A tale as old as time

It’s a tale as old as time: managers would like to pay workers less.

The proposed changes to University staff pensions are disadvantageous compared to the current arrangements in two ways:

  1. staff will receive less income in retirement
  2. staff will now carry the risk associated with the investments (defined contributions DC) – these risks are currently carried by the employers (defined benefits, DB).

University managers, represented by UUK, have presented the changes as necessary in order to make the pension scheme sustainable into the future. There are reasons to be sceptical:

  1. in secret discussions UUK members have discussed other motivations:
    • the desire to cut staff costs
    • concerns about competition and borrowing – shared pension liabilities are affecting the credit which different institutions can access
  2. the concept that the current scheme is unsustainable is based on a very conservative valuation and a set of tests that is unrealistic for a multi-employer scheme. 
  3. the members of UUK seem divided about their ‘risk appetite’ and willingness to pay greater contributions. It appears that UUK is not accurately representing a consensus view.

It’s not difficult to see that today’s university managers, with their focus on finance and growth at the expense of teaching, learning and research, are likely to be attracted to changes to the pension scheme that will leave them with more money to spend as they wish, and they some of them would also like to gain an advantage over their ‘competitors’. In order to achieve this outcome though, they would need to make the current scheme appear unworkable. Fortunately, from their perspective, they are able to do this merely by expressing an opinion about their appetite for risk.

So that is what seems to have happened. Managers would like to pay workers less, and have found a way to do it. The trick is to sabotage pensions rather than cut wages – it’s in the future so people are less worried about it, and the sabotage element makes it harder to see who’s responsible. But once you see it, it’s impossible to unsee.

 

Some useful refs:

https://discoversociety.org/2018/02/23/in-defence-of-the-public-university-the-uss-strike-in-context/

https://heconvention2.wordpress.com/2018/02/08/made-in-westminster/

http://www.universitiesuk.ac.uk/policy-and-analysis/reports/Documents/2016/uss-mutuality-flexibility-of-pension-cost-and-provision.pdf (also downloaded on Mac)

https://henrytapper.com/2018/02/12/oxfords-and-cambridges-role-in-the-demise-of-uss-mike-otsuka/

https://twitter.com/JosephineCumbo/status/975766385338011648

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Rise of the McUniversity

Since 5th March I have been participating in UCU Industrial Action – a strike over UK academics’ pensions. It’s impossible to overlook the causes of the strike, a failure of leadership that runs much deeper than the current dispute.

Universities are being ‘led’ or at least ‘managed’ by people (Vice-Chancellors, Provosts etc.) who, on the whole have accepted the marketisation of higher education. Let’s try to look at the world from their perspective.

They see themselves as leading competing businesses.

A large part of their income comes from student fees. In 2015 the admissions cap was removed. Unless universities recruited as many students as possible, there was a real danger that someone else would take their share of the market, with less resources they would compete less effectively and eventually go bust. Realising this, university managers decided that they each needed to increase their market share – in order, at least, to be more resilient to the competition. To do this, they felt they had to expand student numbers which generally meant building new facilities. In order to do this they borrowed (and are borrowing) as much money as they could, and they cut (and are cutting) other costs as much as possible.

Most of their costs are staff salaries and pensions, and a good way to cut costs (while expanding) is to employ a greater proportion of young and relatively inexperienced teachers and researchers on low salaries, fixed-term and zero-hour contracts. As well as being paid less, they can be dispensed with (if recruitment targets are not met, for example) without incurring redundancy costs and in some cases they do not qualify for pensions (another cost saving). Note that these priorities are driven by market forces and do not relate to the quality of teaching or research; to the extent they are in conflict, the student experience and research excellence inevitably suffers. Real leadership would involve working with government and other institutions to prioritise excellence in teaching and research over competition and market share, but this kind of leadership has been very rare.

Brilliant young academics are making huge contributions to the country’s research and teaching – but they deserve decent salaries, job security, pensions and they deserve fulfilling jobs where they can use their exceptional talents to create and share the new ideas we’ll need for the rest of the 21st century, rather than being treated as dispensible, temporary ‘human resources’.

The current strike is a symptom of the underlying issue – marketisation – and as in any serious illness, it would be dangerous and foolhardy to treat the short-term symptoms without investigating and remedying the underlying disease. It is exactly the same cause that led to the introduction of student tuition fees, the increase in those fees, the cuts to student maintenance grants. The vast majority of academics, those who actually teach students and carry out research at universities, opposed these things because in the end, we want to be a part of a higher education system that is open to everyone and completely focussed on world-class teaching, learning, knowledge and discovery.

Universities are not businesses – they are communities of students, teachers, scholars, researchers, and the vitally important administrators, librarians, technicians and others that make learning and research possible. We’re all being let down by our so-called ‘leaders’.

Objectivity and discrimination: a pernicious bias

[A gender neutral translation of the original post Men: we are not objective about sexism and know less about it than women. It also extends the argument to other forms of discrimination. Why? – see the backstory at the end of the post.]

