Archive for UCU Strike

The Day’s Events

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , on April 13, 2018 by telescoper

Today has been a very strange day. The strangeness started last night when, without any notice being given to us mere residents, a crew arrived at 8pm to do roadworks (resurfacing). There then followed an excruciating racket right outside my window well into the early hours of the morning.

So, having not had much sleep at all, I wasn’t in a very good mood when I got up. Things went from bad to worse when, just after 8am, all the electricity in my flat went off. I checked the trip switches and saw no problem. I then went outside and saw the traffic lights were off. It turned out that the power supply to all of Maynooth was off (including the entire University), as well as quite a bit of the rest of County Kildare.

With no electricity I couldn’t have a shower or make any coffee or have the bacon sandwich I’d planned to have for breakfast. The prospect of sitting in a cold flat all morning with nothing to do and not even the radio to listen to didn’t appeal so I got dressed and went to the office (which is only 15 minutes walk away). No shops were open on the way. There was no electricity anywhere on campus, so no internet connection, and quite a lot of students sitting around wondering what to do. At least the office was fairly warm and I had plenty of things I could do without a computer.

News eventually started coming through that power was returning gradually to the campus buildings. Ours came back at about 10.30. At that point I finally got a cup of coffee. I still don’t know what caused the fault.

The other major event of the day was that the result came through from the Universities and Colleges Union ballot on whether to accept the Employers’ offer on pensions. A majority of the members voted `yes’, so strike action – which had been planned to resume at Cardiff on Monday 16th April – is now suspended. I wouldn’t bet against a resumption later this year, as the major issues seem to me unresolved. However, I will be leaving Cardiff in July so that’s the end of the matter for me.

Anyway, this now means that I’ll be resuming my teaching in Cardiff on Tuesday next week (17th April). I’d already decided to spend this weekend in Ireland so I’ll be going back on Monday morning, Flybe willing…

Advertisements

Spring comes to Maynooth

Posted in Biographical, Cardiff, Maynooth with tags , , on April 5, 2018 by telescoper

After a good night’s sleep last night I was up early this morning to give my usual Thursday 9am lecture on Computational Physics. It was a bright sunny morning, though there was overnight frost and a distinct chill in the air, as I made my way to Physics Hall. Once there, for the first time this year, I had to close the blinds because the Sun was shining too bright for the projector screen. It has hitherto always been too gloomy outside for this to happen. The picture above (of St Joseph’s Square, on the South Campus) was taken as I left St Patrick’s House after a very nice lunch of roast lamb in Pugin Hall. By this time of day it was pleasantly warm.

Here’s a nice picture of the Library circulated by the Maynooth social media folk earlier today.

library

Anyway, this mornings’s lecture was an introduction numerical solutions of ordinary differential equations, beginning with Euler’s method applied to initial value problems. Further studies of this topic – which is very important for bidding computational physics – will take up the rest of the lectures as we explore the delights of, e.g. Runge-Kutta codes and boundary value problems. This morning’s lecture was followed this afternoon by a two-hour lab session in which the students had to write their own ODE solver.

Among the advantages (for me) of teaching this module is that I’m actually becoming reasonably competent at Python. At any rate I’ve difficult improved my ability to spot bugs in codes written by other people. In fact, it is traditional for the exam in this module to include a question that involves finding 10 mistakes in a piece of Python code. That’s a fun challenge, the only real problem for me being to write a bit of code with only 10 mistakes in it in the first place…

Talking of exams, the timetables for my two current employers are now out. Computational Physics in Maynooth is on Friday 11th May while Physics of the Early Universe in Cardiff is almost a fortnight later, on Thursday 24th May. The Easter recess is shorter here in Maynooth than in Cardiff, where lectures do not resume until April 16th (assuming the UCU strike does not continue), which is why the exams in Maynooth are earlier. I’m grateful there isn’t a clash. I should have ample time to mark the Maynooth ones before the Cardiff ones are due. After the first week or so of May I won’t have to teach in both institutions, so my somewhat hectic schedule should become a little more relaxed from then onwards.

