Michelle Donelan’s Statement to the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee

For clarification, last week I publicly withdrew all of my concerns and without admitting liability, £15,000 was paid to settle the case and save any costs associated with a protracted legal dispute, which would have been significant, even if of course the department had won that case.

The legal expenditure was approved by my department’s accounting officer. While I always err on the side of transparency, I am now clear in this case I could have sent the letter in confidence to the UKRI in order for them to undertake the investigations privately. And I do apologise for not having done so — and for any distraction this decision has caused for this government’s positive agenda.

-Michelle Donelan

UCU recommend voting YES to pension benefit recovery proposals

In 2022 our employers forced through cuts to the USS pension scheme using a very dubious valuation conducted in 2020 at the height of the covid pandemic. These cuts would have led to a reduction of guaranteed income in retirement of up to 35%. We were told at the time that it absolutely necessary to maintain the long term viability of the the scheme and the decision could not be reversed.

Thanks to members taking action to oppose these cuts our employers have agreed to restore benefits and recover what has been lost.

Negotiators for UCU and our employers’ body Universities UK (UUK) have issued a joint statement with a plan for pension full benefit restoration back to pre-April 2022 levels by 1 April 2024. The plan should also see a cut in member contribution rates plus a flat rate payment for recovery of losses between 2022 and 2024. The trustees of the scheme have calculated that this is sustainable for at least the next two valuation cycles (6 years).

UCU consultation on RECOVERY OF LOST BENEFITS 2022-24

UCU members are now being consulted on the proposals for benefit recovery i.e. what was lost in the meantime. The consultation closes at noon on Friday 20 October. Please check your inbox for your unique online voting link. This will describe in detail what you are voting on. The higher education committee (HEC) is recommending that members vote YES (agree) to accept.

The most recent reminder containing the vote to link was sent from yoursay@ucu.org.uk on 12 October 2023 with UCU member consultation on recovery of USS benefits in the subject line.

USS Employer consultation on RESTORATION OF BENEFITS

A separate USS member consultation has been launched by USS on the improvement of benefits back to pre-April 2022 levels. This will close on 24 November 2023 and UCU are encouraging members to respond as soon as possible. It is still important that you make your views about the proposed improvements known.

If you have not already responded please check for an email from Staff Update at Heriot-Watt which contains comprehensive information about the proposed changes and a link to the Employer Consultation Website. The email from staffupdate@hw.ac.uk was sent on 15 September 2023. The subject line is Notice of statutory consultation on behalf of the Universities Superannuation Scheme. Please contact hr@hw.ac.uk if you have not received yours.

Pay and working conditions

We are very close to achieving a result in a pension dispute but we still have a long way to go on fair pay and working condition. Don’t forget to vote Yes to save higher education in the ballot to renew our mandate for further action so that we can put pressure on our employers to come back to the negotiating table. If you haven’t received your ballot paper please request a replacement using the form at https://yoursay.ucu.org.uk/s3/ucuRISING-ballotupdate before midnight on Sunday 29 October.


Have you voted Yes to save higher education?

On 14 August the UCU’s higher education committee (HEC) voted to launch a ballot for further industrial action in the ongoing dispute over pay and working conditions.

The ballot closes at 5pm on Friday 3 November. If you have not received your ballot paper please request a replacement using the form at https://yoursay.ucu.org.uk/s3/ucuRISING-ballotupdate before midnight on Sunday 29 October.

Why should I vote?

Taking part in industrial action works. We got our employers back to the negotiating table in the pension dispute and a statutory consultation on improved terms has been launched which should see the scheme on a more stable footing with benefits restored back to pre-2022 levels and members compensated for benefits lost in the meantime.

This only happened because members took action to prevent the shameful attempt to steal their pension benefits through a flawed valuation conducted at the height of the pandemic.

We need to keep fighting now to secure fair pay and tackle working conditions. Our university vice chancellors and senior management have been taking huge salaries and inflation busting pay rises while our members have seen pay cut by 25% in real terms since 2009 as they struggle to deal with inequality, job security, and the stress of ever increasing workloads.

It is more important than ever that you use your vote so that we meet the threshold which legislation requires, no matter which way you vote. If you haven’t voted, please vote now.

