Human Resources

Open events

Open events for staff March 2018

Vice-Chancellor Adam Tickell held two open events for staff - one on 22 March and the other on 23 March.

Several questions were sent in anonymously during the session, which the Vice-Chancellor has answered here:

What action will be taken to enable staff to access their offices in Sussex House if students block the entrances in any future strikes? It was very disruptive for staff.

We are very aware of this and I really thank staff in Sussex House for their patience and understanding. We fully support peaceful protest; however, we can’t condone the continued interference in the running of the University. At the time, we took the decision that we were not going to escalate the situation further given the context of the industrial action. However, we would need to seriously consider what we would do if this were to happen again. We are already giving thought to this.

Given the financial climate, would it be prudent to reduce investment in the new student record system and utilise existing technology to meet the requirements?

During its period of expansion, the University did not invest sufficiently in our physical and virtual infrastructure, which has led to substantial problems and inefficiencies that have real impacts on both staff and students. We all know that our systems are in need of urgent attention – and this is essential to improve the student experience here, from application to graduation. I don’t feel confident that our existing technology options are sufficient to do this to the level which our students require. 

Why did you get involved with the ACAS negotiations?

I wanted to help to resolve the dispute – and because I had pre-existing relationships with negotiators in both the Union and UUK. I knew there was little to no movement in finding a compromise deal, so I agreed to join the talks. Negotiators from both the employers and UCU felt that the compromise deal – which maintained a strong commitment to Defined Benefit pensions, a commitment to a joint review of the valuation methodology, a shared commitment to working together over the next three years to find a mutually satisfactory solution to the long-term challenges of the scheme, and which would be affordable for the majority of employers without having to make significant savings elsewhere – would be sufficient to settle the dispute.  Although that deal was ultimately rejected, I still feel strongly that this was a constructive use of my time – and shows that compromises on both sides can be made, and hopefully still will.

The majority of non-academic jobs advertised are fixed term for three years. With the potential job losses mentioned, is there a deliberate University policy of only recruiting new staff on three-year fixed-term contracts?

There’s no fixed policy on this. I would always say, however, that it is prudent to consider what feels appropriate for your department and the role you are recruiting for.

On Thursday 16 March the University decided to close a number of services due to the planned national demo. Staff on strike were informed that they would be paid for this day, even though it was a strike day and they would still be on strike. Staff not striking were told to work from home. I find it hard to understand the logic of paying the staff on strike on this day and not working, whilst staff not striking were still expected to work. Please can the VC clarify the University's rationale for paying staff on strike on Thursday 16 March?

The University took into account all the information that we had available to us regarding that day and felt that closing the campus would be in the best interests of the University community. Having made the decision to do so, we were mindful that there were different balances to be struck between those staff who were working from home and those who may have chosen to take strike action that day. Withholding pay for industrial action is not supposed to be punitive, but to recognise that work that would have otherwise been delivered was not. It was the University that took the decision to cancel teaching and close services that day, so it was a different set of circumstances. I would like to thank all the staff who worked on that day – both those staff who came onto campus, as well as the many who worked from home.

Grade 6 staff and below were not allowed to take leave during the strikes, resulting in animosity between Grade 6 and below staff and Grade 7 staff and above. What is the University planning on doing to improve these relationships and to ensure that Grade 6 staff and below still feel valued? Do the senior leadership team have better contingency plan in case of further student occupations of administrative buildings, rather than simply locking staff within buildings for several hours?

Please see the previous answer regarding Sussex House – and, just to reassure you, we have and are considering contingency plans. 

