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In the news: 10 January 2020

Dates set for talks on future of USS pension scheme 

Five January dates have been set for meetings to look at reforming the USS pension scheme. UCU members of the scheme took eight days' strike action before Christmas as part of a row over changes to the scheme and disputes over pay and equalities.

Representatives from the union, Universities UK and USS will attend meetings chaired by the chair of the USS Joint Expert Panel (JEP) Joanne Segars. The recent second report from the JEP, looking at the valuation process of USS and the scheme's governance, had called for meetings between the different parties.

UCU general secretary Jo Grady will attend on behalf of the union and UUK has said its chief executive Alistair Jarvis will attend. USS Group chief executive Bill Galvin will also attend, along with a representative from the USS Trustee Board.

An update will be posted on the JEP website within seven days of each meeting. There may be more meetings, depending on progress, and the group will engage positively with The Pensions Regulator and involve them in discussions if appropriate.

Speaking to Union News, UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: 'We are keen to get going with these talks and to work with all parties to look seriously at how we can reform USS. If we are to avoid further disruption at universities over USS then we all need to work together and look at issues like the valuation and the scheme's governance.'


Urgent action required over intense threats to academics' mental health

Threats to the mental health of academics working in UK universities have grown so intense that levels of psychological safety fall calamitously short of national standards and urgent action is required, according to researchers.

Scholars took the results of three surveys of academics conducted over a six-year period, each with thousands of respondents, and applied them to a tool developed by the Health and Safety Executive designed to help sectors compare psychosocial hazards against national benchmarks.

Times Higher Education reported that the results show universities scoring well below expected levels in almost all areas and getting worse over time. Drawing on surveys completed by UCU members, academics put their workplaces as being in need of "urgent action" in six of the seven areas that impact on work-related stress.


Further education lecturers have lowest levels of happiness

Further education lecturers have high levels of anxiety and the lowest levels of wellbeing among educators, according to the Education Policy Institute this week. The report revealed that, on average, teachers were happier, more satisfied with life and found their lives more worthwhile than the average graduate.

The Tes said that when it came to further education teachers specifically, the data showed another story. The happiness of FE staff has risen since 2012, but feelings of worthwhileness and life satisfaction have decreased.

UCU head of further education Andrew Harden said: 'After a decade of cuts, it is little wonder that those working in further education are reporting such worrying levels of anxiety and dissatisfaction. In recent years, staff have had to contend with rising workloads, the uncertainty and upheaval of area reviews, and watching the value of their pay plummet. A top priority for colleges and the government must be to ensure that new funding for the sector is invested in staff - that should start with closing the £7,000 pay gap between teachers in schools and teachers in colleges.'


MPs reject call to make Government negotiate continued membership of Erasmus+

On Wednesday, MPs voted against adding a new clause to the EU Withdrawal Agreement Bill that would have required the Government to seek to negotiate continuing full membership of the EU's Erasmus+ education and youth programme. The scheme funds opportunities for young people to train and study across Europe.

The government has insisted this is not the end of the UK's involvement with Erasmus+, but critics argued that refusing the new clause sends a worrying message about the UK's commitment to the scheme.

Speaking to the Independent Jo Grady said: 'Wilfully abandoning Erasmus+ would be a worryingly closed-minded move. The many benefits from having the opportunity to study abroad - from boosting employment prospects, to learning other languages and from other cultures - are well documented.' She told FE Week that she had seen the benefits of the scheme first-hand having set up Erasmus agreements and taught on Erasmus projects.


UK youngsters "miles behind" in foreign language learning

Emphasising problems for the UK when it comes to relationships with Europe was a report from the Higher Education Policy Institute this week that said our young people are "miles behind" their European contemporaries when it comes to foreign languages.

The UK was rooted to the bottom of the European table with just 32% of our 15-30 year olds able to speak a foreign language. Hungary was second bottom, but a vastly superior 71% of young Hungarians speak more than just Hungarian. Denmark topped the table with 99%.

Hepi warned that post-Brexit, language skills cannot be ignored, and the UK cannot rely on the assumption that the rest of the world speaks English. The study said there has been a huge drop in demand for language learning in recent years and learning a foreign language should be compulsory at GCSE level.


Universities need to fulfil role as central pillar of civil society

Writing in the Guardian, Jonathan Wolff says that he will remember the 2010s as the age of the academic league table when league table performance indicators were "chased with all the dignity of a soap opera character at the Boxing Day sales". Pessimistically, he says that Brexit planning suggests universities will be keener still in the 2020s to inch up every league table, thereby bolstering national and international student recruitment and easing their bank balances.

However, he does also set out a number of areas that he would like to see improvement in over the coming decade. He says we cannot pretend that the problem of casualisation is going to sort itself out as universities are exploiting highly qualified teaching and research staff to make savings wherever they can and the practice stinks and needs to change.

He concludes that the higher education sector's most important role in the coming years is step up to accept and fulfil its role as a central pillar of civil society. He says the truly significant threats to academic freedom come not from student societies protesting against a maverick speaker, but a deep chill from the top, making university leaders nervous about criticising those with actual power. UK universities need to be ready to defend not only themselves but the hard-won institutions that make a strong, relatively free university sector possible.


Emma Hardy appointed as new shadow further and higher education minister

Emma Hardy MP has been appointed Labour's shadow further and higher education minister. The Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle MP replaces Gordon Marsden who lost his seat at the general election. A former teacher, Hardy has sat on the Commons Education Select Committee since becoming an MP in 2017.  

FE Week reported that since joining parliament, Hardy has contributed to multiple Westminster Hall debates on college funding and in May 2018 she joined UCU members at Hull College on the picket line during strike action.

Meanwhile Hardy's boss - shadow education secretary, Angela Rayner - has thrown her hat into the ring for Labour's deputy leadership contest.

Last updated: 10 January 2020