Strike action in higher education

USS - explained!

Frequently asked questions (and answers!) about the USS dispute

How have we got to where we are?

In recent years, USS members have seen the value of their retirement benefits fall, whilst the cost of their pension has risen and their pay has been held back.

Since 2011, the closure of the final salary scheme and the move to career average pensions has reduced the amount that many USS members will receive in retirement. At the same time, member contributions have risen significantly from 6.5% in 2011 to 9.6% as of October 2019. Analysis by First Actuarial suggests that the combination of these changes will mean the average USS member stands to lose £240,000 in retirement.

In 2017, employers moved to close the defined benefit portion of the scheme entirely after the scheme's valuation showed a growing deficit. Thanks to an incredible fourteen days of strike action by UCU members in 2018, these plans were halted and the independent Joint Expert Panel (JEP) was established to undertake a new valuation.

The JEP's report highlighted serious flaws with the methodology used to calculate the initial 2017 valuation, and set out an alternative valuation approach which would allow defined benefits to be retained while avoiding the need for significant rises to member contributions. However, despite endorsing the JEP's findings, the employers did not push back when the USS trustee said it wouldn't accept the recommendations in full. Instead they chose to back an approach which has resulted in both members and employers being asked to pay more for the same level of benefits.

UCU believes that the JEP's report shows that additional contributions for members are both unnecessary and unfair. As the employers chose to accept an approach which required additional contributions, we believe they should be the ones to foot the bill.

Why are we taking action now?

The reason for taking action now is two-fold.

First, we need to address the immediate financial impact of higher pension costs on members. This means we need to put pressure on employers to pay for the increased member costs that have resulted from their support for higher contributions and their rejection of UCU's counterproposals. UCU's position is that there should be 'no detriment' to members as a result of avoidable decisions taken by the employers or USS.

Second, we need to put pressure on the employers to work with us in pressing USS to accept the findings of the JEP. Member contributions are set to rise even further to 11% in 2021 unless we can achieve a better valuation outcome in 2020. Balloting now puts us in a better position to influence the 2020 valuation and get a long-term solution that prevents us from having to take further action.

Employers failed to put enough pressure on USS to accept the first JEP report because they were not faced with a threat of strike action.

The employers offered to limit member contributions to 9.1% - why didn't we accept that offer?

At a late stage in the recent negotiations, employers offered to limit members' contribution rate to 9.1% rather than 9.6% for the first two years from October 2019. They made this offer following intense pressure from UCU, culminating in our announcement of the strike ballot.

The offer was considered seriously by the elected reps on UCU's higher education committee (HEC). They decided that, while the offer was a step in the right direction, it was not sufficient for two reasons. First, it did not do enough to mitigate the impact of cost rises which have resulted from the contested 2017 valuation. Second, it would only have limited member contributions to 9.1% for two years, after which they would go up to 11%. The offer was a stop-gap solution rather than a serious attempt at finding a long-term resolution to the dispute.

A strong mandate for strike action now sends a clear message to employers that we will not accept unnecessary increases in costs - now or in the future - and should help focus their minds on coming back to the negotiating table with a better offer.

The contribution increase is only a few per cent - I can afford it, why should I take action?

Some members may feel able to pay these increased contributions, but many others do not. Surveys by USS are already reporting that staff are increasingly dissatisfied with the scheme and many of them are considering leaving because of the contribution increases. That is bad for them because it will leave them without a decent pension, but it will also fundamentally destabilise the scheme for those who remain.

The recent cost increases are part of a series of attacks on our pension benefits. Our advisers, First Actuarial, have shown recent changes to the scheme mean the average member stands to pay £40,000 more in contributions for £200,000 less in retirement compared to someone joining the scheme in 2011.

We need to stop this decline is now. With a strong vote for action the union will be able to press for further negotiations aimed both at reducing the cost of your benefits, and at changing how the employers and USS behave to make the scheme more accountable.

Will strike pay be available to everyone taking strike action over USS?

Yes. Full details are available here.

Won't I lose more by taking strike action than we'd gain from a no detriment outcome?

It's true that in the short term, strike action means a loss of pay. However, in the long run, the contribution increases will cost USS members many thousands of pounds over their careers. For those priced out of the scheme as a result of the contribution increases, the losses over their lifetime will be even greater.

Moreover, the dispute is about sending a clear message to employers that we won't tolerate continued attacks on our pensions. If we want to ensure better outcomes in future valuations and avoid further unnecessary contribution rises in the future, we need to put pressure on the employers to push USS for a change in approach.

My employer has called for USS to change its approach - why should I take action against them when it's USS that's at fault?

While some employers have begun to speak out about the need for USS to change its approach, the employers' representative Universities UK has not done enough to push back against unnecessary contribution rises. Paradoxically, industrial action will help us to work with sympathetic employers like yours to put more pressure on UUK

My branch voted yes. What sort of action am I being asked to take?

A strong vote for industrial action means that, if the employers fail to meet UCU's demands, we now have significant leverage to change their minds, as we have done before. While our preferred option is to resolve the dispute through negotiation without any disruption to students, the employers need to know that we are serious and prepared to hit hard with industrial action if needed.

For that reason the HEC has agreed to take an initial eight days of strike action beginning in the middle of November, as well as action short of a strike in the form of working to contract. If the employers still aren't willing to bring forward an acceptable offer after sustained strike action, we also have the option of deploying a marking and assessment boycott.

Won't industrial action cause unnecessary disruption to my students?

The decision to take industrial action is never taken lightly, but the stakes in this dispute are high. We're fighting to keep USS pensions affordable, not just for now but for the future when many of those students may be working in HE themselves. Decent pensions are vital in ensuring that careers in HE remain attractive into the future.

We are pleased that NUS has also issued a joint statement with us, offering support and solidarity from students in both the USS and HE pay disputes.

Can members who are on Tier 2 migrant visas take part in strikes?

Yes. Thanks to campaigning from UCU and others during the dispute in 2018, the government confirmed in July 2018 that it was changing the immigration rules and Tier 2 sponsor guidance to make it clear that Tier 2 migrants could participate in legal strike action without it threatening their leave to remain. Strike action has been added to the list of exceptions to the rule on absences from employment without pay.

Read our full FAQs for migrant workers here.

Last updated: 19 November 2019