This article is more than 5 years old

USSBriefs: from a pensions protest to a platform for staff and students

Felicity Callard explains how last year's USS strike led to the establishment - a year ago - of a new platform for staff and students to share perspectives and analysis.
This article is more than 5 years old

Felicity Callard is Professor of Social Research in the Department of Psychosocial Studies at Birkbeck, University of London, and a member of the USSBriefs collective

In February and March last year, university Twitter in the United Kingdom was on fire. Thousands of tweets and threads were analysing the multiple actors involved in the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) pensions dispute.

Gail Davies was preoccupied with the complex role consultancies were playing in both valuing pensions and selling change. Michael Otsuka and @etymologic were examining the complicated role Oxbridge colleges had played in the Universities UK (UUK) September 2017 consultation. I was tracking back to 2014 to unearth reforms that have caused such a detriment to sector Defined Benefit pensions.

“Strike Twitter” solidarity

For a swathe of striking university staff, Twitter was a place not only for upholding the digital picket but for passion-fuelled activist research. In its intensity, collaborative ethos, and satirical impulses, university strike Twitter was very different from the messaging coming from UUK and USS. There, there was a frequent assumption that misunderstandings simply needed to be corrected for the right path to be taken. On Twitter, by contrast, a profound epistemological, as well as political contest, was taking place.

Then a new vista opened. After my partner urged me to talk about some of the findings at a strike rally, we realised what an appetite there was for written materials. The importance of this became clear when, on 28 March 2018, the UCU Higher Education Committee voted to take the UUK–UCU Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) proposal (to implement a Joint Expert Panel (JEP) to examine the USS valuation) to an e-ballot of UCU members.

Many of us were concerned that members would not have access to all the activist research and debate that had taken place on Twitter. What if those of us who had been preoccupied with analysing the recent history of UUK and USS drew together key findings and evidence to circulate beyond Twitter? Over the Easter weekend, a small group of us came together via social media and went without sleep to draft what became the first briefs, build a website and craft an aesthetic vision (the ongoing work of Leon Rocha). The pair of underpants, the USSBriefs Twitter logo, was born.

An alternative platform

USSBriefs started as a platform for academics to explain key aspects of the ongoing pensions dispute. Jo Grady discussed the dynamics of industrial action to make clear what UCU members needed to do to win the dispute. Claire Marris explained how the proposed pensions cuts would not be spread equally. Dennis Leech asked whether there really was a USS deficit. USSBriefs was aiming, as Nick Hardy argued, to rebalance “asymmetries of information”: key actors knew at that point much more about the pension scheme than its members, and much of that knowledge was hard to access.

Those of us writing for USSBriefs turned our research expertise from multiple disciplines to what was, for most of us, a new object of study. Academics from the interpretive social sciences and the humanities were just as involved as mathematicians and economists. By January 2019, the Financial Times had started to ask USSBriefs for comment on USS.

Today, the need to reform how the USS Scheme is valued and governed remains urgent. After the JEP panel members were announced last May, we considered how USSBriefs could amplify the panel’s deliberative work. We established the Open USS Pension Panel (OpenUPP) to run in public alongside it. OpenUPP continues to publish all submissions to the JEP which we can find (when authors are willing).

Briefs in the OpenUPP series have taken to task USS’s infamous Test 1 (see Sam Marsh’s, and Andrew Chitty and Tim Wilson’s, briefs), demonstrated the serious issues with current uses of the discount rate to justify a pension scheme deficit (see Tim Wilkinson’s brief), and re-opened the question of employer underpayments to USS (see Deepa Govindarajan Driver’s brief). The one-way channels of information about USS, from USS and UUK, have been radically disrupted, and scheme members have laid out compelling alternatives to the problematic path USS continues to follow.

Information is power

Even so, the profound asymmetries – of information and of voice – have not disappeared. Indeed, such asymmetries define the whole UK higher education policy environment. Discourse is dominated by those who mouth toxic platitudes about what is realistic for universities in our straitened times. That Universities UK describes itself as the “voice of universities”, after a year in which for many it sounded instead simply like the voice of some vice chancellors, has reinforced for many rank-and-file university staff just how few formal media channels there are through which to reach the ear of policymakers and others to whom higher education matters.

And some vice chancellors are noticing: Anthony Forster, VC of the University of Essex, stated after the strike that UUK should not be a representative group of VCs, but, echoing the words of the UUK five-year strategy “the representative group of universities, of which vice-chancellors represent their communities”.

There are very obviously close networks that enfold many members of university senior managements, UUK, and various kinds of corporate consultancies. We’ve examined how the power of these networks tends to be amplified by the current organisation of higher education media.

The future?

USSBriefs challenges this stranglehold of discourse and policy direction: we offer a platform for researchers – wherever they are positioned within the university – to use their analytical powers to analyse and contest what’s happening to universities, and to offer alternatives. We have published David Huyssen’s brief critiquing the evidence and operationalisation of lecture capture, and have made clear, through Gail Davies’ “Goodwill Hunting” brief, the consequences of the loss of staff goodwill in UK universities following the strike.

Through both the briefs and our Twitter presence, we are building a collective voice that profiles the arguments of staff and students rarely heard elsewhere. We hope future briefs will address such topics like staff and student surveillance, and the gendered, racialised and racist dynamics of bullying in universities.

USSBriefs turns one year old today. We’ve published 70 briefs. They have been visited 120,000 times on Medium (they are also available in pdf and on SoundCloud).

We’ve spent a total of £36. Our collective is still fuelled by hours of volunteered labour. It feels very different from the free labour that universities demand of their staff. Because there is a thirst for other voices, paths, ways of both dreaming about the future of UK university education, and of organising it. If you would like to write for us or work with us in any way, do get in touch. Tomorrow is good for us.

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