You can read the official statement from the Social History Society on the USS pensions dispute here. In this post, SHS committee member Jonathan Saha explains why so many members are going on strike, and why it matters for historians in particular.
We are now five days into a strike called by the University and College Union (UCU), with another nine days of walkouts scheduled over the next two weeks. The strike has been called to defend the University Superannuation Scheme (USS), the pension scheme that staff in most pre-1992 UK universities are part of. The proposed changes to the scheme will see members lose their defined benefit scheme, whereby they will receive a fixed income in retirement, and have it replaced with a defined contribution scheme, in which members will be able to take either an annuity or drawdown on a sum from the pension pot the size of which will depend on the scheme’s success in investments. Universities UK (UUK), who represent the employers, have attempted to justify these changes based on a pessimistic valuation of the scheme’s finances that project a substantial deficit in the future. As UCU have pointed out, this valuation is based on highly dubious assumptions. Slight modifications in these assumptions see this deficit reduced significantly. In effect, these changes shift the risk of the pension scheme—one of the largest private pension schemes in the country—from the employers onto members. UCU have calculated that the average lecturer is likely to lose around £10,000 a year in retirement as a result of the changes. Due to the strength of the strike action taken across the country over the last week, UUK have agreed to re-open discussions with UCU through the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) and seventeen Vice Chancellors have made public calls for a return to negotiations.
While the proposed changes will damage the pensions of all staff at the affected universities, there have been some changes in History departments that are worth considering in the light of the current dispute. As has been case in other disciplines, there has been a proliferation of fixed-term and fractional contracts. Most early career historians working in the UK today have taken several shorter contracts as teaching fellows and postdoctoral researchers before they land a permanent role. Their opportunities to pay into the pension scheme has, as a result, often been disrupted. In addition, the demographics of the discipline have changed and many departments have undergone transformations from being “male and pale” to having a better gender balance and, in some cases, greater ethnic diversity. As recent members of USS, these are the colleagues who will be most affected by the proposed changes to the pension. It is worrying that as the discipline in higher education institutions is beginning to open up, the futures of those entering History departments are under threat. As I see it, at stake in this dispute is how staff are valued, and if we value the research, teaching and collegiality of fellow Historians, then we must support UCU in this dispute.