Strike action over pension changes begins at UK universities

Strike action across 150 UK universities has begun today (1 February), with over 70,000 staff expected to be on strike as part of the University and College Union’s (UCU) ongoing dispute over pay, working conditions and pensions.

The strike is the first of 18 days of industrial action that is estimated to impact 2.5 million students through February and March, also following previous strike action in November 2022.

In the pensions dispute, the union urged employers to revoke recent changes to the USS scheme, arguing that the package of reforms made in 2022 will see the average member lose 35 per cent of their guaranteed future retirement income.

Calls for employers to reverse the changes have been heightened amid recent funding improvements, with figures from the scheme trustee highlighted by the UCU as evidence that the scheme could afford to retroactively restore pension benefits.

Commenting on the start of the strike action, UCU general secretary, Jo Grady, stated: "University vice-chancellors have been given multiple opportunities to use the sector’s vast wealth to resolve these disputes. Instead, they have forced staff back to the picket line and brought disruption to students.

"Staff aren’t asking for much. They want a decent pay rise, secure employment and for devastating pension cuts to be reversed. These demands are reasonable and deliverable by a sector which has over £40bn in reserves.

"Students back their staff taking action because they see day in day out the way that it treats those who do the work inside our universities.

"There are 17 further days of strike action planned but it can be avoided. For that, we need university bosses to get serious and make much improved offers. If they don’t any disruption that takes place is entirely their responsibility.’

However, USS Employers argued that the USS remains one of the most attractive private pension schemes in the country, noting that employer contribution rates are around three times higher than the average employer contribution rate among the FTSE 250 companies.

Commenting ahead of planned industrial action, a spokesperson for Universities UK on behalf of USS employers said: “It is disappointing to once again be facing industrial action and the top priority for universities will be putting in place a series of measures to protect students’ learning.

"However, we expect action to again be limited and the action faced in recent years means universities are well prepared to manage any pockets of disruption.

“Employers and UCU share the goal of a secure, valuable, and affordable retirement income for university staff – and the USS remains one of the most attractive private pension schemes in the country, with employer contribution rates already around three times higher than the average employer contribution rate among the FTSE 250 companies.

“The reality is that for some considerable time, universities have had to do more with less and make up the shortfall on the cost of teaching and support from elsewhere in budgets because fees have not kept pace with inflation.

"This is the context in which we would ask members of the UCU to consider whether to join the picket lines in the weeks ahead, and we will continue to speak to the union to work towards an agreement as far as it is possible to do so.”

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