Lecturers at 37 universities vote for strikes over pensions

The result of two separate ballots over pensions and pay mean that 58 universities may experience strike action

Staff at dozens of universities may take industrial action over the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) after a successful ballot of University and College Union (UCU) members at 37 higher education institutions.

The UCU balloted its members at 68 institutions that are a part of USS pensions. National turnout  was 53%, but only 35 branches in England, Scotland and Wales surpassed the legal 50% turnout required for strike action. Threshold rules do not apply in Northern Ireland where two branches were balloted, bringing the final UCU tally to 37 universities. It called the result last night a “clear mandate”.

The result of a separate, simultaneous UCU ballot over pay and working conditions was also announced today (5 November). In that ballot, 54 university branches backed strike action – of which 33 also supported strikes over pensions. The ballots mean that 58 universities may be affected by strikes in the next six months.

The list of university UCU branches that voted for strike action on USS includes Birmingham, Bristol, Cambridge, Durham, Edinburgh, Glasgow, King’s College, and Liverpool. But nearly a dozen others, which voted for strike action in the winter 2019-20 dispute, failed to achieve the threshold this time around. During that industrial unrest, 60 and then 74 universities voted to back strikes.

Turnout at 11 universities that did not surpass the threshold for the USS ballot was above 47%; the union may choose, as it did in December 2019, to re-ballot those branches, hoping to increase its tally. Branches at the University of Manchester (49.95%), Newcastle University (49.5%) and UCL (49.4%) were one, six and 18 votes away from achieving the 50% threshold respectively.

All management needs to do is withdraw their needless cuts and return to negotiations. If they fail to do so, any disruption will be entirely their responsibility
– Jo Grady, UCU 

The lower tally was noticed by the union’s adversary, Universities UK (UUK). UUK represents all 340 employers in USS and has seen its plan to resolve the beleaguered 2020 valuation voted through the Joint Negotiating Committee on a knife-edge.

A UUK spokesperson said: “While it is disappointing to see some UCU members think industrial action over pensions is justified, the union has failed to secure a mandate for industrial action in 31 of the 68 institutions where ballots took place on USS, meaning fewer branches have reached the threshold than in previous ballots.”

“These results suggest that support for industrial action is limited,” the UUK spokesperson added.

Once results for both ballots are known, the UCU higher education committee will meet to decide its next steps. Jo Grady has previously indicated that vice-chancellors should expect strike action before Christmas.

Related news: UCU strikes could hit sector just as ‘return to normal’ gets underway

UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: “Staff in universities have given their all to support students during the pandemic, but management have responded by trying to slash their guaranteed pension by 35%. In a ballot window of just three weeks, our members have made it abundantly clear that they will not accept these vindictive attacks on their retirement.

“It is now in the gift of employers to avoid strike action, which is the outcome staff want as well. All management needs to do is withdraw their needless cuts and return to negotiations. If they fail to do so, any disruption will be entirely their responsibility.”

The union has not formally tabled alternative proposals to the UUK plan. Grady alleges her UUK opponents in the JNC “spiked” the union proposals by refusing to financially underwrite them, rendering them unable for formal consideration by the pension trustee. UUK says they could not give unlimited support for the plans without the union providing more details.

The aspects of the plan released to the media demonstrate movement away from the “no-detriment” position UCU previously took on pensions. Under the UCU plan, accrual rates would be reduced by 1/75 to 1/80, and the defined benefits threshold would fall from nearly £60,000 to £40,000. But the UCU plan includes protection against inflation. It also proposes allowing university staff to contribute between zero and four per cent of salaries towards their pensions if they cannot afford the monthly payments, while employer contributions would continue.

The union argues the 2020 valuation was flawed because it occurred during the beginning of the pandemic when financial markets were in freefall. Vice-chancellors raised similar concerns at the time. But four successive valuations, or interim valuations, in the past three years have all reached similar conclusions. The Pensions Regulator sets strict rules, which the USS Trustee has followed using standard actuarial methodologies.

The UUK statement last night claimed there was no other way forward. “The employers’ proposals for reform are the only viable plans under current regulations that will keep the scheme affordable for members and universities and keep the defined benefit section of the scheme open. Discussions with UCU will continue, and the consultation is currently taking place with the scheme’s wider membership.”

Universities are “well prepared to mitigate the impact” of strikes on students and campuses, UUK added.

Universities affected by strike action

Both disputes (33):

1. Aston University
2. Birkbeck, UoL
3. Durham University
4. Goldsmiths, UoL
5. Heriot-Watt University
6. Keele University
7. King’s College London
8. London School of Economics
9. London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine
10. Loughborough University
11. Open University
12. Royal Holloway, UoL
13. SOAS, UoL
14. The University of Birmingham
15. The University of Dundee
16. The University of Kent
17. The University of Leeds
18. The University of Nottingham
19. The University of Sheffield
20. The University of Stirling
21. University of Bradford
22. University of Bristol
23. University of Cambridge
24. University of Edinburgh
25. University of Essex
26. University of Glasgow
27. University of Lancaster
28. University of Liverpool
29. University of St Andrews
30. University of Sussex
31. University of York
32. Queens University Belfast
33. University of Ulster

USS pensions only (4): 

1. IDS
2. Imperial College London
3. University of Bath
4. University of Reading

Pay only (21):

1. Courtauld Institute of Art
2. Edinburgh Napier University
3. Glasgow School of Art
4. Greenwich University
5. Kingston University
6. Liverpool Hope University
7. Manchester Metropolitan University
8. Queen Margaret University
9. Roehampton University
10. Royal College of Art
11. Royal Northern College of Music
12. Sheffield Hallam University
13. The University of Manchester
14. The University of Northampton
15. The University of Salford
16. UAL
17. UCL
18. University of Brighton
19. University of Central Lancashire
20. University of Chester
21. University of Leicester

Read more: USS pensions: Oxbridge VCs and UCU presidents agree need for radical pension overhaul

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