University employees could strike in a long-running dispute over spiralling workloads, pay cuts and claims the value of guaranteed pensions will be cut by more than a third.
According to the University and College Union (UCU) university employers are cutting Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) members’ guaranteed annual pensions by 35%.
Employer body Universities UK (UUK) approved plans to cut thousands of pounds from retirement benefits last month, based on what UCU describes as a “flawed” valuation of the USS scheme which was conducted at the beginning of the pandemic when the economy had crashed.
The union said that a series of changes to the pension scheme between 2011 to 2019 have meant that a typical member will be around £240,000 worse off when they retire.
Pay for university staff has also fallen by around 20% between 2009 and 2019, it claimed. The latest pay offer from University and Colleges Employers Association was just 1.5%.
From 18 October to 4 November, the UCU will ballot its members on whether they want to take industrial action, unless an agreement is reached over the coming weeks.
Last year, before the pandemic hit, staff at 74 universities staged 14 days of strikes over changes to pensions, and issues with pay, equality, workloads and casual contracts. Strikes which involved 40,000 academics at 60 institutions also took place in November 2019.
The union is also demanding a £2.5k pay increase for staff and an end to race and gender pay injustice. Higher education’s gender pay gap sits at 15.5% and the most recent Higher Education Statistics Agency figures reveal that under a third of professors (27%) were women and only 155 (1%) were Black.
It also wants to see an end to the use of precarious contracts such as zero-hours, and action to tackle “unmanageable” workloads.
UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: “University staff propped up the entire sector during the pandemic, but they are now being thanked with huge cuts to their pensions, unbearably high workloads, and another below-inflation pay offer – all whilst universities continue to generate a handsome income from tuition fees.
“The truth is that very well paid university leadership, who manage institutions with bigger turnovers than top football clubs, are choosing to exploit the goodwill of staff, repeatedly refusing to address the rampant use of casualised contracts, unsafe workloads or the shocking gender and ethnicity pay gap in the sector.”
National Union of Students president Larissa Kennedy said: “Staff working conditions are student learning conditions and we stand shoulder to shoulder with our educators in fighting for a more just education system. We demand fully funded, accessible, lifelong education where our spaces of teaching and learning belong to the students, staff and communities they exist to serve.
“Until then, it is entirely in the gift of vice chancellors and employers to come to a negotiated settlement and address the fundamental issues repeatedly raised by staff. If they don’t, students will hold employers responsible.”
Speaking on behalf of USS employers, a UUK spokesperson said it was disappointed that a strike was being considered as the union had not proposed a viable solution to the issues.
“The USS Trustee’s assessment of the scheme’s costs means reforms are needed; no change is not an option. The employers’ reform proposal will prevent harmful and unaffordable rises in contributions. UCU may not like the legal and regulatory constraints pensions operate under, but it is irresponsible to make students and staff suffer as a result.
“Employers have asked UCU to put forward alternative proposals, but as yet, none have been forthcoming. By proceeding with ballots, the union appears unconcerned by higher contributions, pay cuts, job losses, damage to the student experience, and financial hardship for their members, that will all result if employers are forced to pay more into pensions.”