Staff demand input over pension contributions

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Durham University staff have written an open letter to Durham University Vice-Chancellor Professor Stuart Corbridge asking that the University clarifies its position on staff pensions.

The letter, which has been signed by 236 members of staff,  demands that the University strives to keep pension contribution rates made by the University and its staff low enough as to “retain the high quality staff required by the university” and that the University allows staff to provide input on any proposals to raise the pension contribution rate. 

This is in response to a consultation document published by the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), the UK’s largest private pension fund, which indicates that total pension contribution rates for employees in the higher education sector could rise to between 40.8% and 67.9% due to the fund’s large deficit, which ranges between £9.8 billion and £17.9 billion. 

If these changes are enacted, the pension scheme could become unaffordable for some staff members, and it may result in cuts to the pensions that staff would receive. 

“There is no reason why there should not be a positive alignment between the interests of both Durham staff and the University.” 

The letter states that the USS position pays “insufficient attention to its stated principle of  intergenerational fairness”, as it could mean that younger members of staff face having to pay “higher than reasonably required contributions into the future.” 

It also calls on the University to voice its opposition to the USS position “in the strongest possible terms”, and to push for a longer deficit recovery plan than is being suggested by USS. 

Universities across the UK, including Durham, have been embroiled in a dispute with their senior management over casualisation, pay inequality, pensions, and workload. 

This dispute meant that the  ast academic year saw two  waves of strike action in Univer sities across the country. At Durham University, this was followed  by an agreement between the Universities and Colleges Union (UCU) and Durham in which the University agreed to limit its use of casual contracts and agreed to give University employees an annual cost of living increase. 

However, in order to mitigate the financial impacts of Covid-19,  the University introduced a voluntary measures scheme which included pay cuts, reduced hours, voluntary severance, and early retirement. 

In an attempt to save £10 million, University staff were given the choice to take a 5-20% pay cut for a minimum of three months, and a minimum 10% reduction in hours. 

The open letter affirms that: “There is no reason why there should not be a positive alignment between the interests of both Durham staff and the University. Significantly worsening pension provision and costs will be harmful to both the university and staff. In the worst case scenario, any move away from an open, defined benefit scheme would likely bring further additional pressure on university pension costs. 

“Pension provision has been at the centre of two recent industrial disputes. We believe that, especially at the current time, the university must do all it can to reassure staff of its desire to protect their continuing conditions of  service. Undertaking the requests expressed at the start of this letter, as well resisting harmful aspects of the USS Trustee’s approach described, are steps that would contribute to rebuilding trust in the university’s approach to its pension provision.” 

Iain Lindsey, Durham UCU Pensions Officer, told Palatinate: “The numbers of staff that have signed up to the open letter show the strength of feeling about preserving the university’s pension provision.  

If these changes are enacted, the pension scheme could become unnaffordable for some staff members. 

“Pensions have been a core issue in strikes over the past three academic years. We want to avoid further industrial action, and so we very much hope that this time the university will work with us and put pressure on those managing the pension scheme to achieve a solution that is in the interests of staff, the university and, ultimately, the quality of teaching we provide for students.” 

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