Skip to content Accessibility statement

4 November 2014

Dear Colleagues

Thank you for your open letter of 3 November 2014 regarding the national negotiations over the USS, the industrial action called by the UCU, and the University’s response to this action.

First, we would like to reiterate some of the key points in the Vice Chancellor’s memorandum of 3 November.  We fully understand that members of staff are very concerned about the future of their pension provision, and we regret that benefit changes seem inevitable. We are keen to protect the interests of our staff, and want to work with the UCU representatives and their national negotiators to find a way forward.  To this end, we will continue to put pressure on the national negotiators to consider all possible options.

At the same time, we would like to put on record our views about the approach taken by the UCU so far to this very important issue. We have three particular concerns:

  1. It seems to us inappropriate that the UCU called a ballot for industrial action before the national negotiations had even begun.  Industrial action is always a legitimate tactic in disputes where the normal process of negotiation breaks down; but to use industrial action as a means of putting pressure on the employers before the start of those negotiations is premature.  
  2. We are concerned that the UCU may not have made the national position sufficiently clear to its members.  Some members appear to believe that the formal negotiations are already well advanced and that the union has resorted to industrial action because of an impasse.  In fact, the negotiations have only just begun, and no decision is expected before 15 January 2015 at the earliest.  
  3. The form of action chosen by the UCU is designed to have a negative impact on students’ learning.  The students themselves are well aware of this – the YUSU President has already put out a statement sympathising with the desire of staff to retain attractive pensions, but pointing out the detrimental impact the proposed action will have on students.  The University is a community of learners; we are very concerned that the UCU’s proposed action will have a negative effect on student members of our community.  We were disappointed to see no reference at all to the students in your letter.  

To address the specific issues raised in your letter:

1. York’s response to the USS and UUK consultations

We offered views during the consultation exercise and have subsequently corresponded with UUK.  We expressed the view that action needed to be taken to address the deficit, and made clear that we were willing to accept a 2% increase in employers’ contributions. However, we took the view that we needed further information before we could comment on specific proposals.  This remains our view – we have not endorsed any specific set of proposals and will not do so until the full implications of any proposals are clear.

At this early stage in the national negotiations, the UCU itself has yet to produce its own proposals.  We expect that these will emerge in the next few days.  We look forward to seeing the proposals and to considering their implications both for the University as a whole and for individual members of staff. 

2. Internal consultations on USS

The future of the USS was discussed at the local Joint Negotiating and Consultative Committee meeting on 28 October 2014.  In the course of the meeting, we agreed that the challenges facing the scheme need to be addressed and that the best way to do this is through national negotiation.

It is untrue and unfair to claim that the “senior management rushed to align itself with one side of the argument” in a way that has been “deeply destructive of staff morale and trust”.  On the contrary, we have made very clear that we would like all options to be considered at the national negotiating table.

As indicated in the Vice Chancellor’s memorandum of 3 November, we are very happy to engage in wider local consultation, and to feed emerging views back to the national negotiators.  We would like to suggest that this exercise be conducted jointly by the University and the UCU.

3. Use of a ‘do-not-reply’ email

We take the point that the use of this email address may give the impression that the sender does not wish to receive a response.  Our understanding is that this form of communication is used for technical reasons.  Members of staff are of course always welcome to make contact with senior members of staff, using the email addresses on the website.

4. The justificatory basis for the proposed USS reforms

A number of professors of mathematics and statistics have made the case that the proposed reform of USS is based on false assumptions.  It is certainly the case that different assumptions give rise to different conclusions about the size of the USS deficit.  However, while assessments about the size of the deficit may differ, it would be wrong to pretend that the problem does not exist.  The USS Board of Trustees will have to satisfy the Pensions Regulator with regard to the proposed recovery plan.  Ultimately, it will be the Regulator’s assumptions that really matter – if he thinks the USS assumptions are too optimistic, he will reject the recovery plan they propose.  If this happens, we face having to accept a solution which none of us are likely to find attractive or even affordable.

5. The USS FAQ document

The open letter argues that the USS FAQ document offered a partial and misleading view of accrued pension rights.  Technically, we think the USS document was accurate, but we agree that this statement could have been clearer (the point being that in future, accrued rights may be uprated in line with the Consumer Price Index rather than in accordance with final salary).

This raises the question about whether the University should pass on to members of staff documentation produced by their own pension scheme.   Our view is that such documentation is of use to members of staff, but that the University should not try to provide a commentary or gloss on it.  We will of course make clear the provenance of any documentation we pass on and suggest that staff should form their own views on the value of the information it contains.

6. Withholding of 100% of pay for the proposed boycott of assessment and examinations

In our view, the proposed boycott of assessment and examinations will have a serious impact on students.  It is not just the January common assessment period which may be jeopardised – over the next two months, more than 130 PhD vivas are scheduled.  The UCU action is designed to target them as well as summative assessments for taught programmes.  We have sent a clear message to staff that assessment and feedback are an essential part of our students’ learning, and that it is not acceptable for staff to refuse to undertake them.

Having said that, the UCU has asked the University to reconsider its decision to withhold 100% of pay from those taking part in industrial action.  We are willing to ask the Senior Management Group to give this matter further consideration and will revert to local UCU reps on this point as soon as possible.


In general, we are very concerned to ensure that the spirit of collegiality and mutual trust at York is reinforced.  We do not believe that this is well served by industrial action at this early stage of negotiations, and urge staff not to participate in it.  Even so, we recognise that there is more we can do to improve good relations and enhance communications on campus.  We have a specific suggestion – namely, that local UCU representatives and University senior managers work together on a joint communique to be sent to all the negotiators involved in the national Joint Negotiating Committee.  This would make clear that we at York recognise the need for reform, but would like the JNC to consider all affordable options which will safeguard the future of the scheme and ensure that our staff have access to attractive pensions in their retirement.

We hope that UCU will agree to engage constructively with us in this way and will be happy to meet at any time to begin the dialogue.

Yours sincerely

Koen Lamberts, Vice Chancellor
David Duncan, Registrar & Secretary
Pat Lofthouse, Director of Human Resources