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Offer made in pensions dispute could end strikes

An offer made today by the representative body for UK universities could see an end to strike action, if university staff accept the proposals next week.

A new offer was made which aims to settle the ongoing pensions dispute which led staff at 61 universities across the country to strike for fourteen days this semester. This followed weeks of tense negotiations between the University and College Union (UCU) and the employer’s organisation Universities UK (UUK).

The proposal hopes to see the creation of a jointly agreed panel of actuarial and academic experts. They would aim to agree upon “key principles to underpin the future joint approach” to the valuation of the pensions fund, the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS).

Universities UK said the offer was good news for students.

“This would be very good news for […] students, who want strike action to stop to prevent further disruption to their studies,” a spokesperson said.

However, they added: “Support for this process will need to be sought from the USS Trustee and the Pensions Regulator, recognising their statutory responsibilities.”

If the proposals are accepted the rest of the semester will continue as originally scheduled. However, several UEA schools have prepared contingency measures to help support students during the assessment period.

Deadlines for numerous modules were extended, in order for students to have contact time with academics. Several schools, including History, have said exam papers are undergoing a review to ensure students are not assessed content that was not taught.

Undergraduate Officer Mary Leishman said: “Deadlines may be moved, but we would advise working to all deadlines unless you hear otherwise from your School.”

UEA’s SU voted to support staff on strike at a Union Council meeting last term.

UCU branch representatives will meet next Wednesday (28 March) to decide their formal response to UUK’s offer. UEA’s branch will meet on Monday or Tuesday next week to get feedback.

UUK previously made an offer which was rejected by UEA’s branch the next day, and ultimately by the entire union. Staff at UEA were disappointed proposals would have meant staff would pay more in pension contributions, which was viewed as a pay cut.

However today’s proposals would mean the current contribution and benefits scheme will continue until at least April 2019. This is to give the expert panel time to agree on their terms of reference, alongside the order of work and timescales for all parties involved.

The panel intend to focus on “reviewing the basis of the pension scheme valuation, assumptions, and associated tests.” 

They will also “take into account the unique nature of the [Higher Education] sector, inter-generational fairness and equality considerations, [and] the need to strike a fair balance between ensuring stability and risk.”

According to the fourth of UUK’s eight proposals, “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, within the current regulatory framework.”

A full list of the proposals can be found here.

In a letter sent to UCU members today, UCU general secretary Sally Hunt said: “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.

“As always it will be for members to decide whether what has been achieved is sufficient to suspend our strike action.”

UCU members previously threatened another fortnight of strikes during exams if negotiations fail to reach a fair settlement.

While it is still too early to know what response UEA staff will have to today’s proposals, the responses from academics across the country have been largely positive.

It is unclear who would fund the panel reviewing the scheme’s valuation.

A representative for UUK said: “There are a number of practical questions over the work of the panel of independent experts, which need to be agreed by UCU and Universities UK.”


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October 2021
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