Archive for UCU

A Message of Solidarity

Posted in Education, Politics with tags , , , on February 14, 2022 by telescoper

Today members of the Universities and Colleges Union (UCU), which represents academic staff in UK universities, begin ten days of strike action over cuts to pensions, pay and working conditions.

I know it doesn’t help very much, but I’d like to take this opportunity to wish all the strikers well and express solidarity and support for their wholly justified action.

Universities affected by the strike include three that I’ve actually worked in: Sussex, Nottingham and Queen Mary, University of London. I understand that a large majority of those voting in the ballot at Cardiff were in favour of industrial action but there were insufficient responses to meet the legal threshold for a strike to be lawful.

Notes from Half Way

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Education, Maynooth with tags , , , , , , on November 6, 2021 by telescoper

We’ve now reached the halfway point in our teaching semester at Maynooth University. That means there are another six weeks of teaching before the end of term break. I was looking through the notes of my modules this morning in order to make a plan for the rest of term and was relieved to find that I’m roughly on track to finish on time. That is despite the first years starting a week late and lectures being 45 minutes long instead of 50.

At this point I’m still finding it very disconcerting talking to an audience of masked students, but it’s a heck of a lot better than just talking at a camera. Quite a few times I’ve been walking around campus and a student without a face covering has said “hello Peter” or words to that effect and I’ve smiled and said “hello” back while wondering who they were. Outside, you see, people take their masks off while, inside, I’m the only person whose face is uncovered.

Still, at least during lectures I get to make eye contact with the students. I don’t know why that matters so much to me, but it does. I remember as a student I had some lecturers who were pathologically incapable of making eye contact with the class, usually staring at a spot about six feet over the heads of the students. I found that most off-putting.

Although it still feels a bit weird, I’m glad that the mask-wearing protocol is being observed very well at least in lecture theatres. Unfortunately cases are skyrocketing right now – almost 4000 yesterday, as high as last January – which is all very worrying. Are we going to move to a Plan B? I doubt it, because the Government doesn’t seem to have one. Nevertheless I do think there’s still a significant possibility of our January exams being moved online yet again, but that hasn’t been decided yet.

Meanwhile, in the UK, University staff have been balloted over industrial action relating to the USS pension scheme and to various issues relating to terms and conditions. The majority of votes cast were in favour of strikes, but some institutions did not reach the 50% threshold required for strike action to be legal (some by just a handful of votes) and others achieved the threshold in only one of the disputes. I don’t know what will happen next, but I’d like to express my solidarity with those taking what I consider to be entirely justified action.

I couldn’t resist quoting this from the Universities UK statement on the dispute:

After a difficult 18 months, students do not deserve any further disruption.

Yes, it has been a difficult 18 months for students, but the absence of even a teeny bit of recognition that it has also been very difficult for staff is extremely telling.

I’m taking a particular interest in the disputes not only because I have friends and former colleagues in the UK but also because I have the best part of 30 years’ contributions locked into the USS pension scheme, plus some additional voluntary contribitions, and am relying on the benefits from those for my own retirement. If anything happens to that source of income I am financially screwed.

Apart from the USS scheme, the other side of the UCU dispute concerns ‘four fights‘ over:

  1. Pay
  2. Workload
  3. Equality
  4. Casualisation

These issues don’t only apply in the UK, of course. Workloads in my Department are at ridiculous levels – not only for me – and we have been forced by Management decisions into a situation in which half of our lecturing is being done by staff on short-term contracts. I suspect that the unpaid overtime we have put in during the pandemic is the expectation for the future, and I see no sign of the casualisation of our teaching staff being reversed in the immediate future. I hope I’m proved wrong, but in the meantime I’m keeping a close eye on my USS pension in case early retirement proves the only way to escape…

The University Strikes are Back!

Posted in Education, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on November 6, 2019 by telescoper

I noticed that a recent ballot of members of the University and College Union (UCU) has delivered a mandate for industrial action across 60 UK universities. Eight days of strikes will start later this month: they will last from November 25th until December 4th. The cause of the dispute is twofold: (1) the long-running saga of the Universities pension scheme (about which there were strikes in 2018); and (2) over pay, equality, workloads and the ever-increasing casualisation of lecturing and other work.

Among the institutions to have voted for strike action are my previous employers Cardiff, Sussex and Nottingham.
It seems to have taken a long time to count the votes in the case of Sussex UCU, but the result was a large majority in favour of action. It remains to be seen what the impact of these strikes will be, but they could affect a very large number of students. Nobody likes going on strike but the UK higher education system is a very poor state right now, and many of my former colleagues feel that they have no alternative.

Anyway, the real purpose of this short post is simply to express solidarity with those taking industrial action. It it set to be a big struggle, but I wish everyone taking part all the best on the picket lines!

