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Tensions rise as staff get ready to go on strike


Strikes are set to go ahead after a last-ditch attempt to avert industrial action collapsed

University and College Union members at 60 universities are to join the picket lines next week in a row over pensions and pay. 

On 21 November the UCU confirmed that members were gearing up for eight days of strike action over pensions and pay and conditions after last-minute talks between the union and employers on changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) ended on 20 November without a resolution.

However, the second report of the Joint Expert Panel (JEP), set up by employers and the union, to resolve the valuation of the USS is fund, is expected to be published before Christmas.

Strikes will run from 25 November to 4 December. They will be followed by action short of a strike when members return to work, meaning staff will refuse to work overtime and will not provide cover for absent colleagues. The UCU has threatened further strikes in the new year if there is no breakthrough on pensions or pay.

UCU general secretary Jo Grady said employers had “learned nothing” from the last round of strike action in 2018. “Instead of engaging seriously with us over the various elements of the disputes, they have been all spin and no substance,” she added.

“If universities don’t change their tune, then next week’s action could just be the start with further waves of strikes involving more staff in the new year.”

But vice-chancellors’ body Universities UK said university leaders had written to the UCU on 21 November to reiterate their commitment to finding a long-term solution to the USS dispute. Carol Costello, a spokeswoman for USS employers, said a second report from the JEP was likely to give suggestions for overhauling parts of the scheme.

“This should be the springboard to stepping up discussions which we hope will lead to greater confidence in the valuation process and governance arrangements. We are calling on the union to work constructively with employers to deliver positive long-term changes to the USS scheme,” said Costello.

The pensions row centres over who should pay for a rise in contributions to USS, set for the next two years at 9.6 per cent of salary for members and 21.1 per cent for employers. The dispute over pay and conditions relates to salary rises and conditions in universities such as casual contracts and high workloads.

A total of 43 universities will see strike action over both disputes, while UCU members at 14 universities will strike only over pay and conditions and at three universities only over pensions.

During a briefing for journalists on 20 November, Grady said the union had a six-month mandate for strike action and its Higher Education Committee would meet in the new year to discuss more strikes at “a strategic time” to create the most impact for employers.

The UCU believes that there is no deficit in the USS, and that if the recommendations of the first JEP report were implemented, contributions to USS would not need to rise beyond the pre-2017 valuation level of 8 per cent of salary for employees and 18 per cent of salary for employers. Employers and the USS trustee say there is a deficit and contributions need to rise to tackle it.

On renumeration, the union says staff pay has “plummeted” in real-terms in the last decade and that workload is becoming increasingly unmanageable for members. However, employers say that two-thirds of academic staff will have received a 4.8 per cent salary increase in 2019-20.

At the briefing, Grady suggested that universities could afford to pay for increases to the USS and for further staff pay rises. “What we have seen in higher education is a sector that is essentially making lots of money,” she said.

But in a separate briefing hosted by UUK, which deals with pensions, and the Universities and Colleges Employers Association, which deals with pay, employers stressed that extra costs on pensions and pay could result in job losses for cash-strapped universities.

Helen Fairfoul, chief executive of Ucea, told journalists on 21 November that the pay offer on the table of an increase between 1.8 and 3.65 per cent was “the maximum affordable for a collective”.

She added that “to go any further would put at risk jobs and services to students, and teaching, and this is at the same time of course that they are stepping up to pay large increases in pension contributions,” for both the USS and the Teachers Pension Scheme common among post-1992 universities.

Stuart McLean, a pensions expert for UUK, said universities had already stumped up an extra £250m in increased contributions to USS. “For employers to pick up 100 per cent of the increase…puts a lot of employers into very difficult circumstances with very difficult decisions to make about the running of their businesses and what that means in terms of…costs and where that funding would come from.”

He added that one way forward for the scheme could be a system where members have the choice of paying more and getting more benefits, or paying less and getting fewer benefits. “These are conversations that really need to be explored quickly ahead of the 2020 valuation because a one-size-fits-all arrangement, I don’t think is suitable for [everyone].”