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University of Cambridge vice-chancellor says pensions dispute "cannot go on"

2 March 2018 | last updated: 6 March 2018

The pension dispute "cannot go on" the vice-chancellor of the University of Cambridge has said.

In a statement on the industrial action, Professor Stephen J. Toope said the time had come to explore other ideas to resolve the dispute including the ones tabled by the University and College Union (UCU) last week.

Expressing concerns about how the dispute was playing out at home and abroad, Professor Toope said pensions were a key component of staff pay and conditions and played a significant role in attracting international academic to the UK. His concerns come after the Chinese embassy in Britain expressed concerns to the government over the strikes.

Saying that Monday's talks should also explore government backing for the Universities Superannuation Scheme and other ways to guarantee benefits in retirement, he warned that if the talks could not deliver a sector-wide scheme then Cambridge might leave USS.

UCU general secretary Sally Hunt said: 'Professor Toope is right to say things cannot go on as they are. We would argue they never should have been allowed to get this far in the first place. It is important we all move forward to Monday's talks looking to resolve this dispute.

'We are pleased Professor Toope has suggested we explore the ideas UCU put forward to resolve the dispute, and hope the people negotiating on behalf of the universities will listen to his words and his other suggestions on the future of USS.'

Professor Toope's statement in full:

"I recognise UUK's limited room for manoeuvre due to extremely low real interest rates and the views of the Pensions Regulator, who will ultimately decide on the scheme's viability. Our influence is, therefore, limited. But I strongly support the exploration of ideas to resolve this situation, including those put forward by UCU. There has to be compromise. I hope that further disruption to students' studies can be avoided while talks continue.

"The current situation cannot go on. It has, understandably, led to anger from staff and anxiety from students. I therefore urge the parties to agree a pragmatic solution to bring to an end the current dispute. Once this has been achieved we can focus on a long-term, sustainable solution which is in the best interests of the sector, the University and individual members of the USS.

"Pensions form a key component of our compensation package for staff and they play a significant role in the attractiveness of the UK's higher education sector to talented individuals from around the world.

"Cambridge University has been actively working on options for some time and we have been discussing these with UUK. We believe a sector-wide scheme has significant benefits. One option to maintain a sector-wide approach, at least in the short-term, would be an alternative that retains a Defined Benefit (DB) element, but combines it with a Defined Contribution (DC) component along the lines of our existing Cambridge University Assistants' Contributory Pension Scheme (CPS).

"There are other approaches that could be explored as longer-term solutions. These could include a Collective DC scheme, similar to that being considered by the Royal Mail, or a government-backed solution. These might offer better benefits than the current scheme, yet still be affordable for universities. However, these require new legislation or government action.

"If all else fails and no sector-wide scheme is deliverable, Cambridge will have to consider whether there is scope for a Cambridge-specific scheme - either within or outside the USS. We must recognise, however, that there are serious obstacles to such an approach.

"Cambridge University is also prepared to consider assuming the costs of additional contributions in the short-term should no other option be viable. It should be noted, however, that this approach would likely require trade-offs and cuts in other parts of the University. 

"You have my absolute commitment to working with all parties to find a way through this dispute; a way which recognises the concerns of our staff, ensures the sustainability of the University, and maintains an excellent education for our students. Such an outcome is imperative if we are to safeguard the global leadership of the UK's higher education sector, and of Cambridge University in particular."

Professor Stephen J. Toope
Vice-Chancellor

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