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USS pension justice - we earned it

A new attack on USS pensions - and how we can stop it

27 April 2021

The USS pension scheme is facing a renewed attack by your employers' representative body, Universities UK (UUK).

UUK is proposing massive cuts to USS members' retirement benefits and is consulting your employer on whether to not to endorse them. You can find my initial response at this link.

What changes has UUK proposed?

Many UCU members are members of USS - and many more have already been priced out of the scheme by recent increases in member contributions. UUK is consulting employers on a number of changes, but the crucial ones to bring to your attention are its proposals to cut the guaranteed, defined benefit (DB) element of the scheme, and its proposal to create a defined contribution (DC) option aimed at lower paid staff.

The cuts to DB which employers are being consulted on could have a very significant impact on your retirement income. You can find more details in this briefing, but in short, they are very similar to the offer from employers which UCU branches rejected midway through our industrial action in 2018.

UUK is also proposing to create a separate, 'low cost' option aimed at lower paid staff which will be insecure and inferior compared with the current arrangement. At present, staff who join USS get a guaranteed retirement income linked to the amount which they earn over their career. Everyone deserves the same level of security, and moving lower paid staff out of the main pension scheme is likely to undermine the scheme as a whole.

Employers have until 24 May to respond to the UUK consultation. It is now up to your employer to tell UUK that they won't endorse these proposals and they want to offer staff something better.

What can we do to save our pensions?

We need to prepare ourselves mentally for another round of industrial action. The whole union will campaign hard in the coming weeks to stop the UUK proposals, but as you have done in the past, you need to be ready to vote for and take industrial action if employers end up trying to impose these cuts on us.

We are the only union in the UK to have defended a defined benefit pension after employers have threatened to close or severely downgrade it. It is thanks to our action in 2018 and 2019-20 that we are still in a position to keep a guaranteed pension at an affordable contribution rate. UCU members are uniquely well equipped to carry on and win this struggle.

Your elected negotiators have agreed a set of principles for resolving this long-running dispute which are achievable and far superior to what Universities UK has put forward. We are willing to explore low-cost options, but only if they offer the same level of security for all members. We are willing to explore alternative scheme designs, as long as they are acceptable to members.

However, what we need in return is for employers to show more commitment to staying in USS and supporting the scheme financially than they have done previously, and we need them to work with us to improve the way the scheme is governed and regulated. Finally, we also need time to discuss these possibilities over the next few months, without the threat of these massive, knee-jerk cuts adding to the pressure.

Early successes and next steps

Several employers have already told their branches that they will make commitments along these lines when they respond to the UUK consultation. This shows how strong and well organised we have become as a union. Employers know that UCU members are serious about defending themselves through industrial action if necessary, and that is why some employers are making these concessions.

If enough UCU branches can force their employers to respond constructively and positively to the UUK consultation, we can beat these cuts before they have a chance to get off the ground.

In the coming weeks UCU will be launching a modelling tool, designed by our actuarial advisers, which will tell anyone who uses it how much of their retirement benefits they are projected to lose as a result of UUK's proposals. The launch of that tool will be a critical moment to build our campaign and send a concerted message to employers that these cuts are unacceptable and staff are willing to fight for more.

I will be in touch as soon as possible with more information and you can also expect to hear more from your branch as the UUK consultation continues. In the meantime, please contact me using this form with any questions you have and I will cover them in future emails.

Jo Grady
UCU general secretary

Last updated: 6 May 2022