Building on the successes of 2019

1 January 2020

Seasonal greetings from your Executive Committee!

The national strike action over pensions, pay, casualisation, workload and pay inequality dominated the term. Following the announcement of the vote, over 120 members attended a general meeting to organise for the strike. We saw hundreds more on picket lines, at meetings, teach-outs and demonstrations throughout the eight strike days.

The strike brought new negotiations, at a national level over USS and the pay claim. No breakthroughs have happened yet, although some reports are positive. The employers now have a window to consider their options before further strikes in February.

Other headlines of the dispute, in particular casualisation and workload, have also become an organising focus here at UCL. We may not be able to end the dispute by local negotiations, but we can make progress locally.

Casualisation: some positive news

Job insecurity (casualisation) is a major source of stress for many members, from Research Fellows to Teaching Fellows and Postgraduate Teaching Assistants. The strike has helped our members speak up to spotlight these issues, and - at present at least - it seems that management are prepared to listen and negotiate improvements.

Some progress has been with respect to Teaching Fellows (TFs). TF members in the School of Slavonic and East European Studies (SSEES) wrote to the Provost during the strike protesting about their conditions and were pleased to receive positive assurances that UCL was listening. Other groups of TFs have since met to discuss their problems, which are partly around insecure offers of work and excessive workload.

The signs are HR have recognised that there is a problem. Indeed, yesterday you may have received a message from Matthew Blain of HR discussing a review of conditions for Teaching Fellows.

We have even been able to make progress on some out-dated and potentially legally highly problematic practices of unregulated ‘self-employment’ contracts used in place of UCL standard employment contracts, again, highlighted when the members concerned got organised for the strike.

We have discovered that some departments are not applying some UCL policies to Postgrad TAs correctly. They are due the same principles of salary progression (that staff progress up the scale annually) or internal salary protection (transfer of roles on the same or better salary point within a grade). But in some cases it seems HR have given the wrong advice and PGTA pay has been cut incorrectly. This will need to be rectified.

UCL agreed with UCU and the Student Union that PGTAs would be given contracts of employment as part of their new Code of Practice. This has not happened: we will need to insist this is implemented for the next academic year at the very least.

We have made slower progress in improving conditions for Research Fellows at this time, but we are planning a meeting for research staff in January to discuss proposals we might take. UCL is party to the new 2019 Research Concordat. We have proposals for policies that UCL has not implemented that would strengthen support for retaining staff and building research careers.


The Second Report of the Joint Expert Panel diplomatically navigates a possible space for partnership negotiation, but without spelling out how to stabilise what is otherwise a sinking ship. It avoids clearly stating the basic facts that the ‘deficit’ in USS is an artefact of the valuation method and that ‘de-risking’ undermines the ability of the pension scheme to pay its pensioners.

Indeed we can read USS’s own words. USS’s Summary Funding Statement posted to members in December spells out why we still face attacks on our Defined Benefit pension - as we did in 2018. The current trajectory of USS, supported by UUK, is towards a continued ‘de-risking’ of the investment portfolio, cutting the proportion of assets generating income and thereby generating a spiralling ‘deficit’ and escalating costs in the future.

  • If the ‘September 2017’ valuation method (de-risking after a 10-year delay) were applied to USS’s current fund, the scheme should project a deficit of around £0.6bn, allowing for CPI inflation of 4.4% over the last two years.

  • But the Summary Funding Statement, using the later ‘November 2017’ valuation method (immediate de-risking) projects a deficit of £5.4bn, nine times as much.

If USS was run as a going concern on the same basis as the last fifty years without ‘de-risking’, the scheme projects a healthy surplus. The Summary Funding Statement admits that de-risking is a choice premised on ‘the right economic conditions’ (see ‘Our Funding Plan’, page 3). It also states that it is ‘desirable’ due to the employers’ level of  financial support for the scheme.

This is why UCU’s position is that there is no deficit, and no grounds for increasing costs to members or reducing benefits (‘no detriment’). Any other position is to invite USS to wind down our pension scheme!

Of course if we stop de-risking, our university employers also benefit. UCL would no longer need to pay higher contributions into USS. In the short term we are taking action to save UCL money - which could be spent on addressing low pay and the gender and race pay gaps!

But in the longer term we know that universities will refuse to keep paying increasing contributions. If we do not resist the attacks on our pension now, UUK will demand 100% Defined Contribution in 2021.

The next phase of action

A Higher Education Sector Conference on the USS dispute in Manchester took place on 6 December at which elected representatives from our branch attended. We sent six delegates, including reps who had come forward during the strike. That meeting voted for a plan for strike action in the Spring Term consisting of an escalating fourteen days, in a similar pattern as in 2018. It also voted to ballot for action that could hit examinations.

This is a serious step up, especially given the fact that we have already taken eight days of action this term. Nonetheless, delegates were clear that unless the employers changed their stance over USS (see above) we have little choice but to take further hard-hitting action.

We will be organising a General Meeting for all members early in the Spring Term to discuss preparation for future strikes and what we can do in the meantime.

There will be a national UCU reps meeting on Saturday 25 January in Central London (either at SOAS or UCL).

Strike pay deductions will be made in February, and once those are made, members will be able to use their MyView payslip to apply for strike pay.

We wish every member a restful break over the closure period.

Thank you for your support in the last year.