UCU branches call for industrial and legal action as USS valuation tensions persist

Industrial action is "likely" to be needed to resolve the ongoing issues surrounding the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), with further potential for legal action, according to recent motions passed by the Heriot-Watt and University College London (UCL) branches of University and College Union (UCU).

The UCL branch of the union called for a “grassroots campaign” to stop the “pensions theft”, saying that the fight was for current and future members.

The UCL motion stated that industrial action is “likely” to be needed to stop the “attack” on pensions, predicting that this may happen as early as Autumn 2021, and urged members to support a ballot for industrial action, if and when it is called.

It also encouraged members to support broader UCU initiatives and develop campaign materials in an effort to “demystify” the valuation and the projected deficit, and challenge the USS "propaganda" that the scheme is in deficit.

"The USS scheme was the brainchild of our union, not the gift of employers. Our members won it by a hard fight over many years. We will not be able to replace it once lost," it stated.

The UCU previously held "unprecedented" strike action in relation to affordability issues surrounding the scheme, with further action postponed amid the pandemic.

The Heriot-Watt UCU motion called on its employer to commit to retain the level of benefits, whilst also taking all necessary steps to keep employee contribution rates at or below their current level.

It has also called on the university to commit to a moratorium on leaving the scheme for the next 30 years and to lobby UUK for this to be the position for all USS employers, as well as insisting on governance reform at the USS, stating that “Bill Galvin has failed and should be removed”.

It argued that USS Employers and the broader UCU should take legal action against USS for “the failure of the trustee to consider the relevant question, in not considering the interests of members of the scheme”.

The Heriot-Watt branch emphasised that it views pensions as deferred wages, arguing that the USS valuation is “flawed” and does not reflect the real state of the pension scheme, with any deficit “greatly overstated”.

Furthermore, it argued that if there is a deficit, this is because the trustee allowed employers to underpay into the scheme in past, arguing that the responsibility to make good that underpayment therefore rests with the employer.

“We cannot keep entering disputes over our pensions, UCU should take enough action for this matter to be resolved fully,” it added.

In response to the motions, a USS spokesperson said: “We understand that our employers and members are concerned by the difficult decisions that lie ahead.

"Forward estimates of investment returns have made the valuable pension promise offered by USS much more expensive today than in the past.

"The reliance on the support of employers to underpin future returns is increasingly significant for both deficit recovery and pricing of future pensions, and we are in discussions with employers on the nature of this support.

"Everyone involved with USS wants to find a way forward that provides valuable and secure pensions. We are committed to being collaborative and constructive in our discussion with UUK and UCU and to working towards an appropriate solution.”

UCU has stated that it “cannot rule anything out” in light of the latest proposed contribution increases, holding a special sector conference for higher education branches to decide next steps.

Universities UK has also warned against the “unaffordable” pension contribution increases, recently calling for a review of the 2020 valuation approach, which employers described as “unhelpful”, with representatives for the University of Cambridge and Oxford highlighting “serious concerns” over the approach.

However, the USS has since rejected this request, stating that until new information materialises or an alternative proposal is outlined, there is no justifiable basis on which to review the outcomes illustrated in previous reports.

Universities UK plans to set out its proposals for dealing with the scheme's deficit later today (7 April).

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