Vice Chancellor receives open letter as strikes enter third week

Pressure mounts on Vice Chancellor Koen Lamberts as the UCU strike escalates [Credit: Josiah Mortimer]

An open letter has been sent to University of York Vice Chancellor Koen Lamberts, asking him to personally issue a public statement in support of maintaining a defined benefit pension system. Lamberts is the national Chair of the Employers Pension Forum for Higher Education (EPF), which arguably puts greater precedence and focus upon both Lamberts and York as the strikes continue.

The letter outlines how the undersigned support defined benefit (DB) pension schemes, stating: “The UUK proposal to reduce DB pensions to £0 represents an alarming devaluation of our work. Independent actuarial analysis and extensive research have also cast doubt on both the idea that the pension fund is at risk, and that the UUK proposal would secure it.” The dispute at the heart of the strike revolves around the issue of pension re-forms from a system of defined benefit to defined contribution, which could lead to a loss of £10 000 per annum for each lecturer from their pensions.

The undersigned, which at the time of writing totalled some 633 (with an aim of 1000), also noted that that they were “heartened” that Universities UK (UUK) and the University and College Union (UCU) have resumed talks as the strikes continue. The letter further notes that the undersigned think that a defined benefit pension scheme is vital to the University’s “ability to recruit and retain the most talented educators and staff.” They go on to say that the elimination of defined benefit schemes “would endanger the world-class teaching and research we provide, not only in York, but across the United Kingdom.”

The letter continues with a personal appeal to Lamberts in his roles not only as Vice Chancellor but also as the Chair of the EPF, stating that “you [Lamberts] have an opportunity to demonstrate your commitment to the people, labour, and student learning that make our university what it is.” Anthony Forster, Vice Chancellor of the University of Essex and Stuart Corbridge, Vice Chancellor of Durham University, have made statements in support of their staff and maintaining a de-fined benefit pension scheme, with the letter concluding that: “Other Vice-Chancellors have issued public statements in support of maintain-ing a defined benefit pension. We call on you to do the same.”

Lamberts responded to the open letter in an email to all staff, however he was clear in pointing out that this was in his capacity as Vice Chancellor, and not chair of EPF. In his response, Lamberts says that while he accepts that defined benefit schemes are far more attractive than defined contribution ones and that “The University wants to reward its staff in ways that are valued”, the pension scheme is in “significant deficit”. Lamberts also acknowledges that while different valuation models may produce different outcomes and the size of the deficit is disputed, the “Trustee ultimately has the responsibility to en-sure that the scheme is sustainably funded.” Lamberts concludes that a sustainable solution must be found, unlike the changes which were made in 2011 and 2014, that have ultimately proven unsustainable.

The strikes now go into the seventh day after beginning in Week 7, and are planned to run until the end of term. The official picket lines on Hes West are Heslington Hall, the junction of Heslington Lane and Newton Way near James College, the entrance to Walmgate Stray by Natural Sciences, and the pedestrian and bike entrance at the ‘top’ of campus just off Heslington Road. The picket on Hes East is at Heslington East interchange near the Goodricke and Langwith, with the final picket being outside King’s Manor. The picket line times run from 8 to 10am, while Hes Hall runs from 10am.

The official advice from the University is for students to continue to turn up to their scheduled contact hours unless they have been specifically told one has been can-celled, and to inform your department if a member of staff has not turned up after 15 minutes. A blog on the YUSU website notes that students wishing to support the strikes can choose not to cross the picket line or to join the pickets, although they won’t be recognised officially.

One student told Nouse that they “support the lecturers striking and call on the University to reach a solution as soon as possible in order to prevent any further harm to students’ degrees”, while another was markedly less supportive, saying that “asking students for sympathy can be perceived as tone deaf, especially considering the proportion of contact hours that students are missing.”

A University spokesperson told Nouse that “The University continues to work constructively with the pension provider, USS, Universities UK (UUK) and the University and College Union (UCU), to try to find an affordable solution that addresses key concerns about inter-generational fairness, provides acceptable retirement benefit, and assures the financial sustainability of USS. In the meantime, the University continues to work hard to deliver teaching and to minimise the impact on students.” While noting that this was a national dispute, the spokesperson also said that “The University welcomes news that both sides in the dispute have agreed to mediation by the conciliation service Acas.”

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