Despite deep snow this week, there was a large turnout on picket lines of staff striking against changes to pension schemes.

Across Britain, a total of 61 universities have been striking changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), one of the country’s largest principal private pension schemes, which is organised by Universities UK (UUK), the representative organisation for the higher education sector.

There have been fifth out of fourteen planned days of industrial action by the Universities and College Union (UCU), after members voted for industrial action to resolve a pensions dispute.

The union of university employees said a typical lecturer will lose nearly £10,000 of their retirement every year.

History lecturer Dr Christopher Jones, who was on the picket line, told Concrete: “We’re not doing this because we want to irritate or disrupt students particularly, but that’s one of the unfortunate consequences of strike action, so I would plead for [student] support and solidarity at this time.”

Vice-Chancellor Professor David Richardson said he was pleased the UUK and UCU met.

Prof Richardson said: “I have met in person with the Chief Executive of Universities UK , UCU regional and UEA representatives, and given interviews to Livewire and the Eastern Daily Press.

“In all cases I have expressed my desire to see talks continue towards a resolution and for efforts to be made to keep a defined benefit element to the USS scheme, within a solution that is affordable to the University.”

The UCU said it welcomed their agreement with UUK for further talks to try and end the strikes.

How long will the strikes continue?

Both sides have agreed to go for further talks mediated by the conciliation service Acas, which will begin on Monday 5 March. The strike action remains on.

Prof Richardson added: “We are still building up a picture of where there has been disruption arising from the industrial action. The picture at UEA is variable and the impact on students will differ by faculty and by school.”

The UUK proposed changes which mean those affiliated would receive a pension dependent on the strength of the market. Currently, university staff pensions are 8 percent of their salaries presented as a guaranteed sum.

What are the key updates from the Vice Chancellor?

  • UEA will make arrangements for teaching to be rescheduled for students  “where appropriate”.
  • All money saved from striking staff (who are not paid while striking), will be “ring-fenced for the benefit of students impacted and to support their learning outcomes”. The student body will be consulted for the allocation of this fund.

UEA staff who choose to strike will continue to do so for four days next week, and for five days the week after that unless a negotiation is made. The university and SU both encourage students to attend their classes as scheduled unless told otherwise.

How do the UCU want to resolve the dispute?

The UCU has tabled a set of proposals they believe could resolve the dispute. Its proposals were drawn from ideas put forward by UCU members and university Vice-Chancellors.

The proposals will attempt to provide a guaranteed pension for members of the USS at approximately half the extra cost attributed to the union’s previous proposal. They would mean universities would accept a small amount of increased risk through a return to the risk level the USS proposed in September 2017 – something the majority of institutions were happy with.

The UCU’s proposals would mean the limit on salary counting for defined benefits remains unchanged at £55,550, and that the Annual accrual rate is reduced from 1/75th to 1/80th. Contributions to pensions would increase by just 4.1 percent (split 65/35 between employers and employees) rather than the 8.3 percent estimated cost of UCU’s previous proposal – an increase in contributions of 2.7 percent for employers and 1.4 percent or USS members.

Responding to a UUK consultation, 58 percent of institutions said they were prepared to accept the current levels of risk or to increase the risk. A full list of the UCU’s new proposals can be found here.

 

UCU general secretary Sally Hunt said: “At the core of our proposals is for universities to accept a small amount of increased risk, but only at a level a majority have recently said they are comfortable with. Doing this would enable us to provide a decent, guaranteed pension at a more modest cost with smaller contribution increases.”