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Issue 473, 19 November 2001

Universities should question and criticise

Dick Taylor
School of Continuing Education

Why should we, as a University community, care about the war currently being waged by the world’s richest nation — the USA — against the people of one of the poorest?

Like many universities, we have been actively engaged in debates (and protests) over many other wars since the 1960s. In my own school, historian and peace campaigner E. P. Thompson, was a particularly prominent and influential campaigner in the anti-nuclear movement and in the ‘second wave’ of peace campaigning in the 1980s against Reagan’s and Thatcher’s militarism. This University, as others, was galvanized, morally and politically, through debate and protest against many Cold War adventures and suppressions of the late 20th century (notably the Vietnam War).

Universities should surely be characterised, among other things, by moral concern, and political debate. Yet one of the gloomiest of Thatcherite (and now Blairite?) legacies seems to be a lethal mix of apathy, cynicism, and maybe an implicit acceptance of Fukuyama’s ‘end of history’ thesis.

We should, surely, be drawing attention to the fallacious elision by our Government of, on the one hand, detestation of the terrible events of September 11, the rejection of the vile regime of the Taliban and the terrorists to whom they give succour, and, on the other, the prosecution of a war which is, in effect, against innocent and impoverished people. Not only is this morally outrageous, it is politically crass — as CND and a handful of ‘rebel’ Labour MPs have pointed out.

Following September 11 there was, more or less, a world-wide coalition: the current killing campaign is rapidly destroying that unity, inciting racial and religious intolerance and fanaticism, and doubtless producing hundreds, if not thousands, of future Bin Ladens. There were — and maybe still are — alternatives, as those opposed to the war have pointed out (and as the Leeds A.U.T. motion of November 20 indicates). And there are difficult and contentious political re-formations to be made, not least over Palestine and over the West’s continuing support for clearly corrupt and brutal regimes. These fundamental political issues, though, are rarely discussed.

The university system in this country has become perhaps so identified with utilitarian, conformist and uncritical perspectives that it is unable or unwilling to take a critical stand on the matters of principle underlying such ‘big issues’.

When it is necessary, universities should question and criticise governments whose policies run counter to the rational and moral precepts of democratic society. There can be little doubt that the present situation demands such protest from universities. There is, though, precious little indication that such dissent is being voiced, either by individual institutions or by our national representative bodies.

Different terms are fair and practical

Vicky Statler
Estate Services

In response to Fred Whitaker’s letter (Reporter 472), estate services has a policy of seeking ‘best value’ and continuous improvement in the provision of its services. The University follows good industrial relations practice in protecting employees individually through organisational change according to management/union agreements. The reality is that new employees are engaged on different terms and conditions. This is the only practical and fair way to make organisational changes.

New staff who accept posts on advertised terms may subsequently choose to view this as unfair, but should recognise that they work for a professional organisation which will do all that is possible to protect them as employees.

Compensation for Equitable Life loss

Roger Ward
Mechanical Engineering

Most colleagues will have heard of the problems being faced by Equitable Life but may not realise that this directly affects those members of the University Pensions and Assurance Scheme who have been paying with-profits additional voluntary contributions. To date they have lost a year’s growth of their contributions plus a 16% reduction in their fund value. PAS members are generally lower-paid support staff such as technicians and secretaries, and this they can ill-afford.

While the University pensions office moved swiftly at the first sign of trouble to prevent further contributions being invested in the with-profits fund, the trustees’ advisers have made no recommendations at all in the intervening ten months while members’ contributions continued to be whittled away.

Perhaps the University could consider compensating those members of the PAS who have sought to improve their standard of living in retirement using the AVC scheme which it made available?

Pensions manager Geoff Parkinson responds:

The impact of Equitable Life’s problems on the with-profits AVC funds held by some PAS members is regrettable, and, as Roger Ward indicates, the University reacted quickly to avoid these members being further disadvantaged.

Those who have continued to pay AVCs have been kept fully informed of the position and the options open to them with regard to future investments. It has not yet been possible for the PAS scheme actuary to advise the trustees as to the best course of action with regard to members’ existing with-profits funds, since Equitable Life are themselves still considering their position. The trustees will make proposals to the members affected as soon as they are in a position to do so.

Any form of investment linked to the financial market carries an element of risk. Although the PAS trustees have made available a range of alternative AVC funds, they are prevented from providing advice on the most appropriate form of investment for individual members. They are not, therefore, liable to provide compensation in cases where the member’s chosen investment performs poorly.

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