I mentioned the UCU strike above in passing. The UCU leadership has decided that there will be an online ballot on whether to accept the `offer’ recently made by the management organisation UUK. The ballot will be open until April 13th. If the vote goes against acceptance then Cardiff staff will be back on strike from 16th April, and there will be further industrial action over the examination period. I can’t predict what the result of the ballot will be. Although the UCU leadership is recommending acceptance I don’t know anyone personally who intends to vote for it, but there’s a probably a big selection effect there! There is a distinct possibility that examinations will be badly disrupted not only in Cardiff but all over the UK. It’s a very sad state of affairs but all those on strike (and the majority of students) consider the UUK side to be to blame…

Back to work in Cardiff..

Posted in Biographical, Education with tags , on March 19, 2018 by telescoper

So here I am, then. Back in the offices of the Data Innovation Research Institute in Cardiff for the first time in almost a fortnight. The four-week batch of strikes over pensions has come to an end so I have returned to work. No agreement has been reached so it seems likely there will be further industrial action, but for the time being normal services are being resumed. In fact it’s not exactly back to normal because there’s a large backlog of things to be done (including marking coursework and setting examinations), but I mean at least that lectures resume and will be delivered on the normal timetable. In my Physics of the Early Universe module I have only given four (two-hour) lectures and have missed three. I return to the fray tomorrow morning to give Lecture 8. Frustratingly, that’s the only lecture I have before the Easter break which starts on Friday and lasts for three weeks. Assuming there are no further strikes I’ll be giving lectures 9-12 (the last a revision lecture) after the holiday.

I now have to figure out how to cope with the six hours of lectures missed because of industrial action. That will be tricky, but I’ll do my level best to ensure that I cover everything needed for the examination. I spent most of this morning trying to figure out how to reorganise the remaining material, and I think I can do it as long as we don’t lose any more teaching time. At any rate I have made the decision not to give additional lectures to cover what I’ve missed. Owing to the timing of the strikes (and the fact that only work half the time here in Cardiff) I have been on strike for all the days I would have been working for three weeks. That means I will lose three full weeks pay. Even if it were logistically possible to fit in 6 hours of extra lectures after Easter, I don’t think it’s reasonable for me to do that for free.

While I was on strike a group of my students emailed the Vice-Chancellor of Cardiff University (copying me in) to point out how much teaching they were missing and request some form of compensation. I have a lot of sympathy for their situation and in no way do I want to damage their education. I will do what I can to mitigate the effect of the strike but won’t take any action that reduces the effectiveness of the industrial action. It remains to be seen if any compensation will be offered by the University management, but I think their best policy would be pressure Universities UK to stop pratting about and find a speedy settlement of the dispute.

Anyway, today is a bank holiday in Maynooth – St Patrick’s Day fell on a Saturday this year – and the rest of the week is `Study Week’, so there are no lectures or laboratory sessions. I’ll therefore be staying in Cardiff all week, which gives me the chance to go to a concert on Friday at St David’s Hall – the first for quite a while.

Now, time to get back to writing tomorrow’s lecture…

Back to Maynooth

Posted in Biographical, Cardiff, Maynooth with tags , , , on March 7, 2018 by telescoper

So here I am back in Maynooth. The University re-opened on Monday after being closed from Wednesday last week owing to the extremely bad weather. I’m told the snow was several feet deep and the town was virtually cut off until the weekend. There is still some snow lying here and there, but the thaw has begun and you can see the effect of the meltwater on the river (the Lyreen) that flows through town, which is usually no more than a little stream:

Picture Credit: Coyne’s Family Butcher, Maynooth

It’s not quite a raging torrent, but getting there!

At the moment there’s no sign of a resolution to the industrial action that’s affecting Cardiff University (as well as others in the UK) so I decided to travel to Ireland yesterday rather than my usual Wednesday. The flight over was virtually empty and so was Dublin Airport, so I got on the bus well ahead of schedule and made it back to my flat (which was cold, but otherwise all in order) in time to buy some groceries and make dinner. The panic-buying of bread had caused a shortage, but all seems to be back to normal again.

