Union members have voted by a two-to-one margin to accept a deal aimed at ending UK higher education’s pension dispute, triggering the suspension of industrial action that bought huge disruption to campuses.
The University and College Union said that 64 per cent of members had voted to accept a deal offered by Universities UK on the future of the Universities Superannuation Scheme. Thirty-six per cent of voting members voted against the offer, on a turnout of 63.5 per cent.
The agreement follows 14 days of strikes at 65 universities and represents a victory for Sally Hunt, the UCU general secretary, who had urged acceptance a “yes” vote in the face of vociferous opposition from some union branches.
The deal will also come as a relief to the UUK leadership, which was under increasing pressure to end a dispute which many viewed as having poisoned relations on campuses and had been forced to drop its original proposal to end the element of the USS that guaranteed members a set level of income in retirement.
A further 14 days of strikes, timed to hit universities’ examination and assessment periods, have now been called off.
Under the deal, an expert panel composed of actuarial and academic experts nominated in equal numbers by UUK and UCU will be set up to assess the valuation of the USS – and to draw up proposals on contributions and benefits aimed at maintaining defined benefits.
It was the USS’ own estimation of a £6.1 billion deficit that led to UUK’s original proposals to end defined benefits, but many academics have argued that this takes an excessively negative view of the scheme’s prospects. UCU and UUK will now jointly try to win the backing of the USS board and the Pensions Regulator to revisit the valuation.
UCU said that it would keep its strike mandate live until this has been achieved.
Ms Hunt hailed the deal as an “agreement to move forward jointly, looking again at the USS valuation alongside a commitment from the employers to a guaranteed, defined benefit scheme”.
“USS, the regulator and government now need to ensure that UCU and UUK have the space to implement the agreement effectively,” Ms Hunt said. “We hope this important agreement will hearten workers across the UK fighting to defend their pension rights and was won through the amazing strike action of UCU members.
“UCU has more work to do to ensure that the agreement delivers the security in retirement that university staff deserve.”
Ms Hunt also faces a challenge rebuilding unity within the UCU, with some union members having forcefully argued against abandoning picket lines without a deal that clearly outlined what level of contributions and benefits can be expected in future.
A UUK spokesman said that the agreement “gives students important reassurance that they won’t be affected by further disruption during their summer study and exam period”.
“Reviewing the methodology and assumptions in the current valuation will build confidence, trust and increase transparency in the valuation process,” the spokesman said. “It will provide an opportunity to consider the questions raised about the valuation by scheme members and employers.
“It is important that interested parties engage with the panel and remain open-minded about its possible findings.”
Shakira Martin, the president of the National Union of Students, said that she was “pleased” to see that UCU had secured a deal. “Students have wholeheartedly chosen to support their staff during this dispute,” she said.