UCU chief urges v-cs to speak out to avert UK pensions strike

Jo Grady says ‘a lot of’ university leaders want to strike a deal over contributions to Universities Superannuation Scheme

November 19, 2019
Jo Grady

A union leader has put pressure on vice-chancellors to break ranks with Universities UK ahead of eight days of planned strike action over pensions, pay and conditions.

Jo Grady, general secretary of the University and College Union, told Times Higher Education that “a lot of” institutional heads were “deeply concerned” about the umbrella body’s refusal to acquiesce to staff demands, and said that the time for them to speak up was now.

Staff on 60 campuses were due to walk out for eight days from 25 November amid widespread anger over the decision to hike employee contributions to the Universities Superannuation Scheme – UK higher education’s biggest pension fund – to 9.6 per cent of salary, up from 8 per cent in April. This year’s pay offer of a 1.8 per cent minimum rise is also a target of the action, alongside broader concerns over equality, casualisation and workloads.

Last week, Anthony Forster, vice-chancellor of the University of Essex, became the first sector leader to break ranks with UUK and argue that institutions could afford to pay more into the USS to limit the increase imposed on staff.

Referring to a divisive 14-day walkout over the USS in 2018, Professor Forster wrote in a blog for staff and students that it was “a matter of enormous pain and regret that we again find ourselves in a position that the negotiators who represent us – both employers and employees – are not willing to embrace principled compromise in seeking a solution to our pensions crisis”.

Professor Forster said that he believed the USS trustees were “being overly prudent in their assumptions, which undervalue assets and overestimate liabilities” and added that, while he believed that it was fair for employees to contribute more to protecting pension benefits, failure to strike a deal would likely result in the Pensions Regulator imposing a solution that would leave both sides dissatisfied.

Dr Grady said that vice-chancellors with similar concerns could not afford to stay silent as staff reluctantly prepared to walk out.

“I know that there are vice-chancellors that are deeply concerned about what’s happening in UUK. I know that not all vice-chancellors want to see disruptive and disastrous strikes unfolding on campuses,” she told THE. “What we need from vice-chancellors is for the ones that want a positive resolution to start working with us and to start changing the direction of UUK.

“When staff question why vice-chancellors are paid the amount they are, staff are told we have to pay high salaries because these are influential and effective people. This is the moment for them to show how influential and effective they are.”

A steady stream of vice-chancellors expressing concern about USS financial modelling and stating their support for protecting benefits was a key factor in forcing UUK to strike a deal with unions during last year’s industrial action, as concern about disruption on campuses mounted.

So far this year, most vice-chancellors have warned that further increases to employer contributions could risk redundancies on campuses, highlighting that universities are contributing 21.1 per cent of salaries, up from 18 per cent in April. They have also said that they cannot afford a more generous pay offer.

A spokeswoman for USS employers said that their position “has been formed following extensive engagement and consultation with the 340 employers in USS”.

“The vast majority of employers believe the current arrangement where employers meet 65 per cent of costs and members 35 per cent is fair and reasonable. A higher cost national settlement is not affordable for most employers,” she said.

“If any employer takes a different view then they can choose to make an additional payment at a local level to offset higher pensions contributions for their staff.”

chris.havergal@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: UCU chief urges v-cs to speak out to avert strike over UK pensions

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Reader's comments (1)

What a silly comment ‘if any employer takes a different view...’. Sounds like the employers body is quite happy for the strike to go ahead.

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