I’m sorry to hear about animosity between staff on different grades. I was always really clear in the lead-up to the industrial action that we must respect our colleagues' legal right to strike. I appreciate that this can put working relationships to the test; however, I would really encourage empathy and understanding on all sides. I am concerned that any staff member may be feeling undervalued – at any level. We will keep talking about this. It will take us time to heal – but I feel strongly that Sussex has a kind and tolerant community and we will work though the big issues that challenge us; in many ways this will make us stronger, but that’s only if we can continue to share our concerns and openly discuss solutions. I have committed to continue to hold open forums and we will also be making sure these conversations are happening at the school level, too.*

As a recent employee of Sussex, entering on a grade 7 salary of just over £31,000, part of the reason I joined Sussex is for the pension scheme. This was clearly 'pushed' as part of the recruitment process. My question to the VC is: if you were in my position (early career, relatively low pay for living in this area, with the uncertainty of the pensions), would you stay here long term? Or would you move to a more lucrative job/ sector?) I think your position is so far removed from the reality of lower-level employees that it may be difficult for you to imagine the real struggle we face, and the strength of feeling to lose pay from the strike and our long-term prospects.

Most of my friends are academics and many are in the same position as you so, whilst I am, as you say, in a very different place myself, I do understand the difficulties you describe and I would have to be cloth eared not to have heard or understood the strength of feeling. Academic life is hugely rewarding and I would – of course – recommend it to people. No-one welcomes the financial challenges that the pensions dispute has highlighted. All universities are grappling with the balance between pay and reward for existing members of staff and the need to maintain a stable financial footing without cuts. I know the uncertainty of the pension scheme is unsettling; however,do bear in mind that the scheme is still one of the best pension schemes on offer in the UK. 

Can you confirm as to when a decision will be made regarding paying compensation to students and will this be for every student?

We are actively considering this and hope to be able to share more information on this soon.

There has been a lot of negative tensions between non strikers, strikers and students at the University. What is the University doing to improve relationships between students and staff, staff and staff, and professional services staff and faculty?

See above *.

Staff at grade 6 and below were told that they were not allowed to take leave during the strikes. What was the rationale for this? What is the University doing to ensure that grade 6 and below staff are still made to feel valued at the University?

See above *.  We asked all staff – at all grades – to consider not taking holiday during the strikes, unless for exceptional circumstances, or of course unless already booked off. I hope you can appreciate this was a request to enable us to do everything we could to focus on our students' education and to ensure that the University could continue to run as near to normal as possible. 

Do you remain optimistic that a deal can be done?

Yes. It will require more compromise; however, I think we have demonstrated through the talks at Acas that movement can be made. It will need to be quick.

If there are going to be redundancies, will this be across all grades, or will they only apply to those grade 7 and above who are in this pension?

Redundancy is clearly defined in law and would occur only where the demand for a particular type of work diminishes or ceases. So if we had to make redundancies, and we very much hope that we will not have to do so, then it would be very specific to the actual reasons for needing to lose those jobs, e.g. if there was a significant fall in demand for one of our services. It would not be determined by staff grades or membership of the pension scheme.

Has the Pensions Regulator specified the settlement they would impose?

Not in detail. The Regulator can't impose changes to benefits. What it can impose is changes to how the scheme is funded, if it is not satisfied that enough is being paid in to maintain current benefits.

Is there a deadline for an agreement to be reached?

The legal deadline rests with the Pensions Regulator and, before then, a 60-day consultation period with scheme members must take place, as well as additional time to administer the consultation.

Would you agree to having a fully independent review of the pension fund while holding the status quo?

This is not in my gift, unfortunately – this is completely down to the Pensions Regulator, who has made it very clear that the status quo is not an option.  Whatever is agreed going forward will need to satisfy the regulator.

There is a 23 March proposal that is currently being considered by UCU members and this might resolve the dispute.

Could you explain what happens if no agreement is reached?

As it stands, the Joint Negotiating Committee’s decision on 23 January to impose a defined contribution scheme is still the only legally recognised outcome. But it is clear that neither employers nor the unions want to pursue this option; nor do they wish to revert to the default option of rule 76.4, in which the trustee would substantially increase contributions on both sides.

How do you feel that the dispute will be resolved?

There is a 23 March proposal that is currently being considered by UCU members and this might resolve the dispute.

Is the death-in-service benefit affected?

No, there have been no proposed changes to the provision of death-in-service or ill-health retirement benefits

USS information session 14 February 2018

At an open session in the Attenborough Centre on 14 February, Rebecca Dodd FIA from pensions experts Mercer gave a brief presentation. Staff also had the chance to make comments and ask questions about planned union industrial action.

