Top universities face strike action over pension changes

  • 22 January 2018

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If talks fail, some universities could face strike action next month

Top universities could face strikes next month after staff backed action over changes to their pensions.

Overall, 61 universities could be affected after members of the University and College Union backed industrial action.

The union says changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme could cost an average lecturer £200,000 over the course of their retirement.

The umbrella group Universities UK called the result disappointing.

The UCU says its higher education committee is meeting to discuss the results and plan an industrial action strategy if further talks with university bosses fail to deliver a compromise.

Pension cuts

Members are angry at plans to change their pensions from a defined benefit scheme, where they would have a guaranteed income in retirement – to a defined contribution scheme, where their pensions would be subject to changes in the stock market.

Staff at 68 universities are members of the Universities Superannuation Scheme.

Of these, 61 voted overwhelmingly in favour of action, with 88% in favour of strikes and 93% in favour of action short of a strike.

The overall turnout was 58%.

The institutions affected include Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial College London, UCL, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Manchester and York.

At seven institutions the turnout was below the 50% required by law for a ballot to be valid.

Analysis from BBC education editor Branwen Jeffreys

This vote puts lecturers in conflict with fee-paying students, and their parents, anxious about the future.

Students are likely to feel the impact, with not just lectures but assessment of their degree coursework potentially being affected.

And the strength of the ballot sets the scene for maximum disruption.

It suggests the gulf between universities and the union may be too great to bridge at the final talks on Tuesday.

But this ballot is significant for another reason too: it is less than a year since the government passed a law to make strike action in public services harder by setting a minimum turnout threshold of 50% and requiring a majority for strike action.

By balloting separately in each one of the 68 older universities, the UCU has managed to get over the line in 61 of them and other public sector unions will be watching with interest.

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The union said it hoped the “overwhelming mandate” would focus universities’ minds and that vice-chancellors would now pressure Universities UK to agree a deal.

It said it would be happy for talks to be extended to try to resolve the issue without industrial action.

Last year the Universities Superannuation Scheme was reported to have a £17.5bn deficit.

A Universities UK spokeswoman said a solution to “significant funding challenges” facing the scheme needed to be found.

“We should be under no illusion, this is not a problem that will go away if ignored.

“Without reform now, universities will likely be forced to divert funding allocated from research and teaching to fill a pensions funding gap.

“The option of no reform is a dangerous gamble. It is a risk that employers cannot take.”

The UUK spokeswoman urged staff to consider carefully the possible impact of disruptive strike action on students.

National Union of Students president Shakira Martin urged more talks.

“It is in the interests of both staff and students that we have a university sector in which staff and treated and remunerated fairly,” she said.

Staff at institutions which became universities after 1992 are members of a separate pension scheme which is unaffected by the proposed changes.

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