Vice-chancellors have made a new offer to end the dispute over UK higher education pensions, offering to set up an expert panel to examine the valuation of the Universities Superannuation Scheme and aiming to preserve some guaranteed income for members in retirement.
The expert panel, composed of actuarial and academic experts nominated in equal numbers by Universities UK and the University and College Union, with a jointly agreed chair, would be tasked with agreeing a “future joint approach” to the fund’s valuation.
Under the offer, released by UUK on 23 March, current contributions and benefits from the USS – including the defined benefits at the heart of the dispute – would continue “until at least April 2019”.
The panel would recognise that members of the scheme “highly value” the defined benefit element of the USS that guarantees them a set level of income in retirement and “will reflect the clear wish of staff to have a guaranteed pension comparable with current provision whilst meeting the affordability challenges for all parties”, according to the text of the UUK proposal.
“The panel will make an assessment of the valuation. If, in the light of that, contributions or benefits need to be adjusted in either direction, both parties are committed to agree to recommend to the [Joint Negotiating Committee] and the trustee, measures aimed at stabilising the fund to provide a guaranteed pension broadly comparable with current arrangements,” the offer says.
The offer is vice-chancellors’ latest attempt to end the dispute over the future of the USS, which has seen staff walk out for 14 days at 65 universities. Faced with an estimated deficit of £6.1 billion, UUK proposed the end of the defined benefit element of the scheme, which UUK warned would leave the average lecturer £10,000 worse off a year in retirement.
Many academics have argued, however, that the valuation takes too pessimistic a view of the fund’s prospects. A deal agreed between UUK and USS negotiators was rejected by union members on 13 March, while UUK’s offer on 19 March to set up an independent review was met with a lukewarm response.
In a letter to members, UCU general secretary Sally Hunt said that branches will be asked to provide “initial feedback” on the offer on 28 March and the union’s higher education committee will then “decide on the further process for consulting members via a ballot”.
“We have worked hard to gain these concessions, but they were won on the back of the strike action that so many of you have taken,” Ms Hunt said. “As always it will be for members to decide whether what has been achieved is sufficient to suspend our strike action.”
UCU has threatened UUK with further strike action, timed to coincide with universities’ examination and assessment period.