The marking boycott at pre-92 universities could be suspended next week after employers and union officials agreed to work towards a negotiated settlement on reform of the Universities Superannuation Scheme.
The University and College Union’s higher education committee will meet on 19 November to decide whether to put the industrial action on hold from the following day, after a schedule of formal and informal negotiations was agreed at a meeting with Universities UK representatives on 13 November.
This would be dependent on UUK institutions agreeing not to dock pay from staff who have taken part in the marking boycott. At least 10 institutions had announced plans to deduct the full salary of lecturers who participated – triggering votes for strikes and for full academic boycotts – while others proposed to dock up to 20 or 25 per cent.
In return, union members would agree to catch up “within a reasonable timescale” on any assessment backlog that had built up during the industrial action, which began on 6 November.
The proposals were confirmed in a joint statement issued by the UCU and UUK after the meeting of the Joint Negotiating Committee on the USS.
This said that both sides had submitted negotiating positions but “did not regard the current iteration as their final positions” and that no proposals had been put to the vote.
It is proposed that further meetings would now be held ahead of the next joint negotiating committee on 15 January, the statement said.
“The purpose of these meetings is to close the differences between the stakeholders’ negotiating positions, with a view to reaching agreement. This will include a meeting between the respective actuaries of the USS trustee board, UUK, and UCU,” the statement added.
“With the aim of encouraging productive discussions, UUK and UCU agree to consult their constituent structures on the prospect of suspending the current industrial action from 20 November 2014 until after the JNC scheduled for 15 January 2015.”
The first sign of a thaw had come when UCU put forward counterproposals which accepted the end of the final salary scheme and a shift to a career revalued scheme for future contributions.
Significant distance remains between the two sides’ views about how a deficit of at least £8 billion should be filled but, in a message to members, Sally Hunt, the UCU general secretary, said she had been concerned that UUK would have pushed its proposals to a vote at the 13 November meeting.
“The boycott is being strongly supported across the country and it is against that backdrop of strong union action in support of our negotiating strategy that [the] meeting finally saw some progress,” Ms Hunt said.
Union members at the University of Surrey have voted for a one-week strike, an academic boycott and a vote of no confidence in vice-chancellor Christopher Snowden – the current president of UUK – if the institution’s decision to deduct full pay is not rescinded.
The University of York is still reconsidering its decision to dock 100 per cent of salary but that has not stopped union members asking for the institution to be “grey-listed” – effectively to be made the subject of an academic boycott – by UCU.
A UUK spokesman said: “We are committed to seeking a joint proposal for reform that offers an affordable, attractive and sustainable pension scheme, for both current and future members.”