“We are the Lions, Mr Vice-Chancellor!”

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“We are the Lions, Mr Manager!” is a brilliant play by Townsend Theatre Productions currently touring the UK about the 1976-78 Grunwick Film Processing Factory Strike and its equally brilliant leader Jayaben Desai.

As Linda McDowell and colleagues explain, “after a long day’s work in the cramped and poorly ventilated space where the photographs were collated and packed”, Desai, in response to a “demand to work beyond her core hours with no notice” walked out of the Grunwick factory in protest. By the following Monday morning, “an additional 132 workers failed to show up for work, all of whom were sacked when they demanded union recognition”.

“The Grunwick strike has become a persistent myth in the British labour movement. It is a mythical story of brave, fragile women, recent in-migrants to the UK, exploited and oppressed not only by capitalism but also by patriarchy at home and in the workplace and by the consequences of post-colonialism that saw them expelled from East Africa in the late 1960s and early 1970s, who nevertheless became the active participants in strike action.

“The cause of these women workers – low-paid factory workers, processing the holiday photographs of the more affluent British working class – was taken up by the union movement as a grand struggle about workers’ rights to join a trade union and by the women’s movement as a valiant struggle against patriarchal power. At its height, several thousands of industrial workers – miners, postmen, electricians and other representatives of the then industrial, dominantly male, working class as well as a range of other supporters ranging from women’s groups to left-wing activists – were involved in mass picketing.

“The strikers ultimately lost, but the strike has become constructed as an iconic moment in the history of the labour movement, the moment when the working class recognised the rights of women and minority workers to join a union as part of the British working-class movement.”

As I watched the Townsend play in Coventry last week, organised by Coventry Trades Union Council with the support of the local trade union and labour movement, I was struck by the similarities to a struggle that is currently being waged in the city between Coventry University and its University and College Union (UCU) branch, over the right of staff in one of the University’s wholly-owned subsidiaries – CU Coventry – to be collectively recognised by the union.

Firstly, a large proportion of the staff in CU Coventry – which offers no-frills “life shaped learning” to students who don’t necessarily want the traditional model of campus-based, full-time education with the £9,000 price tag that goes with it – come from minority ethnic groups and are on precarious contracts.

Secondly, the working conditions more accurately resemble a sweat shop than a college or university, with staff working long hours with a heavy teaching load – what Desai described in her context as ‘forced overtime’ – low pay relative to unionised colleagues in universities and high levels of management bullying and intimidation.

Thirdly, and most importantly, in response to staff in the University’s subsidiaries self-organising with the help of UCU, demanding their legal right to union recognition, the University is trying by any means necessary to prevent these workers from having collective representation.

For the last three years, Coventry University UCU has been fighting for recognition in the University’s subsidiaries where teaching is taking place. Two years ago, the union successfully balloted English pre-sessional teachers in another subsidiary, CU Services, gaining statutory recognition with an impressive 100% yes vote on a 76% turnout.

However, just two weeks later, the University sacked all these English teachers, forcing them to re-apply for their jobs via another subsidiary, this time a student temping agency ‘thefutureworks’. After a painful and highly-public campaign by the UCU – with the University’s employment practices being compared by Aditya Chakrabortty in The Guardian to that of Sports Direct – these teachers were reinstated on their original contracts and with their recognition agreement in place.

Meanwhile, the local UCU branch has also been for the last two years been working with colleagues in CU Coventry to get union recognition. Earlier this year, the union had the support it needed to go through the statutory route and sat down with management to discuss voluntary recognition, only to find that the University had six months previously registered its own staff consultative forum – intentionally set up to undermine the union’s growing influence in the subsidiary – as a trade union and voluntarily recognised it for the purposes of collective bargaining.

This kind of premeditated union-busting behaviour is literally unprecedented in higher education, and has been seen only rarely in the private sector, for example in the recent case of Boots Pharmacy, which also recognised its own staff association to prevent the Pharmaceutical Defence Association (PDA) going through the statutory route.

Since this development, the UCU has launched a national campaign to shame the University into de-recognising its staff consultative forum – under the hashtag banner #CovUniShame – and to grant its employees their legitimate and legal right to be collectively represented by whatever union they wish.

Again, like Desai and the Grunwick strikers, the brave and determined education workers at CU Coventry have enjoyed fantastic support from local politicians, with local MP Jim Cunningham slamming the University’ behaviour in a public statement and submitting an Early Day Motion in Parliament. The EDM now has over 25 signatures, including Jack Dromey, MP for Erdington in Birmingham, who played such a pivotal role in supporting Desai and the Grunwick strikers

Although the campaign at CU Coventry hasn’t had quite the same level of backing from the trade union movement – it is early days, and there has been massive support from within UCU, from other branches across the UK as well as the national executive – a demonstration on the 16 May (3pm Broadgate) coinciding with a meeting of Coventry University’s Board of Governors, like the mass pickets at Grunwick in June 1977, may present the perfect opportunity.

 

Sweat shop university

At a deeper level, it is the similarities between CU Coventry as an institution and the Grunwick factory that are not only striking, but also disturbing, revealing much about the state of higher education today.

Coventry University has pioneered the use of subsidiary companies to create for-profit higher education within not just a still quasi-public sector – with the taxpayers effectively subsidising the student fees and loans system through the amount written off after 30 years (the so called RAB charge) – but within a single charitable institution.

Alongside CU Coventry, the CU Group, which could be described as a ‘super-subsidiary’, also includes for-profit colleges in Scarborough and London. All these subsidiaries are 100% owned by the University as sole shareholder, and have members of the Coventry University senior management team as directors and board members. All profits of these subsidiary colleges – which have proved to be very lucrative, with CU Coventry registering a post-tax profit of £3.8 million in 2016 – are then ‘gift-aided’ to the University at the end of the financial year.

All of this is perfectly legal, although ethically questionable. UK charity law encourages the creation of for-profit subsidiaries, so that charities can engage in business activities not directly related to its primary purpose, if the profits made as part of these activities are then redirected to this purpose. However, it states clearly on the UK Government website, “trading subsidiaries must be used for non-primary purpose trades involving significant risk” (emphasis added).

In the case of the Coventry University, its for-profit subsidiaries are engaging in the charities primary purpose. Furthermore, these activities – through the union-busting that the University itself argues is necessary for the ‘business model’ of these subsidiaries to be viable – are in a serious way undermining the reputation of the registered, tax-exempt charitable owner.

As the UK Government advice to trustees makes very clear, “trustees of charities with one or more trading subsidiaries need to be aware of their responsibilities”. The primary responsibility of any charity trustee is to “avoid exposing the charity’s assets, beneficiaries or reputation to undue risk”. The Government continues that trustees “need to remember, in all decisions made regarding a trading subsidiary”, that “the interests of the charity are paramount”, and that the interests of a trading subsidiary, its directors, creditors or employees, “must all be secondary to those of the charity”.

“This is because the purpose of using a trading subsidiary is to benefit the charity in some way, for example to protect the charity’s assets from the risks of trading, or to increase the level of financial return to the charity by saving tax. If the charity’s assets are employed or put at risk for the benefit of the subsidiary, or its directors, creditors or employees then that purpose is frustrated. In such cases, the trustees of the charity may be personally liable for any loss of, or decline in value of, the charity’s assets.”

By not just endorsing but actively scheming against union recognition, the trustees of Coventry University have clearly vacated this responsibility. But where does this drive to experiment with subsidiaries come from? What was wrong with just offering quality higher education through the Coventry University charitable vehicle, which, after all, has won numerous awards over the last few years for teaching excellence and student experience?

 

Universities as TNCs

Much has been written on the ‘marketisation’ of higher education since the Tories began their “great university gamble” in 2010. For almost a decade now, they have been aggressively deregulating the English higher education system (Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have devolved responsibilities for this sector, and in Scotland in particular, deregulation has not been pursued with anywhere near the same vigour), beginning with drastic cuts to public funding, replacing the university teaching grant with direct funding through the ‘income-contingent’ student fees and loans system, and legislating for the easier entrance of new, for-profit ‘alternative providers’.

Critics often counter the arguments of free market ideologues – like former Minister for Universities and Science, David Willetts, and chair of the higher education regulatory body, the Office for Students, Michael Barber – for increased competition, which is said with almost religious fervour and faith to “drive up quality”, with a defence of the public university system, which is now viewed with the rosy spectacles of hindsight.

