UK university strikes to continue as UCU rejects pension deal

Strike action will continue at 65 UK universities after members of the University and College Union vetoed a deal struck by employers and union leaders on pension reform.

Branch representatives and the UCU’s higher education committee both voted on 13 March to reject an agreement with Universities UK that would have protected defined benefits under the Universities Superannuation Scheme for three years, but at a lower rate, and in return for an increase in contributions.

Scheme members had said that the proposed settlement, which would have been for a three-year transitional period, would not offer a decent income in retirement.

A week-long walkout, which could have been suspended as of 14 March, will now continue, and the UCU will draw up plans for a further 14 days of strike action, timed to coincide with the exams and assessment period.  

Sally Hunt, the UCU’s general secretary, said that branches’ views were “clear” and that it was “right that members always have the final say”.

“The strike action for this week remains on and we will now make detailed preparations for strikes over the assessment and exam period,” she said. “We want urgent talks with the universities’ representatives to try and find a way to get this dispute resolved.”

A UUK spokesman said that it was “hugely disappointing that students’ education will be further disrupted through continued strike action”.

The dispute centres on UUK’s original proposals to end defined benefits, which guarantee scheme members a certain income in retirement, under the USS. UUK says that it needs to close a £6.1 billion deficit in the scheme, but the UCU claimed that the changes would leave the typical lecturer £10,000 worse off annually in retirement.

The deal struck at the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service would have protected defined benefits under transitional arrangements set to take effect in April 2019 and expected to last three years. However, they would only have accrued on salaries of up to £42,000, rather than £55,000, as is currently the case.

Contributions from universities and staff would also have increased, to 19.3 per cent for employers and 8.7 per cent for employees (currently 18 per cent and 8 per cent respectively), and an independent valuation group would have been convened to examine the reported deficit.

In a message to members, the UCU’s Ms Hunt said that the “overwhelming view” of branches had been that the threshold for defined benefits was too low and that the proposed reduction in the accrual rate was “also unacceptable”.

“Branches were also clear that the refusal of the employers to shift their position on taking more risk was disappointing,” she said.

The UUK spokesman said that university leaders “engaged extensively with UCU negotiators to find a mutually acceptable way forward”.

“The jointly developed proposal on the table, agreed at Acas, addresses the priorities that UCU set out,” he said. “We have listened to the concerns of university staff and offered to increase employer contributions to ensure that all members would receive meaningful defined benefits.

“We recognised concerns raised about the valuation and have agreed to convene an independent expert valuation group.

“Our hope is that UCU can find a way to continue to engage constructively, in the interests of students and those staff who are keen to return to work.”

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