All out for USS

Union threatens exam and coursework boycott as staff warned they will lose tens of thousands of pounds from their pensions

29 September 2014 | last updated: 10 December 2015

Staff would see tens of thousands of pounds a year wiped off their pensions if proposals made by Universities UK (UUK) were introduced, warns a report released today.

The report by First Actuarial [1Mb] for UCU warns that some staff would lose over £200,000 from their pensions if the radical proposals were implemented.

UCU is balloting members in 67 universities for industrial action to oppose the changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS). USS is the pension scheme for staff at the UK's 'old' universities and covers the most selective institutions including the Russell Group of universities.

The ballot opens on Wednesday (1 October) and closes on Monday 20 October. UCU said it will be asking members to back plans for a marking boycott and to refuse to set exams. The action would stop students being set coursework or receiving formal marks and feedback, as well as halting exams.

The radical pension changes put forward by UUK have been prompted by an expected deficit in the USS scheme. However, UCU says the methodology used to determine the deficit is too simplistic and doesn't take account of the scheme's underlying strengths.

Since 2011, when the last set of detrimental changes to members' pensions were made, the fund's investments have grown by £8bn, the number of members has grown by 18% and returns on investment have outperformed both average earnings and inflation.

However, UUK is proposing an end to the final salary element of the scheme for all members, introducing an earnings cap at £40,000 above which benefits will not apply, and expects members to have to pay more in the future.

The UCU modelling looks at 12 hypothetical staff members who have been paying into the scheme for different lengths of time and who will finish their careers on different salaries. It compares the difference in what they would receive now and under the UUK proposals. It also looks at what new starters set to join the scheme now would receive compared to under the current scheme.

It found that staff who had worked in the sector the longest and moved up the pay grades would be hit the hardest by the changes. This table shows examples of current USS members in the final salary scheme. There are more examples in the full report available from the press office.

Career profile

Current annual pension

Pension under new proposals

Difference lost per year (£)

Difference lost per year (%)

Total lost (£) *

Age 40, joined scheme at 25, retires at 68 on salary of £45,954






Lecturer started later:
Age 51, joined scheme at 36, retires at 68, final salary of £45,954






Senior (snr) lecturer:
Age 40, joined scheme at 25, retires at 68 on salary of £54,841






Snr lecturer started later:
Age 50, joined scheme at 35, retires at 67 on salary of £54,841






Age 40, joined scheme at 25, retires at 66 on salary of £75,000






* Using a life expectancy of 84.5 based on ONS figures which show a man at 65 is likely to live another 18.3 years and a woman an extra 20.8 years - average of 19.5.

University and College Union general secretary, Sally Hunt, said: 'Staff see their pensions as deferred pay and are understandably angry at the impact these proposals would have. We are making it very clear in this ballot that if members back industrial action, and there is no negotiated solution, we will be looking to quickly move to an assessment and exam boycott.

'We do not accept the way the scheme's deficit is being valued or share the overly cautious and pessimistic view, which has prompted plans for deep cuts to pension provision. We want a solution that protects the pensions of staff and ensures the scheme remains attractive to new members of the profession.'

The 67 universities at which UCU members in USS will be balloted are:

Aberdeen, The University of
Aberystwyth University
Aston University
Bangor University
Bath, University of
Belfast, Queen's University of
Birkbeck College, University of London
Birmingham, University of
Bradford, University of
Bristol, University of
Brunel University
Cambridge, University of
Cardiff, University of
City University
Courtauld Institute
Cranfield University
Dundee, The University of
Durham University
East Anglia, University of
Edinburgh, University of
Essex, University of
Exeter, University of
Glasgow, The University of
Goldsmiths College, University of London
Heriot-Watt University
Hull, The University of
Imperial College London
Institute of Education, University of London
Keele University
Kent, The University of
King's College London
Lancaster, University of
Leeds, The University of
Leicester, University of
Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine
Liverpool, University of
London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine
London School of Economics
Loughborough University
Manchester, The University of
Newcastle University
Nottingham, The University of
Open University
Oxford, University of
Queen Mary, University of London
Reading, University of
Royal Holloway, University of London
Royal Veterinary College
Salford, The University of
School of Pharmacy, University of London
Senate House, University of London
Sheffield, The University of
SOAS, University of London
Southampton, University of
St Andrews, University of
St George's, University of London
Stirling, The University of
Strathclyde, University of
Surrey, University of
Sussex, University of
Swansea University
Ulster, University of
University Campus Suffolk
University College London
University of Wales, Trinity St David
Warwick, University of
York, University of