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Strikes at UK universities a step closer as staff back industrial action over pensions

19 October 2017

The prospect of UK university staff going on strike is a step closer after a national consultative ballot by the University and College Union (UCU) showed overwhelming support for industrial action to protect pensions.

Eighty-seven per cent of UCU members who voted in the consultative ballot, which closed last night, stated they would be prepared to take industrial action in order to defend the existing benefits of the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS).

The scheme covers the majority of staff mainly in the older 'pre-92 universities' including the likes of Oxford, Cambridge, Manchester and Imperial.

Industrial action would lead to disruption for thousands of students and union members may also be asked to vote on a refusal to cooperate with government initiatives such as the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), the Research Excellence Framework (REF) and the National Student Survey (NSS).

Pension negotiations with Universities UK, the representative body for universities, resume today. Analysis commissioned by USS shows that universities have the ability to pay extra in order to safeguard existing benefits, but have so far said they will not.

UCU says universities have also not done enough to challenge the valuation methodology used by USS which the union says bears little relation to the underlying health of the scheme.

Some institutions (such as the University of Southampton and Imperial College London) have even signalled they want to move to a defined contribution scheme where pension incomes will be wholly dependent on stock market performance rather than guaranteed.

UCU says that USS benefits have already fallen behind those available for members of Teachers' Pension Scheme (TPS) - the other large UK pension scheme for school teachers and academics.

After a torrid summer of headlines about university vice-chancellors' pay, it has now been reported that they have enjoyed bumper pension arrangements in recent years.

UCU general secretary Sally Hunt said: 'This result sends a clear message that UCU members are prepared to take sustained industrial action in order to protect their pensions.

'USS members work at some of the most celebrated universities in the UK and yet their pension benefits are the worst in the sector. Further cuts in benefits will only make this situation worse. Staff are totally fed up with being treated poorly by employers who seem only to be interested in defending their own sky-high salaries and bloated pension pots. 

'The employers need to act now to avoid a major, damaging dispute at a time when universities are already in the news for all the wrong reasons. We hope this ballot result finally concentrates the employers' minds. Vice-chancellors must now act to defend staff pensions as vigorously as they have defended their own salaries, rather than look away while USS benefits are cut.'

Last updated: 20 October 2017