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University and College Union

Jonathan Peters
News Editor

A mandate for strike action has been received by the UCU

The University and College Union (UCU) has received a mandate for strike action, in response to proposed changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) pension scheme.

A ballot of members was held on 19 January, with a reported turnout of 57.4%. This gives the union a mandate to strike or take action short of a strike. The University of Glasgow have reported that “strike action is likely at some point in February, possibly on 22-23 February.”

The dispute centres on changes to the USS, with negotiations taking place between Universities UK (UUK), the body which represents universities, and UCU. In an open letter signed by 1,000 professors, the UUK’s proposed changes were described as potentially disastrous for recruitment, with USS considered to be “arguably the best aspect of the employment package.”

The letter warns that the proposed cuts to the pension scheme would mean “that a typical lecturer will receive £208,000 less under the proposals than presently. For universities that rely on the USS to help recruit and retain staff this will be a disaster.”

According to UUK, USS is one of the largest private pension schemes in the UK, and is the main pension scheme for academic staff.

Responding to employee concerns, the Chief Executive of UUK has claimed that USS is unsustainable in its current form. Alistair Jarvis argues that the problem with the pension system lies not only with the deficit in relation to promises for past service, but also the increasing contributions that universities will have to make into the scheme. In a blog posted on UUK’s website, he warned that “no reform is a dangerous gamble. It is a risk that employers cannot take.”

The proposed changes would see the replacement of guaranteed pensions with a defined contribution scheme. There are fears that this would expose the pension scheme to undue market risk, as well as cutting new employees’ pensions by up to 40%, compared with the current system.

The Joint Negotiating Committee (JNC), which has the power to decide changes to USS and comprises an equal number of UUK and UCU representatives, met on 23 January with the aim of reaching agreement and stopping the proposed strike action. These talks have reportedly failed, with UCU reporting that negotiations at over 60 universities ended without agreement.

The General Secretary of UCU, Sally Hunt said: “Staff will feel utterly betrayed by their leaders. We are disappointed at how talks ended today, particularly after UUK suggested yesterday that it wanted more talks to avoid strikes. Universities must be on notice that unless there are dramatic changes in their negotiators’ position then strike action will be arriving on campus next month.

“There is much talk of a crisis of leadership in higher education at the moment, especially after the recent vice-chancellor pay and perks scandals. Now is the time for university leaders to recognise the scale of this problem, how angry their staff are and to work with us to avoid widespread disruption in universities.”

The UCU is the largest further and higher education union in Britain, with over 110,000 members from all areas of academia. The strike is expected to affect 61 universities across the UK, including the University of Glasgow.