UK university chiefs called on union officials to resume talks on Friday, in an effort to break a bitter dispute over pensions that has led to industrial action at dozens of campuses.
As lecturers walked out for the second day in a row, Universities UK, which represents 350 university employers, formally asked University College Union officials to meet for discussions next Tuesday.
“Universities UK has today called on the University and College Union to meet to engage in serious, meaningful talks on the future of Universities Superannuation Scheme,” UUK said in a statement.
“It is of paramount importance that both sides make every effort to meet despite the ongoing industrial action, to stop any impact and disruption to students.”
UUK is facing growing pressure from universities to resume talks with UCU, which has threatened 14 days of industrial action at 61 universities over proposed pension cuts. The union, which represents academics, has said its action could affect 1m students.
Leaders from 18 universities, including Cambridge, Newcastle, Sheffield and Goldsmiths, have all called for talks to resume.
“The industrial action that we saw yesterday here and at universities across the country is deeply regrettable,” Stephen Toope, vice-chancellor of Cambridge university, said in a statement on Friday. “We have a duty to students to ensure they receive the best possible education but equally I understand the deep concerns of academics.”
The dispute between lecturers and their employers centres on plans by UUK to switch staff from their “defined benefit” pension scheme, which offers an assured retirement income, to riskier arrangements where pension benefits will depend on stock market performance.
The current retirement plan, the Universities Superannuation Scheme, has an estimated funding shortfall of £6bn. UUK has said contributions from both staff and universities would need to rise by a combined £1bn a year in order for the current plan to be maintained.
University employers currently pay 18 per cent of staff salaries to the scheme.
But the UCU has said moving to a riskier arrangement would leave a typical lecturer almost £10,000 a year worse off in retirement than under the current set-up.
“Universities UK has never refused to continue to try to find an affordable, mutually acceptable solution,” UUK said in its statement on Friday. “We would be willing to discuss a credible proposal that addresses the significant financial issues the scheme is facing.”
In an open letter to USS pension members issued on Thursday, the UUK said it was “open to changing the scheme again to reintroduce defined benefits if economic and funding conditions improve”.
However, the letter warned that teaching and research budgets may be hit if employers are forced to step up pension contributions.
UUK has said it is also open to exploring other risk-sharing pension arrangements, which “might provide higher certainty“ about retirement benefits to USS members.
The union said it “would certainly be attending” talks next week, but it was disappointed UUK had ignored the wishes of universities minister Sam Gyimah, who has said the talks should be held without preconditions.
“The universities minister was very clear that he wanted talks without preconditions and we hope UUK will reconsider his words before we meet on Tuesday,” said Sally Hunt, general secretary of the UCU.
“We remain committed to serious negotiations aimed at resolving this dispute.”