British universities are heading towards strike action later this year, after employers insisted on requiring staff to pay higher pension contributions despite union warnings that the move would trigger a ballot on industrial action.
The University and College Union (UCU) said it had rejected an offer by the employers, represented by Universities UK (UUK), to swap limited increases in staff pension contributions for a two-year bar on strike action.
The UCU will go ahead with balloting its members, including researchers, librarians and other academic staff, from 9 September, which means as many as 69 universities with members in the pension scheme could see strike action in the new academic year.
Jo Grady, the UCU’s general secretary, said university management were expecting their staff to meet more of the cost of pensions because the sector had been unable to control its own spending or curb a building bonanza.
“Step back and look at the wider context of this. Since the financial crisis, the proportion of overall spending on staff in the sector has dropped from 58% to about 54%, and we are seeing a lots of cuts to staff and benefits,” said Grady.
“But the sorts of expenditure we’ve seen at the same time have been capital expenditure, expensive new buildings and foreign campuses, which don’t directly benefit education, research or teaching. In that context, what we are asking for is not unreasonable.”
Grady said her members wanted a permanent solution to the long-running dispute over the structure and financing of the universities superannuation scheme (USS), including an overhaul of the scheme’s management.
“What we are saying is that enough is enough. We tried an interim solution last year and that didn’t work. If we have a vote for strikes this year the aim will be to fix the long-term issues, and not just another temporary fix,” said Grady.
If a strike goes ahead it will be the second over pensions in two years. Last year’s dispute followed an attempt by employers to transform the USS from a defined benefits scheme – which fixed pensions to final salaries – to a defined contribution scheme with considerably lower pension payouts for most members.
More than 40,000 staff took industrial action during the strikes in February and March last year. Further strikes scheduled for April would have imperilled end of year exams and graduations, but employers backed down and proposed a joint panel of experts to look at the USS’s structure and valuation.
But according to Grady, little has changed, with USS managers unmoved and regulatory mechanisms meaning that contributions will have to rise in the absence of further agreement.
“We don’t need to be paying this at all. If UUK worked harder to implement the joint expert panel that they signed up to then we wouldn’t be here,” said Grady.
“It’s also a nice fudge that universities don’t have to discuss the massive overspending on vice-chancellors’ salaries that we have seen in the last decade, which is just the tip of the iceberg if you want to talk about misspending in universities over the last decade.”
UCU’s demands are multi-layered, and include a “no detriment” requirement that means that under any changes to the pension scheme its members will not increase their contributions above 8% of salary, as well as reforming the USS’s operation ahead of a new valuation for the scheme required in 2020.
But last week the scheme’s joint negotiating committee opted to increase contributions to 9.6%, a rise of £44 a month for the average member, after the casting vote by the committee’s chair, Sir Andrew Cubie.
The employers said they made a counter-offer, limiting staff contributions to 9.1% in exchange for the UCU agreeing not to strike for two years. “It appears that UCU’s ‘no detriment’ position means no compromise,” UUK said in a statement, after the union refused to accept the offer.
Adam Tickell, the vice-chancellor of Sussex, said the UCU’s demand that employers cover all of the increased contributions would cause financial difficulties for universities. “Employers have repeatedly stated that such a move would be unaffordable for the vast majority of institutions and would undoubtedly result in redundancy programmes,” he said after the UUK offer was rejected.
Grady said the union would not give up its right to take action ahead of the crucial 2020 valuation, which could cause a repeat of last year’s strike if not resolved.
“This was a bully clause, plain and simple. Employers wanted to silence dissent from staff for more than two years. Their thinking is clear: they know contributions are scheduled to go up even more at the 2020 valuation and they will try to cut benefits as a result. They don’t want staff to be able to protest that,” Grady said.