Members of the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) have approved proposals aimed at resolving the current pensions dispute, suspending strikes scheduled to start this week.
In a record turnout for a national ballot, 64 per cent of University and College Union (UCU) voted favourably to accept proposals which include a guarantee that the defined benefit (DB) element of the scheme would be maintained while a joint-expert panel considers the valuation of the pension fund.
This panel would be comprised of actuarial and academic experts nominated in equal numbers from both sides, and will be commissioned to deliver a report.
USS is the largest private sector pension scheme in the country.
It has a defined benefit as well as a defined contribution (DC) section, but was due to become a full defined contribution fund under plans published in November by Universities UK (UUK), which represents 350 universities.
According to the scheme annual report, it had a deficit of £12.6bn, with employers and members warned they may need to increase contributions by up to 7 per cent to maintain their current benefits.
However, this shortfall would be reduced by £6.1bn after the implementation of the UUK reform proposals announced in January, which led to industrial action.
At the time, the UCU announced 14 days of strikes across 61 universities to start on 22 February and run over a four-week period.
According to Sally Hunt, UCU general secretary, "the union has come a very long way since January when it seemed that the employers' proposals for a DC pension were to be imposed".
She said: "Now we have agreement to move forward jointly, looking again at the USS valuation alongside a commitment from the employers to a guaranteed, DB scheme.
"USS, the regulator and government now need to ensure that UCU and UUK have the space to implement the agreement effectively."
A spokesperson at UUK said: "The decision by UCU members to support the creation of a joint expert panel means that strike action is immediately suspended.
"This gives students important reassurance that they won't be affected by further disruption during their summer study and exam period.
"Alongside UCU, we will seek support for this process from USS and the Pensions Regulator, fully recognising their statutory responsibilities and accountabilities.
"Current pension benefits are guaranteed until at least 1 April 2019, so the panel will need to conclude its work in time to put in place a sustainable way forward for USS from that date."