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Pension outlook bleak as union hardliners reject compromise

Image: Fiona McIntyre for Research Professional News

USS discussions between UUK and UCU begin under a cloud as union bloc dismisses JEP report

The president of the University and College Union in Scotland has described the second report of the Joint Expert Panel on the Universities Superannuation Scheme as “inadequate”, and said that the union should demand “nothing less” than “no detriment” to employers’ pension contributions.

The intervention of Carlo Morelli, whose comments were published on the UCU Left website, means that whatever deal emerges from talks between Universities UK and the union, it is unlikely to meet with the approval of the UCU’s higher education committee.

Under union rules only the HEC has the power to initiate or call off industrial action, and its approval will be required to resolve the dispute. However, UCU Left activists are now in the majority on the HEC.

Five days of talks between the UCU and Universities UK, which is representing employers in the discussions, start on 15 January. UCU general secretary Jo Grady, and UUK chief executive Alistair Jarvis will take part, along with Bill Galvin, chief executive of the Universities Superannuation Scheme.

The talks are under the direction of Joanne Segars, chair of the Joint Expert Panel, and will discuss the JEP’s latest recommendations for the valuation of the pension fund.

However, in a statement on 7 January, Morelli—a union representative on the USS Joint Negotiating Committee—described the JEP report published on 13 December as “a damp squib failing to grapple with the crisis in USS” and containing “regressive changes”. Morelli said the report, “completely fails to understand the disaster of governance at the heart of USS”.

Dismissing the recommendations of the JEP as “retrograde”, Morelli said: “UCU should make it clear the recommendations of the second JEP Report are inadequate to settle the current USS dispute. We want No detriment, No deficit and nothing less”.

The statement comes after the vice-chairs of the UCU higher education committee, Mark Abel and Jo McNeill—the latter of whom stood against Grady as the UCU Left candidate in the 2019 leadership election—called on the union to “escalate the action” against employers over pensions and pay. The comments are significant as it suggests UCU Left will block any agreement with employers which does not hold to the position of “no detriment” to members of the USS scheme.

A special UCU democracy congress on 7 December curtailed the powers of the general secretary to act independently during strike negotiations with employers, mandating her to act only “in accordance with the wishes of the national executive committee”. Members of the HEC are also members of the national executive.

Speaking to Research Professional News in an exclusive interview to be published later this week, president of UUK Julia Buckingham said, “We’ve got to find a solution that works. And that will involve compromises I’m sure. Any form of problem solving always involves people around the table, giving a little bit to try to get to somewhere. I think that’s really important.’

Asked about those members of UCU advocating for no detriment, she added: ‘If you look at what’s in JEP2—and both UCU and UUK signed up to the concept of JEP2—I think now we have to work together to try to find a solution to the issue.’

In November and December of last year UCU members at just under 50 institutions participated in eight days of strike action over changes to the contribution rates for employees in the USS scheme. UCU are currently re-balloting members at nearly 40 universities to join future strike action over pensions and pay.

The final scheduled meeting between UCU and UUK is on 29 January. The union’s higher education committee is due to meet on 30 January.

The UCU said it had no comment to offer. 

Our interview with Julia Buckingham will appear in the 8am Playbook on 15 January.