However, to obsess about the dangers of competition and to moan about the power of students to hold their ‘service providers’ to account is not only to leave oneself open to accusations of conservativism and the defence of narrow interests – what Willetts calls “producer power” –  but also to misrecognise both the origins of marketisation and its ultimate direction of travel.

Marketisation really began in the 1980s, under Margaret Thatcher. As part of the Higher and Further Education Act 1992, polytechnics – public institutions for higher learning created out of the democratic optimism of the 1960s – were made into universities. While this represented an important move away from the ‘binary divide’ in elite and mass higher education, through ‘incorporation’, the ‘norms’ of corporate capitalism were introduced into the system.

Polytechnics became ‘higher education corporations’ with a ‘chief executive’ officer at the helm, governed by boards dominated by a business consensus of white, male, corporate ‘lay’ elites. The Act also abolished academic tenure – a core pillar of academic freedom – and subordinated academic self-governance to neutered ‘academic boards’ with little say over the direction of travel of these increasingly competition-obsessed institutions.

Vice-chancellors of traditional, elite universities subsequently started to become envious of the executive power and freedom of their ex-poly colleagues, and began to emulate their peers, replacing academic self-governance with ‘new public management’ and capturing power and monetary reward for themselves.

Combined with savage cuts to higher education funding under Thatcher – while the system continued to expand – university leaders increasingly pushed for marketisation ‘from below’. The 2010 reforms, therefore, were merely the completion and acceleration of tendencies already present (which may partly explain why there was not more resistance from both vice chancellors and academics to market reform).

But the crucial thing to understand is where this is all heading. Willetts and Barber say they want a market in which institutions respond to the needs and demands of students, shedding the clunky baggage of traditional universities to concentrate on a ‘unique selling point’: no frills, elite, cool, luxury, etc. But in fact, as evidenced by Willetts’ memoirs of his time as Minister ‘A University Education’, what they know will really happen is a rapid consolidation of this market in which the big fish swallow up the small, with those that do not play the game falling by the way side in a race for monopolisation.

Coventry University, then, is merely ‘playing the game’, rigged by neoliberal reformers in favour of monopolisation. The subsidiary/group model that Coventry University is using to exploit its staff and outmanoeuvre union recognition is in fact a model straight out of the private sector. It is also a model – an experiment that the University of Central Lancashire tried first, before the reality of reputational damage made them reverse course – which allows subsidiaries in foreign countries to be created, by-passing even the basic UK labour rights that even CU Group must respect.

This is the future of higher education, not just in England, but in the US too. Universities as ‘trans-national corporations’, loyal to no community, happy to outsource labour costs to developing countries, with ‘lecture-capture’ and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) providing the technological infrastructure to scale up the ‘no frills’ CU Coventry model for the creation of super-profit.

 

Why should you care?

If you are an academic, you should care because this could be your future, sooner than you think. No one has counted how many universities use subsidiaries, but from a preliminary search on Google, it looks like most of them. In many cases, these subsidiaries are being used for what they were intended, non-primary trading. It seems that only the most ‘entrepreneurial’ of the post-92 universities have experimented with for-profit teaching subsidiaries. But you can bet, as the history of marketisation above indicates, if there is a surplus to be made, others will follow suit.

If you are a UCU activist – and if you are an academic and not yet a member of UCU, now really is the time to join – you should care because the struggle at Coventry University is a struggle over the future of the union. Aside from the outright attack on UCU and unions in general that the creation of this sham union represents, the use of subsidiaries to by-pass collective bargaining and national framework agreements means, in the long-run, a shrinking core of traditional academic staff and a growing army of de-professionalised, non-unionised, casualised ‘workers’ in the periphery.

If you are a member of a community surrounding a university, you should care because the somewhat uneven economic benefit that these growing universities provide is increasingly being directed away from the community. The gentrification that comes with university expansion in local areas creates not just fashionable shops, cafés and craft beer bars but also unsustainable hikes in rent and house prices for ordinary people and relentless pressure on public services already subject to massive cuts, with universities, students and student-housing landlords not contributing anything to these communities through the tax system.

As we know from 30 years of neoliberalism, multi-national corporations are loyal to no-one, they will move production to wherever is cheapest, with the subsidiary model, in conjunction with technological rationalisation, as argued above, providing the ideal means of shifting universities overseas to where labour rights and land-access are least protected. Tory reformers are incredibly naïve and short-sighted in thinking that if they help create English educational corporations they will stay in the country and contribute to the regeneration of our stagnating post-crisis economy.

But most disturbing is the fact that with the 2017 Higher Education and Research Act – rushed through Parliament just before the snap election the same year – universities can fail, with no guarantee of a government bailout. As Willetts has suggested, rather than direct government support, most likely profit-driven multinational corporations – not necessary educational – would be courted by government to come in and ‘save’ these HEIs. All the public wealth and civic space attached to them would also be handed over, and there would be even less concern for the welfare of local communities.

For post-industrial cities like Coventry, almost anything would be better than a return to the past. As Coventry-based The Specials famously sang: “This town, is coming like a ghost town/All the clubs have been closed down/Bands won’t play no more/Too much fighting on the dance floor”. I remember what this was like, growing up in the city during the 1980s.

But we can prevent this from happening again by drawing a line in the sand. No more union busting, no more marketisation. We need to support our brave and determined colleagues in CU Coventry before it’s too late.

“What you are running here is not a factory, it is a zoo. But in a zoo there are many types of animals. Some are monkeys who dance on your fingertips, others are lions who can bite your head off. We are the lions, Mr. Manager!”

 

 

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Guest Post: Ten reasons why USS is a scandal waiting to bite back

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Sam Marsh, Sheffield UCU, follows up on his earlier post for HE Marketisation (6 November 2017), giving 10 reasons why USS is a “scandal waiting to bite back”. The University and College Union will announce the results of its national ballot for strike action in response to the threat from universities to end guaranteed pension benefits on 19 January. 

 

If you’re reading this, you probably know that there’s a lot of fuss over the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), the pension fund for academic and related staff at some of the biggest universities in the country. You’ve probably heard that things aren’t as black and white as some would lead you to believe. But what is it that’s getting people upset? Quite simply, the process of determining the health of the fund appears to be rotten. Here are ten reasons why you might consider what’s happening to be close to scandalous.

 

Reason 1: a huge best-estimate surplus

As part of their 2017 valuation, USS included a `best-estimate’ of the fund’s health. The result was quite startling. On this measure, they hold a huge surplus, significantly over £8bn. That’s more than £20k for every USS member. And this figure is up on 2014, where it has recently been admitted that the scheme held a £3.5bn best-estimate surplus.

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Source: USS 2017 Actuarial Valuation, September 2017

 

Reason 2: we’re probably overpaying for the current benefits

The 2017 valuation also included a best-estimate for how much of our salaries needs putting aside to secure the current benefits. Our current contributions of 18% for employers and 8% for employees turn out to be a significant over-payment, with USS estimating that 22.5% in total would be sufficient.

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Source: USS 2017 Actuarial Valuation, September 2017

 

Reason 3: ‘de-risking’ causes all the problems

Much has been made by USS of the need to de-risk the scheme, with plans to sell off growth assets (equities, property etc) and replace them with low return investments such as government bonds, in order to ‘match liabilities’’ Much less has been made of the fact that this de-risking is responsible for almost all of the deficit, and that canceling it would allow benefits to remain unchanged at the current contribution rate.

Source: Letter to Sir Keith Burnett by Sheffield UCU, 29 November 2017

 

Reason 4: de-risking is hugely expensive

Using USS’s projections for investment returns, we can compare the asset growth both with and without the de-risking plans. And the results aren’t pretty. The de-risking is expected to cost universities an eye-watering £11bn over the next 20 years. This will come in the form of increased employer contributions, and will almost certainly be found by squeezing the amount being paid towards future pension benefits.

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Source: data based on figures from USS’s Actuarial Valuations, available on Sheffield UCU’s USS: 2017 valuation resources page

 

Reason 5: the de-risking doesn’t reduce risk!

