Union unrest opens new front in UK university pensions dispute

Growing discontent among University and College Union members about leaders’ handling of negotiations

April 9, 2018
A protest outside Cambridge University during the pensions row 2018
Source: Alamy
Onside: students demonstrate at the University of Cambridge to support staff on strike over changes to the USS scheme

The dispute over UK higher education pensions has been characterised by strong turnout on picket lines and widespread support for academics’ plight. But, increasingly, it is also being marked by deep divides among members of the University and College Union about the organisation’s negotiating tactics.

These tensions were coming to a head this week as members voted on whether to accept Universities UK’s offer to set up a joint expert panel that would re-examine the valuation of the Universities Superannuation Scheme.

With UUK having dropped proposals to scrap the defined-benefits element of USS pensions that guarantees a set level of income in retirement, Sally Hunt, the UCU general secretary, has urged members to “bank the substantial concessions” achieved by 14 days of strike action on the issue.

However, many union branches have urged their members to vote “no” to the deal in a ballot that runs until 2pm on 13 April.

These concerns focus on whether the expert panel – even if it decides that the £6.1 billion deficit that was estimated by the USS and that led to UUK’s proposing that the end of defined benefits is wrong – can persuade the USS and the Pensions Regulator that this is the case, and therefore win backing for protecting a broadly similar level of contributions and payouts.

Moreover, many academics are reluctant to abandon the picket line without a clear offer outlining what level of contributions and benefits can be expected in future.

Gregor Gall, professor of industrial relations at the University of Bradford, said that it “would not be unfair to say that there is a widespread degree of unease and discontent”.

“While it is the view among many of the activists that this [deal] was an improvement on the previous situation, it doesn’t actually give a definitive offer,” he said.

Increasingly, discontent has focused on Ms Hunt and the UCU leadership. A previous deal between UUK and the USS negotiators was rejected by union branches last month and, with the latest offer now being debated, UCU members at the University of Kent became the first to pass a vote of no confidence in their general secretary.

Ben Hickman, senior lecturer in modern poetry at Kent, said that the UCU leadership could have pressed UUK for a better deal.

“I think it’s becoming increasingly clear that Sally Hunt is negotiating on behalf of UUK and is trying to get UCU members to accept their terms – rather than the other way round, which is what we would like the general secretary of a union to be doing,” Dr Hickman said. “She’s really only concerned with the purported limits of UUK rather than our own union setting our own limits.”

Alison Cameron, lecturer in zoology at Bangor University, agreed.

“I’ve paid 10 years of [UCU] membership and I am frankly quite disappointed,” she said. “I find them [the union] really lacking this time and don’t feel that Sally Hunt is doing a very good job of representing anybody. She seems to be seriously surprised by the rejection of the last offer and I don’t understand why she wouldn’t try to squeeze more out of UUK before putting this to ballot.” 


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Andy Williams, a senior lecturer in Cardiff University School of Journalism, Media and Culture, said that he thought that the UCU leadership had been “blindsided by a very active, participatory and militant base, which they aren’t really used to dealing with”.  

“I don’t think it’s possible for a leadership to represent the views of all members, but I think they should be open to listening as broadly as possible,” Dr Williams said. “And there should be mechanisms in place for two-way communication, wide deliberation, and democratic influence and accountability to help this happen.”

Carlo Morelli, senior lecturer in business and economic history at the University of Dundee and a member of the UCU’s national executive committee, praised the way that the union had involved branches in decision-making as the strikes began.

However, as negotiations have progressed, elected union officials have become increasingly unaccountable to members, he claimed.

“It is not acceptable to say one thing in public but vote a different way behind closed doors,” Dr Morelli said. “As elected members, no one should be in any doubt what your views are on these important issues. Otherwise accountability is meaningless.”

Ultimately, much will hinge on whether union members vote to accept the UUK offer or not.

Responding to reports of differing opinion in the union, Ms Hunt acknowledged that there were “very strong views about what happens next in the pensions dispute”.

“It is the strike action taken by UCU members that has delivered the changes from UUK and it is right that they decide what happens next,” she told Times Higher Education.

If members accept the UUK offer, 14 days of strikes targeting the exam and assessment period – including week-long walkouts due to start on 16 April – would be suspended.

If they reject it, Ms Hunt has said that the union will ask employers to offer a “no-detriment” clause, guaranteeing existing benefits and contribution levels. But, in this scenario, questions about the UCU’s handling of the dispute would seem likely to reach a crisis point, too.

sophie.inge@timeshighereducation.com

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