Q&As from the open session 14 February 

Question 1: 

The comment covered issues about: people living longer; the impasse between unions and vice-chancellors supporting the UUK position; change in risk; remuneration of university staff; inflation; cut in pensions; joining with other VCs to develop new synthesis about what USS offers.

Answer 1:

Adam Tickell, Vice-Chancellor:

After the valuation last April, which was crystallised in the September valuation, UCU and the employers met 35 times to try to work out a common approach.

The employers put proposals on the table and UCU refused to engage with them. The approach was, ‘We don't believe the valuation’. They commissioned First Actuarial to do a valuation which was based on different assumptions. UCU's projections and their assumptions around what will happen under a Defined Contribution scheme are based on very conservative ideas about what will happen to money in the future. Their proposals for the Defined Benefit part of USS, relying on First Actuarial’s valuation, are based on very generous assumptions.

So what they're saying on one hand is USS can generate a lot more money if we continue to have Defined Benefits than - using the exact same investment strategy - they can under Defined Contribution. So there is a bit of an issue there, but they met 35 times and the UCU approach was that the valuation was too conservative.

That strategy was completely undermined when the Pensions Regulator wrote to the trustees of USS - and the trustees of USS include members of the union, representatives of the employers and independent members - to say that they thought the valuation was at the limits of acceptability in terms of taking risk. After that letter came out in September/October, the UCU had to think about this very quickly - what is the alternative? And the alternative they came up with - after the ballot had almost closed - was that member contributions would go up by 3% of salary and our contributions would go up by just under 6%.

The cost to this university of that would be £5.5m. We do not have that free money. Our surplus this year will be probably less than £10m. The effect of the fee freeze announced at the Tory party conference in September will be £7.5m after three years. So, with those two things linked - our contributions going up and that fee freeze - the University goes into deficit.

So the only way we can handle the UCU proposal is by taking £5.5m out of our operating budget. And that is not something I feel that anybody would like to do because 55-56% of our costs are spent on staff. So, if we have to increase pension contributions, the obvious corollary of that is we have to reduce the number of people who work for us. And that is the uncomfortable truth.

You’re absolutely right that USS is a so-called ‘last man standing’ scheme - but that doesn't obviate the need to satisfy the Pensions Regulator that we have a recovery plan in place. Because we can't say we'll have a charge on the assets of the institutions unless the Pensions Regulator is satisfied that that's an appropriate plan.

And all the indicators are from the Pensions Regulator - who is taking more interest in this than in any other pension scheme that's live - that it does not believe that that is an acceptable strategy for USS to take. So you’re right, I agree this is a really horrible place to be in.


Question 2:

What the universities are currently offering is not good enough and a further resynthesis has to be made. The real thing is that staff can't keep losing out, whether it is on transferred risk or lack of salary. We have to have a sustainable future and that requires interesting and difficult choices - but the current thing on the table is not adequate.

Answer 2:

Adam Tickell, Vice-Chancellor:

The reason that there are no current negotiations - and I'm not involved in the negotiations - is exactly the June deadline. So that's why there were so many meetings including numerous meetings in December between the two sides. We are legally bound to have a recovery plan in place by June. If we don't have a recovery plan in place by June then the Pensions Regulator will impose a recovery plan on us. And that will be the worst of all possible worlds - both UCU and the employers agree on that.


Question 3:

Do these USS changes affect all employees of the University on grade 7 and above, including senior leadership personnel?

Answer 3:

Adam Tickell, Vice-Chancellor:

They do, with the exception of me. I have reached my so-called lifetime allowance. I have come out of the pensions scheme, although I retain death-in-service benefits. I continue to pay contributions but they are a lower rate to pay off the deficit, with a smaller amount towards death-in-service benefits - if I die, my family gets the money.


Question 4:

What guarantees are there about the consultation being a true consultation, in that our views as employees are really taken into account?

Answer 4:

Adam Tickell, Vice-Chancellor:

The honest truth is that the consultation out now is on the UUK proposal, which is now the USS proposal. So it is about the details of the proposal rather than the broad principles. And if a lot of the responses go back and say ‘what we want you to do is to be able to maintain Defined Benefits’ then my guess is that those won't be within the scope of the kinds of things that will be properly accepted.