The most shocking thing about the plans to de-risk investments comes from the graphs below, taken from a USS presentation to Imperial College. The graphs show that, 10 years into the future, the de-risking offers almost no protection against adverse events. Here, the figures for the worst 1% of possibilities (next to the ‘99%’ arrow) are extremely similar whether de-risking or not. In other words, the risk has barely been reduced by the costly change to investment plans. Inexplicably, universities had not been shown this information when they were consulted on how much de-risking they thought appropriate.

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Source: USS presentation to Imperial, November 2017

 

Reason 6: USS have been resistant to showing their workings

In September, USS sent its draft valuation to universities, but had no plans to release it publicly. After significant pressure from USS members, including a petition signed by almost 2,000, the draft valuation finally entered the public domain, courtesy of the University of Sheffield. Unfortunately, the document still left plenty of unanswered questions, with the justifications for the assumptions offered way below academic standards.

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Source: ‘Academics urge universities’ pension fund to explain shortfall‘, Josephine Cumbo, Financial Times, 19 September 2017

 

Reason 7: the Pensions Regulator intervened at a crucial point

Just as USS started consulting with universities over the draft valuation, the Pensions Regulator wrote an explosive letter to the USS trustee board questioning their assessment of the robustness of the university sector. This intervention, while not publicly released, was passed to universities as they were forming their responses, and is mentioned explicitly in some of their submissions. It may well have contributed to the calls for increased de-risking that Universities UK (UUK) say characterised the responses.

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Source: ‘UK universities retirement fund `weaker’ than claimed, fears watchdog‘, Josephine Cumbo, Financial Times, 11 October 2017

 

Reason 8: closing the defined benefit scheme could cause spiraling costs

Counter-intuitively, USS is more stable as an ongoing scheme than if its defined benefit section is closed. Presently, USS has more coming in each month than it pays out (positive cash flow), and is forecast to do so far into the future. Closing the scheme will quickly push it into negative cash flow, at which point assets must be cashed in to pay benefits. The result will be increasing pressure to de-risk as the scheme winds down, which will lead to increasing costs. Warnings of taking such an approach have come from Ros Altman (former pensions minister) and Brian Souter (President of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Scotland) among others.

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Source: Sir Brian Souter, BBC Today Programme, 4 December

 

Reason 9: UUK tried to spin the effects of their proposal on income

After Universities UK tabled a proposal in November to close the defined benefit section of USS, it was inevitable that people would want to know the effect on their retirement income. After a significant delay, UUK released modelling in December which, they claimed, showed that people would receive 80-90% of what they would under the previous arrangements. Unfortunately, this modelling was a masterpiece in spin, with investment forecasts used which were significantly higher than those in the USS valuation (and which would show a surplus if applied there!) along with a host of other sleights of hand. Un-spinning the proposals shows that 50-75% would have been a more accurate claim.

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Source: UUK can’t transform a sow’s ear into a silk purse, Mike Otsuka, 13 December 2017

 

Reason 10: much better solutions are available

Even accepting some of the dubious calculations and de-risking plans, there are much, much better solutions than that which Universities UK is painting as the only option. Defined benefits could be retained with a small increase in contributions subject to slightly reduced terms. UUK could rethink their requests for heavy de-risking and hence keep the costs down. Thinking longer-term, solutions could be found which look towards collective defined contribution, a way of fairly apportioning all proceeds of a fund’s growth to the members of the scheme. It is worth noting that this final approach seems to have broken a deadlock in the dispute over pensions in Royal Mail, which for a long time appeared to be heading nowhere.

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Source: ‘How UUK’s pension proposal could be greatly improved on, at no cost or risk to employers‘, Mike Otsuka, 26 November 2017

 

So there we have it. Whether or not this valuation ends up widely acknowledged as a scandal, time will tell. But Universities UK have done serious damage to their reputation by attempting to pull the wool over the eyes of their staff. And it’s hard to see how that won’t bite them back.

 

More resources

The Sheffield UCU 2017 Valuation Resources page: http://ucu.group.shef.ac.uk/campaigns/pensions/uss-2017-valuation-resources/

Governance as trade union strategy: Interview with Bath UCU’s Michael Carley

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Building a focus on governance into local trade union strategy is a good way to create leverage for existing campaigns and bring them together under an over-arching narrative of democratisation, according to University of Bath University and College Union (UCU) branch president Michael Carley.

In an exclusive interview with HE Marketisation, Carley described how he has led his branch in fighting a long and highly successful governance campaign at Bath University, which recently resulted in the resignation of vice chancellor (VC) Professor Dame Glynis Breakwell.

Breakwell took early retirement after Bath UCU – working closely together with Unison and the Students’ Union branches at the University, as well as local politicians – revealed that she had not only been a member of the renumeration committee that approved her eye-watering £468,000 a year pay package, but had also tried to stop information about how her pay had been decided coming to light (HE Marketisation, 2 December 2017; 4 October 2017).

By requesting information through the 2000 Freedom of Information Act (FOI) and putting motions through the University’s Court – the statutory body representing the interests of the University’s internal and external constituencies – trade unions have been able to uncover shortcomings in governance.

Reflecting on the strategy behind the campaign at the University of Bath and what could be applied to similar campaigns at other HE institutions, Carley said activists and trade unionists should “look for contradictions” in governance and for when institutions were “not following their own rules.”

“Just pretend that governance really works and see how far you get,” Carley recommended. “And when you do you’ll run up against a brick wall in various places and then you see how it doesn’t function. If you make progress that’s great, but if you get blocked you can still use that as propaganda.”

 

Role of trade unions

The governance campaign at Bath University began with a Bath UCU ‘High Earners‘ report in June 2012, Carley noted.

In the report, Bath UCU pointed to the fact that Breakwell – who was appointed vice chancellor in 2001 – had received an “extra two pounds for every pound” staff had gained over the years in pay rises.

At the time of the report, Breakwell was ranked only 15th in the VC pay league table of UK higher education, compared to the number one position she held just before announcing her retirement.

The report also pointed to a lack of transparency at the level of governance.

In 2011, Bath UCU had sent a letter to chair of the University’s renumeration committee – which sets senior management pay – asking for the minutes of meetings for this committee, and for there to be ordinary members of staff on the membership of this committee.

The University refused Bath UCU’s request. Four months later, Bath UCU found out that the renumeration committee had approved an aggregate pay rise of 5.76% for senior management, 10 times the rise that the rest of staff had received during the same period.

The problem, for Bath UCU, was that the renumeration committee acted on “delegated authority”, which meant that the full Council did not make the decision about senior pay, but rather handed over full authority to some of its members on a Council subcommittee.

It was this discovery that the renumeration committee was operating with no oversight from the council that led Bath UCU into what Carley described as the “rabbit hole” of governance.

Furthermore, while this subcommittee “reported a decision”, Carley added, it did so “without any real minutes”.

“You have a serious problem with governance when governors – people in charge of running the university who have a legal responsibility for doing what they do – can’t do their job properly because the governing body refuses to provide the information justifying its decisions.”

In the absence of such information, Carley argued that trade unions could play a crucial role in occupying the democratic space vacated by faulty governing bodies.

Reports and pamphlets analysing finances and governance processes are not just useful for raising awareness of potential issues with union members, but also for bringing together the “meat and potatoes” work of a trade union branch within a wider political narrative, Carley added.

“The fact that we were putting a pamphlet together, getting the work done, putting the numbers together,” Carley said, “began laying the groundwork for the governance campaign at Bath.”

Pamphlets and reports can also be supported with innovative promotional campaigns.

For example, Bath UCU created a tear off postcard to promote its ‘High Earners’ report, which could be used to write to the chair of Bath University’s governing council – who was also the chair of the renumeration committee – asking for transparency and the publication of minutes of the committee.

“Because the postcard was printed on yellow paper,” Carley added, “our Unison colleagues in the post room were able to tell us roughly how many were going through, because they just stood out in the internal mail.”

 

Freedom of Information

The Freedom of Information Act 2000 also became an important weapon for Bath UCU in its developing governance campaign, Carley said.

“We started learning how to use FOI Act well,” Carley added. “It’s a useful skill, especially using refusal to give information as well as the information you get. If you chase through an Freedom of Information (FOI) request to the very end you’ll always dig up something.”

The Freedom of Information Act gives the public the right to see all kinds of information held by public authorities – a category that still includes colleges and universities – and activists can use the Act to uncover information not necessarily published as a matter of course.

The Act states that public authorities must maintain a ‘publication scheme’, which lists all the classes of information an authority voluntarily makes public, how this information is made available and details of any charges made to this information.

