An Open Letter to the governing Council of Queen Mary University of London
According to the minutes, at the Council meeting on 19 October 2017, item number 2017.014 – USS pensions – was presented with a report from Queen Mary Senior Executive and received, noted, but did not discuss the report. Effectively, Council rubber-stamped the senior executive (QMSE) and Universities UK position without any scrutiny or debate. As a result, QMUL, along with other USS member institutions, has been plunged into the largest industrial dispute in the history of British higher education. This was entirely predictable since previous cuts to pensions had also provoked industrial action, and UUK’s proposed cuts are extraordinarily deep, with USS members standing to lose 40-75 percent of their pensions. QMUL is now facing a month of escalating strike action and staff working to contract, which is having an enormously disruptive impact on QMUL’s operations and on students’ education.
That QMUL’s Council did not seriously scrutinise and debate QMSE’s position on USS, but rather merely “received and noted” it, appears to be a serious failure of governance at this university. Council’s role is to challenge appointed senior managers, scrutinise their decisions, and hold them to account on behalf of QMUL’s wider stakeholders, including staff, students and the local community. On this supremely important issue, Council had a crucial responsibility to challenge the QMSE/UUK position. It might have commissioned independent actuarial guidance on USS, to scrutinise the extraordinarily pessimistic, even fantastical, assumptions of UUK. It might have asked whether UUK was accurately representing the views of employers or whether, as has now been revealed, they have exaggerated the demand for radical “de-risking” by counting Oxford and Cambridge ten times each. Council might have demanded to know the impact of such drastic cuts in pensions on staff recruitment and retention. It might have asked for estimates of the likelihood of industrial action and the impact on students’ education, and the risk created for QMUL from students demanding partial refunds of their fees, as over 1,800 have now demanded.
Council’s failure to ask any of these questions creates the clear impression that it is merely a convenient rubber stamp for QMSE’s predetermined decisions. This is markedly out of step with the conduct of other university Councils. For example, the Council of Essex University decided a position against the USS cuts, communicated through its vice-chancellor, including in a recent article in Times Higher Education. To salvage its own reputation, and restore appropriate norms of governance at QMUL, this Council must now step up and perform its scrutiny duties.
Council’s function is to protect the institution’s wellbeing, but its present inaction is permitting a total breakdown in the relationship between QMUL and its employees. QMUL’s staff are not only a key stakeholder group which Council is meant to represent; they are the lifeblood of this institution. Without academic and academic related staff, QMUL’s core functions – teaching and research – cannot occur. Historically, academic staff have always been underpaid relative to comparable professions, by approximately 30-50 percent. The quid pro quo has always been a secure and dignified retirement. Two pensions cuts – presented to staff as sustainable solutions to problems with USS – have already eroded staff confidence in the latter, while real-terms pay has fallen by around 20 percent since 2009. 75 percent of staff at QMUL are now on precarious contracts – the third highest of any multi-faculty university in the country. This latest pension cut will destroy already-low morale and may well lead to a mass exodus from the pre-92 sector, including QMUL.
None of this is inevitable. It is the result of QMSE’s disastrous policy of suppressing staff costs as a proportion of overall costs, while radically expanding student numbers. QMUL’s own financial reports show the result of this. While real-terms pay has collapsed and pensions have been cut, QMUL’s income has risen by 48 percent since 2009, with fee income rising almost 280 percent. Accordingly, QMUL’s spending on staff per student fell by 7.5% in the last academic year alone. The decision to worsen the treatment of QMUL’s staff is not a result of poverty. QMUL is making substantial surpluses: in 2016/17, QMUL generated more than £36m in cash from operations and a £50m surplus is being targeted for 2017/18. QMUL’s stock of cash and other liquid assets has also risen sharply from £8m to £28m from 2004/5 to 2016/17. QMUL is not poor; rather, QMSE is choosing to spend these surpluses not on pay, pensions, scholarships or fee reductions, but on (a) the bloated salaries of themselves and an ever-expanding stratum of overpaid and unnecessary middle managers, and (b) on speculative buildings projects. Council ought to be asking whether this is a sensible priority, given that it has plunged workplace relations into deep crisis, profoundly disrupting the core functions of this institution.
Principal and President and the senior management team, whose performance it is your duty to scrutinise, is offering nothing but excuses when the present crisis calls for bold leadership. QMSE seeks to hide behind UUK, claiming that the dispute is a national one over which QMUL has no control. But UUK is merely a representative body for employers like QMUL. If QMUL has no influence over UUK’s positions, Council ought to ask why QMUL is a member. Council also ought to be asking QMSE why they do not join other university leaders – like the vice-chancellors of Warwick, Newcastle, Essex, Dundee, Lancaster and others – in denouncing the proposed pensions cuts, supporting QMUL’s staff, and calling for immediate UUK-UCU talks to resolve the dispute.
QMUL is an educational charity, not a profit-making enterprise; to restore good governance at this institution, Council must urgently start to engage QMUL’s stakeholders, including staff and students, and hold QMSE to account for the crisis it has helped to create. As an immediate first step we request a response to the following queries:
1. Do you think it was appropriate that no debate took place about the USS?
2. Will you now have such a debate, by calling an emergency session of Council if necessary, and asking the questions raised in this letter?
3. Were you made aware of the Principal’s open meetings with staff and did you attend them, to gauge the attitudes of this important stakeholder group? If not, will you receive a delegation of staff to communicate their views?
4. Will you direct QMSE to instruct UUK to resume talks with UCU to achieve a fair resolution to the current crisis?
These are serious issues. Our members need replies.
QMUCU Branch Committee
Update: Reply from chair of council.