Question 5:

You said if USS didn't make changes itself, that the Pensions Regulator will enforce changes. What would those changes be from the Pensions Regulator?

Answer 5:

Rebecca Dodd, independent pensions expert at Mercer:

It would be clear and simple: imposing a higher contribution rate on the employers.

If there hadn’t been a decision about changes to benefits - if it hadn't been satisfactory what was being paid into the scheme - then to maintain those current benefits the Regulator can impose that the universities and employers pay higher rates. The Regulator can't impose changes to benefits. What it does is impose how the scheme is being funded. So those are the benefits in place and it will impose higher amounts, which is why it's being looked at so that it’s sustainable and contribution rates can continue at the rate that employers are paying at the moment. Otherwise they will have to pay those higher amounts.


Question 6:

I'm slightly surprised given the particular deadline that there isn't room for another phase of negotiations in terms of the respective contributions that employees and employers make. It doesn't seem to be that massive a gap. Perhaps a higher, but less high, contribution coming from the employer. Perhaps a slightly higher contribution coming from the employee, maybe with a lower threshold on the Defined Benefit. Why couldn’t some other mix be discussed between the different members of USS? 

Answer 6:

Adam Tickell, Vice-Chancellor:

This is is where the deadline really matters. The valuation has to be signed off by June. The member consultation is a statutory consultation and, in order to get that statutory consultation in place, there are a lot of technical details to be worked on. So the reason the proposals haven't yet been published in detail and models haven't been put in place is that these become legally enforceable contracts. So you can't just make it up on the fly. 

This really isn't a question of doing things in a haphazard way. There's a really good philosopher in LSE who's written some blogs about the timetable and why the timetable is so difficult on this. And he's by no means supportive of the universities’ line. He comes from a UCU background and he goes through it in great detail.

Allan Spencer, Director of Finance:

The reason there isn't all the time between now and the end of June is that there has to be a statutory consultation of at least 60 days. Effectively that consultation has to present to all members clearly what the proposals are.

At the moment USS are preparing materials for that consultation. There was a decision on 23 January and it will take them 6-8 weeks to prepare those materials, because they have to be really clear about what the proposed changes are. And then there has to be a 60-day consultation period. Then, the trustees need to consider any proposed changes and decide whether they are going to make any final changes to the proposal and then it needs signing off. So the time it needs for a consultation that finishes at the end of May is extremely tight.

Were there to be any further material discussions about the balance of benefits, all of that timetable would be put back because again we'd need to start from scratch to spend eight weeks preparing the materials, 60 days taking the consultation and a couple of weeks doing the final report.


Question 7:

One of the arguments that's been put forward is that the reason some institutions have been very strongly for these negotiations not to come to an agreement is partly because the breakup of the pension scheme is what's required for these institutions to then go for full privatisation. In a sense, because it's a collective pension they can't go for full privatisation at the moment.

And one of the pieces of information that came out recently was that in the September meeting, 42% of employers lobbied very strongly for USS not to accept the proposal that was on the table and to argue for a lower level of risk than that which was previously accepted, partly by USS. Is Sussex one of the 42% that's lobbying against this?

Answer 7:

Adam Tickell, Vice-Chancellor:

I don't accept the premise of the question that this is about privatisation. I think this is about a shared problem with a major pension scheme and certainly I've never heard of a university wanting to privatise and to exit the pension scheme.

If we were to leave the pension scheme, because of the deficit problems we would have to crystallise at that moment the historic obligations of the University. We haven't even thought about it. We'd have to calculate the cost of everybody's existing liabilities and the cost of everybody's existing pension who is a member of USS at this university. And for any university that's going to be tens or hundreds of millions of pounds.

We did say that we believe the September valuation was the appropriate valuation and, as I said, those people who thought the valuation could be more generously proportioned wouldn't have lasted the Pensions Regulator. Because the Pensions Regulator subsequently wrote - and the letter was leaked to the Financial Times about three weeks after we saw it - to say that the assumptions were already at the more unacceptable end of the range. So had there been any further loosening of those assumptions, that wouldn’t have been acceptable to the Pensions Regulator. So in some respects it's not really relevant.

