Open Letter response to VC

Prof R Van de Noort

Vice Chancellor

University of Reading

Whiteknights House

Reading RG6 6UR

                                                                                                            30th March 2022

                                                                                                            London

Dear Robert,

As a trade unionist (member of UCU’s National Executive Committee as well as the Reading UCU branch), I am writing this open letter to you, to draw your attention to grave concerns about your letter to staff on the 11th of March 2022 (available via the UoR staff portal).

While there are many worrying elements in the timing, tone and substance of a one-sided letter presented without scope for debate or reply, I would like to specifically point you to your statement that

It was “no” votes that put the most recent ballot over the legally required 50% threshold for it to be valid. I have never previously suggested that UCU members should not vote if they intended to vote “no”. Given the current circumstances, however, colleagues may now consider not voting to be their most effective course of action if they disagree with the prospect of more industrial action.

Your statement appears to encourage our members to essentially sabotage the UCU ballot, by withholding their vote, thus seriously distorting the results using the anti-trade union turnout threshold to achieve your preferred position. It seems to me to be an undue attempt to interfere with legitimate trade union activity. Trade unions are essential to the fabric of a functioning and healthy democracy. At a time when democracy is in peril all over the world, universities need to foster & strengthen democracy, not undermine it.

Given your position of power and influence in the university, your leadership role, and your singular access to the primary means of communication with all staff through the staff portal, I find this a deeply worrying and unwelcome tactic. If you wish to participate in democratic debate within UCU, please do so by standing for elected positions, and being accountable to our members rather than by seeking to unduly influence UCU ballots from the side-lines.

Further, statements such as “While the overall impact of recent strikes on the University as a whole has been limited, for some students it genuinely interferes with their studies and is a cause of real anxiety”, weaponise student mental health. What makes it worse, is that your comments come after a pandemic when all staff have gone the extra mile to support our students on a range of issues including mental health. Staff working conditions are student learning conditions. I am therefore also aggrieved that you are undermining staff participation in a recognised trade union’s ballot and democratic processes under the guise of caring for our students’ well-being.

More generally, slashing guaranteed pensions by circa 35-40%, without justification and without giving due consideration to alternatives presented by UCU (that can provide a long-term sustainable solution for the Scheme), is an act of pensions vandalism. These USS cuts come at a time when many of our members are experiencing a very harsh cost-of-living crisis. Pensions are deferred pay and they take on particular importance during such crises because, for many, savings in other forms, are virtually non-existent. The USS DB provision gives many USS members an important means of food and energy security in old age.

It is also important to note that USS pension cuts also come at a time when the Scheme has grown from circa £66.5bn to circa £92bn during the pandemic. USS’ recent financial monitoring statements make obvious that the Scheme is healthy and cash-flow positive for the foreseeable future with contributions and investment returns far exceeding benefits. The current cuts are being pushed through on the back of a flawed out-of-cycle valuation conducted on 31st March 2020, in the depths of the pandemic and in the immediate aftermath of Brexit. The valuation is not representative of the health or performance of the Scheme. There can be no reasonable justification for the cuts, on the basis of such a skewed valuation.

Your message to staff includes comments justifying such a deep cut to our pension benefits. This is jarring to our members because inequality within our university is visibly stark and increasing.  As an example, the gender pay gap at the University of Reading has increased in 2021 to circa 22.1% (with 25.4% median from newly released 2021 data) not to mention other inequalities. On account of casualisation and equalities barriers, as well as a decade of marked by sub-inflation pay rises, many of our members have a relatively small pension pot. This is in stark contrast to senior management remuneration and other expenditure priorities. You have yourself benefitted from pensions contributions of £42,000 in 2020-21 alone (see pg 65 UoR annual report 2020-21).

Rather than helping ameliorate inequalities by contributing responsibly to finding a mediated solution to the USS dispute, or considering UCU’s proposal seriously, your message is seeking to undermine democratic debate within the union (who seek to prevent cuts and protect staff). I request that you remedy this by apologising publicly for a misuse of the position of power, leadership and trust that you occupy at our university. I also urge you to reflect on your conduct, so that such letters are not issued again.

In the interests of balance and fairness, I request that this note be published alongside your original communication to all staff and that staff be explicitly alerted to these grave concerns in full. I will also be sharing this letter with those I represent.

Yours truly

Deepa

Dr Deepa Govindarajan Driver