15 July 2011

Dear Colleague

Update on Pay Negotiations for 2011-12, Pension Arrangements and the Future Funding of Higher Education in Northern Ireland

I write following Graduation Week, the highlight of the University calendar, when we celebrate the achievements of our students with their families and friends. Providing an exceptional student experience is a University priority, and thank you for your efforts to this end.

In my previous communications, dated 9 and 18 February 2011, I provided you with an update on national pay negotiations; the proposed changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS); and the impact of potential changes to the funding of higher education in Northern Ireland. I also provided you with a copy of the University’s response to the Department for Employment and Learning (DEL) Budget Statement 2011-15, with the funding for higher education cut by £68m per annum i.e. some 30%.

There have been significant developments in all these areas and I would like to update you on the current position as summarised below:

1. National Pay Negotiations for 2011-12

The Employers’ representative body, the Universities and Colleges Employers’ Association (UCEA), and the five Trade Unions met on 26 May and 11 July 2011 to advance discussions on the pay settlement for 2011-12.

The employers have offered to increase salary points on the main pay spine by £150 – this approach, supported by Queen’s, builds on actions being taken across the public sector to manage expenditure on salary costs and, for many, this has meant the implementation of a pay freeze. I fully appreciate that all colleagues are experiencing increases in the cost-of-living but, given the funding position in Northern Ireland, our priority must be to robustly manage budget pressures and, in so doing, to minimise job losses.

At a national level, the Trade Unions continue to highlight job security for staff as a critical priority. As I have previously advised, we at Queen’s recognise that job security is an important issue and this will continue to be dealt with at a local level. In this context, we have worked, and will continue to work, closely with the Trade Unions (UNITE, UCU and NIPSA) to effectively manage workforce change through our well-established procedures.

2. Changes in USS

You will be aware that national negotiations regarding changes to the USS have been extremely protracted. The USS Trustees met on 9 June 2011 and ratified the rule amendments required to implement the approved changes to the USS – details of these changes are available here. The changes will become effective from 1 October 2011 and I would strongly recommend that you study these in detail.

USS has now provided detailed information to existing members, within the Annual Service Statements recently issued for the year to 31 March 2011. You should note the specific changes that have been agreed to the Scheme and what this will mean for members from 1 October 2011.

Given that the proposed changes to USS have been ratified following some three years of negotiation, it is extremely disappointing that UCU is threatening to take further industrial action on this matter. In the current economic climate, it is unrealistic to expect that additional pension costs will continue to be funded from a significantly reduced higher education budget.

3. Future Funding of Higher Education in Northern Ireland

Efficiency Savings

As I previously advised, the draft DEL budget, for the period 2011-15, contained a proposal to reduce the funding of higher education by £68m per annum, of which £28m per annum was to be achieved through efficiency savings.

In recognising the challenging economic environment, we at Queen’s have committed to delivering our share of the required efficiency savings. Some 43% of these savings will be met through a number of “corporate measures”, including reducing our capital commitment to infrastructure investment over the next four years. It will also involve all Schools and Directorates making permanent reductions in recurrent expenditure, both pay and non-pay. Schools and Directorates have now prepared comprehensive Implementation Plans, detailing the actions required to deliver these savings by 2014-15 and the resulting institutional impact.

Senate, at its meeting on 21 June 2011, approved the implementation of a Voluntary Severance/Voluntary Early Retirement Scheme as a key enabler in achieving the reductions required in the University’s pay budget. The Scheme was launched on 29 June 2011, following consultation with the recognised Trade Unions, and full details of the Scheme are available here. The successful implementation of this Scheme will assist the University in achieving the required reduction of some 200 posts in its current establishment.

Further Reductions in Public Investment

The implications of the potential further annual reduction of £40m per annum in public investment in higher education, and the impact of this on the University going forward, remain a very real concern. A comprehensive and proactive Communications Plan to engage all stakeholders in promoting the value and contribution of higher education to Northern Ireland and its economy has been executed. The Plan highlights the need to maintain investment in higher education if Northern Ireland is to retain a sustainable and competitive sector where students, from all backgrounds, continue to have fair access to a local world-class higher education system offering a full breadth of provision.

Thank you for your engagement in the “Election Doorstep Campaign” to challenge political parties and Assembly candidates prior to the elections on 5 May 2011. Building on the momentum of the Doorstep Challenge, many of you have also been engaged in a “Lobbying Letter Campaign” which ran until Friday, 24 June 2011 – this campaign involved staff writing directly to the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, and the Committee for Employment and Learning, to ensure that the funding of higher education remained a top priority on the political agenda.

The University has also provided a detailed response to the DEL Consultation on the Future Policy on Higher Education Tuition Fees and Student Finance Arrangements in Northern Ireland – this is available here.

We continue to make strong representation directly to the new Minister for Employment and Learning, Dr Stephen Farry MLA, the Northern Ireland Assembly’s Committee for Employment and Learning, the main political parties and the wider business community. A further briefing paper was provided to the Committee for Employment and Learning in advance of the University giving evidence to the Committee on 22 June 2011 – a copy of this document is available here.

The University also hosted a stakeholder event in Stormont Buildings on Monday, 27 June 2011 – this event showcased our education and research strengths and demonstrated vividly the University’s economic and societal impact. Again I am grateful to all staff and students who represented the University and articulated directly to MLAs the importance of higher education and the value of their work to society.

As I close this letter, it is extremely disappointing to report that the most recent attempts by the Minister to secure agreement for the future funding of higher education and student support have yet to reach a successful conclusion, and this process remains ongoing. It is, of course, for the Executive to decide how and when this matter is to be resolved. However, early resolution is essential to remove the uncertainty faced by Northern Ireland students, and our universities. We will continue to work with the Minister, and all our elected representatives, to secure a timely and sustainable solution. Our campaign, therefore, remains very much work-in-progress and I will continue to keep you fully informed of developments, both directly and through our dedicated website:
http://www.qub.ac.uk/home/hefunding/

Finally, let me take this opportunity to thank you for all your efforts during this past academic year and wish you a well earned holiday break at some point during July/August.

Professor Sir Peter Gregson
President and Vice-Chancellor