Union tables new proposals in bid to resolve pensions dispute

Talks at mediation service Acas planned as strike action at UK universities enters fifth day

February 28, 2018
Strike placards

The University and College Union has tabled a new set of proposals which it believes could resolve the dispute over changes to UK higher education’s biggest pension scheme.

Announced after a meeting between the union and Universities UK, the proposals for the future of the Universities Superannuation Scheme come as strike action enters its fifth day at 61 universities across the country.

Both the UCU and UUK have agreed to go for further talks mediated by the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service, which are set to begin on Monday March 5.

UUK has proposed to scrap the element of pensions that guarantees members a certain level of income in retirement in a bid to close a deficit that the USS estimates to be £6.1 billion. The UCU claims the proposal would leave the average lecturer almost £10,000 a year worse off in retirement, compared with the current hybrid scheme.

Under UCU’s new proposals – which it says were drawn from both members’ demands and ideas put forward by university vice-chancellors – employers’ contributions would increase by 2.7 per cent while USS members would pay 1.4 per cent more. The salary cap for defined benefits would remain unchanged at £55,550, while the accrual rate would be reduced from 1/75th to 1/80th.

Speaking after the meeting with UUK, Sally Hunt, UCU’s general secretary, said: “At the core of our proposals is for universities to accept a small amount of increased risk, but only at a level a majority have recently said they are comfortable with.

“Doing this would enable us to provide a decent, guaranteed pension at a more modest cost with smaller contribution increases.” 

“UCU has been impressed by the ideas of many vice-chancellors who have intervened in the dispute. Our proposals for long-term reform reflect an attempt to reach a consensus around the challenges we face.”

A UUK spokesman described yesterday’s talks as “positive”, with both employers’ representatives and union leaders showing a willingness to work together to address the scheme’s financial challenges.

“Further talks are being arranged,” he said, adding that UUK had asked UCU to stop the industrial action while talks continue to find a solution.

The meeting came after vice-chancellors at some of the UK’s biggest universities broke ranks to offer their support to their striking employees.

The principal of the University of Glasgow and leading UK economist Sir Anton Muscatelli, who joined staff at the picket line, said the university expressed a preference for retaining the defined benefit element of the scheme.

“Any settlement needs to be affordable to both employers and staff; it should be a long-term solution, to avoid the risk of further possible conflict at the time of the next USS valuation; and it needs to be framed in a way that is acceptable to the Pensions Regulator,” he said.

In an email sent by Alice Gast, president of Imperial College London and the college’s provost James Stirling, the institution called on UUK and USS to jointly convene an expert group “to provide full transparency on the assumptions, data and modelling approach that has been used”.

“We recognise that we have such experts at Imperial, and we will fully resource any staff who participate in this process,” the email said, adding that the university would be willing to carry its share of the risk of staying on the current scheme if this work went beyond the statutory deadline.  

After the five-day walk-out on 22, 23, 26, 27 and 28 of February, industrial action is set to escalate with strikes of four and five days in subsequent weeks.


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