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University pension reform blow as Oxford and Cambridge reject consultation process

2 December 2010 | last updated: 11 December 2015

Plans to make sweeping changes to the pensions of university staff have been dealt a serious blow after the University Oxford joined the University of Cambridge in rejecting a consultation process that has been described by UCU as a sham.

There is an increasingly bitter battle over changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) pension scheme. The employers want to move all new entrants off the final-salary scheme and on to a career-average earning scheme, introduce detrimental changes for anyone who has a break of more than six months in their employment and limit annual inflation-proofing pension increases.
UCU says it recognises that some changes are needed in order to ensure the stability of the pension fund. However, the union does not believe the employers' drastic proposals are required for the long-term viability of the scheme and fears the changes would create a two-tier system that could damage recruitment and retention in UK universities.
After Sir Andrew Cubie used his casting vote as chairman of the USS board to decide in favour of the employers' proposals, USS was legally required to run a consultation on them. UCU argued that the fairest and easiest way to consult with all scheme members was through a ballot on both sets of proposed changes.
USS refused and set up a consultation through individual institutions. Individual members have only been sent the proposed changes by the employers, with a leaflet from the employers endorsing them, and been encouraged to feedback their thoughts to their institution.
Oxford and Cambridge universities have rejected that process and demanded all USS members are sent both sets of proposals and asked to vote for their preference, with the ballot result then being sent to USS in their university's response to the consultation.
In an attempt to gauge USS members' real opinion, UCU has conducted its own referendum, which is currently ongoing with an estimated 30,000 members having already voted on the two sets of proposed changes.
UCU general secretary, Sally Hunt, said: 'We know that university staff care passionately about the future of their pension as they are taking part in our referendum in their tens of thousands. That both Oxford and Cambridge universities have voted to reject this sham consultation is further proof that USS is wrong in its approach to downgrade pension provision.
'Lecturers have put up with lower rates of pay than in equivalent professions, and ever worsening conditions, partly because of their professional commitment, but equally because of the promise of a decent pension. If that goes, universities will have real recruitment and retention problems on their hands.'
On Tuesday (30 November), Oxford's Congregation - the university's 'parliament' and highest decision-making body – passed, by a very large majority, a resolution to the same effect, with the additional provision that the university would call for the consultation to be restarted after further information had been provided by USS.
On Monday 22 November, the council of the University of Cambridge accepted a call from members of the university's governing body, the Regent House, for USS members and eligible non-members to receive both UCU and the employers' proposed changes to the USS pension scheme, with arguments for each proposal, and for there to be a consultative ballot on the alternative proposals.