Pension Ballots are Coming: Why We’re Balloting and What You Can Do

In just over three weeks, you will be receiving ballots on pension and pay. There are more details on the ballot below, but the quick version is this:

Watch your mailbox. Ballots are coming. UCU Warwick’s position is vote YES for action short of a strike, vote YES for a strike.

Want to contribute to the ongoing UCU campaign over USS, but don’t have very much time? Here is a short to do list:

1. Make sure you can vote by checking that your employment details and postal address are up to date. You can do so here.

2. Watch this talk given by Sheffield UCU’s branch president Sam Marsh yesterday at the Open University.

3. (A slightly larger time commitment item): We are going to need people to door knock, poster, email, tweet, and generally help us Get the Vote Out in September and October. If you’ll have a few moments to spare over the next couple of months, please email us at

4. (A larger time commitment item): We are in need of a new Treasurer. Please email us if you are interested at

In September, vote YES for pensions, pay, and equality.

Background Information

A new USS ballot

At the end of May, UCU’s Higher Education conference (which was held on the second day of Congress 2019) voted overwhelmingly to ramp up preparations for an industrial action ballot over USS to begin in September. And as of 7 June, employers including our own were served a letter inviting them to take steps to avoid a re-ignition of the dispute.

Why has UCU decided to ballot? When the Joint Expert Panel’s first report dropped in September, there was hope from all sides that it had the potential to end the dispute. Adopting its recommendations would mean a shift in philosophy from USS and rate increases low enough to negotiate over. Both UCU and Universities UK backed the JEP report, the latter with the strikes still fresh in the mind and eager to put the dispute to bed. The issue, as was always likely to be the case, has been with USS’ response.

A USS timeline from September 2018-now

The first side-step by USS was their proposal for a new, 2018 valuation as a way to incorporate the issues raised by the JEP. This would not replace the 2017 one, but instead follow close on its heels and intercept the large contribution increases that were a consequence of the original valuation. Support for this approach was secured from the employers, and the Joint Negotiating Committee were shown information that if the JEP’s recommendations were applied in full to the 2018 valuation, it would mean that the deficit would vanish and that contributions would fall (although no guarantees were made as to what the final figures would be).

As soon as agreement to proceed with a 2018 valuation was sealed, the USS executive team contacted the board and recommended dropping two of the three key proposals from the JEP report, while the only one that remained would be inextricably tied to ‘contingent contributions’ from employers. The justification for USS’s rejection of the JEP’s recommendations was that adopting them would send the ‘discount rate’ above the internal benchmarks the regulator uses to judge a valuation’s prudence. Yet these internal benchmarks don’t exist! The regulator has made this explicit via a cryptic stab at USS in its annual DB funding report. It is possible – indeed likely – that this was not the first that USS had heard of this issue from TPR. If true, USS’ public statements to the contrary are all the more disingenuous.

This leads to where we are now: USS has rejected both the JEP report and the overwhelming evidence that their methodology is flawed, and is still relying on Test 1. Nothing has changed in their mindset or approach. Based on this, they insist the correct contribution rate is 33.7% of pay, an increase of 7.7% since before the dispute.

The University of Warwick published its response in March, stating its disappointment with the USS’s failure to accept the JEP’s recommendations and calling on the USS to be reformed. This is not surprising. Employers and members alike are horrified at the mess that has developed for no clear reason. Added to this, Prof Jane Hutton, one of three UCU-nominated trustees, has recused herself from the board under “considerable pressure” after whistleblowing to the regulator on the obstruction she faced obtaining data on the valuation. This has now led to over 1,000 academics signing a petition to call for an inquiry into the scheme. Meanwhile the Academics for Pensions Justice group are also preparing a legal challenge to USS. There are serious issues here that need proper answers, and we suspect that we will continue to hear more about USS governance in the days to come.

What now?

So, to return to the initial question: why a ballot, especially given the University of Warwick’s largely supportive position? We need a ballot, paradoxically, to support Warwick’s position. Employers across the country are losing faith in the USS, and some (like our own) are starting to raise their voice, but neither their voice nor ours is being listened to. If we don’t push back now, USS will tighten their grip, and will almost assuredly ignore the second report of the JEP, employers will start planning to mitigate against the USS valuation, and this will pose enormous problems and instabilities for our pension.

In 2018, we battled to stop them from taking our defined benefit pension. Now we must fight to make sure our DB pension isn’t taken by other means. No one wants to ballot for a strike, but employers know what they need to do to avert it: work with UUK to make sure that there is a major change of direction in USS, or, failing that, pick up the tab for the contribution increases.


****(Thank you to Sheffield for sharing their materials and information with us)

Congress report back

By Myka Tucker-Abramson, Craig Gent, and Tor Krever

Congress took place this year from Saturday 25 May to Monday 27 May in Harrogate. Myka Tucker-Abramson, Tor Krever, and Craig Gent were the delegates for the University of Warwick

Our motions

  • Our climate emergency motion was composited with a similar motion from Lambeth College. Lambeth moved the motion and Tor seconded it on behalf of WUCU, using his time to explain the importance of the “scope 3” language in the motion and the need for attention not only to direct emissions but also value chain emissions. This motion passed unanimously.
  • Unfortunately there wasn’t enough time to debate our motion on creating international staff working groups, but it will be taken up by NEC in due course. However, there was some very exciting motions that were passed on migrant members. Most notably, motions were passed to include migrant representatives in the equality structure (84) and to include migrant representation on NEC (85).
  • As well, an amendment to Senate House’s motion backing academics on precarious contracts (HE16), which supported the IWGB’s boycott of Senate House also passed. While this was not a motion we moved, it was a campaign we were actively involved with.

