UK academics will start voting on industrial action over the closure of their defined benefit (DB) pension scheme on Wednesday (29 November).
If approved, the strike will cause “chaos on campus,” as lectures and classes will be cancelled in the new year, the University and College Union (UCU), the trade union for higher education staff, has warned.
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 earlier this month by Universities UK, which represents 350 university employers.
The union said that this proposal is “a bolt from the blue” and that it would ask its members to back industrial action in the ballot, which will run until 19 January.
The scheme 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.
UCU has argued that a DC scheme could lead to a final pension worth only around 20 per cent of the “best” DB schemes.
A previous ballot, in October, showed overwhelming support for industrial action to protect pensions, with 87 per cent of votes.
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.”