However, if the information needed is not available via an institution’s publication scheme, the second provision of the Act allows information to be requested in the public interest.

Public authorities are then required to respond within 20 working days, confirming or denying whether the information requested is held, and either providing the information or explaining why it has not been provided, quoting one or more of the exemptions in the Act (e.g. that disclosure would damage commercial interests, or prejudice health and safety).

But even if the information is claimed by an institution to be exempt from the Act, activists and trade unionists can still apply to the Information Commissioner for a review, and in some cases exempt information may have to be disclosed in the public interest.

“It takes a lot of time, you need patience,” Carley warned.

“Universities try to play silly games when they send stuff back, they might for example answer precisely the question you asked very pedantically, but they know damned well what you are asking for,” he added. “So the way you phrase your questions and the way you break your requests down into very tight categories is really important. And you just keep digging away at it.”

“For example, I was informed that council was seeing misled about the implementation of the living wage, and they were being told that it couldn’t be done because it would be breaking out of the national framework agreement – which was just not true.”

“I asked as a member of the governing body for the evidence that was presented and was told that I wasn’t going to get that information, so I went to the information commissioner and then I ended up going right up to the tribunal.”

“When you appeal to the information commissioner they make a decision, but when you appeal that decision you are taking the information commissioner to court. At this point you get this bundle of evidence sent to you in the post, with all the internal documents that were used to justify why the University would not release the information.”

 

Joint union work

Carley also pointed to the importance of working with other recognised unions, such as Unison and Unite, and also the local Students’ Union (SU).

“We’ve always had good relations with the other unions here,” Carley noted. “There have never been any conflicts of interest with the other unions because we represent different staff groups.”

“We always try to meet together with the other unions before going in to a joint negotiating committee (JNC) meeting with management. If we present a united line, even if we are not all getting exactly what we want, we will all be a lot better off than if we let management split us off.”

“Management generally try to ignore us, but by working together with the other unions we have lines of communication that get us pretty much everywhere, so we try to put out joint statements that can go out to all staff groups where possible.”

When the governance campaign started to take off at Bath University and reach the national public sphere, Bath SU also began to get involved.

“Up until recently the SU at Bath was fairly neutral – Bath has never been a very political campus,” Carley noted. “However, in the last month or so they have been consulting the membership on governance issues.”

“The SU takes its mandate very seriously, so when we had the no confidence vote at the University’s Senate [the supreme academic authority responsible for regulating and directing the academic work of the University], we had four student representatives there and they said “we’ve been mandated, we’ve consulted, and we vote no confidence in the VC”.”

Before this, Bath UCU had been building links with students ever since the introduction of £9000 tuition fees in 2010. Carley said that it was at this point that students began to “align themselves consciously” with staff, as there was a shared and growing resentment towards and political consciousness about the marketisation of higher education.

However, many SUs remain a-political and in some cases even reactionary.

As Rachel Brooks, Kate Byford and Katherine Sela have argued – based on a UK-wide survey of students’ union officers and two focus groups at each of ten case-study higher education institutions – the role of SUs has changed significantly over the last few decades.

Within the context of marketisation in particular, SUs have moved from an adversarial relationship with senior management to a “co-operative” one, while at the same time taking on a “representative” rather than “activist” function for student members.

“The evidence provides some support for the arguments made by scholars that the student voice has become increasingly ‘domesticated’,” Brooks and colleagues concluded. “By focusing on representation, students’ union officers inevitably foreground issues that affect the day-to-day lives of students rather than broader political or social concerns that may be more aligned with an ‘activist’ agenda.”

“Moreover, the increasing convergence between the values and priorities of students’ unions and senior management (as a result of similar pressures coming to bear on both parties),” they added, “suggests that fewer spaces are now available within higher education institutions from which to offer a radical challenge to either local or national policy.”

In such situations where SUs are unsympathetic, Carley recommended that UCU branches could “build relationships with campaigning student groups”, which can then push forward solidarity agendas through formal student representative structures.

However, SUs and UCU branches must remain politically independent. “We don’t want to be interfering in the operations of students’ unions,” Carley stressed.

 

Bath goes public 

The governance campaign at Bath began to escalate significantly as local politicians became involved.

Councillor Joe Rayment –  Labour Party Deputy Group Leader for the Bath and North East Somerset (BNES) region – was a strong and consistently critical voice throughout the governance campaign at Bath University.

Cllr Rayment had worked at the University, was active in the Unison branch there and was also a UCU member, Carley pointed out. He had been pursuing the governance issue while at the University, and once elected to the BNES Council, continued to push the issue through local government channels.

When Bath UCU discovered that the University was paying £20,000 a year towards the upkeep of Prof Glynnis’ flat in Landsdown Cresent in the city of Bath, Cllr Rayment put in an FOI.

“It was a stroke of luck,” Carley commented. “Basically someone discovered that Bath University had paid employees at Landsdown Cresent, which was odd because there was no campus there, and then when Cllr Rayment put in an FOI all the stuff about the housekeeper etc came out.”

While living at the Landsdown Cresent property rent-free, Breakwell not only claimed £8,738 for a housekeeping and laundry service, but also claimed back £2 for a pack of biscuits.

“We knew about the house, but we did not know it was costing £20k a year in biscuits and gas,” he added. “That’s what took it up to another level.”

Significantly, this was also when the local Bath Chronicle newspaper began to take up the story and run with it. As a result of its coverage of the issue, the Chronicle was the only local paper nominated for national scoop of the year at the 2017 British Journalism awards.

Commenting on the nomination, Bath Chronicle reporter Sam Petherick said he was “over the moon” that a judging panel of more than 50 experienced journalists saw his story “as one of the biggest scoops of the year”.

“It has been an enormously rewarding story to work on over the past 12 months,” he added. “I’d like to say a huge thanks to my outstanding contacts who have provided countless quotes, Freedom of Information responses, tip-offs and encouragement.”

Bath Chronicle editor Gavin Thompson added: “This nomination for the Chronicle reiterates the important work done in local newsrooms on holding those in positions of power to account.”

 

Enter Adonis

The next thing that happened was the “notorious” meeting of the Bath University Court in February this year, Carley said.

In August, Dame Glynis Breakwell was accused of a ‘cover-up’ after a motion arguing for increased transparency on the university board’s renumeration committee was voted down by a margin of 33-30 (HE Marketisation, 4 October 2017).

Following the meeting, in a letter to the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce), Cllr Rayment had blown the whistle on what he described as “questionable” events that took place at the board meeting.

“Among those 33 voting against were: the vice chancellor, at least five others whose pay is set by the remuneration committee, and two other members of the remuneration committee,” Cllr Rayment revealed.

Reflecting on what happened, Carley noted that although the Court – the stakeholders’ body consisting of people from the institutions that accredit Bath University’s degrees, the emeritus professors, staff and student representatives – has “no real power”, one of its functions is to receive the University’s accounts.

A member of the Court had submitted a motion to “receive the accounts with concern”, Carley reported, because of the lack of transparency and the lack of justification with regards to how the VC’s pay for the year had been decided.

“You could see them visibly panic,” Carley remembered. “The meeting was appallingly chaired, it was dreadful.”

“Although the motion was defeated, we twigged afterwards that there were a whole bunch of people there who were either on the renumeration committee or were paid by it,” he added.

“By any other standing orders at the university they would have been expected to leave the room. Not just for the vote but leave the room while it was being discussed. They certainly would have had to declare an interest.”

At this point Lord Andrew Adonis intervened after noticing Bath University’s vice chancellor was the highest paid in the English higher education sector.

Despite describing himself as a “moving force” behind increase in fees to £3,000 when he was an adviser to Tony Blair in 2003, Lord Adonis has recently been on the warpath against the leaders of higher education institutions for “forming a cartel” and charging as much as the Government would allow.

Alongside Cllr Rayment’s letter, Adonis also complained to Hefce regarding what had happened at the meeting, calling for an investigation into allegations that the university overrode internal objections to Breakwell’s pay level.

“If the VC’s pay had been held down even by 1 or 2% over the last few years, none of this would have happened,” Carley commented. “A tiny bit of restraint would have been all it needed. But as it was, Adonis went for it.”

“A number of people were already feeding Adonis information,” Carley added. “When he found out what happened at the meeting, he thought “I’ll have them” and he shopped them to Hefce.”

