Last Friday 17 October saw UNITE’s second day of strike action. UNITE members include university technical, computing and estates staff. The union have been forced out on strike to protect their final salary pension scheme USPAS (University of Sussex Pension and Assurance Scheme). The university management (none of whom will be affected by the attack on USPAS) are still refusing to negotiate to keep USPAS open to new members and current staff are prohibited from joining unless they do so within six months of starting employment. In the future new support staff will only be allowed a Defined Contribution scheme, this means all the risk is placed with the employee and the pension value is uncertain.
The Sussex scheme administration costs are 2.5% of salary, much more than national schemes such as USS (Universities Superannuation Scheme). The University will not allow new joiners to become members of the USS final salary scheme, as they do at Essex University. Everyone accepts that pension provision will cost more in the future because of issues of longevity, but refusing to negotiate doesn’t help to reach a solution.
Sussex management have put forward a three tier system; USS final salary for those on grade seven and above (i.e. earning £26,000 or more), USPAS with substantially decreased benefits and increased cost (50% rise, phased in over 3 years) for current members and a defined contribution scheme for new staff and those who are not yet members.
At the picket line on Friday the main issues were firstly, that the suggested three tier plan in fact creates a second class staff and secondly that these plans have huge ramifications for future employees.
‘All universities, bar three, offer a final salary pension scheme to support staff. By taking these decisions Sussex looks set to be the fourth.’
At the time of writing this journalist was unable to find one student or staff member who supported university management’s proposals. Most students who were asked, were particularly vehement against the idea of ’second class staff’. Matt Watson a second year student put it especially well: “Personally I feel on a day to day level the support staff do more to help students than management, be it through setting up labs or by making sure your lecturer knows how to use the dimmer switch in EDB 121!”.
When talking to UNITE members it was clear that for them strike action was necessary not only to protect themselves but to protect future and younger members of staff. One member expressly stated that he was not out on strike for his own interests, as his years of past contributions would see him right, but that he was on the picket line to protect the younger generation who would not necessarily think to consider a pension plan in their 20s and even 30s. Although this could be a failing of our generation, how many of the 16-35 bracket reading this can really ‘hand on heart’ say that they already have, or when they graduate, immediately will ,think long and hard about their pension plan when taking a job.
One must also consider the further impact that the management’s schemes will have on current (and future) female employees. As more women remain single it is becoming less and less the norm for women to rely on their partners’ pensions come retirement. Paula Bartle, UNITE’s secretary chose to have a family, and as such her pension will be less than her male colleagues due the break in her working life. Paula, who is also divorced, is understandably concerned about her mortgage when she retires. These will not be unusual circumstances for future female employees; how much worse will it be for them with no final salary pension scheme?
All universities, bar three, offer a final salary pension scheme to support staff. By taking these decisions Sussex looks set to be the fourth. This surely begs the question ‘is this what the vice chancellor wants as his legacy?’; the destruction of support staff pensions at what is supposed to be a leftist university. A senior administrator who wished to remain anonymous stated that “this would never have happened under the old regime”.
When one combines the UNITE strike, the URNU attack and the smash EDO protest with his absence from the BBC interview as reported last week, Vice-Chancellor Michael Farthing has had a far from comfortable start to term.
I know I for one would be interested to hear his take on all these issues at an open meeting with students, I hear they used to happen under the old regime.
If anyone would like further information on UNITE’s campaign or would like to make a donation to their strike fund please visit http://www.sussex.ac.uk/Units/Amicus