University governing boards ‘disappointed’ at pension strike threat

The Committee of University Chairs warned the upcoming comprehensive spending review and the cost of USS pensions meant university finances had “never been more challenging”

The body that represents chairs of university governing bodies has said it is “disappointed” the University and College Union (UCU) will consider strike action in response to the 2020 Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) valuation.

The USS Joint Negotiating Committee (JNC) voted this month to support the proposals from employers represented by Universities UK (UUK) that would reduce the pension scheme’s defined benefits but maintain current contributions rates for employers and employees.

The Committee of University Chairs (CUC), the representative body for the Chairs of UK universities, said the backdrop to the pension valuations “has never been more challenging”. The impact of the pandemic on taxpayer finances has been unprecedented, and “the upcoming comprehensive spending review may increase these challenges for universities”, the CUC warned.

CUC said its members must “ensure the long-term sustainability of their institutions” and were concerned that “failure to resolve the 2020 valuation would lead to very significant increases in contributions rates for both employers and employees”. University governing boards are concerned that widespread UCU strikes “would impact our students just as they are hoping for a return to a more normal campus and learning experience”, said John Rushforth, CUC executive secretary.

“While the JNC’s support for UUK’s proposal is positive, we note that that this was only through the casting vote of the chair and that UCU’s representatives chose to formally oppose UUK’s solution, without offering an alternative solution. We were disappointed to read UCU’s public statement on talks,” said Rushforth.

The CUC said the UUK package “represents a constructive narrow path between affordability for employers and employees and the very strict regulatory framework within which the USS trustee must operate”.

I thought it appropriate to write to you to confirm that if UCU have now decided that you do indeed have an agreed proposal that you would wish to bring forward, we would be willing, if you wished us to do so, to take this to employers to seek views
– Stuart McLean, Universities UK

The warning from the CUC follows a letter from Stuart McLean, head of pensions at UUK, to Paul Bridge, the head of HE at UCU, about the decision of the union not to table proposals at the JNC, leaving the UUK plan, by default, as the only option.

UCU claimed to have an alternative plan – but said it needed more time to consult with members before presenting it.

Wrote McLean: “I thought it appropriate to write to you to confirm that if UCU have now decided that you do indeed have an agreed proposal that you would wish to bring forward, we would be willing, if you wished us to do so, to take this to employers to seek views.

“This includes the question of whether the final, enhanced covenant support package which supports the UUK proposal could also support any UCU proposal, on which again we have made clear that we would be very willing to take the question to employers should a proposal be presented.”

UCU claimed UUK restricted the enhanced covenant agreed with employers to its solution, in effect denying UCU the crucial financial support a union-led plan would need to win financial approval for the USS Trustee, which oversees the scheme finances.

University Business has contacted UCU for a comment.


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

Image via Magus Hagdorn.

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