As scientists and engineers, we all want to make decisions based on objective evidence. For many people, the need for objectivity might even take precedence over moral and political convictions. It seems that, for some scientists, peoples’s direct experiences of discrimination and the concerns they evoke can be discounted on the basis that they are subjectively involved in the issues. In particular, some people who haven’t directly experienced discrimination seem to feel, and many certainly act, as if they have a more objective view. This itself is a bias, because:

  • because it is systematically excludes highly relevant evidence from those most familiar with the phenomenon of interest
  • it implies (wrongly) that those who have do not experience discrimination are uninvolved whereas they frequently benefit from membership of privileged groups that helped define current cultural practices, and through their action or inaction are empowered to change or sustain them.

If you are truly committed to objectivity, and have not experienced discrimination yourself, you must be willing to think critically about our own objectivity and biases. Concluding after a few seconds of reflection that “I am right, it is the other’s who are wrong” doesn’t count. Has your lack of experience distorted your thinking on the topic? Do you need more evidence about the experience of others? Are you evaluating the evidence from those who have experienced discrimination inaccurately? Are you inclined to inaction which could serve to sustain a discriminatory culture or practice that benefits you?

Taken seriously, the process of examining and addressing our own biases will take a long time, but the quest for objectivity in all things should not prevent us from acting on the immediate testimony of people around us. If someone comes into the room shouting “fire!”, you don’t ask them whether the concentration of smoke particles is really significantly larger now than it was at the same time yesterday, you evacuate. It is not reasonable for people to be sceptical about the existence or extent of discrimination just because they have not experienced it themselves. This is especially true for people whose membership of privileged groups means that their experience and understanding of the negative effects of discrimination is systematically limited.

So how should people who truly believe in objectivity and equality begin to address these biases when their own lack of experience is likely to bias their thinking? The first step, in my view, is to get a clearer idea of the scope of the problem by seeking out and listening to those who are most affected, and taking their experiences seriously.

Backstory

I was quite pleased with the original post, but after I published it, I was somewhat taken to task on twitter by Rachael Jack, and later offline by my daughter Isobel. The wording, they felt, could be taken to imply that one person’s view is more valid than another’s simply by virtue of their gender. Clearly there would be many grave problems with that position (which was not what I meant) the most striking of which was that (as a man) I would be in no position to rebut their arguments!

The above post, just translates the original into the terms I would have used had I been more precise, and I think it’s logic is sound and clearer, although I think it will be less persuasive to my target audience – the people with least experience of discrimination who benefit most from the status quo. Sadly many of these people do not seem to have reflected very deeply on their own biases and are still prone to speak against change from a position of ignorance.

A nice byproduct of the translation is that it extends to other forms of discrimination.

A negative feature, which I found unavoidable was the use of the term ‘privilege’ to refer to groups who have been shielded from discrimination e.g., white, male, heterosexual people. In terms of my intended audience in the original post, this is likely to be seen as jargon describing a phenomenon that they have not yet fully acknowledged.

 

Men: when to stand up, when to pipe down

Based on what I have learned so far by listening to women.

If you work in science or technology and spend any time listening to the honest views of women around you, you will find that many report experiences of sexism and an environment that is hostile to them. Listen to them.

Men sometimes undervalue women’s views, ideas and experiences, talk over them and shut them out of discussion, even in discussions about sex, gender and discrimination where they clearly have vital, distinct experiences and knowledge. Don’t drown out their voices. 

When you see that other men are not listening to women’s experiences, are drowning out their contributions, dismissing their concerns or derailing discussions they have initiated, what should you do? You will need tact and judgement to determine whether your support is truly helpful – for example, if you get drawn into a predominantly male argument it is surprisingly be easy to become part of the problem, rather than the solution.

Women’s ideas are sometimes dismissed, ignored or doubted until expressed by a man. If you want to amplify, echo or support a woman’s view, it can be helpful to make it explicit. “I would like to amplify what Dr X has said”, “I agree with Dr X”. This avoids any impression that you are taking credit for her idea, and it helps remind other men to listen to women.*

When you see overt sexism or misogyny, yes, you should speak up. Confront it.

This is going to take some judgement, sometimes we need to stand up, often we need to pipe down. In both cases it will feel uncomfortable, in my view, that male discomfort is the feeling you get when a sexist culture is changing for the better.

Note: I have focused on women and sexism, but if you look around you will find other groups are under-represented and marginalized in your workplace. Try the same techniques: listen to the people affected, then try to advocate for change that will improve matters.

*In this spirit I should acknowledge the people whose ideas I have incorporated in the above advice who most recently and directly include @zerdeve (especially this thread), @o_guest (twitter) and @noodlemaz (blog and twitter) although many others have expressed similar views. Misunderstandings or mistakes are my own. The tip about explicitly acknowledging women whose views you agree with and want to amplify was arrived at by trial and (especially) error – one error pointed out gracefully (but forcefully) by Prof Ursula Martin was helpful. Of course, I like other-well intentioned men, will make mistakes in the way we respond to women’s concerns about sexism.

