In a letter to the UK Universities Minister Sam Gyimah, Liberal Democrat party leader Vince Cable demanded the government get involved in the negotiations of the pensions of striking professors.
“As you are aware, university lecturers have started 14 days of strikes due to drastic changes to their pensions,” the letter began, noting the £6 billion-£7 billion deficit the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) currently faces and that it is indeed a priority. “However, this does not necessitate the drastic action being taken—particularly given there are question marks over how the deficit has been calculated—notably a shift of the risk burden on to employees.”
The reason professors part of the University and College Union (UCU) are on a 14-day strike as of Thursday is because of changes the USS made to its defined benefit plans in January, which the union says would reduce benefits for a regular professor by £10,000 per year, with even worse repercussions for younger lecturers.
Changes to the scheme include switching its members from a defined benefits plan to a defined contribution, with significant employer and member contributions to gradually make up the difference in the scheme’s liabilities.
The union also does not agree with the USS’s proposed deficit, calling the scheme’s evaluation method “recklessly prudent.”
In the letter, Cable, who identified himself as a USS member and former academic, called for the government to get involved in the underwriting of the USS to de-risk the plan, alleviate concerns, and guarantee the safety and protection of the affected members.
“To alleviate the concerns and de-risk the scheme, the Government must move to underwrite the Universities Superannuation Scheme, providing academic staff with guarantees that their pension will be safe at the expected level,” Cable wrote. “Not only would this provide the fund with the certainty the more fiscally conservative institutions are worried about, it would also put the scheme in line with universities set up after 1992.”
“One part of the university sector should not be treated differently to another,” Cable added.
Universities UK, the advocacy group for UK colleges, is set to meet with the union to discuss the future of the USS Tuesday, with preconditions that the union feels will not allow them to discuss “the very reason for the strike.”
Last week, the group published an open letter to the union detailing that they had been in talks over the past year regarding the pension changes with no agreements made.
Gyimah had previously cited concerns regarding the strikes, calling on both sides to negotiate without any preconditions.
“I am speaking to both Universities UK (UUK) and the University and College Union (UCU). I call on them to get back to the negotiating table, without preconditions, to find a solution that avoids further disruption to students,” he tweeted in a Thursday statement. “Where any strike action takes place, we expect universities to keep a close eye on the impact on students, and to put in place measures to maintain the quality of education that they should receive.”