Response to Vice Chancellor

Dear Vice Chancellor,

We would like to thank you for the email you sent on Monday 25 November, in which you express your sympathy for underpaid and overworked staff, and your desire to push for a constructive resolution to UCU’s ongoing industrial action. You expressed similar sentiments in 2018, when UCU members went on strike over threats to their pensions. Then, you called for a better long-term solution to the pensions dispute, full transparency from the USS trustees, and an end to the marketisation of higher education. Yet here we are again. And this time round, it will take more than good intentions to convince your staff that you mean to bring about real change.


You write in your email, referring to last year’s strikes over USS, that ‘we have learned from what you told us, and the strength of the feeling that you made apparent’. You state your belief that ‘serious interrogation of the valuation methodology…is critical to preserving current USS benefits’, and that ‘much will hinge on the forthcoming report of the Joint Expert Panel, which is looking at this issue, and the long-term sustainability of the scheme’. Unfortunately, you have nothing to say in this email about the Joint Expert Panel’s firstreport, published on 13 September 2018. There, the expert panel articulated fundamental criticisms of the way USS produced its 2017 valuation, and vindicated the decision of staff to take strike action. On 15 November 2018, the University announced that it welcomed the report, and endorsed its recommendations. Yet those recommendations have been ignored by USS, with the result that staff are paying higher contributions every month. UUK has been acquiescent in the face of this decision, as has this University.


You call in your email for ‘full transparency’ in the valuation and governance of the scheme — just as, on 12 March 2018, you urged ‘transparency in order to begin to restore trust’. Since then, USS has been embroiled in controversy, raising serious questions about its governance. On 11 October 2019, Professor Jane Hutton was dismissed from the USS Board of Trustees after airing her serious concerns about the scheme’s management. In the interests of transparency, then, we ask you to make your position clear. If the University still accepts the findings of the Joint Expert Panel’s first report, it must call publicly for those findings to be accepted by UUK and USS as well. Cambridge may be ‘one of many universities represented nationally by UUK on pensions’, but, as you well know, it has a disproportionate material and symbolic influence. Our members expect you to use this influence to exert the greatest possible pressure, in public and in private, on behalf of your staff.


When it comes to pay, the measures you announce in your email amount to very little. You write that ‘the University is contributing an additional £500,000 to academic promotions, with significant increases planned for 2019/20 and 2020/21’. We welcome the presence of a concrete figure in your email, but it is unclear what exactly this will mean for staff. There is no detail about how many more promotions there will be in 2019/20 compared to 2018/19, and how many more there will be again the following year. There is no detail about how that money will be distributed across the University, or how it will reduce the gender pay gap, which, as you know, is scandalously high in Cambridge. Your email omits all reference to the union’s demands for equality; this will not go unnoticed by those of your staff who suffer most from the rampant inequality here and throughout higher education. More money for academic promotions will make no difference to all the academic-related staff at this University, or to the many workers on precarious contracts. You write that the University has ‘increased the salaries of the lowest paid colleagues’. You will surely therefore welcome the successive attempts by UCU to improve the hourly pay of casualised staff, attempts which have yet to be taken up. You claim that — working with UCU — the University is  ‘moving away from fixed-term to open-ended contracts where appropriate’. What the University considers appropriate is still far from what staff want to see. There is still too much reliance on the Temporary Employment Service, where staff have far fewer rights than elsewhere in the University. The proportion of work done by postdoctoral teachers and researchers with little chance of open-ended employments continues to rise. Too many teaching staff are paid by the hour, with no job security. The University so far seems unwilling to take these problems as seriously as they deserve, and only continual pressure from UCU has led to any movement. And far from truly working with the union, the University continues in refusing it formal recognition.


Fundamentally, the measures you mention do nothing to address the real issues of pay. Pay in higher education has plummeted over the past decade: since 2009, real-terms wages have fallen by 17.5%, and are set to fall below inflation again this year. The pay gaps remain intolerably high. You say you understand the ‘stress and uncertainty faced by many at pay rises that struggle to keep pace with inflation’. But pay ‘rises’ that ‘struggle to keep pace with inflation’ — in other words, pay cuts — are a national, not a local, matter. We need you to back up your words by showing vocal support for staff in your dealings with fellow employers and with the UCEA. We expect you to use all your influence with UCEA to reverse the deterioration in our pay, and offer us a serious pay rise this year, to keep pace with inflation, and to recoup the losses we have suffered for ten years now. We also expect concerted local efforts, in collaboration with UCU, to closing the pay gaps. Slight improvements in rewards and promotions do not address the central concern behind this aspect of our current strikes, the falling pay and rising inequality that demand your urgent attention.


You say that you have learned from what we told you during the strikes last year. We invite you to come and talk to us on the picket-lines, so that you can better understand why we are on strike this time round. You say that it is ‘important that all of those involved in this dispute do what they can to bring it to a constructive resolution’. This is incontrovertibly true. But we urge you to acknowledge the University’s power to bring about that resolution. Our members need to see your words backed by real evidence and firm commitments. In the spirit of transparency, we call on you to make a public statement as soon as possible to clarify your position regarding the following questions:

  1. Do you still endorse the recommendations of the Joint Expert Panel’s first report?

  2. If so, how have you so far used your influence to ensure those recommendations are accepted by USS and incorporated into its future valuations?

  3. Will you call for USS Trustees to make public the methodology and modelling for the 2017 and 2018 valuations, including the underlying actuarial assumptions?

  4. In the wake of Jane Hutton’s revelations about the workings of USS, do you have full confidence in its governance?

  5. UCEA restarted negotiations with UCU on Tuesday 26 November, to work out a solution to the strikes over Pay and Equality and is consulting its member institutions for their views. How do you plan to respond to this consultation?

  6. When will the University accept the demands of Cambridge UCU’s Raise the Bar campaign?

  7. What measures is the University taking in order to reduce the gender pay gap of 19.6%? How will its future approach reflect the glacial pace of progress so far?

  8. When will the University release all relevant information on the pay gaps for BME and disabled staff?

  9. You talk about the continuing relationship you have with Cambridge UCU. Will you work with us to make that relationship stronger, and support a claim for official recognition?

You say that it is ‘important that all of those involved in this dispute do what they can to bring it to a constructive resolution’. This is incontrovertibly true. But we urge you to acknowledge the University’s power to bring about that resolution. Now that negotiations have begun again between UCU and UCEA, you have an opportunity publicly to voice the grievances of your staff and to press home their demands. Now is your chance to fit your actions to your words, to speak out on our behalf, and to make it clear that things cannot continue as they are.

Yours sincerely,

Cambridge UCU Executive Committee