Heriot-Watt is on strike for fair pay and working conditions


Our employers may consider the 2022-23 pay negotiations to have been concluded with the imposed national uplift, but we do not. It fell far short. The 4-Fights dispute over fair pay and working conditions will continue until the Vice Chancellors use some of the record income that the sector is generating and the piles cash on which they are sitting to address the erosion of everyone else’s pay apart from their own and tackle the issues of excessive workloads, inequality, and insecure contracts.

We are on strike because we care passionately about our students, our stakeholders and research partners, our local community, and the environment. Our senior leadership team are failing to deliver on Strategy 2025 and the key performance indicators by which they should be judged. Staff and student satisfaction is at an all-time low, student to staff ratios are increasing, teaching and research facilities are inadequate, and our support systems are a shambles. These failures are reflected in our rankings and failures to secure funding. Shamelessly executive pay has increased, and it is the same up and down the country. It is the experience which should be rich, not the fat cats at the top.

You can help make it better. Support our staff. Support our students. Save the planet. Support the strike!

Strike action confirmed for week of 25-29 September

A big thank-you to all of the local members who were able to attend the online EGM yesterday and contribute to the discussions and vote at such short notice. The meeting was quorate and the vote was overwhelmingly in favour of continuing the strike action, consistent with the branch position at the end of August when members voted in favour of using the remaining mandate for strike action.

It is the beginning of a new session and no-one wants to be on strike but we need to hit our employers hard in order to force them back into negotiations over pay and working conditions. The only way to do this is with a complete withdrawal of labour. We will be standing with UCU members from branches up and down the UK as well as colleagues from Unite and Unison who remain committed to collective action as a means to secure fair pay and working conditions across the sector.

Picket line

The picket will form 8.00am each morning at the main gate and there with a group photo opportunity at 10.00am.

Strike Pay

Members will be able to apply to the national fighting fund for days 3,4 and 5 of the strike. We will take a vote to the branch members to enable the local hardship fund to be used to support members for days 1 and 2.



Emergency Members’ Meeting 19 September 2023

We will be holding and online Emergency Members’ Meeting via Zoom at 4.00pm on Tuesday 19 September 2023 to consult branch members about next week’s strike action over pay and working conditions as requested by UCU national.

Please check your inbox for the link to the meeting.

We will try to keep it short with a brief introduction from the branch committee that sets out the current position with all the relevant information. Make no mistake, our employers and UCEA are continuing to try and sit this out with little regard for staff and student welfare, or academic standards. After this there will be an opportunity for questions, clarification, and debate. We will move to voting as close to 4.30pm as possible.

After any votes there will be some time for a more general discussion on how to progress the dispute both locally and nationally, and what we might want to feed back to UCU national.

There will be an opportunity to raise and discuss other issues relating to working at HWU under AOB at the end of the meeting.

It is very short notice but it is very important that you attend and have your say at a quorate meeting. Please attend if at all possible.

Strategy 2025: Failing to Shape Tomorrow Together

In Strategy 2025: Shaping Tomorrow Together our senior leadership sets the basic metrics of success by which they wish to be judged. Strategic performance indicators include:

  • Staff Satisfaction
  • Student Satisfaction,
  • World University Ranking
  • Research Income
  • Environmental Sustainability
  • Income Generation
  • Operating Surplus

None of these targets are being met. Staff satisfaction is at all all time low. Student satisfaction as measured by the National Student Survey has tanked, SFC funding allocations for research and teaching are down. We are slipping in all sorts of international league tables and rankings, and millions of pounds have been wasted on an Oracle ERP system which has failed to deliver some very basic functions like processing payments to suppliers and budgetary reporting for research projects.

The senior leadership team at Heriot-Watt are failing to deliver for anyone but themselves. The annual accounts to year end July 2022 show that the Principal took a very generous raise from £312,000 to 338,000. This is an increase of more than 8% compared to ordinary staff who received a 1.5% in this period on the back of 0% increase in 2020-21.

The accounts reveal that in the same 2 years salary cost of the key management personnel responsible for planning, directing, and controlling the activity of the university rose from £792,000 to £1,125,000, an increase of over 40%. While ordinary working staff struggle our jet set senior leadership team are shamelessly paying themselves more and delivering less.

One of the four cornerstone themes of Strategy 2025 is the building of flourishing communities through positive influence. Safe to say that we are not feeling very inspired or valued at the moment.

