The vice-chancellor addressed students at an open meeting at the end of Lent TermMatthias Gjesdal Hammer

Stephen Toope, Cambridge’s vice-chancellor, has issued a statement welcoming the latest proposal to resolve the ongoing USS pensions dispute.

Following discussions last Friday, Universities UK and the University and College Union (UCU) proposed to establish a joint panel of experts to consider the controversial University Superannuation Scheme valuation – which is at the heart of ongoing industrial action – and the assumptions and tests which underpin it.


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In a statement on the University’s website, published on Thursday, Toope said he welcomed the idea of a panel to “review the valuation and to look at changes in benefits and contributions” whilst also reiterating Cambridge is prepared to make “higher pension contributions and take more risk to achieve an interim pension solution.”

The proposed panel will be made up of an equal number of both actuarial and academic experts, nominated by both sides.

The vice-chancellor has come under criticism from some quarters for his handling of the dispute, with over 800 alumni of the University signed an open letter to Toope, expressing their disappointment. Towards the end of Lent Term, he made a series of concessions in response to growing pressure from staff walkouts and a student occupation of the Old Schools building.

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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Academics and staff walked out for 14 days during February and March, and several have resigned posts as external examiners to increase pressure throughout the higher education sector. Further strikes are planned for the coming term.

UCU has opted to ballot its members on the proposal, with a vote expected to take place within the next fortnight.

“For the avoidance of doubt, Cambridge accepts the level of risk implied by the Trustee’s proposals and assumptions in its September 2017 valuation,” Toope said.


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He said the proposal “offers a solid starting point for the union and employers to work together to ensure an acceptable interim solution and the way forward to a long-term resolution of pension provision for the sector.”

Despite this, Toope conceded that a resolution to the dispute was still some way away, acknowledging the need to “rebuild trust” and “create a better and more representative system of negotiation”.

He re-emphasised his announcement that the University will not expect academics who have gone on strike to reschedule teaching time without compensation and that pay will not be deducted from “those taking action short of a strike”. In addition, staff who have had their pay deducted will have the option to have their deductions spread over the period of three months.