UK university staff vote to strike over USS pension reforms

Fourteen days of strike action set to begin on 22 February if talks fail, affecting 61 universities

January 22, 2018
Strike placards

Union members have voted overwhelmingly in favour of strike action over changes to UK higher education’s biggest pension scheme.

Eighty-eight per cent of University and College Union members who took part in the ballot voted to walk out after Universities UK proposed scrapping the element of Universities Superannuation Scheme that guarantees a certain level of pension income in retirement.

UCU said that, if a deal cannot be reached, 14 days of strike action would be held at the 61 universities where ballots met the 50 per cent turnout threshold required for any strike action, starting with a two-day walkout on 22 and 23 February.

This would escalate to three-day, four-day and five-day strikes in subsequent weeks.

Of the 58 per cent of members who voted, 93 per cent backed action short of a strike, which is set to include refusing to cover classes or reschedule classes lost to strike days, as well as refusing to undertake any voluntary duties.

About 190,000 staff in mainly pre-92 institutions are members of USS.

Sally Hunt, the UCU’s general secretary, said that members had “made it quite clear they are prepared to take action to defend their pensions and the universities need to work with us to avoid widespread disruption”.

Universities will be hit with levels of strike action not seen before on UK campuses if a deal cannot be done over the future of USS pensions," she said. "Even at this late stage we urge universities to work with us to reach an agreement that protects the defined benefit element of USS pensions."

Talks involving UUK and UCU are currently scheduled to finish on 23 January.

At present, the USS operates a hybrid scheme in which defined benefit pensions can be accumulated on salaries up to £55,550, with earnings above this threshold directed towards a defined contribution scheme, under which retirement incomes depend solely on returns from money invested in the stock market.

UUK’s proposal would move the entirety of members’ earnings on to a defined contribution model, in a bid to close a deficit that USS estimates to be £7.5 billion.

A spokeswoman for UUK described the ballot result as “disappointing”.

“A solution to the significant funding challenges facing USS needs to be found,” she said. “UUK’s priority is to put USS on a secure and sustainable footing while offering attractive, market-leading pensions – the very best that can be afforded by both employers and employees.  

“We should be under no illusion, this is not a problem that will go away if ignored. To retain the status quo would only serve interests in the short term. Without reform now, universities will likely be forced to divert funding allocated from research and teaching to fill a pensions funding gap. The option of no reform is a dangerous gamble. It is a risk that employers cannot take.”

The result comes after 960 professors warned that UUK’s proposal would lead to a recruitment “disaster” for universities.

The letter, published in Times Higher Education, says that, in a sector where “many would earn more in the private sector and which has a well-deserved reputation as ‘world class’, the USS pension has provided compensation for relatively modest salaries and has acted as a powerful magnet to talented staff from around the globe”.

Last week, the vice-chancellors of the University of Warwick and Loughborough University broke ranks to criticise UUK for failing to offer guaranteed retirement incomes for USS members.

Writing to Alistair Jarvis, UUK’s chief executive, Warwick’s vice-chancellor Stuart Croft urges the organisation, which represents the university, to look at “less stark solutions”.

“I strongly believe that there is scope to look again at the technical provisions, to look at other benefit options – such as full defined contribution options for those above the national pay scale (perhaps by opt-in) and the flexibility to offer defined contribution to others who would prefer a more flexible scheme – and the deficit recovery period,” Professor Croft writes.

“A combination of these could sustain a meaningful defined benefit offering for those below the current salary threshold.”

A spokesman for the Universities and Colleges Employers Association highlighted that the number of UCU members voting in favour of strike action "represents an estimate of just 16 per cent of academic staff in those HE institutions and 12 per cent of active USS members in HE".

"The vast majority of HE employees who are USS members appear to understand the reality of the current funding environment and the challenges facing the USS," the spokesman said. "Many have shown they do not support action that could harm both their institutions and their students. 

"It is for each individual, autonomous institution to decide how best to deal with this industrial action and each will of course wish to protect their students’ interests.”

sophie.inge@timeshighereducation.com


Institutions set to be affected by strike action

The 50 per cent turnout threshold required for any strike action was not met at the following institutions: University of Bradford; University of Birmingham; London School of Economics; Ruskin College; St George's, University of London; University of Suffolk; Swansea University.

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Reader's comments (3)

Diverting funding from research and teaching will indeed happen, and it will happen as a direct result of the hugely expensive de-risking, which could have been avoided had UUK opted for the least restrictive parameters for Test 1 that were on offer in February. Instead, they pushed for increased de-risking, possibly without realising that this was going to cost them dearly. See Reason 4 on my "Ten reasons why USS is a scandal waiting to bite back": https://hemarketisation.wordpress.com/2018/01/18/guest-post-ten-reasons-why-uss-is-a-scandal-waiting-to-bite-back/
It really is a great scheme and is ideal for academics who stay with the same employer for long periods of time and don't sit up all night worrying about and/or fantasising about the stock market. UCU need to make a significantly generous offer of increased employee contributions so that their members are paying in at least the same amount as their counterparts in post-92 unis. And UUK need to postpone some of the shiny buildings until they've sorted out their members' pensions.
I think you have hit the nail on the head. New buildings without great people do nothing to increase the true quality of an institution. When I was a PhD student in the 1980s, excellent work was done in an old building which later led to the reputation needed for a new building.

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