Why pensions are worth striking to protect

Sally Hunt

Sixty-five universities face a further wave of strikes aimed at disrupting the exam and assessment period after members of the University and College Union (UCU) said a new proposal aimed at ending the pensions dispute was not good enough.

The proposal came out of talks between the union and the universities’ representatives Universities UK (UUK) under the auspices of Acas.

As a democratic trade union, UCU put the proposal to a meeting of representatives from the branches where staff are on strike.

While the proposal was better than UUK had previously proposed, and would have retained a reduced defined benefit element of staff pensions, it was overwhelmingly rejected as being not enough to settle the dispute.

The dispute is complex, but the principle is very simple – staff deserve a decent pension which will give them security in retirement. Many of those who work in our universities sacrifice the chance of higher salaries in the corporate world because they are committed to educating the next generation.

In return, they have always been able to look forward to a secure pension as a form of deferred pay.

This quid pro quo is especially important in a higher education system where employment is increasingly precarious, workloads are rising and pay is failing to keep pace with inflation.

If we are to avoid a further escalation of this already very damaging dispute, I believe we need to urgently resume negotiations around three key issues.

The first is straightforward. We have repeatedly pressed the employers to increase the money available to support the USS pension fund but in the end they were only prepared to increase their net contribution by a tiny amount - not enough to retain a competitive, guaranteed pension scheme at the salary level and accrual rate required by UCU members.

I hope that having seen the reaction of their staff to this offer, universities will now make the commitment necessary to securing a guaranteed pension at a decent level.

The second is a little more complicated. UCU has made detailed proposals to resolve the dispute, which would mean employers taking on a very small increase in risk to maintain current pension levels in an affordable way.

For whatever reason - whether through concern about the reaction of the Universities Superannuation Scheme itself or the Pensions Regulator - UUK have not felt able to do this.

I think they and we need to look again at this. A slight loosening of risk, in line with the current policy of many universities, including Oxford and Cambridge, is the key to unlocking more funding in a sensible, controlled way.

The third is half done already. One welcome outcome of the Acas talks was the joint agreement to look again at the valuation of the USS fund.