Men: we are not objective about sexism and know less about it than women

As scientists and engineers, we all want to make decisions based on objective evidence. But objectivity is hard to achieve when non-experts consider deficiencies in our own practices and culture. Some seem to feel that women’s experiences and concerns about the extent of sexism in science can be discounted on the basis that they are subjectively involved in the issues. In particular, some men seem to feel, and many certainly act, as if they have a more objective and better informed view. This itself is a bias, because:

  • it implies (wrongly) that men are uninvolved, whereas men’s preferences are clearly highly relevant to the cultures and practices they have established and sustain
  • because it is systematically excludes highly relevant evidence from those most familiar with the phenomenon of interest

If we are truly committed to objectivity we must be willing to think critically about our own objectivity and biases with regard to sexism. Concluding after a few seconds of reflection that “I am right, it is the women who are wrong” doesn’t count.

Taken seriously, the process of examining and addressing our own biases will take a long time, but the quest for objectivity in all things should not prevent us from acting on the immediate testimony of people around us. If someone comes into the room shouting “Fire!”, you don’t ask them whether the concentration of smoke particles is really significantly larger now than it was at the same time yesterday, you evacuate.

It is not reasonable or objective for men to be sceptical about the existence or extent of sexism just because they don’t experience it: our experience is necessarily biased. Unjustified doubts about sexism delay remedial action and can be part of the problem. If you have any doubts then the first step, in my view, is to get a clearer idea of the scope of the problem by listening to women.

[If you disagree with this post, you might prefer the gender-neutral translation (which also extends to other forms of discrimination).

You may also be interested on my post: “Men: when to stand up, and when to pipe down“.]

Dear Students

Dear students*,

Today is polling day in the UK general election, it also coincides with the day that our final year students are leaving, and that got me thinking.

vote

I didn’t have to pay a penny in tuition fees to get my degree, and I got a grant meaning that I didn’t need paid work and could focus on my studies. When my wife and I had kids, we were able to buy a family-sized flat in London even when, at times, only one of us was working and we had hardly any savings.

Most of you will leave university having clocked up £27000 in loans and supported yourselves by paid work throughout your degree. Judging by the experience of my 20- and 30-something nieces and nephews, and their friends – and to put it very mildly –  few of you will be able to buy a property in the town where you work; many will have to pay very high rents and/or travel costs to get to work. Your conditions in the workplace will be less secure – we now have the “gig economy” where young people in particular are expected to volunteer and work zero-hour contracts on demand.

The opportunities of young people have clearly deteriorated over the last decades. In my opinion one reason for this is that, over most of my lifetime, politicians have been less concerned with what happens to young people than with the older people who vote in much larger numbers (78% of over 65s voted in the last election compared with 43% of 18-24 year olds). I saw lots of over 65s leaving the polling station when I voted this morning – no one younger than me.

The country is now politically split on generational lines. This was demonstrated very clearly in the Brexit referendum, but it is also true in the general election. Please take a look at these polling figures in the Economist and take the time to click on the buttons to see how starkly the voting intentions of younger and older people differ.

This is one of the most important elections in our lifetimes. The Brexit result will completely change our lives regardless of who wins, but for once we are not being asked to choose between slightly different “brands”, coke v pepsi, but between strikingly different political philosophies. Every vote counts because even if the party you vote for doesn’t win, it will send politicians a very clear message that young people’s views can’t safely be ignored. You almost certainly won’t get another chance to vote for 5 years – think where you’ll be then.

This year I’ll be 50. I’ve been lucky and benefited hugely from the support of the NHS and welfare state that my grandparents generation helped set up after World War II. They put everything on the line to defend our right to vote. I remember them and I will never betray their sacrifices by not using that right. But I won’t use it to feather my own nest at the expense of the next generation. I don’t want a world setup neatly for my retirement if it comes at the cost of my children and grandchildren’s futures. I couldn’t forgive myself if I didn’t post this in time to persuade a few more young people to vote today. The polls don’t close until 10pm.

Tom

*this message is a very personal one, but I am glad to say it is the official position of my employers to encourage students to vote. Quite right, too.

 

 

Can I Just Say…?

This week psychologists, neuroscientists and statisticians have been again prompted to reassess our methods by a widely-circulated preprint (pdf) accusing some in the field of acting like “methodological terrorists”. Thankfully, the initial urge to identify with one or other “side” (and to hit back at “opponents”) has largely given way to more thoughtful, nuanced and long overdue discussions about how research should be conducted. I am not arguing for or against one of the “sides” in this debate, but I am just sharing my perspective.

Scientists have learned that we need to continually question our beliefs about the natural world, and test them against the evidence. As Feynman put it: “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.” We have to question our beliefs. This applies to our beliefs about the scientific method as well as to our beliefs about the natural world. It applies to ourselves as well as the other people who we think are wrong.

Continue reading “Can I Just Say…?”