It’s all about protecting members and services

Higher education conference agrees a raft of campaigns to defend university workers and the sector

Protecting members and their welfare at work and beyond was a key theme of debates at UNISON’s higher education conference in Nottingham.

On pensions, delegates condemned repeated attacks on university support staff’s retirement funds – particularly attempts to end their defined benefit schemes and move them onto worse pensions.

Conference stressed the need for a “whole-union approach” as individual universities try to pick off one branch after another.

“Make no mistake, they are coming for you,” warned a delegate from Staffordshire University, where staff had been removed from the Local Government Pension Scheme to a commercial, defined contribution pension.

“It is a good scheme, compared to other rubbish schemes,” she said. But to move their pension, the university had hived off the workers to an arms-length private company so they were no longer university employees.

This meant that the university’s contribution to workers’ pensions dropped from 18% to a maximum of 10%. To make up the difference and get the same pension as the LGPS provided, the delegate told conference that she would have to out aside 40% of her take-home pay for the next 20 years.

Conference vowed to mount a campaign on the issue, including working for the next Labour manifesto to include a commitment to support defined benefit schemes.

Privatisation was another key issue in debates.

Conference welcomed recent successes at King’s College London, the School of Oriental and African Studies in the capital and the London School of Economics to bring outsourced cleaners and other staff back in-house as directly employed university staff.

But while campaigning against marketisation and outsourcing, conference agreed UNISON should also work to make sure that, where higher education institutions do outsource, they insist on decent employment standards from their contractors.

As Katie Hall of the service group executive told delegates, too often “the contractor’s profit comes at a price – and that price is our members’ pay, pensions and terms and conditions.”

Conference also agreed:

  • steps to support members with mental health issues;
  • to fight for transparency and democracy, including union representation, in university governance;
  • steps to tackle racism, both conscious and unconscious – a debate which came after a presentation by Elizabeth Bowles of the Equality and Human Rights Commission on its work to measure the scale of the issue;
  • inclusive workplace policies, including gender-neutral facilities.