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USS pension justice - we demand it

Key questions about the USS ballot

23 September 2019 | last updated: 5 March 2020

Now that the USS strike ballot has started I have had plenty of feedback from members about our campaign through various channels, including emails, social media, and the events that have taken place so far on my tour of branches. I would like to thank the thousands of you who have let your branch know that you have already voted.

I would like to respond to three questions that have been raised by a number of members: about the reasons to vote; about the employers' most recent offer; and why, if we do not stop these latest increases, it will undermine the future of USS.

1. Why are we holding a ballot now?

We are faced with contribution increases to 9.6%, starting in October, which will be difficult for many members to pay. On top of that contributions are scheduled to go even higher, to 11%, from October 2021 - unless we secure a much better outcome at the next valuation in 2020. That will involve employers working with us to press USS to accept the findings of the Joint Expert Panel (JEP).

The JEP's second report will be published later this year. Stakeholders have already started planning the 2020 valuation. Balloting now puts us in a better position to influence the 2020 valuation and get a long-term solution that prevents us from having to take further action. The best way to focus employers' minds on a positive valuation outcome is to make sure that they, not members, are the ones who pay for increases arising from it.

Employers failed to put enough pressure on USS to accept the first JEP report because they were not faced with a threat of strike action. That will only change if enough of us vote YES in this ballot.

2. Why not just accept employers' latest offer?

At a late stage in negotiations employers offered to increase our contribution rate to 9.1% rather than 9.6% for the first two years from October 2019. They only made this offer because of intense pressure from UCU, culminating in our announcement of the current strike ballot.

The offer was considered seriously by the elected reps on UCU's higher education committee (HEC). The HEC decided that while it was a step in the right direction it did not go far enough. As well as being too little, it would only have applied up to October 2021. After that our contributions would go up to 11%, as originally scheduled. The offer was no better than a stop-gap solution, rather than a serious attempt at finding a long-term resolution to the dispute.

I am confident that if you provide a strong enough mandate for strike action employers will soon come to the negotiating table with a better offer, because they know how effective our industrial action will be.

3. I can afford it, why should I vote?

Some of us may feel able to pay these increased contributions, but many others do not. Surveys by USS are already reporting that staff - many in the early stages of their careers - will leave the scheme because of the contribution increases. That is terrible for them because it will leave them without a decent pension, but it will also fundamentally destabilise the scheme for those who stay in, weakening the membership base from which all our pensions are eventually paid.

These latest detrimental changes are part of a series of attacks on our pension benefits. Our advisers, First Actuarial, have shown that a typical USS member stands to lose £240000 in retirement because of changes to the scheme since 2011, compared with what they would have earned if those changes had not been made.

I am asking you to vote in this ballot because the best time to stop that trend in its tracks is now. We have a choice. If we do nothing the increases will come in and members will continue to suffer and even leave the scheme. 

But with a strong vote for action the union will be able to press for further negotiations aimed both at reducing the cost of your benefits, and at changes to the way employers and USS behave to make the scheme more accountable.

If you want the employers to get back round the negotiating table please vote yes for strike action to give the union the biggest mandate possible.

Finally, if you have not received or have lost your ballot papers, please make sure that your membership information is up to date using My UCU, and request your replacement ballot paper here.

Thank you for taking the time to read this message, and please feel free to email me or come in person to one of my tour events.

Jo Grady
UCU general secretary