Staff at UK universities have threatened a series of walkouts early next year after employers unveiled plans to scrap their defined benefit (DB) pension scheme.
The current fund, Universities Superannuation Scheme, is the largest private sector pension in the country.
It has a DB and a defined contribution (DC) section, but would become a full DC fund, according to plans revealed on Friday (17 November) by Universities UK, which represents 350 university employers.
It said: “This proposal would tackle the scheme's financial deficit and rising future costs whilst ensuring that it continues to offer attractive pensions benefits to members.”
The scheme, the largest private sector pension scheme in the UK, covers the majority of staff mainly in the older "pre-1992 universities" including Oxford, Cambridge, Manchester and Imperial.
There have been concerns about the scheme's £12.6bn deficit, with employers and members warned they may need to increase contributions by up to 7 per cent to maintain their current benefits.
But this is beyond what universities are willing to pay and Frank Field, chairman of the work and pensions select committee, has written to ministers, the pension regulator and the trustees of the scheme to understand why its deficit has increased £7.3bn in three years.
The University and College Union (UCU), the trade union for higher education staff, argued that a DC scheme could lead to a final pension worth only around 20 per cent of the “best” DB schemes.
UCU said that this proposal was “a bolt from the blue,” and that it would consult members for industrial action in a ballot that will open 27 November and close on 19 January.
A previous ballot, in October, showed overwhelming support for industrial action to protect pensions, with 87 per cent of votes.
The union will ask members to back industrial action aimed at a substantial disruption of around 50 of the largest and most well-known universities in the UK including Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial and Manchester, it said.
The action will include a series of strikes during February, as well as other measures such as refusing to cover or reschedule classes, or cover for sick colleagues.
According to UCU general secretary Sally Hunt, this is the worst proposal she has received from universities “on any issue in 20 years of representing university staff”.
She said: “These plans would remove members' guarantees in retirement and leave them facing years of stress about whether their pension investments are returning enough income to live on.
“Staff always put their students first but their goodwill has been taken for granted for too long. If universities continue to pursue this action, they will face disruption on campus of a kind never seen before.”