This week sees the end of the initial period of strikes by members of UCU, in support of their USS pension claims. It provides an opportunity for us all to take stock.
Many colleagues who took part in strike action have told me that they did so reluctantly. Such is the strength of feeling, some took part in action for the first time in their career. With a passion for their subject and a steadfast commitment to students, many of you have talked about how conflicted you feel.
As a university, it is right that at Royal Holloway we support and encourage open debate and expression of different views, whilst maintaining respect for each other. However, the passion and intensity of views held about pension benefits and the dispute have tested our community.
We have been privileged that periods of industrial unrest have been rare in our sector and so it is not surprising that as a management team we have not always got it right. We share a deep concern for the welfare of our colleagues, but some of our policies haven’t always shown this. For this I apologise.
We have tried to respond to feedback, for example, after the Staff Open Meeting last Monday, we followed up immediately on the suggestion to spread pay deductions over three months so as not to cause undue financial stress to affected staff and their families. Nonetheless, I appreciate that we may not have acted as quickly as we might have, and there are lessons from the last four weeks that we can identify and learn.
At the end of February, I and many others called upon UUK and UCU to resume talks. Last week saw a revised proposal on USS reform jointly proposed by UUK and UCU, developed under the auspices of ACAS. The subsequent rejection of that proposal shows the strength of feeling held by colleagues.
As a result, I have taken the time to re-read the correspondence I have received, and I have talked to a number of individual colleagues about their concerns. My aim has been to build a clearer picture of the concerns of colleagues at Royal Holloway so that I can again write to UUK and UCU. You can read a copy of my letter here. The messages from colleagues are clear.
First, there is a lack of confidence in the 2017 USS pension valuation. I fully support the call for an independent valuation review. My letter says also that we are prepared to consider alternative proposals that change the level of risk in the valuation, as well as considering affordable changes to contribution levels that will help in the short term.
Second, colleagues value the retention of a defined benefit element to their pension.The revised proposal included a substantial reintroduction of defined benefit compared to the original proposal, but colleagues remain concerned as there was no commitment to retaining defined benefit at the next valuation. I understand this concern and therefore my letter addresses this point.
My letter ends by calling on UUK and UCU to restart negotiations, so that we can bring an end to the disruption of our students’ education and the lives of our staff.
I appreciate that the last four weeks have not been easy for anyone. I am grateful for the respectful way in which the strike action has been conducted and to colleagues for your commitment and support for the College which, at times, has seen you going above and beyond what we should normally expect of you. Royal Holloway’s strong sense of community sets us apart and is, I believe, what enables us to achieve together as much as we do. I hope that UUK and UCU can, over the coming weeks, achieve a resolution so that we can all refocus our efforts on what we do best.
Professor Paul Layzell