Employers and union leaders have struck a deal on reforming UK university pensions, raising hopes that strike action, which is into its fourth week, could soon be suspended.
Universities UK and the University and College Union said that the agreement would see defined benefits – the element of the Universities Superannuation Scheme which guarantees members a set level of income in retirement – protected under transitional arrangements set to take effect in April 2019 and expected to last for three years.
Contributions from universities and staff would increase during the transition period, to 19.3 per cent for employers and 8.7 per cent for employees (currently 18 per cent and 8 per cent respectively).
Given concerns expressed by many universities and UCU about the scheme’s valuation methodology, which triggered reports of a £6.1 billion deficit and UUK’s proposal to end defined benefits, an independent expert valuation group would be convened to look into the issue.
And both sides would commit to “engage in meaningful discussions as soon as possible to explore risk sharing alternatives”, in particular “collective defined contributions”, with a view to putting the USS on a stable footing from 2022 onwards.
UCU said that the deal would be considered by its higher education committee and branch representatives on 13 March and, if they back the deal, strike action currently under way at 65 universities would be suspended as of 14 March.
UUK said that it would consult with its members ahead of a meeting of the USS joint negotiating committee on 14 March.
However, many union branches were quick to signal their dissatisfaction with the deal, using the hashtag #NoCapitulation on Twitter.
The University of Liverpool branch issued a statement which said that members “in our branch and across the country did not join one of the most impressive shows of collective solidarity in the face of restrictive trade union laws for a compromise offer that does not guarantee them decency in retirement”.
“Liverpool UCU call on all branches to reject this unacceptable offer and demand that UCU ensure a deal is brought about that is commensurate to the sacrifice of their members,” the branch said.
USS members are currently down to be on strike for all of this week over UUK’s original proposals for pension reforms, which UCU says would leave the typical lecturer £10,000 worse off every year in retirement.
The joint statement issued by UUK and UCU says that UCU would “encourage its members to prioritise the rescheduling of teaching in order to minimise the disruption to students” from the strike.
UUK, meanwhile, says it would ask institutions “to consider ways in which the financial impact [of the strike] on graduate teaching assistants may be minimised”, although there is no agreement on restoring pay lost by more senior staff.
Under the transitional arrangements, defined benefits would accrue on salaries of up to £42,000, rather than £55,000, as is currently the case.
UUK and UCU say that “trust needs to be rebuilt following this dispute”, adding that the agreement “demonstrates a commitment by both parties to work together and avoid damaging disputes in the future”.