Staff gather outside Old Schools following their rally this morningRosie Bradbury

The Cambridge branch of the University and College Union (UCU) passed a motion this morning to reject the agreement put forth by national negotiating bodies, which brought the national pensions dispute and ongoing strike action closer to a resolution than ever before.

At an emergency meeting at Great St Mary’s church morning, academics debated whether to accept a national agreement reached yesterday between UCU and Universities UK (UUK) during reconciliation talks. If accepted, the agreement could bring about an end to strikes tomorrow.

At the meeting, which was called last night, the room narrowly rejected an amendment proposed by Cambridge UCU branch secretary Dr Waseem Yaqoob. Dr. Yaqoob’s motion proposed accepting the national agreement, on the condition that the inflation cap be removed and that members not be forced to reschedule missed lectures.

Various speakers addressed the crowd from the front of the chamber, some arguing to accept, and others to reject, the agreement. The consensus in the room, however, was to reject the agreement proposed.

What concessions have been made?

UUK January proposal, opposed by UCU

– Replaces the defined benefit pension schemes for incomes under £55,500 with a defined contribution scheme, where the value of pensions upon retirement depends on returns from underlying investments in the stock market
– Maintains employer contributions at 18% of salaries, and employee contributions at 8%.
– Defined contribution pension schemes for all salaries, which involves the individualisation of risk from university employers to employees

Yesterday’s agreement between UCU and UUK

– Lowers the cap for defined benefit pension schemes from its previous threshold of £55,500 to incomes under £42,000 , providing guaranteed level of income upon retirement from salary under the cap
– Increases employer contributions from 18% to 19.3% of salaries, and increases employee contributions from 8% to 8.7%.
– Calls for both sides to “engage in meaningful discussions” to explore the possibility of Collective Defined Contributions (CDC), which would act as a risk sharing alternative to the individualisation of risk under defined contribution schemes.

Speakers opposed the national agreement on the grounds that the ‘transitional benefit arrangement’ will be revisited three years after its implementation on 1st April 2019. One member said: “this is a time to break from the past”, emphasising that “it is utterly vital to resist the negotiation now”, which they called “watered down”.

Tensions rose in the chamber when one speaker addressed the crowd with his reasons for accepting the agreement – the minority view. He argued that union members “have public opinion to deal with”. Dr Priyamvada Gopal, a senior lecturer in English at Churchill College and outspoken critic of the UUK’s pensions proposals, said loudly from the audience: “Oh, come on”, and later called his arguments “patriarchal bullshit”.

The next speakers, who also spoke in favour of accepting the argument, were met with loud criticism and interruptions from various members of the audience, including, at one point, Dr Jeff Miley, a lecturer in the Sociology department and and senior Cambridge UCU member, yelling loudly, “Let us talk!”

Yaqoob argued that, in passing a resolution that categorically rejected the national agreement, UCU members risked having the earlier proposal, agreed to by Universities UK in January, “legally imposed on us” later this year.

The UCU Higher Education committee (HEC) met today at 11am to discuss with branch representatives – including Cambridge UCU vice-president Dr. Sam James – the proposal agreed to by UUK and UCU representatives in negotiations yesterday.

Vice-chancellor Stephen Toope yesterday announced that the University would be willing to make higher contributions to employee pensions, in order to “support a defined benefit pension”.

Most of the full chamber in Cambridge, filled with around 150 UCU members, voted in favour of the unamended motion, with just a handful of hands raised in favour of accepting the agreement. The outcome was passed on to branch representative Dr Sam James, who represented the Cambridge UCU at the HEC meeting this morning. At the meeting, the national UCU will decide whether to stop industrial action tomorrow, 14th March, contingent on whether the agreement is accepted.


Mountain View

Toope promises higher University contributions to support pension scheme

Speaking at the emergency meeting, Dr Gopal, however, criticised the national UCU’s ability to represent its branches. She said: “This is a union [which] has been more than moderate on our behalves”, and references instances in 2006 and 2015 when they “weakened our actions”.

She stressed the importance of voting now “to break the relentless cycle of degeneration”, and added: “They will come back in three years’ time, they will come back for defined benefit, and when they come back, they will come back for other things as well”, including “freedom of speech on campuses”.

“So I think it is vital, utterly vital, to not give in to the temptation to give in now.”