The University and College Union (UCU) have cancelled a week-long strike which was set to impact Oxford, as university staff await the result of a crucial ballot which may bring long-running industrial action to an end.
UCU announced plans for further strike action at 13 different universities last month, including a strike at Oxford to cover 0th week Trinity.
However, while the union has now informed the University that next week’s proposed strike will not take place, Cherwell understands that there will likely be 14 days of strike action later in term if balloted UCU members choose to reject the Universites UK (UUK) deal. Voting ends today, with the results expected this afternoon.
In an online statement, an Oxford University spokesperson said: “The University has been informed by University and College Union (UCU) HQ that notice of industrial action at Oxford from April 16 is now withdrawn.
“Oxford could receive 14-day notice of an alternative date for strike action at any time. The University will act swiftly to communicate this to colleagues and students.”
However, the UCU statement which initially announced the 0th week strikes notes that the amount of strike dates an institution could face during the exam period “would depend on any earlier action taken in April and aimed at teaching.”
It also affirmed that “all universities would be hit with another 14 days of strikes covering either teaching and exams or just the exam period.”
Given that the cancellation of next week’s strike means there will be no April industrial action affecting Oxford, it is highly likely Oxford will be faced with two weeks of strikes over the exam period, if the proposed UUK deal is voted down by UUK members in the e-ballot.
The proposed deal would see the creation of a “Joint Expert Panel”, comprised of actuarial and academic experts nominated in equal numbers from both UCU and UUK.
It is hoped the panel will agree to the key principles which will underpin the future joint approach of UUK and UCU to the valuation of the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) fund.
The valuation of the scheme has been a serious source of contention throughout the dispute, with UCU consistently criticising the methodology used to calculate the USS’s supposed £6.1 billion deficit.
According to UCU Secretary Sally Hunt, the work of the group will also “reflect the clear wish of staff to have a guaranteed pension comparable with current provision whilst meeting the affordability challenges for all parties, within the current regulatory framework.”
However, critics argue that the wording of the agreement, and thus the influence of the joint panel, is too vague. Neither UCU, UUK, or a joint panel of the two can make changes to the scheme. They are reliant on the USS trustees to do that, and they themselves are required by law to decide upon changes to USS pensions by June 30th this year.
The Pensions Regulator has already said that it impossible for them to change the June 30 deadline, meaning there will not be enough time to form a joint expert panel to revalue the scheme.
Moreover, even if The Pensions Regulator tolerates the missing of the deadline, there is no obligation for the USS trustees to listen to a joint panel panel if they don’t agree with its findings.
Statements given by the USS trustees to the Financial Times suggest that the trustees have faith in the initial disputed valuation, and could proceed without reference to the proposed joint expert panel’s findings.
Q: Is #USS bound to accept the recommendation of the joint expert panel?
A: Under legislation it is the trustee’s role to determine the scheme’s technical provisions therefore the USS Trustee cannot be bound by the findings of the Joint Expert Panel.
— Josephine Cumbo (@JosephineCumbo) March 26, 2018
Oxford’s UCU branch have organised two presentation events to inform members about the ballot, hosted at St Edmund’s Hall and Merton College.
Good turnout, terrific presentation and great discussion with members at our @OxfordUCU pensions information and discussion meeting today at St. Edmund's Hall– with @USSbriefs in attendance! Thanks to all who came out! #UCUstrike #strikeforUSS #USSStrike pic.twitter.com/c6JVdDOJ5v
— Oxford UCU (@OxfordUCU) April 10, 2018
Unlike many other union branches, Oxford UCU has chosen not to officially endorse either a ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ vote in the ballot. Cherwell has contacted Oxford UCU for their reasoning behind this.
Cambridge’s UCU branch declared that it was asking its members to vote ‘No’ in the ballot earlier this week. In an official statement, they described how they had “sought assurances from UUK about an acceptable fallback, to apply if the panel fails to agree recommendations or its recommendations are not followed by USS.”
However, they concluded that these assurances “will not be forthcoming”, and thus recommended a ‘No’ vote.
— John David Rhodes (@aria_impura) April 11, 2018
Cherwell understands that the majority of UCU branches who have declared their official preference have called to reject the UUK proposal, going against the UCU leadership’s official position.