“I think there are very worrying things that he is pushing for with universities, for example wanting to make post-92 universities into polytechnics again,” Carley warned. “But he’s absolutely right about this.”

Hefce published its report on 20 November. The report concluded: “While the remuneration committee meets the basic requirements of Hefce and the guidance issued by the Committee of University Chairs, the university has a significant distance to travel to open the [renumeration] committee’s work to legitimate scrutiny through enhancing its use of various measures of transparency.”

Crucially, the report pointed out that the University had been in breach of its own statutes – which provide the constitutional framework allowing universities to govern their own affairs independently – for 50 years.

“They probably thought it would never matter,” Carley reflected. “That is why it is worth treating the governance structures as if they really work.”

“I always liked the Charter 77 thing in Czechoslovakia,” he said, referring to a petition drawn up by a Czechoslovakian writers and intellectuals in 1989 demanding that the country’s Communist government recognise basic human rights.

“Formally you have all these rights and are covered by this governance structure, so why not just pretend that they really work and see how far you get?”

“Hefce actually noted this in their conclusions,” he added. “They noted that people had in good faith made representations for years through the proper channels and had been ignored.”

 

Democratisation

The University of Bath is now undertaking an “effectiveness review of governance”, Carley revealed, something the University had already committed to but was now being expanded in light of the Hefce report.

“They have to do it every few years,” he said. “The last one found that governance was ‘unsatisfactory’, so the University is now going to hire someone to do an independent assessment.”

As part of this independent review, Bath University announced that the academic senate would be involved, and could make recommendations to the University’s council.

However, Bath UCU intends to run its own “commission” in parallel to this management initiative, Carley revealed.

“We intend to hold hearings, take evidence and seek submissions and basically produce a detailed proposal for a set of governance structures,” Carley said. “That’s in the medium term.”

Realistically this process wouldn’t start that until the new year, Carley added. In the mean time Bath UCU are still conducting their own investigation into what actually happened with governance – particularly now that Breakwell is set to receive full pay until the start of March 2019 and a car loan write-off worth £31,000 as part of her retirmenet package (HE Marketisation, 2 December 2017).

“I think they still believe that they have some authority and they still believe that by going through a mechanical process they can go on doing what they are doing,” Carley commented. “What they do not understand is they have completely lost their authority – moral and formal authority. People are just not going to do what they are told.”

No confidence at Bath University

“They’ve lost all authority, they command no confidence”, was the message from hundreds of students and staff demonstrating outside a University of Bath Council meeting last Thursday, according to University of Bath University and College Union (UCU) branch president Michael Carley.

The demonstration had been organised by Bath Students Against Fees and Cuts before Professor Dame Glynis Breakwell – who has been at the centre of a scandal concerning her bloated pay and benefits package, as well as failure of governance at Bath University (HE Marketisation, 18 November 2017) – announced she would retire next year.

Demonstrators gathered to protest Breakwell’s generous retirement package, which proposes that she continues on full pay until the start of March 2019, and that a car loan made to her by the University worth £31,000 would also be written off.

One placard read “Buy your own bloody biscuits”, following news that the £20,000-worth of expenses Breakwell had claimed for her university-owned house in Bath included £2 for biscuits. Biscuits were also thrown at windows during the Council meeting, Carley reported.

“The demonstration yesterday was unbelievable,” he added. “They brought in private security and security from the University of West England. They were defending themselves from their own staff and students.”

 

Retirement or sabbatical?

Professor Breakwell will receive more than £230,000 for six months’ academic research while she takes a sabbatical, according to the Bath Chronicle.

“A university spokesman said the long-serving leader will receive full pay between 31 August 2018 when she stands down and 28 February 2019 after a semester’s sabbatical”, the paper reported.

“I think the university don’t want to embarrassment of some kind of unfair dismissal,” Carley commented. “I think they are trying to dodge anything that might be called a severance payment, as there’s now Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce) guidance on severance payments, and they are trying to get round that.”

“But I think what they’ve done now is even worse,” he added. “They’ve exposed the sabbatical, it’s a joke. There are people now asking who approved this sabbatical, where the research proposal is and what the outcome is going to be.”

HE Marketisation asked whether Professor Breakwell will be required to produce a ‘REFable’ output out of the sabbatical. Carley responded: “I have no idea, but we are going to ask and keep asking.”

“You can’t go on sabbatical when you are retiring, you just can’t,” argued Carley. “The point of a sabbatical is you go somewhere, come back and contribute something to the research strategy of the university.”

 

Dodgy governance

Last month the Bath Chronicle also revealed that Dame Breakwell had been given an interest-free loan of more than £31,000 to spend on a car.

According to Carley, the loan was an “efficient” way for the University to provide Breakwell with a car – to which she was contractually entitled. However, as part of Breakwell’s retirement package, it was revealed that not only will the loan will be written off, but that this was the arrangement from the beginning.

“That’s the problem – this is not a loan, a loan is something you have to pay back,” Carley pointed out. “Some of us are on cycle schemes that come out of our wages every month, and if we leave we have to pay off the balance.”

The way that the University’s Council – the University’s governing body responsible for its finances and investments, as well as for the protection of the University’s reputation – made this decision was also problematic, argued Carley.

“It was agreed by email two days before a scheduled full meeting of the Council,” he revealed. “Everyone was emailed and told 75% of members had to agree to the proposed retirement package, and had until 15:45 that day to respond.”

“It’s dodgy governance again,” he added, “so a complaint has already gone back to Hefce about it”.

Hefce has just released a damning report on governance at Bath University, after Lord Andrew Adonis had raised concerns following the release of details of how Breakwell’s renumeration had been decided.

REF2021: get ready for more restructuring

“All staff with significant responsibility for research” will be returned to next Research Excellence Framework (REF) exercise in 2021, according to the ‘REF 2021: Decisions on staff and outputs‘ document released earlier this week.

In what will no doubt determine the future careers of many academics currently working in higher education, particularly in post-92 universities, “contractual status will identify the majority of academic staff who have a significant responsibility for research”.

The document does, however, recognise “that there are staff who have more significant responsibility for other activities, including knowledge exchange, professional practice, and scholarship”, and in these cases it will be left to “higher education institutions (HEIs), working with their staff and with guidelines, [to] identify who is in scope for submission among staff meeting core eligibility criteria”.

Perhaps not very reassuring for academic staff who have already witnessed the breakneck speed at which many institutions have restructured – University of Manchester, for example – with no consultation with recognised trade unions, in anticipation of market reforms that have not as yet directly impacted on institutions.

‘Category A eligible’ staff are defined as “academic staff with a contract of employment of 0.2 full-time equivalent (FTE) or greater, on the payroll of the submitting institution on the census date, whose primary employment function is to undertake either ‘research only’ or ‘teaching and research’”.

Furthermore, in a clause no doubt designed to stop institutions ‘importing’ star researchers just for the REF, “staff should have a substantive connection with the submitting institution”.

And finally, “for staff on ‘research only’ contracts, the eligible pool should only include those who are independent researchers, and not research assistants”.

Activists and trade unionists will need to be vigilant in uncovering the inevitable tweaks and outright revisions to existing employment contracts – in most cases this will be done indirectly, perhaps through revisions to progression frameworks and with a cash bonus to manipulate academics into moving onto new contracts.

Local Council intervenes in Bath VC pay row

Source: Bath Chronicle

Bath and North East Somerset (BNES) Council has expressed its “concern at the levels of pay inequality at the University of Bath and at the governance arrangements which have led to this pay inequality” in the latest episode of a highly public debate about the excessive pay of University of Bath vice-chancellor Dame Glynis Breakwell, which is now having an acutely negative impact on the university’s reputation.

At a council meeting which discussed a motion from Councillor Joe Rayment – which was supported by a majority of Labour and Tory councillors – the level of pay inequality at Bath University was referred to as “disgraceful”, the chair of the University’s Court was described as “dictatorial” and the “moral vacuum at the upper levels of the university’s governance” was denounced.

“Staff paid according to the higher education single pay spine have suffered a real terms pay cut of over 16% since 2009,” the motion pointed out, adding that “the latest available figure for the vice chancellor (chief executive officer) of the University of Bath was £451,000 for 2015-16 year. This was an 11% rise, compared to a 1% rise in that year for staff paid according to the national pay spine.”