Union Matters

Posted in Education, Politics with tags , , , , , on October 14, 2018 by telescoper

The above collection of goodies arrived last week in a Welcome Pack from the Irish Federation of University Teachers (IFUT), my new trade union. I sent in an application to join some time ago, and was getting a bit worried that it might have been lost, but then confirmation arrived in the form of my membership card along with a pen, a badge, a lanyard, an application form for a Credit Union and various other bits and bobs. It’s only by standing together that academics in Irish universities have any hope of exerting enough pressure on the Government to get it to reverse the persistent underfunding of Higher Education in this country. Even then it won’t be easy – last week’s budget had nothing whatsoever in it for universities or students.

Incidentally, according to the online budget calculator, I’ll be a princely €28 per month better off next year as a result of small changes in taxation, but it seems to me that the priority should have been to help the less well off and it failed to do that. No doubt, however, the cautious approach to public finances shown by the Government is largely down to the uncertain effects of Brexit.

While I am on about unions, some of the readers of this blog will recall that I was participating in industrial action by UCU (the Universities and Colleges Union) in the UK earlier this year in relation to proposed cuts to pensions in the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS). I have since left that scheme, deferring my benefits from it until I retire, but I couldn’t resist passing on a link to an article I read yesterday, which argues that USS’s valuation (which resulted in a deficit) rests on a large and demonstrable mistake and, when this is corrected there is no deficit as at 31 March 2018 and no need for detrimental changes to benefits or contributions.

Could it be that all that pain was caused by an accounting error? If so, then heads should roll!

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…

USS Pension Proposal: Poll

Posted in Education, Politics with tags , , , , , on March 13, 2018 by telescoper

Last night I saw the news on Twitter that negotiators on behalf of the Universities and Colleges Union (UCU) and the employers’ organisation Universities UK (UUK) under the auspices of the Advisory Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) agreed a proposal to end the strike over pensions that has been going on since the end of February.

The text of the agreement can be found here (PDF). This proposal will have to be discussed and ratified formally, but the negotiators hope this can be do today and that the strike will be suspended from tomorrow.

The proposal suggests a transitional period of three years from April 2019 during which a much reduced Defined Benefit scheme will operate, but it still affirms the much disputed November 2017 valuation of the scheme which means that it is overwhelmingly likely that after three years the dispute will be back on.

I shall be leaving the USS scheme in July 2018 as I’m moving full-time to Ireland where I will be joining a Defined Benefit scheme so the changes outlined in the document will not affect me. Moreover, though I have supported the strike I am not a member of UCU. If I were I would not be in favour of accepting this deal because it seems to me that it amounts to an abject surrender on all the main issues. But given my personal situation I don’t think my opinion should carry much weight. The few friends I have discussed this with feel the same as I do, but I’m interested to know what the general opinion is. If you feel like filling in the poll below please feel free to do so. I’ve divided the responses between UCU members and non-UCU members to see if there’s a difference.

On one matter however I am less equivocal. The document calls on staff to `prioritise the rescheduling of teaching’ (lost during the strike). I have a one-word response to that: NO. Not only will it be logistically impossible to reschedule so many teaching sessions, but I am also not going to do extra teaching for free when my pay is being deducted for days on strike.

As usual, I invite your comments through the box below.

UPDATE: Here is a Google Document showing how UCU branches are responding to the proposal: at the time of posting, it is solidly `reject’..

UPDATE: Following on from the above, the UCU has now formally rejected the proposal. The strikes continue.

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.


Negative Impact

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , , , , on December 2, 2009 by telescoper

After spending the best part of the last couple of days being prodded and poked and subjected to all manner of indignity in the name of medical science, I think it’s appropriate to return to the blogosphere with another rant. Before I start, however, I’d seriously like to thank everyone at the University Hospital of Wales at Heath Park  for making my visit there as brief and painless as possible. Everyone was very kind and very efficient. I’m not going to blog about the details, as Columbo doesn’t like reading about other peoples’ ailments.

Over the past few weeks there has been a lot of discussion about the UK government’s agenda for research, particularly science research, that includes something called “impact”. The Research Excellence Framework (REF; successor to the Research Assessment Exercise, RAE) will include such a thing:

Significant additional recognition will be given where researchers build on excellent research to deliver demonstrable benefits to the economy, society, public policy, culture and quality of life

Apparently, however, they don’t really know how to do this so they have set up a number of pilot studies to try to find out. I’d feel a little more comfortable if the bureaucrats had thought about what they were going to do before announcing that our future research funds were going to depend on it. Meanwhile, applicants for grants from any of the research councils must  include a statement of the “economic or social” impact their research will have.

