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Anatomy of a desperate accusation

October 3, 2014

A reflection by Mark Taylor-Batty, UCU president at Leeds

So there I was, emailing personal tutees to help with some discovery module timetable issues, and preparing for a PhD supervision meeting, when into my inbox dropped an email that contained a link to a page on which it told me that I was misrepresenting facts to hundreds of my colleagues. And hundreds of my colleagues were being told I was doing this.

Now, that’s a bit harsh, don’t you think?

I’ve been doing my best over a period of weeks to digest significantly difficult and complex data, history and information around the current ‘deficit’ of the USS scheme and the employer proposals that were made public over the summer, and to present that in accurate, straightforward ways for friends, colleagues and UCU members. And now they publish a statement that says I’m misrepresenting everything. Ouch.

Deep breath.

I looked more closely at the statement, and something about its syntax, its structure, smacked of the awkward. This was a statement in the flux of panic. Look at it:

The UCU modelling that is provided as supporting evidence for the ballot for industrial action is premature and ill-informed. By disregarding the modelling being considered jointly by UCU and UUK, UCU has provided misinformation to its members even though the employers’ proposals for reform have not yet been finalised and are the subject of continuing discussion between UUK and UCU.

Does it seem right to you? Let’s consider it part by part:

‘The UCU modelling that is provided as supporting evidence for the ballot for industrial action is premature and ill-informed.’

Grammatically, in this sentence, it is the ‘modelling’ that the subject of the adjectives ‘premature’ and ‘ill-informed’. But later in the following sentence they say they are doing modelling too. So if now is the time for modelling, how is one set premature and the other not? Surely it is reasonable and responsible for a union to provide detailed evidence for its members when asking them to consider industrial action. You need to do that before the ballot for industrial action, so how is our work ‘premature’? What would they say if we called for industrial action without presenting evidence? And how is that modelling ‘ill-informed’?  The UCU have published the actuarial basis for the modelling in all its tedious detail. You can go away and look at that detail and decide if the assumptions behind our calculations are reasonable, or if they have been skewed to boost the figures. Clue: they haven’t. The employers have not provided you with any such calculations or assumptions, so we don’t know how well- or ill-informed their modelling is, but it’s quite clear that ours is informed to the last decimal point and actuarial footnote.

And now the rump of it:

‘By disregarding the modelling being considered jointly by UCU and UUK, UCU has provided misinformation to its members even though the employers’ proposals for reform have not yet been finalised and are the subject of continuing discussion between UUK and UCU.’

Look at the structure of the second sentence:  ‘By disregarding… UCU has provided… even though’. It doesn’t know which way it’s turning. It strings together numerous clauses that struggle for attention as the mind reads the sentence through to the end. This has not been written calmly, or with attention to meaningful detail. It clearly wants to DO something much more than it is able to SAY anything, and what it wants to DO is have you come out of its messy structure thinking that the UCU are not being honest. That’s its message. But its component parts don’t really lead to that, do they?

Firstly, there is a claim that UCU are disregarding the modelling being jointly considered by UCU and UUK. It is not possible to both consider and disregard something simultaneously.

Secondly, following the logic of the structure and syntax, it is ‘by disregarding’ that ‘UCU has provided misinformation’. This does not even make sense. Does nobody check the copy? The act of disregarding a mode of modelling – which we also learn we have not done – does not in and of itself mean that misinformation is created. If we want to generate misinformation we do it by creating something, not disregarding something. Surely.

Then, rather than starting another sentence, a third clause continues the dawdle away from sense. The first two clauses want to operate together (‘by disregarding… the UCU has…’) and then the the third wants to take ownership of the second (the UCU has… even though…). If this was a student’s work, it would have my track comments all over it.

Let’s look at that ‘even though’. Apparently UCU has provided misinformation even though the employers’ proposals are not finalised, those clauses state. What, should we wait for the finalised proposals before we give misinformation? Because that’s what that ‘even though’ is doing. Must do better.

So, actually, it is not clear what the source of the misinformation is, because of the garbled and poor syntax which sits around that accusation.

Now, enough textual analysis, let’s consider the facts. The employers published some draft proposals over the summer. UCU took them and let members know – this is informing members, not misinforming members. We then modelled some outcomes for pensions based on the employers’ published draft proposals and a set of common principles (age, length of service, inflationary possibilities, you name it) all of which are perfectly usual for such calculations. Independent actuaries did it all. This is informing members, not misinforming them. Going further, to be transparent, we published the assumptions, so that members were fully informed about how we had made the calculations. In what reality is this misinformation?

But it gets even more bizarre. On the very same page that the University of Leeds place this poorly proofed and badly structured UUK accusation against me and my colleagues, they offer links (at the bottom) to the exact same set of proposals that the text seems to want to claim is not ‘final’ yet. The self same set of proposals that have informed the UCU information and calculations. Go figure. They are screaming ‘don’t trust the UCU, they are not telling you the truth when they tell you the exact detail of the links we are here giving you’.

Let’s be clear: the accusation of misinformation is itself an overt and not too canny act of misinformation. It will convince the people who want to be convinced anyway, but nobody else.

All this indicates a rather desperate response to USS members’ growing disquiet. To date, the employers have chosen to remain silent on this matter. Why? They have known about it for the best part of the year, but have opted to say nothing to their staff, despite knowing the devastating impact their proposals might have. They break their silence – surprise surprise – the day after the ballot opens. They complain that we have offered calculations backed up by actuarial advice, but do not offer you their calculations backed by actuarial advice. Why?

Who do you trust?

File under: ’employers’ own goal’.

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