And I know that another VC did argue in a blog that he thought that a) the solution would be solved by revaluation of the pension scheme and b) would be solved if the government came and sorted the problem out. Neither of them are feasible options. 


Question 8:

What does the Pension Regulator think about the proposed changes, and are they good enough? 

Answer 8:

Rebecca Dodd, independent pensions expert at Mercer:

The Regulator's job is to make sure that the USS trustees are doing their job to protect the benefits of members and to make sure that the scheme is being run properly. So once it receives the submissions of the valuations, the Regulator’s job is to make sure that the contribution levels proposed are the right amount to make sure that those benefits that are already promised and benefits building up in the future are being properly funded. So the Regulator isn't exactly looking at and analysing the design. The Regulator's job is to make sure that under a particular design of the scheme that it is being funded properly.


Question 9:

How does this Defined Contribution scheme compare with others in the private sector?

Answer 9:

Rebecca Dodd, independent pensions expert at Mercer:

In the private sector we know that there's been a wholescale change towards Defined Contribution and the proposed benefit basis under USS has contribution levels from employers of about double the median average across the private sector.


Question 10:

Does the change give licence for USS to make more irresponsible investment decisions, especially if there is no commitment to a Defined Benefit?

Answer 10: 

Adam Tickell, Vice-Chancellor:

I don't think so. We haven't gone into the detail of the way the pension fund is being managed. I think there was an argument that over ten years ago there was some investments that USS had made that probably were unwise - investments in shopping centres, for example. Since then, they've taken a more cautious approach to investment but had returns that are more favourable than in most private-sector schemes.

The challenge is that we live longer and we are in a period of really, really unusual circumstances occasioned by the global financial crisis and this is in some respects a victim. And we are all a victim of the global financial crisis. Quantitative easing in particular has really changed the way financial markets work. 

USS has different actuarial tables - i.e. when we die - than do other pension schemes because people who work for universities live longer, which means there is more strain on the pension scheme at USS than there is in a typical pension scheme.


Question 11:

There's been a lot of calls by students for the wages that would have otherwise been paid to the strikers to be diverted into a hardship fund. Is that something the University will commit to?

Answer 11:

Adam Tickell, Vice-Chancellor:

There are calls from students to do all sorts of things with that money. It's not cheap for us to have a strike. For example, we are putting additional money in student mental-health support. There are all sorts of additional costs we bear. And there are calls from students to give them refunds against their lectures. We are considering everything, but anything we do just exacerbates the scale of financial challenges we have as an institution. So we're not currently planning that, but we're keeping all options open. 


Question 12:

If the UCU proposal was taken up, would staff have to pay more?

Answer 12:

Adam Tickell, Vice-Chancellor:

Yes, although the UCU proposal is now no longer a proposal in the formal sense. But, had the UCU proposal been the one the Joint Negotiating Committee had voted for, then just under 3% of your salary would have been taken in additional contribution.


Question 13:

How much would it cost the University to meet the 25% contribution that it would need to make to keep the benefits at the same rate?

Answer 13:

Allan Spencer, Director of Finance:

It depends on the starting point.  If nothing was done at all, that's in the region of £8-£10m. The alternative proposal put by UCU would have been £5.5m.


Question 14:

It feels as though members are being asked to accept a series of unpalatable changes over six years, which, if they'd come as a single package, probably wouldn't have been acceptable. What has been the fundamental change since the 2014 valuation, which means that this drastic change is necessary, whereas in 2014 it didn't seem to be that way?

Answer 14:

Adam Tickell, Vice-Chancellor:

I wasn't involved at all at the time. I was just in the margins of conversations. When those changes were brought in there were certainly some people who felt that they were not going to last in the long term and that part of the problem had been pushed away.

Rebecca Dodd, independent pensions expert at Mercer:

It's quite simple really. It’s to do with future expectations of market conditions - what is expected in the future for investment returns, what is expected in the future for inflation. As it happens, future expectations of rises in life expectancy have probably gone down since the last valuation. Life expectancy is still increasing, but perhaps at a slower level than in 2014, so it's basically those changes in market conditions and future expectations of what those conditions are.


