Vice Chancellor’s email – our response

On Thursday, the Vice Chancellor used an all-staff email to discuss the strike ballots for UCU members which open on Monday 18th November. Although the VC adopted a complacent tone, the letter effectively misrepresents the two disputes on pensions and pay, and stigmatises staff who might take industrial action, in order  to try and reduce support, prior to the opening of our ballot on Monday. Cambridge UCU exec condemns this move from the VC, and urges University management to use the three-week ballot period to push other employers to negotiate on UCU demands in good faith, rather than to frame striking staff as a ‘problem’ to community cohesion.

On pensions, the Vice Chancellor says we want ‘the UUK proposal to reform the benefits of the USS pension scheme to be scrapped’. ‘Reform’? That’s one way of describing UUK’s unilateral decision to slash our pension benefits by up to 25%. Without industrial action, the Defined Benefit portion of our pensions will be cut, lower-paid staff will be shunted onto a vastly inferior Defined Contribution scheme, and the protection against inflation rises of above 2.5% will be removed. Members will keep on paying the same level of pension contributions for greatly reduced pension benefits. If the decision is implemented, you will lose out; we will all lose out. You can find out how much by checking out our Pensions Modeller here. For employers, this might look like a ‘reform’; for staff, it’s an attack on the pensions we’ve earned, and on the stable futures we all deserve.

How about the Four Fights? The Vice Chancellor says we aren’t happy with the ‘1.5% uplift’ employers have offered this year. Let’s call that what it is: a pay cut. Inflation currently stands at a whopping 4.8% (RPI; 3.2% CPI), and with a dismal winter ahead of us, it’s likely to carry on rising. Over the last year, we’ve pulled out all the stops to keep this university running. But we’ve also seen our working conditions plummet. Workloads have spiked while promotions were cancelled and hiring was frozen. Inequality has risen, with the gender pay gap in Cambridge – already well above the sector average – going up even further to a new high of 20.3%. Yet last year, employers froze our pay altogether. Altogether, over the last decade, our pay has fallen by 17.6% in real terms. We can’t afford to let that continue – least of all those of us on whom those cuts fall hardest: women, BME staff, casualised workers on precarious contracts. So it’s pretty infuriating to be told that this year’s offer was an ‘uplift’ – and especially by a man on £468,000 a year.

Why does the Vice Chancellor still think we should vote against taking strike action? One reason he gives is the impact on students. That’s something we’re all acutely aware of, this year more than ever. However, it would be ill-advised for the VC to believe that the working conditions that University staff are currently enduring are beneficial for students. The average Cambridge academic reported working 53 hours a week in 2016. With deteriorating pay, and workloads spiralling out of control during the pandemic, staff are being asked to work to the point of exhaustion to deliver teaching and take care of students. If staff do not have time to properly rest and look after themselves, students suffer too, as they more easily fall through the cracks of the system. If the VC really cared about students, he would have not allowed the situation to get to this point. And we need to be clear: the reason why we are being balloted for strike is the intransigence of our employers. UCU has worked tirelessly, locally and nationally, to find alternative solutions to the combined crises of pensions and pay; it’s the employers’ representatives who haven’t been acting in good faith. So if we’re forced to take action, the blame doesn’t lie with staff, simply for standing up against these multiple attacks. It lies with the employers whose actions have made the conditions of working and learning at UK universities so much worse – for students and staff alike. Our students know that – that’s why the NUS has come out in support of UCU’s campaign. Nobody wants to go on strike: nobody wants to disrupt students’ education. That we’ve been driven to this is a sign of just how dire things have got.

But perhaps the most galling part of the Vice Chancellor’s email was his warning of the impact any strikes would have on ‘us as a community’, after a year in which ‘we have come together’ to deal with the challenges of the pandemic. This misty-eyed vision of the past eighteen months is pure revisionism. There’s no doubt that staff – across the University and at all levels – have plumbed new reserves of strength to cope with the challenges of the past year and a half. We have maintained the University’s teaching, research and services, we have supported our students, and we have supported each other. But it turns out that we’re not all in it together. Staff won’t forget that, while they kept the University running, working harder than ever, our pay was frozen, promotions were blocked, and the University was enacting a recruitment restraint. Back in March 2020, the University insisted there would be no redundancies as a result of Covid-19. Since then, we’ve had major restructurings in various departments, with dozens of staff pushed out; we’ve seen the Catering services disbanded and outsourced; we’ve seen permanent jobs replaced with fixed-term contracts. And this is just the beginning. The coming years will doubtless see further waves of reorganisation and redundancies – all while staff are squeezed even harder.

Ultimately, it is appalling that the VC would use the collaboration between Cambridge UCU and the University on calling for alternative scheme designs for USS in an email that effectively tries to demobilise support for strike action. Cambridge UCU has been working in good faith with University management to try and solve the challenges with USS on the long term. Such alternative scheme designs, however, have yet to be analysed by all the parties involved, let alone agreed upon, and the VC cannot ask UCU members to bank their current pensions benefits on the potential of a future alternative that does not exist yet. If the VC was really acting in good faith, he would build on the joint efforts between our branch and management to push other employers to see sense and avoid slashing our pension benefits.

And that’s why the Vice Chancellor’s condescending tone strikes such a false note. Our extraordinary efforts during the pandemic are now being used to bully us into accepting what we’ve been given. Meanwhile, a false appeal to community seeks to gloss over the inequalities and worsening conditions being suffered by many of us. But the Vice Chancellor will be disappointed if he thinks a pat on the head will make up for the accumulated hardship of the last eighteen months, let alone the last ten years. Staff may have come together, but the gaps in our pay didn’t, nor did the gaping inequalities in our university – inequalities which are now wider than ever. Instead of patronising us with talk of community and coming together, the Vice Chancellor needs to take concrete action, along with his counterparts, to resolve the material divisions that run through our university. It’s a shame it takes the continual threat of strikes to make that happen.