Durham UCU to vote on “starting a formal dispute” with University over potential pension changes

By William Milne, and

The Durham branch of the University and College Union (UCU) is to vote today on the possibility of starting a formal dispute with Durham, “which could lead to strike action in the summer or the new academic year,” according to a member of Durham UCU. 

This comes after Durham University recently proposed to close access to new staff on pay grades 1 to 5 to the Durham University Pension Scheme (DUPS). This means that it will impact mostly non-academic staff, who are not formally represented by Durham UCU.

If successful, the changes would be implemented from 1st November 2024. Currently, the University is looking for feedback on the proposed changes to the pension scheme through its online form, which is accepting responses until 13th May.

DUPS is currently available to opt-in for non-temporary staff on pay grades 1 to 5. Currently, the University pays 24%, and staff 6%, of their salary per year — with no option for employees to pay less. It is a type of pension scheme with a ‘defined benefit’, where the pension a person receives is a fixed, known amount — for the DUPS scheme, this is the average salary of the staff member, plus inflation. 

The draft proposal would mean that any new non-temporary staff on pay grades 1 to 5 will be given the opportunity to opt-in to a new scheme, the Durham University Retirement Savings Plan (DURSP), instead of the DUPS. 

Image: Tim Packer

The proposed DURSP outlines a shift to a ‘defined contributions’ scheme, where the University contributes 10% per year, and the employee between 0 and 5%, of their salary per year into an investment pot. The pension they can expect to get out of the scheme is not fixed, meaning it depends on how much money they have contributed, and how well the investment firm manages the pot of money.

The University explained to Palatinate that, “The changes proposed will not affect existing staff who will retain all their current pensions options. This proposal in no way removes the option for current staff to remain in or join the current Durham University Pension Scheme (DUPS) at a future date. They will also have the option to transfer to any new scheme that is introduced if they wish.”

Both schemes are separate from the pension offered to academic staff, the nationally-controlled University Superannuation Scheme (USS), which remains unaffected by this change.

Speaking to Palatinate, a member from Durham UCU claimed that “this is a bad deal for colleagues” and called the implementation of the DURSP a “pay cut.” Whilst the DURSP will not affect staff pay, the University’s contribution to pensions will drop from 24% of an employee’s salary for DUPS to just 10% under the DURSP. However, employees can choose to contribute less to their pension whilst the University pays the same amount, an option that was not previously available.

The introduction of the new scheme comes after the end of national UCU strikes from 2018 until 2023, which were initially sparked by attempts to introduce changes to the separate, nationally-controlled USS pension scheme, with a shift to a more complex hybrid model from a defined benefits scheme.

The Durham UCU member drew a parallel between the local DUPS scheme and the national USS scheme, suggesting that the University is “taking what we resoundingly said no to nationally and saying, well, if we only just do it to the least well paid colleagues and we only close this for newcomers, surely that’s fine. To which [we think] the answer is no.”

“We believe that all staff should have access to a good pension scheme to save for retirement”

Durham University

When announcing the proposed changes to the scheme, the University said on their website that “we believe that all staff should have access to a good pension scheme to save for retirement,” and that they are “concerned” that “not all staff are saving enough for their retirement.”

Speaking to Palatinate, a Durham University spokesperson explained that, “we are currently seeking feedback from Trade Unions and staff on proposed pension options for staff employed at Grades 1 to 5.

“We believe all staff should have access to a pension. Currently, some colleagues are not saving anything towards their retirement. The new proposal offers a nil-contributory option so any colleagues who currently opt out of a pension scheme can start saving for retirement through the monthly contribution from the University. The new scheme will also provide colleagues with additional benefits to the existing Aviva scheme we offer.”

However, Durham UCU have criticised Durham University for not offering an alternative option for new members of staff. Currently, staff on grades 1 to 5 can choose from both the DUPS and Aviva schemes, but the new scheme would mean that new staff can only pick the DURSP. 

A member of Durham UCU told Palatinate that Durham UCU believe that “it is very much not clear why removing the DUPS option is to the benefit of colleagues,” arguing that “the University could just pay them more money.” 