I had arranged for someone else to do last week’s Thursday lecture and Lab session so I could attend the event the IOP event I posted about, but as the campus was closed they were cancelled anyway and I now have to find a way to catch up. Do not worry, though, I have a cunning plan.

Unless there’s an announcement in the next couple of days that next week’s strike is off I plan to stay in Ireland over the weekend, which will give me the chance to explore Dublin a bit, something that my schedule has not so far allowed. Next week will be the fourth week of industrial action and the last of the current batch of strike days, this time a full week (having escalated from two, three and four days in the preceding weeks). If there is no resolution by then I don’t know what will happen, possibly an all-out indefinite strike. Nobody wants that, but there’s no doubt in my mind who is to blame for this dispute and it’s not the Universities and Colleges Union. However, there are some signs of movement, so let’s hope for a negotiated settlement. If not, I’m seriously thinking of trying to bring forward my full-time move to Maynooth. There’s little point continuing in my post in Cardiff if I’m going to be permanently on strike.

Anyway, I have a 9am lecture to give tomorrow so I think I’ll toddle off, get some tea and have an early night.

Void Fill

Posted in Biographical, Cardiff, Politics with tags , , on February 26, 2018 by telescoper

It’s quite hard being on strike when you find your job interesting and rewarding so I’ve been looking for things not related to my employment at Cardiff University with which to plug the gap in my working schedule.

I’ve found the ideal thing:

Why I’m taking part in the UCU Strike Action

Posted in Education, Politics with tags , , , , , , on February 21, 2018 by telescoper

In case you weren’t aware, from tomorrow (22nd February) the University and College Union (UCU) is taking industrial action over proposed drastic cuts to staff pensions funded by the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS). You can find some background to the pensions dispute here (and in related articles). A clear explanation of why the employers’ justification for these cuts is little more than fraudulent is given here and here you can find an example of the effect of the proposed changes on a real person’s pension (ie a cut of almost 50%). I also blogged about this a few weeks ago. There’s no doubt whose side the Financial Times is on, either.

I am not a member of UCU – I left its forerunner organisation the Association of University Teachers (AUT) as a result of its behaviour when I was at the University of Nottingham – but I will be participating in the industrial action, which takes place over four weeks as follows:

  • Week one – Thursday 22 and Friday 23 February (two days)
  • Week two – Monday 26, Tuesday 27 and Wednesday 28 February (three days)
  • Week three – Monday 5, Tuesday 6, Wednesday 7 and Thursday 8 March (four days)
  • Week four – Monday 12, Tuesday 13, Wednesday 14, Thursday 15 and Friday 16 March (five days)

This is a bit complicated for me because I only work half-time at Cardiff University (usually Mondays, Tuesdays and half of Wednesdays) and at Maynooth University the rest of the time. The USS only covers UK universities, and the dispute does not apply in the Republic of Ireland (though it does affect higher education institutions in Northern Ireland) so I won’t be on strike when I’m working for Maynooth University, which includes the first two strike days (tomorrow and Friday). I will be participating in industrial action next week, however, and have today sent an announcement to my students they hear from me that the strike has been called off there will be no lectures on 27th February, 6th March or 13th March.

All staff will be docked pay for days not worked owing to strike action, of course, but that will be far less than the amount to be lost in these pension cuts. In my case I will be docked the equivalent of three weeks’ pay as 2.5 days a week I work are all strike days in Weeks 2-4. Moreover, I shall be leaving the UK for Ireland this summer and the pension cuts will not affect my pension anyway – any changes will not be made until after I’ve left the USS scheme. Nevertheless, this is an important issue and I feel it is right to take a stand.

One final comment. Last week Cardiff University sent an email to staff including a link to a website that stated:

If staff refuse to cross a picket line and they are not a member of UCU they will be in breach of their contract of employment with the University.

