A failure to make progress on pay and pensions disputes could result in further strikes in 2020.
The University and College Union (UCU) has announced that talks between the Union, the Universities Superannuation Scheme, and Universities UK (representing employers) will reopen in the new year. Talks will concern a dispute over the USS pension, which staff say has been undervalued and poorly managed.
Employee contributions to the pensions scheme have risen from 6.5% in 2011 to 9.6% in 2019, and are set to rise a further 1.4% by 2021. Contributions from employers have also risen from 16% in 2011 to 21% in 2019.
Despite this, research published by the UCU appears to show that employees will receive almost £200,000 less in their retirement. The UCU argues that the valuation methodology used by the USS which resulted in these higher pension contributions is flawed.
The Joint Expert Panel (JEP), a panel established by UUK and the UCU to examine the valuation of Universities Superannuation Scheme, published a report on 13th December which made a number of recommendations for the scheme. These included changes to the governance of the scheme and the adoption of “a more appropriate valuation methodology”.
A spokesperson for the USS commented: “We look forward to engaging with UUK and UCU as they consider the recommendations from the JEP’s second report and welcome the commitment to meet early in the New Year.
“The recommendations in the report are ambitious in scope and will require careful consideration by all parties to agree how best to prioritise and progress them, alongside the timetable for the 2020 valuation.
“As our stakeholders know, we are already carrying out a significant and systematic review of the methodology for the next valuation and we look forward to understanding how employers and members views can be most clearly represented to the Trustee for the 2020 valuation.”
The dispute over the USS is one of two disputes which resulted in strike action at 60 universities last month. The UCU has also raised a dispute with the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA) over pay, equality, workload, and job security. The UCEA agreed to negotiations over the latter three issues, and both the UCEA and the UCU have agreed that constructive progress has been made. However, an unwillingness on the part of the UCEA to open discussions about pay has left the two bodies at an impasse.
If talks fail to make meaningful progress it seems likely that industrial action will continue into Hilary Term. University and College Union local associations at 25 universities across the country are currently preparing to ballot on further industrial action relating to the pensions dispute.
At Oxford, Union members voted overwhelmingly in favour of strike action over pay and working conditions in November, with 74.4% of votes cast in favour of the action.
However, a similar ballot for action over the pensions dispute narrowly missed the 50% voter turnout required for the results of the ballot to be carried. Members will be re-balloted on the issue between the 7th and the 28th of January. If successful, UCU members in Oxford would have a mandate for industrial action with respect to both disputes.
While no further strike action has yet been encouraged by the UCU, organisers of the Liverpool UCU have already called for a further 14 days of strike action in the new year.
The UCU is also still encouraging members to participate in “action short of a strike” which includes working strictly to contract, and not covering for colleagues or catching up for work missed as a result of the strikes.
UUK said in a statement: “There is a strong desire from all parties to work closely together on the future direction of the scheme. We look forward to developing a joint approach between the union, the trustee and employers to consider and respond to the recommendations from the JEP’s second report, alongside the 2020 valuation of USS.
“Priorities include jointly agreeing a refreshed scheme purpose and valuation principles; reforming the governance; and exploring different approaches to the valuation methodology for 2020.”