The general secretary of the University and College Union has urged members to accept the latest proposal aimed at resolving UK higher education’s pensions dispute in the face of a backlash from academics.
In a message sent as a ballot on the offer opened, Sally Hunt calls on members to “bank the substantial concessions” achieved by 14 days of strike action and to back Universities UK’s offer to set up a joint expert panel to re-examine the valuation of the Universities Superannuation Scheme.
The intervention comes as many academics call for a “revise and resubmit” verdict on UUK’s offer, amid questions about whether any revised valuation would prove acceptable to the USS or the Pensions Regulator – and hence whether it would allow members’ defined-benefit payouts to be protected.
A number of UCU branches, including those at the universities of Kent and Liverpool, and University College London, have urged their members to reject the deal, with hashtags such as #NoCapitulation and #rejectuukdeal trending on social media.
But Ms Hunt argues that the “no detriment clause” called for by some members – which would, she says, force employers to fund changes required to retain existing benefits and contribution levels – would be unacceptable to vice-chancellors.
“I do not think we should risk what we have achieved to chase a ‘no detriment’ clause,” she writes. “I believe instead that we should bank the substantial concessions we have achieved from the employers…Then we should work hard to ensure the joint expert panel comes up with sensible proposals which have the confidence of UCU members.”
Ms Hunt highlights that the strike action has forced UUK to drop its proposal to end defined benefits, which guarantee members a set level of income in retirement, and that the Pensions Regulator has indicated that it will “engage” with the expert panel. UUK and the UCU would jointly approach the USS board to seek its endorsement for the expert panel, which she describes as “a real opportunity to address important questions about the valuation and the level of risk the employers are prepared to take, but also to look at issues relating to inter-generational fairness and equality”.
Ms Hunt continues: “If the employers behave properly, we should work with them to protect your pension benefits. If they misbehave, we should use the union’s new-found strength to challenge them again.”
UCU members have until 2pm on 13 April to vote on the UUK offer. If they accept the proposals, 14 days of strikes targeting the exam and assessment period – including week-long walkouts due to start on 16 April – would be suspended.
If the offer is rejected, the UCU would ask employers to offer a no-detriment clause, Ms Hunt says.
The dispute stretches back to last November, when UUK proposed to end defined benefits amid concern about the estimated deficit in the USS, currently put at £6.1 billion. The UCU warned that this change would leave the average lecturer £10,000 worse off a year in retirement.
However, many academics have rejected the valuation of the scheme’s deficit, and a previous deal agreed by UUK and USS negotiators was rejected by union members on 13 March.