In fact, any strike action (even by a union member) is a breach of contract. The law however prevents employers dismissing staff who participate in industrial action, provided that it is lawful (i.e. following a ballot, and with due notice given to the employer, etc). The government website makes it clear that non-union members have exactly the same protection as union members in this regard. The Cardiff website has now been changed, but I’m very unhappy that this extremely misleading communication was sent out in the first place.

I sincerely hope that there is a negotiated settlement to this issue. Nobody wants to go on strike, especially when it has the potential to damage students’ learning. But there comes a point where you have to draw a line in the sand, and we have reached that point. I hope I’m proved wrong, but I think this could be a very prolonged and very unpleasant dispute.

University Pension Differences

Posted in Education, Finance, Maynooth with tags , , , , , , , , on January 26, 2018 by telescoper

Following a ballot of members of the University and College Union (UCU), the UK university sector is gearing up for strike action over proposed changes to the USS pension scheme. Unless the dispute is resolved in the meantime (which I think is highly unlikely) the first strike lasting two days will place on 22nd and 23rd February. Thereafter strikes will escalate to cover three days, four days and five days in subsequent weeks.  I’ll actually be in Maynooth for the first 48 hour block so won’t have to worry about crossing a picket line initially, but will have to later if it drags on. It looks set to be a bitter dispute which will not be easily resolved.

When I joined USS (in 1988) it was a simple `Final Salary Scheme’. Both employer and employee contributed and the benefits accrued were an index-linked pension of 1/80 of the final salary for each year of contributions and a (tax-free) lump sum of 3/80 for each year of contributions. I joined at age 25 so I expected to accrue 40 years of pension if I retired at 65, namely a pension of half my final year’s salary and a lump sum of three-halves. It looked a good deal and was a significant factor mitigating the relatively low starting salary for academics in those days.

Over the years it became apparent that this scheme is actuarially unsound because (a) people are living longer, increasing the scheme’s liability and (b) investment growth achieved by the USS fund managers has decreased, with a negative impact on asset growth. Moreover, the USS fund is not underwritten by the government, so if it collapses completely members could be left with no benefits at all.

The USS Final Salary scheme was closed to new entrants some years ago and replaced by a less generous defined benefit scheme. A couple of years ago it was closed to existing members too, though the benefits accrued are retained; I will now only be able to get 28/80 of my final salary from that scheme when I actually retire. The scheme was replaced by a hybrid of an even less generous defined benefit scheme and a defined contribution scheme (where the pension benefit is dependent on the fund valuation at retirement, as most private pensions). Now the proposal is to remove the defined benefit component entirely. The loss of pension benefits will be substantial.

I don’t see any easy settlement of this dispute so I’m glad that it won’t affect me very much. I’ll be leaving the UK Higher Education system this summer and relocating to Ireland. Quite a few people have asked me how the pension scheme works here so I thought I’d point out the differences.

The first thing to say is as a professor in the National University of Ireland at Maynooth I am treated as a public servant so my future pension benefits here are covered by the Single Public Service Pension scheme. This resembles the final salary scheme that USS used to be, but with the important difference is that it is integrated with the State Pension to which everyone is entitled if they pay social insurance contributions. This – called the SPC – is similar to the old State Earnings-Related Pension Scheme (SERPS). Since public employees benefit from this as well as the public service pension scheme, the accrual rate in the latter is lower than the old USS scheme – just 0.58% per year – on salaries up to €45,000. For salaries above this figure the amount above the  limit generates an accrual rate 0f 1/80, just as the USS version. There is also a lump sum which accrues at 3.75% per annum, the same as the USS scheme.

In summary, then, the big difference is that in Ireland the public service pension is integrated with the state pension, whereas in the UK the latter is entirely separate. It’s also the case that in Ireland the pension is guaranteed by the government (which, of course, can change the rules…)

In my opinion the pension scheme for University staff in Ireland is significantly better value than the diminishing returns provided by the USS scheme, yet another reason why I made the decision to move here.