Universities union bids for a ‘way out’ to avert fresh strikes

·4 min read

The leading university staff union has said that if its proposals on pensions are heard, this offers a “way out” of imminent strike action.

The University and College Union (UCU) has called for new pension proposals to be formally tabled and voted on.

It has called for the financial health of the pension scheme to be evaluated, as well as for employers to pay more towards the scheme from April 2023.

The UCU says cuts to pensions were agreed in March 2020 as the pandemic hit, and that justifications for the cuts have now “evaporated”.

The news comes after the UCU said earlier this month that a further 10 institutions could face walkouts in disputes over pensions, pay and conditions, after staff at 58 took part in a three-day strike in December ahead of Christmas.

A fresh round of reballots means that universities including Newcastle, Swansea, Queen Mary, University of London, and Oxford Brookes could face action this term.

The UCU has claimed that cuts to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) pension scheme would reduce the guaranteed retirement income of a typical member by 35%, and has suggested that university staff pay has fallen by about a fifth after 12 years of pay offers below inflation.

Staff are employed on “insecure” contracts, the UCU has said.

It has called for cuts to the pension scheme to be revoked, and that members should be offered a £2,500 pay increase, as well as action to tackle “unmanageable workloads” and “insecure contracts”.

In a letter to Judith Fish, chairwoman of the USS joint negotiating committee, which decides how the USS pension scheme is managed, Jo Grady, general secretary of the UCU, said the proposals could offer a “way out” of strike action later in the year.

“Further significant industrial action is imminent, but UCU’s proposals offer a way out that can avoid disruption across UK universities, protect scheme members and allow for a negotiated settlement,” she said.

In a statement, Ms Grady said that the “serious proposals” would “see both employers and employees pay slightly more to protect retirement benefits”.

“Employers can stop this dispute at any time and have been offered a route out which protects pensions and averts widespread disruption on university campuses,” she said.

“Employers have maintained they need to make a 35% cut to the guaranteed retirement income of scheme members, but that is based on a flawed valuation conducted in March 2020 whilst markets were crashing.

“The pension scheme’s assets have since jumped by more than £25bn to over £92bn, an unprecedented level, meaning employers’ justification for the cuts has now evaporated,” she said.

A Universities UK spokesman, on behalf of USS employers, said: “We will share UCU’s proposal to complete the 2020 valuation with employers.

UCU pensions dispute
The UCU has said employers have a route out of more strikes if they hear proposals on raising pension contributions (Jane Barlow/PA)

“UCU’s suggestion that employers pay 23.7% of salary from April – an increase of 2.3% and over £200 million more a year – rising to 25.2% next year, is far beyond the mandate employers have given UUK.

“No employer has agreed to pay such high costs because of the damaging impact on teaching, research, the student experience, and jobs,” they said.

They added that the increase in member contributions and salary proposed would make the scheme “unaffordable for many staff, and undoubtedly increase the already high drop-out rate among the lower-paid”.

“The union’s proposal does not appear to be a serious attempt to reach agreement as it doesn’t reflect the views employers have expressed in consultations,” they said.

“Employers will also question why the proposal has arrived so late in the valuation cycle – especially since industrial action has already been taken – and will be keen to understand why it differs significantly from that previously briefed to the media by UCU, which proposed benefit reforms to tackle the scheme’s increased costs.”

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