Cambridge UCU protested an inflation cap included in a previous national agreement earlier this monthLouis Ashworth

Members of the University and College Union (UCU) will vote next week on whether to accept the latest proposals aimed at resolving the ongoing pension dispute.

The proposals, which were announced last Friday, offer the possibility of preserving a defined benefit-style pension scheme, and would introduce an expert panel to advise on future pension reforms. It would place the previously proposed switch to ‘defined contribution’ schemes on hold, ensuring that current pension contributions continue until at least April 2019.

The panel, comprised of an equal number of actuarial and academic experts, would also review the valuation methodology of the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) in order “to provide a guaranteed pension broadly comparable with current arrangements”, according to UCU General Secretary Sally Hunt.

Universities UK (UUK), the advocacy group for university employers, released a statement today in support of the proposals, commenting that the creation of a panel “will help to build confidence in the valuation process and assumptions”. They added, however, that employers’ support for the proposal “is conditional on the suspension of industrial action”.

In a statement, the UCU announced that it had served notice of strike action at 12 universities to begin on Monday 16th April. It also reaffirmed its commitment to strike for 14 days during exam period at universities.

Explained Why are staff striking over pensions?

University and Colleges Union (UCU), the trade union for academics and university staff, has organised industrial action at 65 institutions nationwide in protest against pension proposals put forward by Universities UK (UUK), an advocacy body for university employers. UUK proposed in November to replace defined benefit pension funds for incomes under £55,000 with defined contribution pension funds, a move intended to mitigate an estimated deficit of £6.1bn in the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS).

The value of defined contribution schemes depends on returns from underlying investments in the stock market, as opposed to defined benefit schemes, which offer a guaranteed income upon retirement. UCU has cited analysis which estimates that staff may be up to £200,000 worse off upon retirement under entirely defined contribution schemes.

During strike action earlier this month, national bodies reached a provisional agreement which ensured defined benefit pension schemes for incomes below £42,000, while increasing employer and employee contributions by 1.3% and 0.7%, respectively. The agreement was resoundingly rejected by UCU members, however, and the UCU has since announced plans for 14 days of further strike action during exam term, if no acceptable compromise with UUK is reached in the current negotiations.

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Cambridge UCU vice-president Dr. Sam James, who attended the meeting with the national UCU Higher Education Committee (HEC) which decided on the ballot, wrote that UUK’s statement on the suspension of strike action caused frustration among UCU members.

James noted that because the information in UUK’s statement had just been released, union branch representatives had been unable to consult with members, and that “a number of branch representatives” felt that “they no longer had a mandate to vote either way on the fitness of the proposal to be put to ballot”.


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UCU members criticise 'undemocratic' approach on pensions

The national union has previously faced backlash from its members in its negotiations with UUK, as branch members rejected an earlier agreement reached jointly in national-level talks.

Cambridge academic and prominent critic of UUK Dr Priyamvada Gopal criticised Hunt’s approach today following the announcement of a UCU member vote, commenting: “What part of ‘this is not what the membership wished to vote on’ is hard to understand exactly?”.

A motion passed in an Emergency General Meeting of Cambridge UCU yesterday called for industrial action to continue until “a minimally accepted schedule of contributions and benefits for the next three-year valuation period has been made secure”.

The Cambridge branch raised concerns last week that the proposals do 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.”

Cambridge UCU has vowed that “industrial action must continue” until they “get assurances from the Pensions Regulator that they will move their deadline”.

  • Update 2nd April 2018: This article was updated so include comments made by Dr Sam James.