Ballots on USS strike action begin

University and College Union (UCU) has begun balloting members on potential strike action over proposed changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), alongside pay and working condition concerns.

Ballots have opened at 152 institutions and will run until 4 November, with six institutions to be balloted on USS only and 78 to be balloted on pay and working conditions, while a further 68 will face ballots on both issues.

The ballots were announced amid proposals from University UK (UUK), which would see the salary cap for the scheme reduced from £60,000 a year to £40,000 a year and indexation capped at 2.5 per cent a year in an effort to avoid unaffordable contribution levels.

However, UCU warned that strike action was "inevitable" after the proposals progressed to a member consultation, with its modeller suggesting that members could face a 35 per cent defined benefit cut under the proposals.

UCU general secretary, Jo Grady, commented: “University staff are the backbone of the sector, but for a decade they have been thanked with massive cuts to their pensions, collapsing pay and the rampant use of insecure contracts.

“The university sector is worth tens of billions of pounds, but the uncomfortable truth is that this success is built on exploitation, with staff denied dignity in work and in retirement by vice chancellors on eye watering salaries.

“Industrial action can easily be avoided if employers withdraw their disgraceful pension cuts and make credible offers on pay and working conditions. These are not radical demands, but the bare minimum staff deserve and in the best interests of the sector as a whole.

“Employers have three weeks to sort this out. If they don't, the blame for any disruption will fall squarely at their feet.”

Commenting in response to this statement, UUK, speaking on behalf of USS Employers, emphasised that discussions around the scheme valuation are "still ongoing", expressing disappointment that the union is pressing ahead with strike action ballots.

A UUK spokesperson stated: “The proposed reforms secure USS’ status as one of the most attractive pension schemes in the country, and eliminate the need for massive contribution rises that would severely reduce pay and force employers to make cutbacks in other budgets.

“Discussions over the valuation are still ongoing. Employers met with UCU representatives last Tuesday (12 October), and further meetings are planned for the coming weeks.

"However, it is hard to see how UCU’s demands can be reconciled without an alternative solution, which we have consistently asked them for and are willing to consult employers on."

UUK also argued that students do not deserve any further disruption after a "difficult 18 months", stating that "it is unclear why UCU thinks it’s appropriate for students to suffer due to the scheme’s increased costs and the regulatory constraints under which pensions operate in the UK".

UUK's spokesperson continued: “Workplace pensions are extremely important and UCU’s misleading use of a 35 per cent reduction may lead staff to make life changing decisions and opt out of USS, missing out on an employer contribution of 21.4 per cent towards their retirement.

“In fact, last week the USS trustee published modelling which shows that for university staff on a range of salary levels, the annual pension reduction would be between 10 and 18 per cent; not 35 per cent, which UCU has calculated without taking into account the defined contributions element of the scheme.

“If no changes are made, USS will implement unaffordable contribution rises from April 2022, escalating every six months and reaching 18.8 per cent for members and 38.2 per cent for employers by 2025.

“Universities are well prepared to mitigate the impact of any industrial action on students’ learning, and minimise disruption for those staff choosing not to take part.”

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