Strikes at universities continue as academics reject pension deal

Strikes at more than 60 UK universities will continue after academics rejected a deal on Tuesday intended to end a pensions dispute.

The University and College Union, the trade body for academics and higher education staff, said union branches had “made it clear” that they did not accept an agreement brokered with universities on Monday.

The deal, which proposed allowing pension scheme members to keep guaranteed “defined benefit” pensions, but watered them down from April 2019, prompted a protest by hundreds of academics outside the UCU headquarters in London on Tuesday.

“Branches made it clear today that they wanted to reject the proposal,” said Sally Hunt, general secretary of the UCU.

“UCU’s greatest strength is that we are run by and for our members and it is right that members always have the final say.”

UCU said strike action, which had run for 11 days, would continue, and the union would now make “detailed preparations for strikes over the assessment and exam timetables”.

Universities UK, which represents the university employers, said: “It is hugely disappointing that students’ education will be further disrupted through continued strike action.

“We have engaged extensively with UCU negotiators to find a mutually acceptable way forward. The jointly developed proposal on the table, agreed at [the conciliation service] ACAS, addresses the priorities that UCU set out.”

The dispute was triggered by proposals approved by UUK in January to switch 190,000 university staff out of their traditional defined benefit pension plan — which promises a secure retirement income — to a riskier arrangement, where benefits are dependent on investment performance.

UUK had argued the changes are needed because the cost of providing future pensions had risen by a third.

But UCU has claimed the proposal will leave some of its members £10,000 a year worse off in retirement.

The revised proposal, which was agreed on Monday after six days of talks between the parties, would have seen the defined benefit scheme continue for a transitional period, with members building weaker pensions and paying higher contributions over time.

Under the plan, unions and employers would have also considered a new “risk-sharing” pension arrangement for pension scheme members from 2020.

Pensions experts said the deal represented a climbdown for UUK, after the employers had previously argued that any increases to their contributions would be unaffordable and could lead to raids on teaching and research budgets as well as redundancies.

The revised proposal would have seen employers’ annual contributions into the Universities Superannuation Scheme rising from 18 per cent of employee salary to 19.3 per cent.

“UUK had moved a very long way from its original position,” said John Ralfe, an independent pensions expert.

The dispute has also prompted a wave of action by students supporting the strike action by their lecturers.

On Tuesday, the University of Cambridge confirmed that students had occupied a building housing central university offices and the office of the vice-chancellor.

“University security staff are on-site and working with protesters to ensure their safety and the safety of staff working in the Old Schools,” the university said in a statement.