MAB withdrawn and new strike days announced

Following a consultative e-ballot with the membership UCU national have announced that Marking and Assessment Boycott has been withdrawn as of 6 September 2023.

With the MAB called off members can resume marking duties and the setting of assessments but only as and when it fits in around other demands at work. If your manager or anyone else at work tries to pressure you into doing work immediately or in an unrealistic time frame given other jobs, please contact your local rep.

School reps will be meeting with mangers to discuss which marking is and is not required, the order in which it will be done and how it is fit around other work in what is already a very bus time of year. We are still working ASOS and no-one should be working beyond their contracted hours.

This will be the first time that our employers have not returned wages in return for marking.

If you have queries about the number of days deducted please get in touch with your local rep. That is has been so difficult to implement highlights that our employer should not have applied such a draconian and punitive policy, deducting far in excess of the hours required. It also demonstrates the ongoing inability of the ERP and Finance to deliver the most basic of functionality.

For those who have been deducted we have a local hardship fund to top up payments from the national fighting fund. If you need to claim, please do.

There is also scope for legal action to recover wages on the basis that they have been deducted unfairly. UCU have circulated further information on the legal action that can be taken to challenge unfair MAB deductions and claims have already started at other branches. Members affected are asked to use this proforma UCU – ASOS/MAB – Questionnaire (member login required).

Strike days

Our employers have been notified of 5 full days of strike action to take place between 25 and 29 September 2023.

We deserve a fair wage, secure employment, and an end to pay gaps. Our members have shown great resilience, perseverance, and courage throughout this dispute. It is bitterly disappointing that UCEA has decided to sit this out regardless of the consequences for staff, students, and academic standards. We should not let the employers get away with this.

A ballot to secure a fresh mandate to continue the dispute and take the fight to the employer will follow.


Update on Save university pensions, and save the planet: We’ve settled

Save university pensions, and save the planet is a crowdfunded legal action separate from the main UCU pension dispute. It may be of interest to members and non-members who are in the USS scheme. Updates published on behalf of the team at savepensionsandplanet.org.

Dear Friends and Colleagues,

First of all, we are so grateful once more for your support. This has been the biggest crowdfund in UK history according to CrowdJustice, and we have pushed UUK to announce their reversal of the 2022 pension cuts. We didn’t win in the Court of Appeal, and so on Monday we decided to settle the USS directors’ legal costs. There were solid legal grounds for appealing the decision to the Supreme Court. However, we have achieved most of our aims – getting your pension back and shifting the USS’s climate policy – we couldn’t have done it without you! Six more things:

(1) Call for supporters

We’d love to invite everyone for a Zoom call to answer all questions and to thank you in person at 2pm Wednesday, 2nd August. Zoom link here.

(2) The USS Directors’ Pyrrhic victory

The USS directors have a victory that would make Phyrrus chortle. The judgment itself dismissed our appeal on procedural grounds, but said that a previously untested “beneficiary derivative claim” may be used to sue directors for breach of duty in a pension trust: see paras [78]-[90]. This was an unprecedented announcement. So, there were good grounds for us to appeal, but overall it was better for everyone to settle and help the directors focus on their future. The bottom line is that the USS directors will now know, and should be advised, that if they breach their duties, they can be sued personally – including for damages. If, in future, the directors do breach their duties, we will be in touch!

(3) A recap

To recap the reasons that your help and support have mattered so much are that since bringing the case:

  1. The USS directors have entirely reversed their position for the 2023 valuation.
    • They are now reporting a £7.4bn surplus.
    • They reduced prudence (as we said they should in our 2021 letter),
    • They allowed for greater mortality (as we said they should in 2021),
    • They have updated asset values and made other changes.
  2. USS could augment members’ benefits to reverse the unnecessary losses they imposed on members between April 2022 and April 2024.
  3. Future accrual of defined benefits could be restored from April 2024.
  4. The architect of these changes and USS CEO has announced his resignation.

Our litigation, which thousands of university staff and USS members have supported, has likely had a very substantial impact on the directors’ decisions, and is likely to affect their decisions in future.

