UK University Employees to Vote on Strike over Pension Changes

Union calls for strike over proposal to move participants into defined contribution plans.

The University and College Union (UCU), which represents more than 110,000 higher education employees, said it will launch an industrial action ballot over the proposed changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) pension.

Universities UK (UUK), which represents 350 higher education employers, has proposed switching its members who are accruing defined benefit savings under the £60.5 billion ($80.1 billion) USS to defined contribution accounts.

“In 20 years I have not seen a worse proposal,” said UCU General Secretary Sally Hunt in a Nov. 27 letter to members. “One that will needlessly damage the retirements of thousands of individuals, leave USS benefits far behind those of school teachers and new university academics, and break the covenant between this and the next generation.”

Hunt said that one-day strikes won’t be sufficient to sway the employers to rescind their proposed changes to the USS pension plan.  “Only the threat of sustained strike action aimed at severely disrupting our universities will make a difference,” she said.

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The industrial action ballot over the USS pension plan will open on Nov. 29, and the first ballot papers will be with members on Nov. 30 or Dec. 1, at the earliest. British law requires at least a 50% turnout of members  to strike.

UUK said the cost of future defined pension benefits have increased by more than one-third since 2014 due to economic circumstances. USS is the principal plan for academic and comparable staff in UK universities, and other higher education and research institutions. The plan provides benefits to members with employers contributing 18% of salary and members 8%.

University of Warwick Vice-Chancellor Stuart Croft has sided with UCU on the proposed changes to the USS pension plan, saying in a blog post that they would lead to “very serious consequences” not just for staff, but for employers as well.

“I am sure that I am not alone in being mystified at this change,” he wrote. “(USS) trustees have adopted a more conservative approach to the valuation than had been the case in the last consultation,” he said, adding that UUK “consultation is now apparently supportive of the removal of the defined benefit element of the current scheme.”

He said the universities should explore the possibility of obtaining government backing for the pension plan. “A government-backed scheme becomes an asset for the government, but provides vital underpinning for members,” he said.

“Whatever happens, we will not let the current increasingly conservative approach to USS go unchallenged,” he wrote. “We will seek to work with any other interested parties to identify whether any alternative, more innovative, solutions may be feasible.”

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