Equality motions

We passed a range of equality related motions including those demanding better mental health support. And several addressing and urging the fight against the rise of the far-right. Of particular importance were:

  • motions supporting the Stansted 15
  • motions against the deportation of Bambile China Agnakuribe, a student at Dundee.
  • One of the first controversial motions to pass was “Sexual Harassment Has No Place in Our Union” (18), which ultimately passed with minor amendments.

There were motions passed opposing Prevent and on anti-casualisation. Indeed, anti-casualisation was a constant theme throughout the three days and it if Congress is any sign, there seems to be a promising real focus and awareness of the importance of anti-casualisation for many of our members.

HE Sector Conference

The HE Sector got off to quite the start with Congress voting down HE1 which asked congress to “note the report and approve the recommendations of the national negotiators.” The key source of disagreement here was the use of another consultative ballot over pay. Ballot fatigue remains a concern for many. There was discussion of multi-year pay negotiations (see motions HE2, which also prompted disagreement, and was remitted to NEC. There were also motions added to agenda items that sought to bind UCU to disaggregated ballots, which ultimately didn’t carry.

Perhaps the most important motions that were passed here were HE4, which committed us to “initiating a concerted campaign to win industrial action ballots for a fight over pay [with a focus on equality and anti-casualisation] to commence in the autumn” and HE 6, which committed us to calling “on UUK to pick up any additional employee contributions from 1 October 2019 and not pass them on” and to “enter into dispute and prepare for an industrial action ballot if the employers do not agree.” Both of these passed, but it is not clear how those will work together.

Another key issue that arose in both the Equality Committee and HE Sector Conference was a series of motions that appeared to be “academic freedom” – one was called “Academic Freedom to Discuss Sex and Gender” (32), the other “Respectful Dialogue on Gender Diversity” (21) – but which was quickly revealed to be a motion about debating trans rights. Motion 32 thankfully fell, but 21 was motion was remitted because of lack of time.

On the USS front, congress called on employers to pay any extra contributions and for the resignation of Bill Galvin. An emergency motion brought by Cambridge condemned Trinity’s decision to withdraw from USS (L8).

Democracy Commission

The democracy commission report and rule change motions were also the site of vigorous debate. The commission was created by Congress last year and its work is ongoing; there will be a special conference in November that we will need to send delegates too. There was a good motion passed that removes the cap of Congress delegates per branch so large branches are proportionately represented. And we voted down a motion that would have reduced the number of FE delegates to Congress, further marginalising FE in the union.  A number of the motions put forward by the Democracy Commission – e.g. to set up a dispute committee (82), and to ensure that the “representational powers and duties of the General Secretary would be transferred to elected officers of the union, while powers relating to staffing and the day to day running of the union can be delegated to employees of the union” were remitted (80). In both cases this was not so much a rejection of the principle, but a result of concerns around the details of implementation.

Our New GS

Finally, the new GS, Jo Grady gave a speech which re-emphasised many of her key campaign claims: to respect the findings of the democracy commission, to be a members-led fighting union, to tackle issues of casualisation, the hostile environment, and the attacks on pensions.

One last note:

While we are entitled to three delegates, because of a bureaucratic mix up we ultimately only had two delegates.  This was in spite of the issue being raised with a UCU official.

We think that there are issues with conference registration and see this potentially as a form of disenfranchisement that can have serious consequences given the importance of Congress as a decision making body. As a branch, we would recommend either writing a letter to the UCU expressing our frustration with this process or b) submitting a motion next year that calls for a change to how Congress registration works.


Addendum: Motions we submitted to Congress

Motion E: The Climate Emergency: Zero Carbon Workplaces by 2030

Congress notes that: 

  • The IPCC Report (Oct 2018) on anthropogenic global Climate Change outlines the significantly intensified harm likely to result from a 2°C vs 1.5°C rise; but acknowledges the possibility of avoiding thisii;
  • UK universities and colleges have reduced Greenhouse Gas emissions, but most no longer comply with new scientific understanding;
  • Some UK university managements, such as Bristol, are rising to this challenge, setting clear targets for carbon neutrality by 2030; elsewhere, such as the University of Warwick, UCU branches are supporting student leadership.

Congress Resolves to:  

  • Issue a public statement on the Climate Emergency and commit to researching and developing a plan to achieve “Scope 3” Carbon Neutrality by 2030 in all the institutions where members work;
  • Encourage all UCU Branches to recognise a State of Climate Emergency and campaign, in collaboration with others, for institutional commitments to “Scope 3” Carbon Neutrality by 2030.

Motion G: Fight for the Rights of International Workers and Staff (HE Sector Conference Version)  

HESC notes that:

  • In light of heightened and rather polarised discussion of policies on immigration in the UK, rising visa fees, increased monitoring by the Home Office and uncertainty over EU colleagues as Brexit nears, there is widespread concerned as to whether the University is supporting our international staff and workers
  • UCU activism during the strike led to the Home Office to add legal strike action to the list of exceptions to the rule on absences from employment without pay for migrant workers, showing that UCU activism can improve the lot of all workers.

HESC resolves to:

  • Issue a public statement on the need to address the issues faced by international staff and workers.
  • Encourage all UCU Branches to create International Staff Working Groups to start addressing issues relating to increased monitoring, rising visa and NHS surcharge costs, and the impact of the EU Referendum.