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Message from the Vice-Chancellor

I have received dozens of messages over the past few weeks from students, staff, parents and others about the industrial action over proposed changes to the USS pension scheme. I want to address the points made in those messages directly and to answer as best I can the questions you have asked. In doing so, I remind you that, while the strike will be felt locally, this is a national dispute and the University of Sussex cannot alone deliver a resolution.

The impact on our community

It is very clear to me that almost everyone in the University is both dismayed and frustrated by this situation.  The University community has worked collegially and effectively together during the past 18 months and I am deeply concerned that this collegiality is under strain.

I have not met a single person who relishes the prospect of strikes and I sympathise with the hugely difficult decisions that all staff are having to make regarding this dispute. Whether striking or not, they deserve our support and respect. They certainly have mine.

Equally, students are quite understandably worried about the financial and academic impact that this will have on them. It is impossible to predict how disruptive the strikes will be: I can promise that we are doing everything possible to minimise their impact on students’ education.

Returning to negotiations

One consistent theme in the messages I have received has been a call for me to use my voice as Vice-Chancellor to support a return to negotiations between Universities UK and UCU. Some are confused why I have not already done so. Even though this is a national dispute and the University of Sussex is not directly involved in negotiations, I have heard, and understand, the request.

In many ways, I agree. I believe that the best solutions to shared problems always come from talking and listening.  I’m sure that many people would agree that industrial action, while an important and valued part of our liberal democracy, does not provide the best environment for compromise and mutual agreement. I believe that students do not deserve to bear the brunt of this dispute. 

If there was an affordable proposal on the table that satisfied USS and the Pensions Regulator, I would be in full support of a return to formal discussions. I would like nothing more than for that to be the case. However, despite lengthy discussions over the past year – employer and employee representatives met 35 times – no such proposal has emerged.

The UCU position remains for employers to contribute an additional £500 million per year into this pension scheme alone. For Sussex, this would mean we would have to find an extra £5.5 million a year to pay into the scheme. There are a small handful of institutions that could absorb that cost without serious financial consequences. Sadly, Sussex is not one of them.

If we had to find an additional £5.5 million for staff pensions, we would have to cut £5.5 million out of our budget, which inevitably means reduced spending on our infrastructure, regrettably job losses and a negative impact on students’ education. This is not a threat or managerial posturing, it is the unfortunate reality of the magnitude of the shared problem we all face. For me to publicly take a position that I know could put the financial future of the University in jeopardy would be negligent of my duties as Vice-Chancellor and, quite frankly, dishonest. I’m also not sure that Sussex staff, who are in the scheme, have the appetite to pay a collective £2.7 million extra per year and with no guarantee that this amount would not rise again. This is what the UCU proposal would have required staff to do.

Missed tuition

The biggest concern among our students is quite understandably the teaching and learning they may miss out on by this action going ahead. Whilst any disruption to our students’ education is unacceptable, the industrial action called by UCU is designed to do just this. We will do everything possible to minimise this and also to ensure that no-one’s degree is adversely impacted by it. This is likely to be a fast-moving situation, so we will be frequently updating the information on the student pages of the University website and through the Sussex Mobile app – under the tile ‘Union action info’.

University staff wearing orange-coloured ‘Ask Me’ badges will be visible and available on campus on all days and in all locations, to help, advise and guide students. On this note, it is important to know that many classes will be going ahead, so students should come to campus as normal. We have also committed to amending assessments and exams to ensure that students are only tested on what they have studied.

Many of you have asked about financial compensation if the disruption is considerable. Until we know the scale or the duration of the disruption, and its impact, it is very difficult for me to talk with any certainty about what actions we might take in the future but I can promise that we will always act in good faith and honour our commitments.

Finally, I am extremely proud of the close-knit community we have built here at Sussex and I know that everyone will be as keen as I am to treat each other kindly over the coming weeks and to recognise the many different points of view that people will have.

Adam Tickell

Posted on behalf of: University of Sussex
Last updated: Friday, 23 February 2018