Stop Pension Cuts - Or Face Strikes Like UK Universities Have Never Seen Before
At a time when the higher education sector awaits a review of university funding and vice chancellors' pay is never out of the headlines, drastic changes are also being proposed to the pensions of many academic staff across the country.
The proposals from the employer body Universities UK (UUK) to reform the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) is the worst offer that I have seen from an employer in 20 years. This offer will mean that - apart from death and incapacity benefit – the guaranteed pensions of many university staff will now become wholly dependent on returns from the stock market.
The proposals will pick the pocket of a typical lecturer by more than £200,000 over the course of their retirement, and will open up a near £400,000 gap between the retirement payments received by academics in post-92 universities, who are members of the Teachers’ Pension Scheme (TPS), and USS members.
UUK ignored the mandate that they had been given by universities to retain defined benefits pensions in favour of the most hard-line proposals possible, and shockingly put forward these proposals without publishing any modelling on their likely impact on staff or universities.
The proposals are also bad for universities themselves (as the University of Warwick’s vice chancellor noted this week) because creating such a difference in treatment between academics in different universities is simply not sustainable in the long term.
With USS benefits already lower than those enjoyed by staff who are members of the TPS, the cuts will substantially weaken both the position of staff ahead of, and during, retirement and the attraction of working at a university which offers a USS pension.
Whilst strike action is always a last resort, universities across the country will face major disruption in the new year if we cannot resolve the dispute. I am keen to avoid this, and have three ideas to get us back on track and avoid industrial action.
Firstly, sensible vice chancellors need to take back control of the negotiating agenda from the hardliners in UUK who have got the sector up in arms. They need to tell their national negotiators to change course. And they should get in touch with me as well – I have been saying for months that my door is open to any vice chancellor or principal who genuinely wants to help us sort this out.
Secondly, we need to deal with the elephant in the room that is the USS itself. I was staggered this week to be told by the USS that I had until 18 December to reach a negotiated solution or one would be imposed. The University and College Union will not be rushed or pushed into accepting something that will damage relations between universities and their staff for a generation, and I hope those sensible vice chancellors would agree with me that the USS needs to back off now.
If they don’t, and these terrible proposals are imposed, my view is that we will see industrial action at a level and over a period that we have never seen before, such will be the justified rage of staff. They will seek recompense from their own employer for loss of their retirement income and, far from being over, the dispute will just be beginning. Surely nobody wants that.
Finally, given that this is the third time USS members have faced cuts to their pensions since 2011, we need to spend some time thinking about what comes next if we settle this dispute. It is difficult to see how the USS is adding benefit to the employment packages that universities are offering, especially when compared with the far superior TPS.
We must find a way out of the current impasse before students suffer, and we must then make sure that this debacle never ever happens again.