hundreds of thousands of university staff.

Yet none of this is necessary. It is the result of the misrepresentation of the finances of the USS, and the desire of a new breed of university managements to cut their pension liabilities and thereby ease the financing of new buildings and campuses.

Successive Pension Acts have encouraged managers of private sector schemes to exaggerate the risks of default. Combined with Quantitative Easing, this has led to a headlong abandonment of Final Salary Defined Benefit to “Defined Contribution” schemes, where employees rather than employers bear investment risk. Continue reading

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Essex University invokes ‘capability’ for research staff after mini-REF, and claims probationary lecturers ‘not academics’

From the national UCU website:

In September 2017, approximately one-eighth of the research-active staff were sent letters warning that their positions might be in danger, including the invocation of Capability proceedings to remove them from their jobs. This represents an alarming increase in the use of Capability at Essex. It is evidence not of individual failure of academics but a system that creates failure. As the eminent sociologist C. Wright Mills argued, if there are 1-2 people unemployed in a city, we may look to their individual psychology for answers, but if it is 5-10% of the population, then it is a social not an individual problem.

This development is linked to the invention at Essex of an internal REF process, requiring all researchers to achieve 4 publications which judges in our departments believe to be 3* – two of them accepted by September 2017 – even before national REF targets had been set. We now know only one is required. Linking this setting of internal publication targets to job security is an unprecedented move, practically unique to Essex, and one that has led to a widely-perceived de-professionalisation of academics and job threatsIt also represents mission creep: Capability procedures have never been systematically used for this before. Continue reading

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Manchester redundancies letter

Stop the Manchester cuts and redundancies

To be submitted to the Guardian.

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As staff across UK universities we are appalled at the proposed staffing cuts at the University of Manchester (Guardian, 13.05.17) including but not limited to the School of Arts, Languages and Cultures, the Faculty of Biology, Medicine and Health, and Alliance Manchester Business School. The proposals meant that 171 members of staff are set to be axed despite annual income from tuition fees exceeding £423 million (2015/16). The way in which these cuts are being made and the treatment of these committed teachers and respected scholars is abhorrent.

Unfortunately these plans are resonant of a Higher Education system now rooted in the market and underpinned by rampant managerialism that has little interest in critical public and inclusive education and a general disregard for the views or experience of academic staff. At the same time as cutting 171 jobs, the University plan to create 100+ posts for early-career academics. In our experience these positions are unlikely to offer security in contractual terms or opportunities to pursue scholarship.

In the context of Manchester University’s plans and our own current experience in universities, the necessity for a government committed to an alternative model of higher, further and adult education which will abandon a system based upon crude market competition and league tables, and abolish student fees and debts has never been more urgent.

Prof Sian Moore, University of Greenwich
Prof Andy Danford, University of Leicester
Prof Phil Taylor, University of Strathclyde
Elizabeth Lawrence, Sheffield Hallam University (retd.), UCU Immediate Past President
Marion Hersh, University of Glasgow, UCU NEC member
Sean Wallis, University College London, UCU NEC member, UCU Branch Vice President
Paul Errington, Teeside University, UCU NEC member, Senior lecturer
Xanthe Whittaker, University of Leeds, UCU NEC member
Jon Fanning, University of York, UCU committee
Gordon Asher, University of the West of Scotland
Richard Holmes, University of Bradford
Helen Mayall, Manchester Metropolitan University, UCU Site Convenor
Carol Cody, City of Liverpool College, UCU NW Women’s Equality Officer
John Yandell, Institute of Education, University College London, UCU Branch Secretary
Saladin Meckled-Garcia, University College London, Senior Lecturer, UCU Branch President
Tom Hickey, University of Brighton, Council for the Defence of British Universities
Lisa Palmer, Birmingham City University
Prof Dennis Leech, University of Warwick (retd.)
Prof David Midgley, University of Cambridge (retd,), Council for the Defence of British Universities
Rich Moth, Liverpool Hope University
Mehdi Husaini, Teesside University, Lecturer (retd.)
Elane Heffernan, Hackney College, UCU NEC elect
Marian Meyer, Bournemouth University, Senior Lecturer, UCU Branch Vice Chair
Tim Goodall, University of Leeds, UCU Branch President
William Edmondson, University of Birmingham (retd.), UCU Chair, West Midlands Retired Members
Christina Purcell, Manchester Metropolitan University, Lecturer
Geraldine Lee-Treweek, Manchester Metropolitan University, Principal Lecturer
Joao Florencio, University of Exeter, Lecturer, UCU LGBT Members Standing Committee
Annie Jones, Sheffield Hallam University
Rajesh Patel, Manchester Metropolitan University, Senior Lecturer
Mandy Brown, Lambeth College, UCU NEC
Gabriella Alberti, University of Leeds, UCU Equality Officer
Ruth Dar, University College London (retd.), UCU Branch Treasurer
Eda Ulus, University of Leicester, Lecturer
Julie Ryan, Manchester Metropolitan University
Prof Julian Williams, Manchester University
Prof Helen Colley, Manchester University
Cuneyt Suheyl Ozveren, Abertay University, UCU Branch President
Sean Doyle, UCL Institute of Education, Lecturer
Prof Cahal McLaughlin, Queens University Belfast

