Crunch time for universities pay and pension disputes

King's college london
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Academics at 74 universities may strike this term as staff at institutions including King’s College London and De Montfort University have voted to join industrial action in the dispute over pensions, pay and conditions.

In November, an estimated 40,000 academics at 60 higher education bodies took part in an eight-day strike. The University and College Union said ballots at 14 additional institutions met the 50% turnout threshold and saw 80% of its members support strikes over pension and 76% support strike action over pay.

UCU said, of the additional 14, nine wanted to strike over pay and three over pensions. Academics at the University of Oxford and the University of East Anglia, which took part in one of the disputes in November, are taking part in both disputes and will be joined by employees at the School of Oriental and African Studies.

Both pay and pension disputes are supported by staff at 47 universities; 22 universities support the pay and conditions dispute only; and the pensions dispute alone is supported by five universities (including King’s College, Keele and Imperial College).

The disputes centre on changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) and on universities’ failure to make sufficient improvements on pay, equality, casualisation and workloads. Union leaders calculate that members will be £240,000 worse off due to changes to the USS made since 2011 – a typical member would now pay around £40,000 more into their pension, but receive around £200,000 less on retirement.

Changes to the scheme include an increase in employee contribution levels to 9.6% from 6.35% in 2011, and the closure of final salary pensions.

However, on the same day as academics were re-balloted, an improved offer was made by the Universities and Colleges Employers Association focusing on casual employment, gender pay gap and ethnicity pay.

UCU general secretary Jo Grady described the proposals as a major step forward but added: “We have been clear from the outset that we are prepared to take serious and sustained action to defend pay and conditions, as well as our pensions, and these latest ballot results show that members are just as determined as ever.”

Helen Fairfoul, UCEA’s chief executive, said: “Over the past decade I have never seen UCEA given the scope we have taken here to present such extensive proposals on behalf of our members. This follows exhaustive, but always constructive, dialogue with UCU over the last two months and with the other trade unions over the past year. We really feel now that all trade union members deserve to be consulted over what is on the table.”

Responding to the ballots, a spokesperson for Universities UK, which represents USS employers in the dispute, said there had been good progress in pension talks, which were due to continue until at least March.

“While we understand that some additional UCU branches have now backed industrial action following re-ballots, we hope that further strikes can be avoided and that our constructive discussions on the future of the scheme can continue.”

On Tuesday (28 January) the Universities and Colleges Employers Association, which is representing the employers in the pay dispute, made an offer that was welcomed by Grady but did still not meet the union’s demands in full.

The union’s higher education committee is meeting today (Thursday, 30 January) to decide on the next steps. These could include strike action before the end of this term or further consultation with members over the proposals from the employers’ bodies. An announcement is expected by Monday.

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