Universities to face further strike action over USS concerns

Around 68 universities across the UK could face strike action after University and College Union (UCU) reballots saw staff at a further 12 universities vote to back industrial action over pensions, pay and working condition concerns.

Of the 12 institutions joining industrial action, six now have a mandate on pensions and pay, while five have a mandate over pay, and one has voted to join action over proposed changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) only.

A number of universities already faced strike action in December over proposed changes to the pension scheme, with the union confirming that it would reballot some universities that narrowly missed the mandate threshold.

The union previously warned that strike action was "inevitable" after proposals from Universities UK (UUK) progressed to member consultation, with its modeller suggesting that this could result in a 35 per cent cut to member benefits, although UUK has argued that this figure was "misleading".

UCU has now warned that if the disputes cannot be resolved then more strikes will take place this year, demanding that employers revoke the proposed changes to the scheme.

The UCU branches and Higher Education Committee will also be meeting this week to consider next steps and the potential dates for action.

UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: “Staff in universities across the UK are angry at having their pensions, pay & working conditions continually attacked, and that’s why thousands more UCU members at another 12 universities have voted to join industrial action this academic term.

“Employers, who have demonstrated super-human levels of intransigence during these disputes, have no one else to blame but themselves for the position the sector finds itself in.

“We truly hope that further disruption can be avoided - that is what staff and students alike all want. But this is entirely in the gift of employers who simply need to revoke their devastating pension cuts and take long-overdue action over deteriorating pay and working conditions.”

However, a spokesperson for USS Employers warned that students “will be dismayed that the union is considering more strike action yet still not proposing any solution to this dispute”.

They stated: “We will be considering the responses to the recent scheme member consultation fully with employers, UCU and USS in the coming weeks.

“The USS Trustee has stated, however, that any further changes need to be agreed quickly – by the end of February – to avoid the start of the punishing and unaffordable cost escalator in April which would see the already high member and employer contribution rates almost double over the next three years.

“No employer has indicated any willingness to pay such exorbitant costs – and we know that if these higher rates go ahead they would have devastating consequences for many employers and price more members out of the scheme.”

USS Employers also emphasised that it remains prepared to consult employers on “any reasonable, affordable and implementable proposal from UCU, including on the level of covenant support they could afford to offer it”.

“Meanwhile, we continue to progress work on possible alternative scheme design, a lower-cost option and shaping an independent review of scheme governance,” they said.

“We’re calling on UCU to take part in all these discussions on the scheme’s future because it is important that the views of scheme members are represented.”

Indeed, USS Employers recently confirmed that a working group has been set up by the USS Joint Negotiating Committee (JNC) to explore the introduction of low-cost options for pension scheme members, with a report expected in April 2022, and a consultation on the recommended changes following this.

Work is also underway to consider whether the use of conditional indexation, which has been previously highlighted as a potential option by employers, could make the scheme more sustainable in the long-term and provide better value.

However, USS Employers said that whilst USS Trustee has committed to supporting the stakeholder group, UCU is not currently able to participate in these discussions, although it is hoped that they will be able to provide input in the near future.

The 12 further universities joining industrial action following the reballot were Swansea University, Newcastle University, University for the Creative Arts, Northumbria University, Queen Mary University, Writtle University College, City, University of London, University of Westminster, Oxford Brookes University, University of Leicester, University of Strathclyde, and Courtauld Institute of Art.

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