UCU threatens strike action amid proposed USS changes

University and College Union (UCU) has threatened industrial action in response to proposed changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), branding Universities UK's (UUK) consultation as “merely a PR exercise to justify slashing pensions”.

UUK launched the consultation after it published proposals for an alternative path to the 2020 USS valuation, which included proposals to cut the salary cap indexation at 2.5 per cent a year and reduce the rate of members' pension accrual.

However, the UCU has warned that the proposals to cut defined benefits (DB), are “unacceptable and will hit hard” for those earning over £40,000, arguing that it is “also disappointing to see UUK fail to be up front about the slashing" of accrual rates and the indexation cap.

In addition to this, the union argued that there is no need for a further governance review of the USS, with previous reviews commissioned by both UCU and UUK in 2018 concluding that the scheme was sustainable and defined benefits could be made more affordable.

UCU general secretary, Jo Grady, also called on UUK to publish the individual employer responses to its pension proposals consultation, arguing that “otherwise it will be seen as nothing more than a PR exercise readying the ground for more cuts”.

She stated: “Members of the USS pension scheme appear to be trapped between an employer group that wants to cut pensions and a trustee that refuses to listen to scheme members or experts - all to meet a crisis in a pension scheme that doesn't exist, based on a valuation that many have raised concerns about.

"USS has now made clear that it will not be placated by UUK's proposed cuts to DB, claiming that further savings need to be found. UUK must therefore come clean and be honest about what further cuts it plans to support.

"Over 20,000 people have now used UCU's pension modeller to see how much they stand to lose under proposals put forward by UUK and members have shown they will fight to stop seeing their pensions eroded.

"UUK can either work with us to push USS to scrap its valuation, and make the changes necessary to maintain current benefit and contribution rates, or it can choose to face a ballot for industrial action, which UCU members voted for at this year's congress.'

Commenting in response to the concerns, a Universities UK spokesperson, on behalf of USS Employers, said: “Employers would be very willing to consider alternative, feasible and affordable proposals from the UCU to tackle the scheme’s financial challenges -– so far the union hasn’t put forward any possible solution. Unfortunately, no change is not a viable option.

“We hope the union will work with us and suggest ways of tackling the immediate financial challenges to avoid ruinous contribution increases, and to explore longer-term changes, including a governance review, a flexible option for members and conditional indexation.”

UCU previously called on members to prepare for industrial action, warning at the onset of the consultation that industrial action is "likely" over the proposed changes to the scheme.

Despite this, USS Employers have come out in support of the proposed changes to the scheme, with the Russell Group of Universities having also argued that reform is needed to put the scheme on "stable, long-term footing".

However, The Pensions Regulator has now written to the scheme trustees stating that the proposal for a maintained contribution rate of 30.7 per cent is "not acceptable".

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