A new deal has been proposed by Universities UK (UUK) in an aim to solve the ongoing pensions dispute, potentially bringing widespread industrial action to a halt.

Under the proposed agreement, the current defined benefit pension scheme will remain in place until at least April 2019. According to the University and College Union (UCU), it will also ensure that a full switch to a defined contribution scheme is entirely off the table.

It follows vice chancellor Louise Richardson sending an email to all staff this afternoon, outlining her hope that the “University can come together in recognition of the concerns of many of our staff”.

Following further negotiations this week, the UUK board met this afternoon and agreed a proposal aimed at resolving the pension dispute. That proposal has now been sent to UCU members, with branch representatives due to deliver feedback on Wednesday.

Alongside a commitment to maintaining the current pension system until 2019, the deal also proposes 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.”

Oxford University said in an online statement that the proposed deal “would be very good news for our students, preventing further disruption to their studies.”

Earlier this afternoon, vice chancellor Louise Richardson sent an email to all staff where she bemoaned how “the collegiality of our community has been undermined” by the ongoing pensions dispute.

She said: “We face a shared problem: a pension scheme to which both employers and employees contribute which has been assessed as having a substantial deficit. We have a shared interest in finding a solution that offers the best possible affordable pension now and into the future.

“Like other employers and employees we have signed on to collective bargaining and are bound by it. I know that this is frustrating for many of us who would like to find our own solution right away, but we can’t. I can personally commit, however, to accepting any solution agreed at the Joint Negotiating Committee by UCU and UUK.

“Much of the disagreement arises over the validity of the estimate of the deficit (£6.1 billion). I know we would all be delighted to learn that the current estimate exaggerates the deficit. I very much hope that the proposals for an independent panel of experts, with membership agreed by UCU and UUK and working transparently, will be accepted, will start work immediately, and will command confidence in their conclusions.

“Congregation will be convening on April 24 to discuss the issue and to solicit proposals that can be fed into our Pensions Working Party for analysis. I hope that this can be a moment when the University can come together in recognition of the concerns of many of our staff and in collective pursuit of a solution to the shared problem we face.”

Last week, it was confirmed that Oxford had excluded USS members from the University’s Pension Working Party on conflict of interest grounds. This position has now been formally reversed, and there will be a greater input from USS members going forward.

Meanwhile, the identity of four of the six Oxford colleges who pushed for the controversial pension scheme changes remains unknown. Only Hertford and Pembroke have revealed that they responded to a 2017 UUK survey with a desire for “less risk”, but leaked documents suggest that four other colleges did the same.

Oxford UCU has been contacted for comment.

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