Letter from the Vice-Chancellor: USS Pension Reform

This is a difficult time for the University and, following yesterday’s Senate meeting, I wanted to write to all colleagues.

Dear Colleague,

This is a difficult time for the University and, following yesterday’s Senate meeting, I wanted to write to all colleagues to acknowledge the pressures we are all under at present, to update you on the current discussions about USS and to deal with some of the concerns expressed during the past week.

I know that for many members of staff who are currently taking industrial action, this has not been an easy decision given their commitment to high standards in student education. Similarly, I recognise that those who have not been participating in this action will have their own concerns about pensions and face other pressures in their daily work.

I also know that we all share a common goal of protecting and promoting the interests of students and I would particularly like to pay tribute to the huge efforts that are being made to ensure that the impact of the industrial action on student education is being minimised.

It is encouraging that talks are continuing between Universities UK and the UCU, outside the USS JNC machinery, and with the involvement of the independent dispute resolution service, Acas.  The negotiators carry a heavy responsibility to find an alternative resolution that is fair to staff and meets the exacting requirements of the USS Trustee and the Pensions Regulator.

In the absence of an agreed viable alternative, the University continues to support the JNC decision made on 23 January 2018 and subsequently adopted by USS.  This is consistent with the position agreed by the University Council but of course we will look carefully at any alternative proposals which emerge from the current discussions.

In line with that statutory timeline, USS is very soon to launch its member consultation about the proposed changes which have already been approved by the JNC and USS, and all members of USS are currently receiving advance notice of this. If you are a scheme member, or are eligible to be one, I urge you to take this opportunity to submit your views about the future development of the scheme.

There are two specific points that I know are causing concern at the present time:

Partial performance

I have received a number of representations about the University’s approach to action short of a strike (ASOS), and it is clear to me that many of them are based on misconceptions.  Let me be clear about the University’s position: 

Colleagues will not experience pay deductions because they declare themselves to be taking ASOS:  there is no question of deducting pay from staff who are working to contract.  The possibility of pay deduction would only arise when there is a breach of contract – ‘partial performance’ in the words of the lawyers – particularly when a member of staff refuses a legitimate request to prioritise student education on return to work after a strike.  We will, of course, be sensitive in implementing this principle.  We have made it clear that we are not expecting staff to make up for missed teaching on top of all their other commitments: we recognise that prioritising teaching might mean that other activity is not carried out, or is postponed until a later date.  In practice, I believe that, given their undoubted commitment to our students, the vast majority of staff will agree satisfactory plans with their heads of school to deliver what is necessary to ensure the integrity of student education by 4 May.  We will not implement any pay deduction in these circumstances.

The use of withheld pay

At this point, the costs of the strike action are not clear, but the University guarantees that any surplus funds accrued during the period of industrial action will be channelled directly into student education and support.

The University Council is clear that all employees, present and future, should have a pension scheme which is generously-funded, stable and sustainable, which does not carry the constant threat of major overhaul, and which provides valuable and flexible options on which to plan for retirement and I will continue to work to this end.

In the meantime, all staff should be aware that I met representatives of UCU Leeds with the Regional Official before the strikes started and made it clear that my door was open for local discussions at any time.  I have repeated this point today in response to the open letter from the President of the University branch of UCU.  An issue as important and complex as this requires careful discussion.  The University has always embraced open discussion, reasoned argument and the careful consideration of evidence to guide good decision making and it is in this spirit that I remain open to meeting UCU representatives or indeed other staff or student groups at any time.

Finally I finish where I started, by thanking all staff for their commitment and sheer hard work, not least at a time when the bad weather has added to the pressures of daily life.

Best wishes

Alan Langlands

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