UCU accuses university leaders of ‘playing games’ following calls to forego strikes

The University and College Union (UCU) have accused university leaders of ‘playing games’, following an open letter published by the University and Colleges Employers’ Association (UCEA) and Universities UK (UUK) which appealed to staff at the 60 institutions where industrial action is scheduled to start next Monday.

This is the latest update following the union vote on 5 November, in which 79 per cent of participating UCU members voted to back the strike over changes to pensions.

Commenting on the joint approach taken by the two respective bodies, the UCEA/UUK letter explains: “The disputes are distinct, covering different sets of higher education institutions – there are 340 employers in the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) and 147 [employers] for the pay dispute – and each is set within a separate bargaining arrangement. Such complexity makes it very difficult to find one national resolution”.

The UCEA/UUK letter, signed by various university leaders, acknowledges that UCU members will have been motivated by ‘strongly held views or concerns’ but argues against the UCU claims that its members are being ‘forced into industrial action, outlining various steps that the respective bodies have already undertaken to protect the value of pay and pensions for staff.”

The groups have drawn attention to the recent increase on employer contributions to pensions to 21.1 per cent of salary (from 18 per cent), leaving members to pay 9.6 per cent of salary (up from 8 per cent).

They have also emphasised the pay increases of between 3.65 per cent and 1.8 per cent which are to be implemented from August 2019.

Commenting on the UUK/UCEA letter, UUK president, professor Julia Buckingham, said: “In recent months, employers have taken significant steps to protect the value of both pensions and pay because we care about our dedicated and talented staff”.

Within the letter, the groups emphasised the continued strength of the pension scheme despite these increases. It stated: “USS remains an enviable pension scheme with excellent benefits and employers believe it is reasonable that individual members of USS also meet the scheme obligations to make a fair contribution to cover the rest of the increased cost of their pensions, by meeting the one-third share, as set out in the scheme rules.”

The letter also clarified that average payments in retirement for the USS scheme are worth nearly three times the national average for private sector DB schemes.

Representatives from UUK and UCEA have only offered further discussions around the three areas of the UCU claim that relate to causal employment, workload and gender equality - removing pay from the negotiating table.

In response, the UCU letter has refuted claims from UUK and UCEA that issues around these three other issues "were not extensively discussed", stating: “UCU’s position is clear: we have long pressed very hard on these issues, and we are prepared to meet to discuss all the issues of dispute in an attempt find a solution to them all.”

UCU vice president, Vicky Blake, stated in her response: “It is disappointing to learn that UCEA are lukewarm about a committed approach to negotiation as a way forward. In particular it is very concerning to learn that, although claiming to be open to talks without pre-conditions, UCEA are trying to introduce pre-conditions by attempting to exclude pay from any talks with UCU.

“We continue to welcome the opportunity to re-open negotiations on these issues, as long as such negotiations do not include a pre-condition that excludes discussion of pay.”

With the UUK UCEA joint letter having called for the industrial action to be foregone in favour of “further dialogue with the UCEA which [they] genuinely hope may be productive”, the UCU has suggested the organisations “meet as soon as possible, without pre-conditions, to seek to resolve the dispute.”

UCU’s Blake concluded: “We wish to attend talks that will allow explorations of all connected grounds of dispute further: our members want talks to happen, and they are determined we need to achieve a more comprehensive solution to this dispute than that which has been imposed without agreement.”

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