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Please note names will not appear automatically. The above is a subset of signatures that have already been collected.

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The higher education stand-off of 2017: an assessment – Prof David Midgley

There was much rejoicing back in January when the government was defeated over the first amendment to the Higher Education and Research Bill to be put to the vote in the House of Lords. That amendment introduced a definition of the functions of UK universities into the text of the bill which included their freedom “to act as critics of government and the conscience of society”. Its effects were dispersed and diffused in subsequent re-wordings, but it was the first of several major amendments to command support in the Lords.

At the end of April, however, in the “wash-up” before parliament was dissolved on May 3rd, the bill became law, and much of the effect of those amendments was lost. What should we note about that process, and where does it leave us?

It is worth recalling that the bill was always intended as a consolidation on the new system for funding university teaching, based primarily on tuition fees and loans, that was introduced in 2012. It was widely recognised during the parliamentary debates that some adjustment to the regulation of the higher education sector was needed in the light of that, and that students who were being required to invest financially in the courses they took needed access to adequate information about those courses and an appropriate regime of consumer protection. But the bill that had been brooded over in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) for five years before it was presented to parliament in May 2016 was much more ambitious than that. It sought to make it easier to establish new institutions that would provide training in particular specialised skills considered necessary to drive the economy forward, and it included measures to incorporate the research councils into a new overarching funding body, along with the agency that acts as a facilitator for the practical application of research outcomes, Innovate UK. Continue reading

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Where next after the HE Bill? – Sean Wallis and Lee Jones

For a week or so it appeared as if the Conservatives had pulled the plug on the Higher Education and Research Bill (HE Bill) by calling a Brexit General Election on June 8th. Only negotiations with the Labour front bench could allow the Bill to become an Act in time for the enforced closure of Parliament.

The earlier ‘debate’ in the Commons had been lamentable. No notable amendments were accepted in the Committee stages in the Commons. The Conservatives simply kept to the party whip and refused any amendment.

Then the Lords set to work. Through a series of 240 amendments, voted on and accepted in the House of Lords, their Lordships took apart key elements of the legislation.

The position taken by the Conservatives in the Commons differed sharply from the position taken by a variety of Lords – Liberal, Labour, Conservative and cross-bencher.

The official Tory position on the Bill was expressed in the infamous Green and White Papers. Higher Education ‘reform’ was required to permit private providers to ‘access’ undergraduate students and full fees in competition with universities of long-standing. The UK Government should allow Group 4 or Pearson to compete with Cambridge or Liverpool. The market is king. Private companies must be allowed to enter this market, charge £9,000+ a year, and reap the rewards. As a result ‘standards’ would, miraculously, be raised.

To create ‘a level playing field’, the existing regulatory framework, including the Quality Assurance Agency and other bodies, must be disbanded. The standard of academic environment and the inspection regime required by the QAA were too onerous for precious new private providers. Hence the TEF. University teaching was to be evaluated not in terms of whether students were challenged and their minds expanded to the frontiers of human knowledge, but whether the experience of attending university was personally satisfying.