Understandably, those of us working in “blue skies” research are very nervous about this new regime. There is more than a suspicion that the new emphasis on impact is intended to divert funds away from “pure” curiosity driven research and into areas where it can have an immediately identifiable short-term economic benefit. This has led to a petition, with over 13000 signatures, by the University and College Union calling for the impact statements to be abandoned.

I don’t know who is going to assess these impact statements, but unless they have a flawless ability to predict future technology I don’t think fundamental physics is going to score very well at all. To see my point, consider the case of  J. J. Thomson, who is generally credited with having discovered the electron and who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1906. Thomson made extensive use of cathode ray tubes in his studies; these later found their way into sitting rooms across the world as essential components of the classic television set. But that took decades. I doubt if an impact panel looking at Thomson’s work – even if they were physicists rather than grey-suited bureaucrats – would have found any of it likely to lead to immediate economic benefit. The point is that when he discovered the electron it wasn’t because he was actually trying to invent the television set.

I think there are basically two possible interpretations of this impact business. One is that it is a deliberate plan to wind down fundamental research and use the money saved to subsidise UK industry. The other is that it’s another exercise in pointless box-ticking. I am in two minds. On the one hand, it is clear that the recent behaviour of the Science and Technology Facilities Council shows strong evidence of the former. Fundamental research is being slashed, yet projects involving space technology have been funded on the nod without scientific  peer review. On the other hand, the RCUK Impact “Champion”, a person by the name of David Delpy, has written in the Times Higher to defend the new agenda. Consider the following paragraph

Recently I have read that some believe it is impossible to predict the economic impact of blue-skies research. To be clear, we are not asking for accurate predictions – simply a consideration of potential. Basic research underpins all disciplines and builds pathways to new technologies with economic and social applications. It may build on an existing body of knowledge, connect to other research around the world or attract new industries to the UK. There are many routes to impact. I believe that I could write a statement indicating potential impact for any proposal I have seen, and to hear that bright academics say they can’t do it sounds a little disingenuous.

Champion Delpy thus suggests he could write a statement for any proposal he has seen, which sounds to me like an admission that what is called for is just a load of flannel. In fact, if he’s paid to be the Impact Champion perhaps he should write all the bullshit and save us scientists the need to jump through these silly hoops? Or perhaps we could get one of those little Microsoft Office Assistant things:

Hello. Looks like you’re writing an Impact Assessment. Would you like me to pad it out with meaningless but impressive-looking socio-economic buzzwords for you?

If it’s just another exercise in vacuous bureaucracy then it’s bad enough, but if it is the other possibility then of course it’s even worse. It could be the end for disciplines like astronomy and particle physics as well as the end of Britain’s history of excellence in those areas. I’ve already blogged about my view of short-termism in research funding. Essentially, my point is that government money should be used to fund precisely those things that don’t have immediate economic benefit. Those that do should be funded by the beneficiaries, i.e. commercial companies.

Politicians probably think that all this complaining about impact means that scientists  are arrogantly assuming that the taxpayer should fund them regardless of the cost or the benefit. I can only speak for myself, but I think that’s very unfair. I’m very conscious that my research is funded by Joe Public; that’s one of the reasons I think I should spend time giving public talks and doing other outreach activities. But I think the public funds me and others like me to do “useless” things because, in the end, useless things are more important than money.

The government is probably right to say that the UK economy doesn’t benefit as much from our scientific expertise as is the case with other countries. The reason for that, however, lies not with our universities and research laboratories but with our private industrial and commercial sectors which are, for the most part, managed with a very low level of competence. British universities are demonstrably excellent; our industry is demonstrably feeble. The persistent failure of the private sector to invest in research and development shows that it is in drastic need of a good shake up. British companies, not the taxpayer, should be paying for research that leads to profit for them and for that to happen they will have to learn to engage better with the University sector rather than expecting inventions to be served up on a plate funded by the taxpayer. Universities and research labs should continue do what they’re good at,  maintaining a culture within which curiosity and learning are promoted for their own sake not just as part of the dreary materialistic cycle of production and consumption that is all we seem to be able to think about these days.

So at the end I’ve come to the conclusion that, perhaps, insofar as it can be demonstrated, economic impact should be included in the forthcoming Research Excellence Framework. Research which leads directly to the economic gain of the private sector is  precisely the type of research that the taxpayer should not be paying for. If it can be proven that a given department has engaged in such activity, its state funding should therefore be cut and it should be told to recover the funds it has misused from the company that has benefitted from it. Economic impact should be included with a negative weight.

And if you think that’s a silly point of view, consider what happens with the other major part of a university’s activity, teaching. Students, we are told, are the primary beneficiaries of their education so they should have to pay fees. In the current regime, however, they only do so when their earnings reach a certain level. If commercial companies are to be the primary beneficiaries of state-funded research, why should they not likewise be asked to pay for it?