Question 15:

Am I right in thinking that under the current situation the employer pays 18% but the proposal is that it will then pay 13.5% in the future?

Answer 15:

Adam Tickell, Vice-Chancellor:

No, the employer contributions will continue to be 18% but that 13.25% will go towards benefits and the balance will go towards paying off the deficit. 


Question 16:

Clearly as everyone recognises, this is a national dispute. It's not a local one. The people who are going to go on strike are doing so because they've been called by their national union to go on strike. So clearly this isn't a negotiating meeting and as an information session it's perhaps useful but I would suggest that the only way forward really for a university in this situation is to urge the JNC (Joint Negotiating Committee) to go back to the table - and I wonder if you will do that?

Answer 16:

Adam Tickell, Vice-Chancellor:

I can’t. I think the negotiations have been very lengthy. UCU didn't engage and the gap is so high that we're not in a position that that will be fruitful.


Question 17:

What support or comfort will be provided to those who will be not striking and will be crossing the picket line i.e. should the picket not comply with the picketing code?

Answer 17:

Adam Tickell, Vice-Chancellor:

We are working on plans to ensure that staff, whether they're striking or not striking, are appropriately supported. The picketing laws are quite clear in that you're only supposed to have six people on a picket and you can't have secondary picketing. The risk is that students will not understand or not wish to take part in that. I'm certain that members of UCU will not break that code because they've never done so in the past and I don't see why that would change in the future.

Steven Shute, Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Planning and Resources):

We'll have staff who are delivering their classes as normal. The expectation is that the campus will be open, that school buildings will be open, that school offices will operate as normal. We're doing everything we can to ensure that the classes that our staff who are not taking industrial action are scheduled to deliver during strike days take place exactly as planned - and indeed all the other activity that’s wrapped around the student experience, which isn't related directly to scheduled classes. So our school offices will be there, our school heads will be there.

At this stage in time it's obviously impossible to predict exactly what proportion of our academic staff and our other professional services staff will be taking industrial action. Staff aren't required to inform us until the day of the industrial action whether they are taking industrial action or not.

There may be issues around industrial action that affect the mental health of our staff and indeed our students and we're putting in place measures to support them during this difficult period.

Michelle Gordon, Director of Communications and External Affairs:

Please email if you have some specific ideas or something you would like to convey about the support you think is needed. We would like to hear from you because we are having operational meeting groups on a regular basis and it is something that we want to take into account to make sure we can prepare for that.


Question 18:

You say UCU have met with the JNC over 35 times. How many proposals have been put forward on how the deficit and this situation can be tackled by the union in those 35+ meetings?

Answer 18:

Adam Tickell, Vice-Chancellor:

Well, the only one that came was in the final December meeting, which was the increase of employer contributions to just under 24% and member contributions up by just under 3% (to 10.9%). If we were to increase our contributions significantly, the cost for the institution would be felt very hard very quickly. And in the end it would affect us through job losses, and that's not something that I think is in the interests of the University.


Question 19:

I am the Unison branch secretary and, while we support our colleagues in UCU, what I can't support is them putting extra work on to the professional support services. What's the University's view on this?

Answer 19:

Adam Tickell, Vice-Chancellor:

There are laws about what we can and can't do during strike action. We cannot bring in agency workers to cover the work that people do. We need to make sure that we can provide students with as good an education or overall experience as we possibly can. If there are pressures on other members of staff, we need to make sure we take off work from elsewhere, because I don't think it's reasonable to ask your members or indeed other members to do more - but probably different.

This is genuinely a place that none of us would like to be and it has always been about making choices, which are unpalatable in any direction. The Joint Negotiating Committee did reach a resolution and it was obviously a resolution that was only reached by the casting vote, but the consultation now is on the proposal from UUK. I don't know how this is going to play out. I really hope that it can play out within Sussex in a way that does as little damage as possible, both to our students but really importantly to the relationships that we have between members of staff at the University.