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Fresh pay and pensions offers put end to UCU strikes in sight

Image: Ray Morgan, via Shutterstock

Union will consider offers and could ‘stand down’ from industrial action

The University and College Union has received revised offers from employers that could resolve two long-running industrial disputes over pensions, and pay and working conditions.

On 15 March, UCU general secretary Jo Grady said that employers had “finally agreed to put forward a set of proposals” related to each of the ongoing disputes, and that the offers would now “move through our union’s democratic processes”.

She said strike action—which continues today, tomorrow, Friday and into next week—is currently set to continue, but that members would be asked if they wished to “stand down” action to formally consider the offers.

The pensions dispute relates to cuts to the benefits offered by the Universities Superannuation Scheme introduced in April 2022, while the action over pay and conditions cites below-inflation wage increases, alongside the widespread use of zero-hours contracts and the casualisation of university employment.

The union’s Higher Education Committee will meet on 17 March to consider the next steps.

Pension benefits

A joint statement issued by the UCU and Universities UK—which is representing employers in negotiations over USS pension reforms—said the two parties “agreed to prioritise the improvement of benefits to pre-April 2022 levels, where this can be done in a demonstrably sustainable manner”.

The statement said that future valuations would be “moderately prudent and evidence-based”, and develop a “robust and transparent mechanism for managing risk”.

A spokesperson for Universities UK said there had been a “dramatic” improvement in the financial position of the scheme.

“Rapidly rising interest rates were a big driver of that improvement, but the benefits changes made in April 2022 also played a significant part in stabilising the scheme’s finances,” they said. 

“Employers were always clear that, should the situation markedly improve then we would work with the trustee on how those benefit changes might be reviewed at future valuations.”

Pay and conditions

The Universities and Colleges Employers Association, which represents universities in discussions over pay and conditions, said a “constructive” meeting with the five higher education unions involved in talks had taken place on 14 March.

Ucea chief executive Rath Jethwa said there was a “genuine determination” from all parties to conclude the terms of reference for the priority issues of the pay spine restructuring, workload issues, contract types and pay gaps negotiations”.

“Despite ongoing strike action attempts and further threats of disruption, employers have remained committed to these talks over essential terms of reference for key non-pay issues,” he said. 

“While addressing issues raised by the unions, we very much hope this work will build on the extensive good practice which already exists in the sector.”

Ucea made a pay increase offer of between 5 and 8 per cent, dependent on employees’ current pay, in January.

The UCU said the wider offer included an end to the use of involuntary zero-hour contracts in higher education, and an agreement to implement “new standards, frameworks and principles to tackle other forms of casualised contracts, reduce workloads and close equality pay gaps”.