The ideas were so poorly constructed that most staff and students who actually read these Papers were perplexed at how little knowledge of education was on display. Absent from the Papers were any notion that education might be about teaching students difficult and challenging ideas, or encouraging them to develop their own ideas. At most, the implied conceptualisation was instrumentalist: spoon-feeding and teaching-to-the-test.

Indeed, what is striking about the so-called ‘debate’ about the HE Bill, is that – beyond the ideologues of the DfE and the direct beneficiaries of the Bill busy lobbying them behind the scenes and a few self-interested, renegade Vice Chancellors – the proposals gained no public support. Continue reading

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An act that Labour must repeal to save higher education

(published in The Guardian 12 May)

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We commend the Labour Party for calling for the end of the current £9,000 student tuition fee-and-loans regime – for HE and FE.

High tuition fees have been catastrophic for social mobility. They triggered a collapse in part-time study and cut late returners to Higher Education. It is nonsense to claim that the fee regime is ‘progressive’.

They are also, paradoxically, more expensive than the previous £3,000 fee. In 2014 the Guardian reported the Treasury admitting that the rate of student debt write-off was predicted to ultimately be over 45%.

The high fee was designed for one purpose: to make HE privatisation profitable. David Willets introduced the fee as part of a package of measures: the partial abolition of the ‘block grant’, removal of caps on student numbers, and now – with the appalling Higher Education and Research Act (HE Act) and Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) – the effective deregulation of the sector. The Conservative aim, outlined in their own Green and White Papers, is to allow companies with little or no track record in education to set up private universities, paid for by the taxpayer through fees and loans, offer ‘degrees’ without oversight, and – if it all goes wrong – shut up shop abandoning students to their fate.

We commend Labour for demanding an end to the tuition fee regime, but we call on them to go further. If the Party is serious about rescuing HE in the UK it must commit to repealing the HE Act, and support the reintroduction of rigorous academic standards in the sector.

Yours sincerely,

Sean Wallis, University College London, UCL UCU VP, UCU National Executive Committee (NEC) member, and joint editor of the Alternative White Paper for Higher Education (AWP)
Prof John Holmwood, University of Nottingham, Campaign for the Public University (CPU), AWP joint editor
Rachel Cohen, City, University of London, UCU NEC, AWP joint editor
Tom Hickey, University of Brighton, Council for the Defence of British Universities (CDBU), AWP joint editor
Lee Jones, Queen Mary University of London, CPU
Prof Des Freedman, Goldsmiths University of London, UCU Branch Secretary
Malia Bouattia, NUS President 2016-17
Bruce Heil, Open University, UCU NEC
Patricia McManus, University of Brighton, UCU NEC
Chris Jones, Neath Port Talbot Group, UCU NEC, vice chair UCU Wales
Xanthe Whittaker, University of Leeds, UCU NEC
Sue Abbott, University of Newcastle, UCU NEC
Julia Charlton, Northumbria University, UCU NEC, Senior Lecturer, UCU NEC member and Branch Chair
Julie Hearn, Lancaster University, UCU NEC
Elizabeth Lawrence, Immediate Past President, UCU
David Muritu, Sandwell College, UCU NEC
Paul Errington, Teesside University, UCU NEC
Jo McNeill, University of Liverpool, President, University of Liverpool UCU, and UCU NEC
Marion Hersh, University of Glasgow, UCU NEC
Carlo Morelli, Dundee University, Senior Lecturer, UCU NEC
Lesley McGorrigan, University of Leeds, UCU NEC
Mandy Brown, Lambeth College,  UCU London Regional Secretary, UCU NEC
Sean Vernell, City and Islington College, UCU NEC
John Murphy, Blackburn College, UCU branch vice chair, UCU NEC
Margot Hill, Croydon Gollege, UCU NEC
Christina Paine, London Metropolitan University, UCU Coordinating Committee, UCU NEC elect
Lesley Kane, Open University, UCU NEC elect
Richard McEwan, Tower Hamlets College, UCU FE national negotiator
Nita Sanghera, Bournville College, UCU NEC elect
Rhiannon Lockley, Halesowen College, UCU West Midlands Chair, UCU NEC elect Continue reading

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