The University and College Union (UCU) begins eight days of action across some UK campuses today in a dispute over the level of contribution members should make to their pension pots. We very much regret that we find ourselves in this position and we all hope for an early resolution.
We respect the right of union members to take industrial action and know, given their dedication to their students, that they would not have taken this decision lightly. However, we do not agree with the UCU’s general secretary that its members have been “forced” into this.
The Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) is one of the most generous pension schemes in Europe. It remains a defined benefit scheme for most members, something which is now extremely rare in the private sector.
The simple truth is that the scheme needs more money to be able to pay future generations. The USS trustee, The Pensions Regulator and an independent expert panel all agree on that.
In October, employers began paying 65p in every pound of increased cost – an additional £250m per year – taking the employer contribution from 18% to 21.1% of salary. This rate is 50% higher than it was a decade ago.
Our only ask is that individual members of the pensions scheme make a fair contribution to cover the rise in costs. That’s why the member contribution has risen from 8% to 9.6% of salary, on average £7 a week more. They will be paying in the same or less into their pensions than many other professional groups, such as teachers and doctors.
This increase in contributions means there is no reduction in pension benefits, which employers and UCU jointly agreed to protect. Unfortunately, UCU is now demanding that employers pick up the whole of the necessary rise in costs, despite previously saying that its members would be willing to pay more to maintain benefits.
Meeting the union’s demands would be unaffordable for many of the charities among the scheme’s 340 employers, such as the Overseas Development Institute. For others, the universities and smaller specialist institutions, it could lead to severe cuts in teaching, student services and research.
The call for more money comes at a time when universities are operating in a challenging environment amid increased competition, a freeze on tuition fees, and prolonged uncertainty over the implications of Brexit.
We have also taken other steps to protect the scheme including commissioning advice from a joint panel of experts to influence the scheme trustee and The Pensions Regulator to keep costs down. We are determined to work with the union to deliver long-term changes, which improve transparency and confidence in the scheme.
During the strike action, universities will remain open and we expect the majority of teaching to proceed, but we recognise that this is an unsettling time for students and all our staff.
We will do everything we can to mitigate any impact of lost teaching. All online materials, IT infrastructure, libraries, computer rooms and student support services will remain available throughout the period to support students’ independent study.
Rather than pursue strike action, we very much hope the union will focus its efforts on continuing talks to reach a joint and fair solution. It is in the best interests of students and all our staff that this dispute is resolved as soon as possible.
Professor Alistair Fitt is a member of the Employers’ Pensions Forum, and vice-chancellor of Oxford Brookes University
This article was first published in The Times on Monday 25 November