The motion also noted that Breakwell’s salary was the “highest for any vice chancellor in the UK” and that the “pay ratio between the highest and lowest paid member of staff at the University of Bath was approximately 30:1”.

“The vice chancellor of the University of Bath also occupies a grace and favour house in the city, for which the University pays approximately £20,000 each year for running costs including: council tax, utility bills, and a housekeeper with such responsibilities as ironing bed linen and towels,” the motion added.

Furthermore, the University of Bath “provided its vice chancellor with an interest free loan of £31,489 with which to buy a car”, a claim that the motion said had been confirmed by the University. “No other member of staff has been eligible to receive such a loan,” it pointed out.

Reputational damage

Since the scandal hit the public sphere towards the end of summer (HE Marketisation, 4 October 2017), it has had a definite and negative impact on Bath University’s reputation.

According to the university’s union branch for professional and services staff, Unison at the University of Bath, “there have been reports of a very significant drop in undergraduate student applications” which “match feedback from staff across the academic departments that prospective students and parents are frequently raising questions and concerns about senior management pay and governance”.

Aside from the BNES council coming out in protest at the bad name that the university is currently giving the city, Unison point out that four MPs have now resigned from the University, citing unacceptable senior management pay and inequality. “The MP for Bath, Wera Hobhouse, has also condemned university governors for the vice-chancellor “morally indefensible” salary, which she said had “brought the university into disrepute,”” it added.

Film director and University of Bath honorary graduate Ken Loach has also recently joined the fray, becoming “the first external speaker to publicly cancel an event at the University over the scandal”. Unison reported that “he joined students to demand the resignation of the vice-chancellor and senior governors, the introduction of a 10:1 pay ratio, cuts to student rents and governance reforms “to give students and staff more control” of the university”.

Let’s (not) Talk

At a University management organised event at which students and university employees are “welcome to come and listen to the presentations from the senior team, ask questions and stay to chat to the senior managers afterwards” – called Let’s Talk – Bath vice chancellor Breakwell was told to “move on” by a particularly brave, unnamed member of academic staff.

“When I started out as a zoologist, I became very adept at spotting elephants,” he said, “I think there are 451,000 elephants in this room that we’re not actually addressing.”

“We’ve all talked about raising profiles,” he stated, addressing Breakwell directly, who was sitting on the panel. “At the moment I don’t think the university can move on until you move on.”

“We’ve got to the point where the only people ringing us up are for information requests about this, that and the other,” he concluded. “When people become the story, they need to move on.”

The event was also protested by students, who turned up with a banner with ‘Resign Now’ spray painted on it. One student was forcibly ejected by security, which was filmed by other students.

Speaking at the protest, a student said: “We disrupted an event for staff members because we believe our demands are the same”.

“Both students and staff suffer from the senior management’s greed: many of our teaching and support staff haven’t had a decent pay rise in years, and they have also reacted to the recent pay scandals with outrage,” the student added. “In the end, a more democratically-run university means better conditions for both students and staff; whereas a university run like a business only profits an extremely small minority.”

Minor changes

Breakwell has now stepped down from the renumeration committee that decides her pay, and the University has announced it will be undertaking a review of its governance.

“There will be a full, independent and rigorous Effectiveness Review of Council, conducted by a consultant selected according to procurement frameworks,” the University announced. “This will consider fully the operation of the Remuneration Committee to ensure it reflects developing best practice.”

However, unions have questioned the effectiveness of the Review itself: “what we don’t know is the composition of the committee that will be carrying out that review”, commented Michael Carley, University of Bath University and College Union (UCU) branch President.

“It might have an independent chair, but the kind of conclusions it will come to will largely be shaped by who’s on the committee and the kind of information they’re given,” he added. “There should be student and staff representation on that committee and neither the vice-chancellor nor the chair of the council should sit on it.”

Brighton UCU strike over redundancies

Source: Brighton and Hove News

On 23 and 24 November, Brighton University and College Union (UCU) will begin its strike action against compulsory redundancies with a “whole day strike” and a “mass walkout”.

The strike follows yet another impressive ballot result for the union in defiance of the Trade Union Bill, with the branch reporting that members had “voted overwhelmingly in support of industrial action”, with “85% in favour of strike action, and 92% in favour of action short of strike”. The result at Brighton follows other successful industrial action ballots at Manchester UCU and Leeds UCU branches, both of which have now been out on strike.

In September, University of Brighton management announced that it intended to make five academic staff compulsorily redundant, including lecturers in Modern Foreign Languages and researchers in the Schools of PABS and Education.

According to Brighton UCU, university management are trying to increase the surplus achieved by the university through reductions in staff costs. Brighton University has been told by the bank that it must increase its surplus in order to borrow money – which it intends to use for expansion, particularly investment in new buildings – the branch claim.

“The university management seem determined to try to force people out of their jobs despite alternatives being possible,” Brighton UCU said in a message to Brighton University students. “As your lecturers, the last thing we wish to do is disrupt your education, but we are concerned that if we do not oppose these redundancies, many more job losses will follow to the detriment of the education we can provide.”

In spite of 90 staff taking voluntary redundancy, two members of staff – both UCU members – remain under threat of compulsory redundancy, Brighton UCU pointed out.

“There is no justification for these redundancies,” it added. “Senior management want to cut the wage bill, but 90 members of staff have already left the university recently under a voluntary scheme. This has increased the pressure on workloads of many of your lecturers.”

Millbank, seven years later

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Source: Matt Dinnery (CC BY 2.0)

As thousands of young people and students once again march in London to demand an end to tuition fees, author of ‘Student Protest: Voices of the Austerity Generation’ Matt Myers remembers the brief but influential student movement of 2010, which celebrated its seventh anniversary last weekend.

“A major moment in the history of 21st century Britain,” Myers described the 2010 UK student movement, which lasted almost exactly a month from the smashing of Millbank windows in November to the ‘kettling’ of protesters in December.

Speaking at a Warwick for Free Education event on 31 October, Myers linked this short-lived outburst of student revolt to the contemporary emergence of a viable, anti-austerity alternative in the form of the Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour Party, which shocked the nation in the June snap election earlier year by drastically reducing Theresa May’s Tory Party majority in UK Parliament.

“More than anything [the 2010 student movement] fractured the consensus view in British politics that young people were disengaged, apathetic and out of touch with politics,” Myers argued. “[It] showed that it was the politicians who were out of touch with young people.”

“The political class did not listen,” he added, “and now they are suffering the consequences.”

 

Occupations and kettles

The student movement began exactly a week after David Cameron – then Prime Minister of the Lib-Dem-Tory Coalition government – announced at Prime Minster’s Questions on 3 November 2010 that he intended to triple university tuition fees in England to £9000 and cut the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA).

In response, the National Union of Students (NUS) and the University and College Union (UCU) called a national demonstration in Central London, which attracted 50,000 mainly students and lecturers, far more than the 20,000 expected by the Metropolitan Police.

The protest itself did not go quite to plan, as students broke off from the police-approved route that was supposed to take people in an orderly fashion from Whitehall past Downing Street and Parliament Square, ending with a rally at Tate Britain.

“A small group attempted to occupy – against the wishes of the NUS leadership – the headquarters of the Tory Party,” Myers recounted.

Protesters began to gather outside the Conservative Party headquarters at Millbank, with some finding their way into the building and even making their way onto the roof, catching police completely unprepared.

Events seemed to take a turn for the worse as one protester – Edward Woolard – appeared with a fire extinguisher, which he then threw at the police below. The move was countered with instant disapproval by the crowd watching on, who were eventually ‘kettled’ by the Territorial Support Group called in to help the overwhelmed police.

Kettling is a police tactic for controlling large crowds during demonstrations or protests which involves the formation of large cordons of police, who then move to contain a crowd within a limited area. Protesters are left only one choice of exit or are completely prevented from leaving, with the effect of denying the protesters access to food, water and toilet facilities for an arbitrary period determined by the police.

This tactic came under fire at the later 9 November demonstration, when protesters again descended on Parliament Square as Parliament voted on the tuition fee rise, and were promptly kettled by the police for most of the day. Eventually police moved protesters onto Westminster Bridge where adults and children stood in the freezing cold for over two hours.