(4) Change worth £8000 per member + a potential pay rise

If members’ 2022-2024 benefits are augmented, this could be worth £1.5bn (on average £8000 for each USS member). In the medium term, reversing the April 2022 cuts for future accrual will be worth many billions more. More than this, thousands of UK university staff could now get a pay rise – university accountants are (anecdotally) saying employee contributions could fall from 9.8% to 8%, and employer contributions down from 21.6% to 18% – the level they were at in 2019.

(5) Climate damage

We have already seen UUK say that it wants USS to commit to examining divestment. We fully expect USS’s position on climate change and fossil fuels to evolve and note that the judgment explicitly points to the possibility of future action against the trust fund being possible – as well as against directors personally for their future conduct.

(6) Governance reform

This legal action clearly demonstrates how badly the governance of the USS has failed and how little confidence USS members have that the USS directors were acting in their interests. We should not have to raise hundreds of thousands of pounds to hold the directors to account. The USS’s rules need to be changed to allow members a say in how their scheme is run. Universities and UCU urgently need to reform the governance of the scheme so it can begin to recover members’ trust. This legal action is the first step in that process, which needs to start ASAP.

Once more, we are incredibly grateful for the over 12,000 donations and the amazing support we’ve had from people across the UK. We are also enormously grateful to our outstanding legal team, David Grant KC, Philip Steer, Gus Baker, Meriel Hodgson-Teall, Richard Meeran, Georgia Rycroft and the team at Leigh Day, and also Dr Thomas Da Vieira Costa and Dr Lindsey Pike for their fantastic work in research and communications. This case has been hugely complex, and everyone has handled it brilliantly.

We would be delighted to meet with UCU branches or other groups to explain the outcome of the hearing and the next steps, which will not, you will be relieved to know, involve asking for more money.

Best wishes,
Neil and Ewan

Joint Statement by Heriot-Watt University and Heriot-Watt University UCU in relation to the Pay and Working Conditions Dispute – 30 June 2023

National Collective Bargaining

At Heriot-Watt, both parties remain strongly committed to National Collective Bargaining and, whilst recognising that we hold different positions in relation to pay, believe it is essential that national talks resume and seek to go beyond the progress made at the ACAS talks. Working conditions interact with pay and we believe that there is scope to develop the four Terms of Reference further based on common goals of attracting and retaining staff within the sector.

We were disappointed that a resolution to the dispute over pay and working conditions did not emerge from the recent talks at ACAS. We recognise the discussions at ACAS at a national level resulted in some changes to the pay offer and the four draft Terms of Reference relating to: reform of the pay spine, use of contract types and improving job security, workload and gender, ethnicity and disability pay gaps in the sector. However, the outcome was rejected by UCU members and we recognise that the level of pay increases over a number of years, not keeping pace with inflation, remains a key factor at the heart of the dispute.

Positive work on the matters set out in the four Terms of Reference is already being progressed at Heriot-Watt and many institutions across the sector, demonstrating that this is both desirable and that positive national level sector norms should be possible. We believe it is vital for UCEA and UCU, despite our differing positions on the resumption of pay negotiations, to return to the table, without preconditions on either side, to continue these national level discussions with a view to settling the dispute, allowing the marking boycott to be lifted and bringing an end to the annual cycle of disputes.

We further believe that there is merit in the Unions and UCEA discussing wider financial matters and seeking to identify areas of common concern and interest in relation to sector finances and the proportion of money allocated to pay within the current funding models. Through such joint understanding and sense of common purpose at a sector level we believe future national negotiations relating to pay would be more constructive.

Heriot-Watt University Joint Working

We reaffirm our commitment to work together locally to make further improvements, recognising that some elements (such as the grade/pay spine mapping) are now strongly linked to potential work at a national level. In June 2022 we published a joint statement which is available on the University website. Since publishing our joint statement work has continued in each of these areas to address the matters identified. Both parties acknowledge there is still more to be done in these areas to make sustainable and meaningful changes to the working lives of staff at Heriot-Watt.

The statement contained a number of actions which are being tracked via our joint negotiating committee. We will agree an update report on each of these actions by the end of August 2023 identifying what action is ongoing and what further action is required or planned, noting where they interact with national initiatives. We will work together with the other recognised Trade Unions to establish a timeline for progression for each outstanding action, and then issue an agreed update every quarter to all staff.

Download PDF of June 2023 Joint Statement on Pay and Conditions.
Download PDF of June 2022 Joint Statement on Pay and Conditions.