UPDATED - USS pension dispute at 'stalemate' following UUK consultation

Universities UK (UUK) and the University and College Union (UCU) have reached “stalemate”, after 84 per cent of employers voted to not fully cover increases to Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) contributions.

UUK's consultation collected responses from 111 employer and consulted on whether employers wished to increase their contributions on top of the additional 3.1 per cent already committed to retain current benefits.

Collectively, just 18 employers voting to offer any additional employer contributions at 0.5 per cent or higher.

Commenting on the results, Oxford Brookes vice chancellor and Employers Pension Forum for higher education member, Professor Alistair Fitt, said: “It’s disappointing to be here again, with a second walkout in three months.

“With employers having moved as far as they can afford to, and the union refusing to accept any increase in costs for scheme members, well really we’re currently at stalemate, and we face 14 more days of strike action, and this time at 74 universities, 54 of those over the pensions dispute.

"We would put any reasonable compromise from the union to employers, but as you will know, the union, UCU, has so far shown no desire to move from its ‘no detriment’ position, which essentially states that there can be no cuts to benefits and no increase to member contributions.

"The suggestion that employers should make up all of the contribution increases, is simply not affordable”.

Commenting on the consultation, UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: "Vice-chancellors have had months to come up with serious offers to avoid widespread disruption on UK campuses.

"Their failings are clear for all to see today and the blame for the disruption caused by the strikes lays squarely at their door.

"It is incredible they can accuse the union of acting in bad faith when they refuse to talk about the pay issue and have spent a whole week failing to come up with an offer on pensions.

"Worryingly, it looks like the hardline vice-chancellors who wish to prolong this dispute are still pulling the strings at Ucea and at UUK.

"Although vice-chancellors are refusing to budge, UCU remains ready to discuss all elements of the disputes and to work towards a resolution."

UUK has also drawn attention to the spread of employers that contribute to the USS scheme, acknowledging that while many are large and historic institutions, there are much smaller organisations to be considered.

Fitt added: “Because all employers have to contribute the same, you’ll understand that further increases run the risk of overwhelming smaller employers.

“While it may be true that some employers can pay more, most cannot. It will have a significant impact on the wider university environment with funding diverted from teaching and research projects alike”.

Strike action at 74 universities is expected to begin this Thursday (20 February), with 14 days’ worth of strike action, and action short of a strike, scheduled throughout the next month.

Following fresh strike ballots held in January, 14 further universities have joined the strike action, with the number of universities being hit by the “unprecedented” action the largest since a two-day nationwide strike in 2016.

Commenting on the imminent strike action, Grady added: “It is incredibly frustrating that UCU members are being forced to walk out again to secure fair pay, conditions and pensions. This unprecedented level of action shows just how angry staff are at their universities' refusal to negotiate properly with us.

“If universities want to avoid further disruption then they need to get their representatives back to the negotiating table with serious options to resolve these disputes.”

Whilst concerns have been raised around the scale of the action, UCU emphasised that this was the “only thing that causes significant change in our sector”.

However, Fitt highlighted that the strike action held in November and December 2019 saw just 3 in 10 University staff actively participating, with many universities reporting no to low impact as a result.

Tripartite talks between USS, UCU and Universities UK (UUK) have been ongoing since January, with recommendations from the Joint Expert Panel’s second report and issues around the 2020 valuation of the scheme both discussed.

UUK head of pensions, Stuart McLean, commented: “The tripartite group has already met six times since January and over 20 hours of helpful talks about the scheme, and these talks are set to continue through the next few months.

“My feeling on the talks is that they have been extremely constructive, and focused on building a common understanding of the future direction of the scheme, playing into the 2020 valuation and looking at governance issues altogether.

“There has been an agreement by all three parties to establish a strategic discussion forum, which brings the senior representatives from the organisations together at least twice a year to look at longer term strategic issues that might be facing the scheme.

“It’s clear there is a very strong desire from all parties to work closely together on the future direction of the scheme.”

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