UK university staff to ballot over pay and pensions

UK university staff to ballot over pay and pensions
Photo: Peter Summers/Reuters 2018 via fotoware

Members of the University and College Union are set to vote in October over a 35 per cent cut to their guaranteed annual pension.

In a long-running dispute over worsening workloads, pay and conditions, staff members of the University Superannuation Scheme have also been told they face an eye-watering cut to their guaranteed pensions.

As a result UCU has announced it will ballot members from October 18 unless employers meet its demands.

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The union’s higher education committee met Monday September 20, and confirmed the timetable for a ballot of 152 institutions in total, six will be balloted on USS only, 83 are to be balloted over pay and working conditions.

Another 63 institutions in the UK will be facing two ballots over both USS and pay and working conditions.

UCU said it expects employers to return to negotiations with better offers in both disputes or face action that will disrupt the end of term and continue into the next one.

Jo Grady, general secretary of UCU, said: "University staff propped up the entire sector during the pandemic, but they are now being thanked with huge cuts to their pensions, unbearably high workloads, and another below-inflation pay offer – all whilst universities continue to generate a handsome income from tuition fees.

"The truth is that very well-paid university leadership, who manage institutions with bigger turnovers than top football clubs, are choosing to exploit the goodwill of staff, repeatedly refusing to address the rampant use of casualised contracts, unsafe workloads or the shocking gender and ethnicity pay gap in the sector."

How the proposed USS changes would affect the average member:

  • A USS member aged 37 earning £41,526 (the current starting salary for a lecturer in many institutions) will go on to build up an annual guaranteed pension of £12,170 if they continue to work full time in the sector until age 66.
  • This compares with the £18,857 annual income which they would build up under the current arrangement.
  • The same 35% cut would also apply to the guaranteed cash lump sum which the member would receive when they retire.

The ballots will run from Monday October 18 to Thursday November 4 unless employers resolve the dispute beforehand.

UCU’s HEC will meet to consider the results of the ballot on November 8 with action expected to take place before the end of the year.

Flawed valuation

The ballot over pensions comes after employer body Universities UK (UUK) voted to cut thousands of pounds from the retirement benefits of university staff in August this year. 

As reported by FTAdviser at the time, the plans, based on a flawed valuation of the USS scheme conducted at the beginning of the pandemic as markets were crashing, represent an annual guaranteed pension cut of 35 per cent for a typical member.

These cuts come after series of changes between 2011 and 2019 have been shown to already leave a typical member around £240,000 worse off; changes which have already prompted several actions by university unions.

UCU produced alternative proposals for reform of the scheme, which were discussed at the Joint Negotiating Committee with employers, represented by UUK.

However, employers refused to match the level of covenant support for UCU’s proposals which they were willing to deliver for their own. Employers also refused a range of delay options to allow more time to negotiate.

The alternative pension proposals from the union are: