Universities could strike over pensions 'before the end of the year'

The University and College Union (UCU) has confirmed that strike ballots will open at UK universities on 18 October in response to proposed changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), with industrial action expected "before the end of the year".

The announcement follows a meeting of the union’s Higher Education Committee (HEC) on Monday (20 September), which confirmed the timetable for a ballot of 152 institutions.

Of these, six will be balloted on USS only, while 63 will be facing two ballots over both USS and pay, and a further 83 are to be balloted over pay and working conditions.

The union has said that it expects employers to return to negotiations with better offers in both disputes, or face action that could disrupt the end of term and the start of the next.

The ballots will run until 4 November, unless employers resolve the dispute prior to this, with the HEC to meet to consider the results on 8 November, ahead of expected action to take place before the end of the year.

UCU general secretary, Jo Grady, commented: "University staff propped up the entire sector during the pandemic, but they are now being thanked with huge cuts to their pensions, unbearably high workloads, and another below-inflation pay offer – all whilst universities continue to generate a handsome income from tuition fees.

"The truth is that very well paid university leadership, who manage institutions with bigger turnovers than top football clubs, are choosing to exploit the goodwill of staff, repeatedly refusing to address the rampant use of casualised contracts, unsafe workloads or the shocking gender and ethnicity pay gap in the sector.

"Our members across the UK know that working in a university does not have to be like this and are clear that they are ready to take action to stand up for their dignity, defend pensions and win long overdue improvements to their pay and working conditions.

"There is still time for university chiefs to resolve a situation which is entirely of their own making, but they must return to negotiations and make credible offers.”

Ballot action was announced following the news that Universities UK's (UUK) proposed changes to the scheme would progress to a consultation with affected members, with UCU warning that strike action had become "inevitable", having also previously warned of industrial action when the plans were initially outlined.

UUK's proposals, which were announced amid concerns over "unaffordable" contribution levels, would see the salary cap for the scheme reduced to £40,000 a year, indexation capped at 2.5 per cent, and members' pension accrual rate would reduce from 1/75th to 1/85th.

In contrast, under UCU’s proposals, employers would pay a 3.8 per cent increase to 24.9 per cent, whilst USS members would pay 1.5 per cent less than they do currently to 8.1 per cent.

The UCU also proposed plans for members to choose to pay lower contributions of 0 per cent or 4 per cent, while receiving the same level of contributions from their employer and continuing to build up a guaranteed pension, at a proportionately lower accrual rate.

The accrual rate, however, would again be reduced from 1/75 to 1/80, and the salary threshold up to which defined benefits are accrued would also be lowered to £40,000, as in UUK's proposals.

The union said that the proposals were previously presented to the Joint Negotiating Committee, but that employers refused to match the 'enhanced' level of covenant support for UCU’s proposal as they were for their own, although UUK has previously disputed this.

UUK, on behalf of USS employers, said that it is “disappointed UCU is campaigning for industrial action over reforms to USS, as they have not proposed a viable solution of their own.”

The spokesperson stated: "The USS trustee’s assessment of the scheme’s costs means reforms are needed; no change is not an option. The employers’ reform proposal will prevent harmful and unaffordable rises in contributions.

"UCU may not like the legal and regulatory constraints pensions operate under, but it is irresponsible to make students and staff suffer as a result.

“The reforms voted for by the Joint Negotiating Committee ensure good benefits can be provided for affordable contributions, but employers will still consider alternative solutions.

"Employers have asked UCU to put forward alternative proposals, but as yet, none have been forthcoming. By proceeding with ballots, the union appears unconcerned by higher contributions, pay cuts, job losses, damage to the student experience, and financial hardship for their members, that will all result if employers are forced to pay more into pensions."

The spokesperson also confirmed that UCU has been formally invited to work with employers to develop lower-cost options for members, consider alternative scheme designs, including conditional indexation and a review of the scheme’s governance.

“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," they added.

However, UCU's plans for industrial action have been supported by the National Union of Students (NUS), with national president, Larissa Kennedy, stating that “students will hold employers responsible”.

She continued: “As students, we regularly witness how staff and student’s conditions are intertwined. University management forcing staff onto casualised contracts, cutting their pay, and now trying to cut thousands of pounds from their pensions cannot be divorced from the fact that one in 10 students has needed to access a foodbank to survive the pandemic - these aren’t the actions of a university leadership or an education system that have the interests of staff or students at heart.

“We demand fully funded, accessible, lifelong education where our spaces of teaching and learning belong to the students, staff and communities they exist to serve.

“Until then, it is entirely in the gift of vice chancellors and employers to come to a negotiated settlement and address the fundamental issues repeatedly raised by staff. If they don’t, students will hold employers responsible.”

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