Cambridge UCU members protest during the 2018 staff strikesLouis Ashworth

Bill Galvin, the chief executive of the national pensions scheme for university staff, has warned that employees could be faced with further spikes in their pension contribution rates — a prospect likely to flare tensions with the University and College Union (UCU) and staff across the country ahead of an upcoming strike ballot. 

UCU members at UK higher education institutions are already preparing to cast their ballot in a September vote on whether to take to the picket lines in protest of the scheme’s controversial schedule of pension contribution increases that would raise contributions to 9.6% of salaries in October. 

Staff currently pay in 8.8% of their salaries into the pensions scheme, up from 8% in April. Further contribution hikes would be planned from 2021 under the newly proposed schedule, which is backed by university advocacy group Universities UK (UUK). 

Read more Varsity coverage of the USS pensions dispute and the 2018 staff strikes.

In a letter sent to the head of UUK this week, Galvin spoke of a “real risk” that trustees of the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) would need to reconsider pension contribution rates before concluding the current valuation of the scheme, according to the Financial Times.

Increases in the percentage of employees’ salaries going towards pension contributions would be aimed at plugging the scheme’s deficit, which Galvin says has ballooned to £6.6bn. USS commented to the Financial Times, “the global economy and financial markets are clearly quite different from where they were on March 31 2018 — the date of the valuation.”

The USS deficit valuation process, however, has been a consistent point of scrutiny over the course of the pensions dispute: UCU’s head of higher education Paul Bridge recently called its methodology “no longer fit for purpose”. A report by a joint expert panel published in September 2018 found that aspects of how the 2017 valuation of the scheme had been carried out had amplified negative perceptions of its outlook. 

The panel had recommended that combined employer and employee contributions of 29.2% could fund the scheme, but USS instead instigated another valuation in January and has proposed higher rates of contribution than those advised. 

At the time, the panel’s report was the culmination of a pensions dispute that came to the fore in late 2017, after USS cited its deficit valuation in proposals to alter the structure of employees’ pensions. The dispute led to the largest national strikes on university campuses in recent memory, spanning four weeks and, by UCU estimates, affecting one million students. Setting up the panel had been a condition of staff suspending the strikes in April 2018, which they had previously warned would affect examinations. 


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In May, Trinity College exited the national pensions scheme and set up a private scheme for its staff — an unprecedented move that caused the entire scheme to be placed on “negative watch” where if another sizable institution left, the scheme’s financial rating would be downgraded. The decision by college officials to exit, motivated by an “unlikely but existential risk” of the scheme’s collapse, spurred a now-ongoing teaching and research boycott by 559 Cambridge academics of the college. 

The UCU ballot on strike action will open on 9th September. The results will be announced shortly after it closes on 30th October.

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