Cambridge UCU members in action at a rally amid the recent industrial strike actionLouis Ashworth

In a significant shift from previous proposals for pension reform, the employers’ body Universities UK (UUK) today announced their latest proposals in the hopes of putting an end to industrial strike action planned for the exam period.

Following the fourteen days of strike action spanning the past four weeks triggered by a pensions reform proposal from UUK which would see ‘defined benefit’ pension schemes replaced with ‘defined contribution’ pension schemes for those on incomes below £55,000, the national body’s proposals today offer the possibility of reopening negotiations and preserving defined-benefit-style schemes, while previous agreements have only ever offered short-term “transitional” shifts to schemes which place more risk on employees.

The employers’ body has proposed to introduce an expert panel on future pension reforms, putting the previously suggested controversial switch to ‘defined contribution’ schemes on hold, pending decisions made by the new panel. The panel will review Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) valuations and will seek to outline key principles for future valuations.

Yet the exact status of the UUK’s proposed switch to defined contribution schemes, a primary trigger of recent industrial strike action, remains unclear. Speaking to Josephine Cumbo, Financial Times pensions correspondent, UUK said: “benefit reform decisions by the JNC are on hold pending the panel’s findings.” The UCU, on the other hand, told Cumbo that the proposed switch from ‘defined benefit’ to ‘defined contribution’ pension schemes is “no longer on the table”.

Cumbo commented: it would appear that UCU and UUK “aren’t quite singing from the same hymn sheet on the status of proposed #USS benefit cuts.”

In recognition of the mass support for defined benefit pension schemes among staff, the UUK’s proposal today also noted: “the work of the group will reflect the clear wish of staff to have a guaranteed pension comparable with current provision whilst meeting the affordability challenges for all parties.”

Yet today’s proposals leave some questions unanswered. UUK made no mention of how their new proposals will affect their plans to meet the Pensions Regulator’s deadline for receiving a funding proposal agreed upon by negotiating bodies – 30th June. The Pensions Regulator declined to comment.

In a statement on Facebook, Cambridge UCU wrote that without the agreement of the Pensions Regulator and USS, they will be “back to square 1”.

Cambridge UCU secretary Waseem Yaqoob also commented on the new proposal, emphasising that “everything depends” on extension of the 30th of June deadline allowing the joint panel to make meaningful progress.


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Yaqoob added: “I think the industrial action should be firmly on until we get cast-iron assurances from TPR that the June 30 deadline is pushed forward.”

Confusion has also abounded regarding one sentence in the proposals, stating the UUK’s requirement of “maintenance of the status quo in respect of both contributions into USS and current pension benefits” until at least April 2019, which is the same as was suggested in all previous agreements, and in the JNC proposal.

Professor Michael Otsuka of the London School of Economics (LSE), who has been an outspoken critic of the UUK, as well as Cambridge’s alleged role in causing the pensions dispute, tweeted about the requirement, saying that it marked “no change”.

His sentiments were echoed by Yaqoob, who described the sentence as “practically irrelevant, because implementation of any reforms would not have happened until April 2019 anyway”.

As with the first agreement reached through Acas-mediated negotiations announced just over ten days ago, branches of the employees’ body, University and College Union (UCU), nationwide will consult with membership about the proposals before representatives convene at 11am on Wednesday, 28th March to discuss feedback.

In Cambridge, an emergency meeting open to all members of the Cambridge UCU will be held on Tuesday at 1pm in Great St Mary’s Church. This is alongside an online consultation sent out tonight, responses to which will be weighted as heavily as votes taken at the emergency meeting.

The UUK’s announcement came after a stalemate was reached earlier this month on 13th March when members of the UCU rejected the proposals reached through negotiations between representatives from the UCU and UUK. The new proposal marks the first sign of progress since this previous deal was rejected, sparking some hope for an end to strike action, though many remain sceptical.

Cambridge academic and prominent critic of the UUK, Dr Priyamvada Gopal, tweeted about the announcement, saying: “Hmmmmmmm. That’s all you’ll get out of me for now.”

Elsewhere on Twitter, some have accused the UUK of attempting to “buy time” and “wear down UCU” without providing “any guarantees”, while others described themselves as “proud” and “relieved”.

In a letter to members of the UCU, the union’s general secretary, Sally Hunt, wrote: “We have worked hard to gain these concessions, but they were won on the back of the strike action that so many of you have taken.”

In a statement to Varsity, a spokesperson for the Cambridge UCU said: “UCU members can be proud about having brought this about. Unlike with the Acas agreement, UUK have conceded that their valuations of our pension scheme have arbitrary and inept, and that future valuations require transparency and proper employee representation.

“It is right that an impartial and expert approach to the scheme valuation is taken, and that the November valuation is definitively left behind. It is clear that UCU has won the argument, to the extent that UUK are now facing the same way as us.

“There are serious problems with the proposal, however. It does not acknowledge that changes to the scheme valuation remain in the hands of the USS Trustee, and that if the Pensions Regulator refuses to extend its 30 June deadline for reforms, then the very worst proposal from before Acas can still be imposed.

“There are reasons to believe that UUK is making promises it knows it cannot keep. Until we get assurances from the Pensions Regulator that they will move their deadline, our industrial action must continue. Otherwise all the progress made so far will disappear.”

This article was updated to include a statement from the Cambridge UCU.