During the protest, police also hit demonstrators on the head with batons, resulting in tens of people being treated in a St John’s Ambulance ‘field hospital’. One protester – Alfie Meadows – had to go to hospital after being hit, requiring emergency brain surgery.

 

Oh, Jeremy Corbyn

Myers pointed out that, following the 9 November demonstration, Theresa May – at the time Home Secretary – praised in a speech to Parliament the “great bravery and professionalism” of the Metropolitan Police “in the face of violence and provocation”.

Theresa May also claimed that while “a cordon was placed around Parliament Square”, those “who remained peaceful and wished to leave” were able to do so. This claimed was later contradicted by journalists who has also been part of the police kettled by police.

“Some students behaved disgracefully” May went on, adding that “the protests were infiltrated by organised groups of hardcore activists and street gangs bent on violence”.

“I want to be absolutely clear: the blame for the violence lies squarely and solely with those who carried it out,” May concluded. “The idea – that some have advanced – that police tactics were to blame when people came armed with sticks, flares, fireworks, stones and snooker balls, is as ridiculous as it is unfair.”

In contrast, both John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn defended the actions of students, arguing that the protests had been a legitimate response to a series of inhumane and irrational policy decisions made by the Coalition government under the banner of ‘austerity’.

It is not surprising that young people today trust Corbyn, Myers pointed out, as he was “the only person in Parliament who raised his voice to speak for the students and question Theresa May”.

“There is something about 2010 that shows there is a major generational cleavage that is ripping the heart of British politics open,” he concluded.

 

Past, present and future

Myers is currently travelling the country promoting his book ‘Student Protest: Voices of the Austerity Generation’, which is available now from Pluto Press.

His intention in writing his book on the student movement was, on the one hand, to “create a document that would allow [the experiences of those involved” not to be lost to oblivion” and, on the other, to create both a “tradition” a “tool” for “new generations of students” in their struggles for free education and change in society.

The demo in London today was organised by key players in the 2010 student movement, the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts, which is calling  “for an end to tuition fees, for living grants, and for an education system that serves people not profit”.

Scandal at for-profit colleges

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Source: Jo Turner (CC BY-SA 2.0)

A BBC Panorama investigation – which will air tonight at 7:30pm on BBC One – has found evidence of fraud at one of the UK’s largest ‘alternative providers’, the Greenwich School of Management (GSM).

Only the latest in a series of scandals related to higher education reform – the subject of this blog – the Tory utopia of a market in HE seems to be slowly crumbling along with its general credibility in UK Parliament.

Risks attached to the introduction of alternative providers, which David Willetts once called “the rising tide that lifts all boats”, have been pointed to by many critics of HE reform over the years. Andrew McGettigan wrote four years ago that there was huge potential “for a large-scale problem” to appear with what he called “sub-prime” degrees.

The BBC documentary, which shows dodgy education agents at such publicly-subsidised providers offering to get “bogus students” admitted into a government-approved private so they could “fraudulently claim student loans” for a £200 fee, as well as offering to “fake attendance records and to provide all their coursework” for another £1,500, seems to confirm these fears.

 

How big is the problem?

According to the funding body for higher education – the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce) –  as of 13 March 2017 there were 115 alternative providers with specific course designation, which means students at these providers can access support through the Student Loans Company (SLC).

Student loans represent not only an investment by individual students, often supported by family, but also on the part of the public who will have to bear the cost of up to 45% of these loans due to non-repayment (see HE Marketisation, 29 October 2017)

Between 2010/11 and 2014/15, maintenance loans paid to students at alternative providers grew from £58 million to £207 million, the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) reported, peaking at £292 million in 2013.

Loans for tuition fees grew from £36 million to £175 million, during the same period, peaking at £236 million in 2013. According to BBC figures, “about £400m-a-year is received by 112 private colleges through the student loan system”.

Including other alternative providers that do not have access to SLC funding, the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) estimated earlier this year that there currently over 700 alternative providers in England.

HEPI summarised the wide range of business models that such providers are based on: “‘catch-up’ for profit; sub-degree colleges; generalist colleges, serving both undergraduates and postgraduates; small specialist, not-for-profit colleges; exclusively postgraduate small specialists; for-profit providers focusing on international students; for-profit distance learning; and campuses overseas”.

“Alternative providers are hard to classify because they have different legal forms, different objectives and different target audiences,” HEPI commented. “They provide a diverse range of academic offers and have a variety of organisational arrangements.”

“They have also been subjected to extensive external pressures in recent years,” it added. “Many have closed or merged, while some have grown dramatically, fueled by the availability of more student loan finance for their students.”

Commenting on the latest HESA figures, Sally Hunt, University and College Union general secretary, said:  ‘The sheer scale of what is unknown highlights how the government is basing major decisions on the future of higher education on very limited information.”

Hunt is here referencing the new Higher Education and Research Act (HERA), which makes it easier for such alternative providers to become designated providers with access student loans, or in some cases become fully-fledged universities – a title protected by the Queen.

‘We do not believe that plans to increase the number of alternative providers can go ahead until we can quantify the risk to public finances and our universities’ global reputation from a rapid expansion of private for-profit education,” Hunt added.

Hunt also pointed to a history of “scandals with for-profit companies in US higher education, like Trump University”, which were not taken into account by Tory HE reformers, but “must surely serve as a warning to our government”.

 

Problems in the US

In a two-year investigation by the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions into for-profit universities in the US higher education system, known as the Harkin Report, it was reported that:

Federal taxpayers are investing billions of dollars a year, $32 billion in the most recent year, in companies that operate for-profit colleges. Yet, more than half of the students who enrolled in in those colleges in 2008-9 left without a degree or diploma within a median of 4 months.

Many for-profit colleges fail to make the necessary investments in student support services that have been shown to help students succeed in school and afterwards, a deficiency that undoubtedly contributes to high withdrawal rates. In 2010, the for-profit colleges examined employed 35,202 recruiters compared with 3,512 career services staff and 12,452 support services staff, more than two and a half recruiters for each support services employee.

This may help to explain why more than half a million students who enrolled in 2008-9 left without a degree or Certificate by mid-2010. Among 2-year Associate degree-seekers, 63 percent of students departed without a degree … During the same period, the companies examined spent $4.2 billion on marketing and recruiting, or 22.7 percent of all revenue.

Publicly traded companies operating for-profit colleges had an average profit margin of 19.7 percent, generated a total of $3.2 billion in pre-tax profit and paid an average of $7.3 million to their chief executive officers in 2009.

Howard Hotson, an Oxford University professor and vocal critic of market reform, also looked at the two universities owned by the Apollo Education Group (a shareholder-owned, for-profit corporation), BPP University in the UK and the University of Phoenix in the US.

He found that, despite having a student body of about 500,000 students, the University of Phoenix only had a completion rate of 9% in 2011. The university was also the subject of a controversial documentary ‘College Inc’, in which three Nursing graduates described their expensive diplomas as “worthless” because the course only “aspired” to professional accreditation, and could not be used to get a job in a hospital

Another US Government report found that the University of Phoenix pressured its staff to meet recruitment targets, encouraging the enrollment of unqualified students as long as they got “asses in classes”.

Despite all these problems, even during the 2008 Financial Crisis the Apollo Education Group turnover increased by 25% during the period 2008 – 2010, with top executives taking home $6m each in 2008, Hotson pointed out.

However, in 2008, the US Federal Court jury found the Apollo Education Group guilty of “knowingly and recklessly misleading its investors” and were forced to pay $280m in reparations, Hotson reported.

What can be done for USS? By Sam Marsh

UCU-pension-placard
Source: Wadler’s Blog

 

Sam Marsh gives background to the current dispute between the University and College Union (UCU) and Universities UK (UUK) regarding the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) – a ‘defined benefits’ private pension scheme covering the majority of staff the older ‘pre-92 universities’, including Oxford, Cambridge, and Manchester Universities. Last month, 87% of pre-1992 university UCU members who voted in a consultative ballot supported industrial action to protect the existing benefits of the USS pension scheme.

As Sam Marsh explains: “The existence of the USS as a means for providing a secure, predictable income for staff from pre-92 universities is hanging in the balance, with talk of severe downgrades to benefit levels or closure of the scheme altogether.”

“Much has been written of soaring deficits and unaffordable commitments,” he adds. “And while this pervasive story of a fund in crisis seems hard to shake, many, including USS themselves, find the fund is healthier than ever.”

