The Council of QMUL held a meeting yesterday. The following is a letter sent by QMUCU to members of Council ahead of the meeting.

Dear Members of Council,

I hope this letter finds you well. I am writing to you in advance of your meeting this afternoon, when I expect the topic of the current industrial action will again arise during your discussions. Your meeting will be an important opportunity for you to ask questions about the impact of the dispute on the institution and to hold the management of the university to account.

Further to my previous letter, I am writing to advise you that the senior management response to the current industrial action is exposing the institution to significant financial costs and also to reputational, legal, and regulatory risks. These risks are entirely avoidable and could be easily addressed. In fact, resolving these issues would be to the long-term benefit of the university, its staff, and students. I lay out these concerns below.

USS pensions scheme – updated funding position

You may know that the USS pension scheme recently released an update on its funding position as of 28th February 2022. This paper confirms that, even using the excessively prudent methodology adopted by USS for the 2020 valuation, the notional scheme deficit has effectively disappeared, shrinking the required deficit recovery contributions from 6.2% to 0% of salary.

This reflects the facts that (a) scheme assets have significantly increased in value since the valuation date, which was taken during an anomalous stock market dip in March 2020, and (b) the cost of future service has remained broadly stable. UCU’s long-standing position has been that a new valuation is needed to take account of these facts and help resolve the current dispute.

Because Universities UK has consistently refused to endorse the call for a fresh valuation, instead preferring to force through major cuts to benefits, member institutions, including Queen Mary, are now in a highly unusual position. They will be needlessly paying hundreds of millions of pounds every year into the scheme, even after the pension fund itself has confirmed this is no longer necessary. For its part, Queen Mary will be unnecessarily paying over £9 million every year into the scheme.

Instead of doing this, it would be perfectly possible to implement a new valuation of the scheme which, as even USS now concedes, could allow for improved benefits or reduced contributions. If this valuation were held according to the moderately prudent assumptions which both UUK and UCU have previously called for, it could even be possible to reduce contributions while preserving or even enhancing current benefits.

At your meeting today, I would encourage you to ask senior management, including the Principal (who sits on the Board of UUK), why they are choosing to spend such significant sums of money unnecessarily rather than seeking an agreement with UCU.

Deductions for action short of a strike

As I wrote to you previously, the university’s decision to threaten 100% indefinite pay deductions for staff who participate in various forms of action short of a strike (ASOS), is causing significant harm to the institution. Staff morale has never been poorer. Trust in senior management has never been lower. The external reputation of the institution is also suffering badly.

Several public lectures and events at the university have recently been cancelled in protest. Notable alumni, including the novelist Sarah Waters, have publicly expressed their disappointment at the policy. Earlier this month, Queen Mary was even singled out in a parliamentary hearing by the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee over the issue. Responding to this question, the Department for Education confirmed it was also monitoring the situation closely.

The large number of External Examiner resignations prompted by the policy also poses a significant ongoing challenge to the institution. External Examiners play a crucial role in quality assurance and also in some cases accreditation. In response, the university is now considering a suspension of regulations, which would devalue the reputation of a Queen Mary degree and also risk attracting regulatory intervention from the OfS and QAA.

The deductions policy is also legally risky. The body of case law emphatically demonstrates that an employer is required to pay a worker for any work that has been carried out. During the past few weeks, while ASOS has been ongoing, staff have continued to work for the institution and have continued to receive managerial instructions. Contrary to its assertions, the university is clearly accepting partial performance of duties. As such, any refusal to pay staff during this period would represent an unlawful deduction of wages, and could give rise to claims in the county court. Legal cases could also be launched on the basis of breaches of Article 11 rights, detriment for trade union activities, and the blacklisting regulations. The university has needlessly put itself into a precarious legal position, as has been pointed out in a letter from our solicitor at Leigh Day, which was copied to the Chair and Secretary of Council.

You may also be aware that, in response to the deductions policy, Queen Mary UCU successfully ran a further industrial action ballot. This ballot secured the highest ever turnout from an increased membership, with an overwhelming majority in favour of further industrial action over this issue. I have been a part of Queen Mary UCU since 2016, and I have never seen members more angry or more motivated to defend themselves. The branch now has a mandate to call further strike action and action short of a strike until the university withdraws its policy. This mandate lasts for six months, and could lead to further disruption to education, the examination period, graduation, confirmation and clearing, and even Welcome Week. Queen Mary is the only university in the country with a UCU branch in this position. This is again another unnecessary consequence of the deductions policy. Were the policy to be withdrawn, the local dispute would end immediately.

In your meeting today, I would encourage you to ask senior management why the university has gone so far out on a limb and why they have still not retracted the policy when it would cost nothing to do so.

The impact of industrial action

I expect that when senior management representatives describe the current situation to you, they will claim something quite different. You will be told that the impact of the industrial action has been marginal. Furthermore, you will be told that no deductions for ASOS have needed to be made in the end because all the classes disrupted by the strike have been, or are scheduled to be, “made up”. You will even be told that, in light of all this, the deductions policy has in fact “worked”.

I would again encourage you to be sceptical of such claims. The university has published figures which state that only 12 members of staff took industrial action over the full 10 days of the recent strike. I would suggest asking how such figures can possibly be accurate when during the same period hundreds of staff voted in an industrial action ballot to take more strike action. The university has also claimed that roughly half of the staff taking strike action are in Humanities and Social Sciences, as if to minimise its impact. Yet approximately half of our students study in this Faculty, it generates significant financial surpluses, and, together, HSS is the highest source of QMUL reputational position in THE World University Rankings..

As to the claim that all education disrupted by the strike has been “made up”, this is an even more surprising statement. In making claims like this, the university appears to be relying on assurances received from Heads of School and Institutes. While I am sure that these assurances have been given and received in good faith, I have to raise serious doubts about the quality of the information on which they are based. This is because, for my part, I am not aware of any steps which have been taken, in any of the three Faculties, to reschedule or “make up” the lost classes. Instead, action short of a strike continues.

To explain this apparent discrepancy, it is necessary to reflect again on the consequences of the ASOS deductions policy. In previous years, staff have engaged in constructive and open dialogue with their managers about how to ensure that students are not unduly or unfairly impacted by industrial action. By contrast, in the present circumstances, faced with a total and indefinite loss of their pay, staff are instead working in a climate of fear. They worry that any discussion about mitigation they engage in will be scrutinised for evidence that they are participating or intending to participate in action short of a strike, with all the consequences that entails in university policy. UCU has also advised them that they are under no legal obligation to disclose their intentions in this respect. Meanwhile, sympathetic line managers have been reluctant to push such conversations too far, mindful of the potential effects on staff morale and working relationships.

All this is decreasing the quality of information available to management about the impact and mitigation of strike action. It is leading senior managers to make overconfident and potentially inaccurate statements about whether education is indeed being “made up”. If these statements do not reflect actual student experience, this again puts the university at regulatory risk if the OfS or OIA were to scrutinise the situation.

The costs of continuing with current university policy appear to me to be high. In comparison, there would be significant benefits in de-escalating and seeking a negotiated pathway out of this situation. In the face of this, the main explanation for why a resolution has not been found seems to be the ongoing reluctance of senior management to pursue a conciliatory approach with the campus trade unions. This reluctance now appears to take precedence over addressing significant risks to the institution. I think it is worth asking why.

I wish you a productive meeting.

Yours sincerely,

James Eastwood
Branch Chair, Queen Mary UCU