The planned industrial action by the University and College Union (UCU) over proposed changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) pension has been suspended after UCU members voted to accept a new set of proposals.
64 per cent of UCU members voted to accept the new offer negotiated at conciliation service ACAS, which will include an re-evaluation of the USS scheme deficit and a set of new proposals developed by a board of experts nominated in equal measure by the UCU and Universities UK (UUK), the organisation responsible for administering the scheme.
UUK has also given assurances that it is committed to a defined benefit scheme and does not intend to return to its original proposals to abandon a guaranteed pension.
A range of issues raised by the UCU, including inter-generational fairness, the role of the government in providing support to USS, and equivalence with the Teacher’s Pension scheme, will be taken into account in the development of new proposals to be presented to the USS administrative board and the Pensions Regulator.
Academics went on strike for 14 days and resigned as external examiners at affected institutions over planned changes to the scheme, which they said would leave many staff worse off. The initial offer negotiated between the UCU and UUK was rejected by union members in a previous ballot on 13th March.
If the UCU had not accepted the new offer, the University of Southampton would have been hit by a further five days of industrial action from 16-20 April.
General Secretary of the UCU, Sally Hunt, commented that the union had ‘come a very long way since January when it seemed that the employers’ proposals for a defined contribution pension were to be imposed’.
She said that UCU hoped the agreement ‘won through the amazing strike action of UCU members’ would ‘hearten workers across the UK fighting to defend their pension rights’.
However, Ms Hunt also acknowledged that there was still more to be done ‘to ensure that the agreement delivers the security in retirement that university staff deserve’.
Professor Catherine Pope, Southampton UCU Vice-President, added:
This is a vote for a new, better process for valuing our pension. We do not yet have a pension deal, but we are hopeful that the joint expert panel to look at the pension valuation, and renewed talks by UCU and our employers, will deliver a decent pension to University staff.
UCU members here will now be focusing their attention on the proposed ‘Reshaping’ of this University and proposed cuts. We also want to look at the governance of the University – and we share our students’ concerns about the seemingly ever-increasing number of senior managers and their growing salaries – such as the VC’s £433,000 remuneration package.
Professor Pope said that branch members were ‘extremely grateful’ for the support of both students and SUSU during the period of industrial action.
‘The teach-outs and conversations on picket lines have started a much needed dialogue about higher education and we plan to continue to work with students to fight cuts to staff and courses and to challenge the marketisation of education’, she explained.
A Universities UK spokesperson said that the UCU decision to support the new proposals and suspend further strike action ‘gives students important reassurance that they won’t be affected by further disruption during their summer study and exam period’.
Their spokesperson added:
Reviewing the methodology and assumptions in the current valuation will build confidence, trust and increase transparency in the valuation process….It is important that interested parties engage with the panel and remain open-minded about its possible findings.
Working in partnership with UCU, we will now appoint a jointly agreed chair for the panel as soon as possible before developing its terms of reference, order of work and timescales.
Alongside UCU, we will seek support for this process from USS and the Pensions Regulator, fully recognising their statutory responsibilities and accountabilities. Current pension benefits are guaranteed until 1 April 2019, so the panel will need to conclude its work in time to put in place a sustainable way forward for USS from that date
In a joint statement, SUSU President, Flora Noble, and SUSU Vice President Education, Sam Dedman, said they were ‘pleased’ to see the results of the UCU ballot and the consequent suspension of industrial action ‘at such a crucial point in the year for students’.
They explained that SUSU would continue to maintain contact with the Southampton UCU branch alongside other campus unions, and would keep challenging the University on the issues of compensation for contact hours lost due to the strikes and the effect of proposed changes to the PASNAS pension scheme for non-academic staff.
‘Lecturing staff at Universities across the country go above and beyond in their teaching and research activity, and are therefore deserving of a quality pension’, they added.
A University of Southampton spokesperson told Wessex Scene that the institution welcomed both the UCU vote to accept the new proposals and the decision to suspend further walkouts.
The spokesperson commented:
Delivering a high quality education and experience to our students remains our highest priority, and we deeply regret the impact the industrial action has had on some of our current students, at a particularly challenging time of the academic year. We will continue to work closely with all affected students to ensure their studies continue smoothly next semester.
The national turnout of UCU members in the pensions ballot was a record 63.5 per cent.
The University will contact students by Friday 20th April to explain if any changes will be made to individual modules and assignments to compensate for the impact of industrial action.