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Consultative ballot on UUK proposal now open

4 April 2018

Sally Hunt, UCU general secretary, writes to members in USS institutions as the consultative ballot over whether to accept the latest UUK proposal opens.

In her message, Sally writes:

'The USS dispute is at a critical moment.

'In November 2017, I recommended to the higher education committee (HEC) that we ballot UCU members because the employers were determined to impose a defined contribution scheme.

'In January 2018, following that successful ballot, I recommended to HEC that we take fourteen days of strike action and begin action short of a strike (ASOS) because the employers refused to negotiate with UCU.

'Throughout the dispute, including when rejecting the employers' last offer, the HEC has listened carefully to members and acted decisively.

'Now following the strikes and many hours of negotiation the situation is transformed from when the dispute began.

'It is time for you to have your say on what the union does next.'

She goes on to explain what the latest UUK proposal means, and the implications of accepting or rejecting the offer:

What gains have we made?

The employers have taken their 'defined contribution' proposal off the table. This would have cost the average UCU member around £200,000 in their retirement. Now the employers say they "do not intend to return to the proposal".

A guaranteed pension

The employers previously said the only affordable defined benefit scheme would have such a small guaranteed element it was not worth pursuing. Now they say that future work will "reflect the clear wish of staff to have a guaranteed pension comparable with current provision."

A joint expert panel

The employers have ignored UCU's criticisms of the valuation methodology used by USS for years. Now they have agreed to a joint expert panel, nominated in equal numbers from both sides, to agree key principles to underpin the joint approach of UUK and UCU to the valuation of the USS fund.

Reassessed valuation

The employers said that the debate about the USS valuation was concluded. Now they accept that the joint expert panel "will make an assessment of the valuation" and make joint recommendations to the JNC aimed at providing a guaranteed [e.g. defined benefit] pension.

Comparability with TPS

The employers said that the unfavourable comparisons made by UCU between USS benefits and those provided by the Teachers' Pension Scheme (TPS) were inappropriate. Now they have agreed to joint discussions on "comparability between USS and TPS".

The Pensions Regulator engagement

The Pensions Regulator has already indicated in a letter to USS that they will engage with the joint expert panel. Similarly, if there is agreement from UCU members, UUK and UCU will jointly approach the USS Board to seek its endorsement.

The concessions we have won put the union in a very strong position to resist cuts to our pensions. The joint expert panel presents a real opportunity to address important questions about the valuation and the level of risk the employers are prepared to take, but also to look at issues relating to inter-generational fairness and equality.

This is vital work and the union would be doing it on an equal footing to the employers thanks to our successful strike action.

I want to be clear too that our planned, future strike action will stay on for the duration of this consultation. Put simply, the action will not be suspended unless you - the members - tell us that is what you want us to do.

Can we get more?

I have been present for every hour of the negotiations since the start of the strike. The union has continually pressed the employers to improve their offer throughout.

Some members have argued that the union should press the employers for a further step - to "review and resubmit" their proposal so it includes a 'no detriment' clause. 'No detriment' in this context means that the employers would fund, on their own, any changes required to retain existing benefits and contribution levels which arise from the independent joint expert panel's report.

I respect the intent but "review and resubmit" contains a significant flaw as a strategy.

Under pressure from UCU, the employers have conceded an independent joint expert panel. They have now even agreed that whatever comes out of the panel, they will work with UCU to retain a comparable, guaranteed pension.

However, while many vice-chancellors are now sympathetic to UCU's views on the USS valuation and risk, none that I have met have been prepared to discuss a 'no detriment' agreement.

This is because by its very nature the results of the independent joint expert panel are unknown. The chances of the employers agreeing to write what they see as a blank cheque without knowing what the panel will agree are low.

If you disagree with me about the prospects for a 'no detriment' clause you should vote NO and commit to taking much more strike action in May and June and then again in the autumn by which point the law will require the union to ballot members again for strike action.

My proposed approach

My approach is different.

I do not think we should risk what we have achieved to chase a 'no detriment' clause.

I believe instead that we should bank the substantial concessions we have achieved from the employers - the dumping of the defined contributions proposal, the creation of the joint expert panel, the agreement to discuss USS versus TPS, inter-generational and equality issues and, of course, the employers' new found commitment to defined benefit.

Then we should work hard to ensure the joint expert panel comes up with sensible proposals which have the confidence of UCU members.

If the employers behave properly, we should work with them to protect your pension benefits.

If they misbehave, we should use the union's new-found strength to challenge them again.

I am cautiously optimistic.

Not because our employers have suddenly become generous overnight but because UCU has shown them what we are capable of.

Is any vice-chancellor now in doubt about members' willingness to defend their pensions?

Your choice

The union has achieved a great deal in this dispute. What we do next is up to you. There is a risk with either approach.

If you vote YES to accept the proposal, the union will suspend its immediate industrial action plans but we will keep our legal strike mandate live until the proposal is formally noted at the USS board. We will then get on with the job of making the joint expert panel work for you and your pension.

If you vote NO to reject the proposal, the union will continue with currently planned strike action (a week in April in many institutions and then a further fourteen days during May and June in almost all institutions). We will also make plans for a fresh ballot of UCU members to escalate the action further in the Autumn and we will ask the employers to further improve their proposal so that it contains a 'no detriment' clause.

Sally concludes by making it clear that the final decision is down to members: 'whichever course members choose, the union will do its best to carry out your wishes. I urge you to consider the arguments carefully and to please use your vote.'

Read the employers' proposal including further clarifications here.

Last updated: 18 April 2018