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Potential strike action next term following proposed pension changes

The University and College Union (UCU) are balloting members on whether to take industrial strike action following proposed changes to the pensions of lecturers and tutors. The ballot closes on 19 January.

In a consultative ballot in September 86.6% voted in favour of industrial strike action, before the UUK made further proposals, which a Warwick UCU member described as a “provocative decision” that “made the offer worse.”

According to calculations by First Actuarial, the proposed reforms to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) could see new academics face a pensions cut of 40%, affecting around 190,000 higher education staff.

The UCU has warned of chaos on campuses in the new year if the dispute cannot be resolved beforehand. It opened a postal ballot on Wednesday 29 November, which will run until January 19, after the initial consultative ballot passed with a turnout of just 56%.

The Union has said that proposed action would include a series of strikes in February, as well as other measures — such as refusing to cover or reschedule classes, or cover for sick colleagues.

The proposal by Universities UK (UUK) involves shifting staff from the Defined Benefit (DB) to Defined Contribution (DC) plan, to counter a reported £12.6 billion of deficit. These proposed changes would affect USS members, the majority of which are older, pre-1992 universities and include Oxford, Cambridge, Manchester and Warwick.

The National Union of Students (NUS) released a joint statement with the UCU, calling for: “university leaders to engage in open, faithful and constructive negotiation for as long as it takes in order to resolve this dispute, as a matter of urgency.”

What about Warwick

Vice-chancellor Stuart Croft was among the first to respond to the proposals, criticising the scheme and calling for a government-backed solution in his online blog, which has attracted considerable Union support and media attention.

Croft reassured his staff that “whatever happens, we will not let the current increasingly conservative approach to USS go unchallenged.” He added that the new investment strategy would “materially inhibit the future growth of assets out of which pensions will ultimately be funded.”

For many university staff, this represents the final straw in a decade-long assault on their pay, working conditions and professional autonomy.

“As a University, we need to be able to offer a competitive and high-quality pension scheme and we will seek to work with any other interested parties to identify whether any alternative, more innovative, solutions may be feasible.”

Responding to the blog, Hunt added: “Professor Croft is right to highlight the hugely damaging impact which ending the DB scheme would have on both universities and their staff. These plans would remove members’ security in retirement and leave them facing years of uncertainty about whether their pensions will be sufficient to live on.”

Departmental UCU representative Nick Lawrence commented: “For many university staff, this represents the final straw in a decade-long assault on their pay, working conditions and professional autonomy.”

“But the attack on pensions must be seen as part of the same pattern that includes a tripling of student fees, an increasing reliance on casualised employment among teaching staff and the outsourcing of essential university functions.”

“No one looks forward to engaging in industrial action, but it is the only means at employees’ disposal for preventing these damaging proposals from being enacted. The entire university community, staff and students alike, will be affected by them; we hope the community will come together in opposing them.”

While Warwick, as one institution, doesn’t agree with UUK’s proposals, whatever UUK collectively decides will be the way UUK takes this forwards.

Speaking to the Boar, the UCU’s Warwick branch vice-president Duncan Adam said: “We’ve already had members telling us that they’re struggling to get by on their current salaries. We’ve got a significant increase in casualised work across universities, but the trade-off for a lot of members is that academic work has always provided a relatively secure pension. And obviously if we move to a DC scheme, the guarantee element is just completely wiped out.”

SU Postgraduate Officer Emily Dunford added: “Though no motion has been submitted thus far to determine the SU’s formal stance, we have a proud history of supporting staff in their fight for fairer working conditions, and the Sabbatical Officer team were pleased to note the Vice-Chancellor’s call for greater transparency on this issue.”

What do the changes mean?

Last July, USS members were warned they may be asked to contribute up to 7% more to maintain current benefits, in a move UCU general secretary Sally Hunt called: “categorically the worst proposal I have received from universities on any issue in 20 years of representing university staff.”

Speaking on the DC proposals, she argued the First Actuarial analysis “reveals just how damaging UUK’s hardline plans for the pension scheme would be on an individual basis for people who have planned and saved for their retirement”.

Increasing contributions could damage the high standards that students, research funders and others rightly expect.

However, a UUK spokesman said these “would tackle the scheme’s financial deficit and rising future costs whilst ensuring that it continues to offer attractive pension benefits to members.”

Independent pensions expert John Ralfe also defended the plans: “Moving from Defined Benefit to Defined Contribution is the only sensible way for UK universities to manage pension risk, and is exactly what almost all private sector companies have already done.”

But UUK said most universities could not afford to pay more into pensions without diverting money from other areas, such as teaching or research. The organisation’s chief executive, Alistair Jarvis, added that: “increasing contributions could damage the high standards that students, research funders and others rightly expect”.


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