Last year, the University became an officially accredited employer with the Living Wage Foundation. This gave members of staff on lower pay grades pay rises at the start of April, with casual staff members receiving a pay rise to £12 per hour, and staff in Grades 1-3 and some of Grade 4 seeing further increases in pay.

According to the most recent financial report, Durham University’s total pension provision was £151.741m, of which £26.297m went towards the DUPS pension provision, with the remaining £125.444m going towards the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) pension provision, for workers in Grade 6 or above.

A member of Durham UCU has criticised the University for proposing these changes during “a time when [the University] keep insisting they’re having to tighten their belts across the board”

As well as becoming an accredited employer with the Living Wage Foundation, Durham University introduced an interim supplement for staff on grades 1 to 3 and the first two points of grade 4. This ensures that they are always paid above the real living wage and will be reviewed after national pay negotiations.

Despite this, a member of Durham UCU has criticised the University for proposing these changes during “a time when [the University] keep insisting they’re having to tighten their belts across the board.”

In November 2023, the University launched a voluntary severance scheme, which they claimed was part of “planning ahead to ensure we remain financially sustainable”. This and other “voluntary pay initiatives”, such as reductions in hours, the ability to buy more annual leave, and the option of early retirement “to all eligible staff” after consultation with campus trade unions.

At the time, speaking on the severance scheme, the University said: “We continue to invest in our student facilities and experience and in our staff and we are in a good financial position.”

One issue the Durham UCU member raised was that “if they [Durham University] think this is a better option, why is this only being offered to newcomers?” In effect, Durham UCU say that if the University had full confidence in the scheme, it should be rolled out for all workers on grades 1 to 5, not just newly employed workers.

Current workers on the grades 1-5 pay scales can still opt in to DUPS. Those who are between the ages of 22 and the State Pension age, and earn over £10,000 a year, are automatically enrolled to Durham’s Aviva pension scheme. If it is implemented, employees who have opted out of pension schemes but are entitled to be automatically enrolled in one will be enrolled in the new DURSP scheme.

The UCU will meet on Friday 10th May to vote on whether they wish to enter a formal dispute with Durham University

The spokesperson was also keen to emphasise the Durham UCU member’s frustration and what they say was a lack of consultation: “We’ve presented some alternatives that we hope that management are going to look at but it does feel like there are very obvious flaws with this approach that haven’t been considered.”

“It does feel like this decision has been rushed through in a way that is going to be detrimental to those colleagues,” the spokesperson believes.

However, the University “discussed the proposals at length with all four campus Trade Unions including UCU, noting the vast majority of affected staff are members of our Unison, GMB and Unite. At no point have any of the Trade Unions expressed concern with the feedback process.” 

The University is also still accepting feedback from staff on the proposed changes, as well as hosting drop-in sessions for employees every day from 23rd April to 13th May.

The University’s spokesperson continued: “The feedback period closes on Monday 13 May 2024. All views will be considered before a final decision is made.”

The UCU will meet on Friday 10th May to vote on whether they wish to enter a formal dispute with Durham University, which could lead to strike action.

Image: Tim Packer

2 thoughts on “Durham UCU to vote on “starting a formal dispute” with University over potential pension changes

  • The employer only became an accredited Living Wage employer because Durham UCU negotiated it last year – they’d been refusing to do so for years.

    One correction: casual student workers are not on any of the main pay grades, and are not eligible to join DUPS/any other schemes. The pay rate of casual workers (students and otherwise) have greatly increased with the move to Real Living Wage accreditation (especially for open day ambassadors who were previously on minimum wage), but they are still on casual worker contracts, not employment contracts. Durham only allows staff with employment contracts for contracted hours to join the pensions schemes.

    Anyway, Durham UCU has just had the meeting and has passed the motion to declare a dispute if the employer does not back down, with 97% voting in favour, 0% voting against, and 3% abstaining.

    – Caleb Day (Durham UCU Anti-Casualisation Officer)

    • Hi,
      Very sorry. My comment was inaccurate re: pensions eligibility. It only applies to the DUPS scheme. Casual staff may still be able to access Aviva even if their income is too low for auto enrolment. Apologies – I have been focusing on the DUPS scheme as that’s the much better pension and the one under threat!

      FYI, I understand Unite have also passed a statement against the ending of DUPS and making other good recommendations to improve pension access.


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