In the following article, Sam – a teacher in the School of Mathematics and Statistics at the University of Sheffield and Communications Officer for the Sheffield UCU branch (previously holding the role of Pensions Officer) – asks “What is going on?”

 

What is a defined benefit scheme?

Defined benefit pension schemes such as USS offer a good degree of certainty on the income to be received in retirement. This certainty comes from a promised benefit payment based on the salary of the contributing member. In USS, those earning less than £55,000 will, for every year they work and pay into the scheme, be promised 1/75th of that year’s salary to be paid annually in retirement.

The pension promises made by USS must, by law, be funded. That is, the scheme must hold sufficient assets as to cover the promises that have been made to date. To make sure that defined benefit schemes are doing this properly, the government’s Pensions Regulator requires that they undergo a valuation every three years.

 

The valuation and a best-estimate of USS’s health

A valuation for a defined benefit scheme like USS involves three parts:

  1. Totalling the scheme’s assets (built up from the contributions received);
  2. Comparing these to an estimate of the fund’s liabilities (the benefit payments
    which have already been promised);
  3. Estimating the contribution rate required to allow the scheme’s future promises to be fully funded given no change to the benefit structure.

The above involve predictions about the future, including how invested assets and wages will grow, what will happen to interest rates, how long people will live and more. The assets should be larger than the liabilities (a surplus); a shortfall is known as a deficit. But the problem that arises here is that, with the future unknown, any prediction will be an estimate. There are no right answers to numbers 2 and 3.

So what does the USS trustee make of the scheme’s prospects? The answer is in their draft valuation, where they state their best-estimate of the scheme’s health. And it is good news! To pay the benefits accrued to date, their £60 billion of assets correspond to a surplus of £8.3 billion. This is a huge amount, around a tenth of the government’s annual spend on education.

Not only that, but to continue to provide the current benefit structure, employers and employees are required to put aside a total of just 22.5% of salary, lower than the 26% (18% employer and 8% employee) contributions currently being made.

USS
Figure 1; Source: Universities Superannuation Scheme, 2017 Actuarial Valuation

And things get even better: USS’s best-estimate position is based on some fairly pessimistic views of the future, involving ten years of almost total stagnation in their investment growth, before a modest assumption of investment returns picking up. The most likely scenario, if things are left unchanged, is that the current large surplus will continue to grow over time. This is already evident: USS have recently revealed that their current position is up from that of 2014, where they had a smaller, £3.5 billion best estimate surplus.

 

Prudence

Before you celebrate too soon, you need to bear in mind the following important point: the Pensions Regulator does not accept a best-estimate approach to valuations, instead requiring a buffer in case the assumptions turn out to have been over-optimistic. This is known as prudence, and it is not, in itself, a bad thing: it is in nobody’s interests to have a fund that might fail if things turn out worse than expected.

But there is more good news! On a prudent basis, figures con- firmed by USS show that the fund has a small (approximately £0.5 billion) deficit, and the contribution rate required for future promises remains at 26%. So things are OK, right?

Unfortunately not. The figures that USS are actually reporting to the Pensions Regulator are of a £5.1 billion deficit and, more worryingly, a contribution rate of 32.6% needed to allow the scheme to continue in its current form. Why? This is where things get messy, and what’s happening behind the scenes becomes important.

 

The pressure to ’de-risk’

The real source of USS’s woes, it turns out, is a proposed change in their investment strategy, which they refer to as “de-risking”. This de-risking involves a plan to sell a large chunk of their growth-assets (equities, property etc) and replace them with gilts (government bonds). Unlike like equities, gilts guarantee a fixed annual income and, for this reason, are seen as safe investments.

The downside is that they are expected to give significantly lower returns, on average, than the equivalent amount of growth-assets. So, if USS shifts its investments towards gilts they expect to make lower returns from their assets in doing so, and this pushes up the price of providing pensions. Not only that, but the gilt market is seen by many, including USS, as overpriced at present; investing in gilts now is almost guaranteed to end up with USS losing money in real terms over the coming years.

So why would USS want to de-risk its investments in this way?

Actuarial groupthink. Firstly, de-risking is just the way that the pensions industry does things nowadays. Investing in the productive economy has become unfashionable for pensions funds, with the actuarial profession now solidly of the mindset that pensions should be funded by securing benefits with gilts. That this will lead to funded defined benefit schemes being pushed out of existence does not concern those actuaries. Why would it? Thankfully, there is an increasing amount being written about why this groupthink may be harmful, not only to pension scheme members and sponsoring employers, but also to the economy as a whole.

Misguided risk-management. Secondly, Universities UK have been at best ambivalent and at worst encouraging of the approach proposed by USS. Their reasoning could be summarised as a concern around downside risk. That is, they are asking themselves: what if things go really, really wrong and we have to pick up the pieces? They are managing to convince themselves that running a defined benefit scheme is just too risky, unless it is made ultra-safe by investing predominantly in gilts. This is in spite of the extremely healthy best-estimate position of USS, in spite of the fact that USS has more money coming in each year than it pays out, and in spite of the fact that the investment returns required to fully fund the scheme in the future are very modest compared to historical performance.

External pressure. Finally, and probably most importantly, USS is advocating de-risking to appease the Pensions Regulator. Because of its duty to ensure that benefits already promised will be paid, and because BHS is still in the back of its mind, the Pensions Regulator is pushing hard for the safest way to make sure USS’s promised benefits are secure. But the Pensions Regulator is not at all interested making sure that future generations are treated well: for them, the ideal situation is that the defined benefit scheme ceases and past promises are secured by buying an adequate quantity of gilts. Satisfying the regulator will make it very hard for USS to continue to offer attractive defined benefits for a reasonable cost.

 

What is the solution?

UCU have spent the three years since the 2014 valuation working with Universities UK, and individual institutions, discussing alternative viewpoints on the health nof USS, hoping that when given close scrutiny both parties would agree that the nvaluation was giving a misleading impression of the situation. It has now become clear that this has had only limited success, and it seems that Universities UK are unable to look past their worries over financial risk to consider progressive solutions.

It is also clear that the Pensions Regulator has no interest in supporting defined benefit schemes. The methods of valuation it endorses are narrowly focussed on gilt-rates and market-derived figures, and these methods in the current economic climate make it very hard for defined benefit schemes to prove themselves to be healthy. It seems that the Pensions Regulator will not allow USS to demonstrate its health by non-standard means.

This leaves UCU in a difficult position. But there is hope! The recent consultative ballot over willingness to strike to defend pensions was overwhelming a vote in favour. This gives UCU’s negotiators a strong position: any viable solution that they propose must be given a good hearing by Universities UK and USS. But UCU’s negotiators must bear in mind that the potential for strike action will have little effect on the Pensions Regulator.

 

UCU’s priorities

It is of utmost importance that we resist any further move towards a defined contribution scheme: such schemes place all risk on individuals, with no guaranteed level of annual income in retirement. We should also be wary of asking universities to pay more into the fund. We don’t believe that the fund needs higher contribution rates as it is already shown to be healthy.

Instead, our priorities should be to look for collective approaches to providing pensions, ideally ones which are defined benefit in nature, and ones which have a chance of satisfying all parties concerned. Once we have found such a viable model, Universities UK cannot afford to write it off without a fair hearing, as doing so could risk substantial disruption.

 

A scheme to satisfy all parties?

One approach for a solution comes from looking at the pensions stand-off at Royal Mail. The Communication Workers Union are currently involved in a dispute to save their defined benefit scheme. What they are proposing is that it be changed to a ’Wage in Retirement Scheme’, a form of defined benefit scheme devised by the First Actuarial: the same actuaries who advise UCU.

The Wage in Retirement Scheme manages investments collectively and guarantees a modest level of benefits in retirement, allowing for and expecting benefits to be increased when the future investment performance actually becomes known. This approach would mitigate a large amount of the risk which Universities UK are concerned about, and in doing so should appease the Pensions Regulator.

The Wage in Retirement Scheme must be looked into by UCU urgently. If we believe that USS is as healthy as the best-estimates say it is then we have nothing to lose by moving to such a scheme. In fact, we potentially have an awful lot to gain.

 

References

Universities Superannuation Scheme, 2017 Actuarial Valuation, 1 September 2017, available here.

Universities Superannuation Scheme, 2017 Annual Report, July 2017, available here