By Poppy Askham
Members of the University and College Union (UCU) are due to vote over whether or not to take strike action this term as a dispute over pension cuts intensifies.
The UCU has previously described industrial action as “inevitable” in response to a recent breakdown in negotiations with employer bodies.
The Union is contesting proposed changes to the University Superannuation Scheme (USS), the sector’s principal pension benefit system. They argue that the proposals would cut the annual guaranteed pension by 35% and limit protection from inflation.
Professor Antony Long, acting Vice-Chancellor, described the ballot as “regrettable”.
Trustees claim that the USS cannot maintain the current level of pension payouts and that greater contributions from employers and employees or cuts to benefits are the only way to patch up a £14bn-£18bn estimated funding gap.
The decision to ballot UCU members was made at an emergency conference called in response to the backing of the proposals by Universities UK, an employer body representing 140 universities including Durham.
The strike ballot was also called in response to concerns about casualisation of labour, workplace inequalities, and unmanageable workloads. The Union has highlighted the prevalence of below-inflation pay offers and the fact that the gender pay gap remains at 15.5% and that only 1% of UK professors are Black.
Durham University staff members previously went on strike over pension cuts and workplace issues in 2018, 2019, and early 2020.
“We want to avoid any further disruption to our students and their studies that another round of strike action may cause, and the University will do all it can to minimise and mitigate this,” Race stated.
The ballots will involve 152 institutions and launch on 18th October, provided employers do not meet the Union’s demands which include an increase in employer pension contributions and a decrease in employee contributions. The results of the ballot will then be considered by the UCU’s Higher Education Committee on 8th November.
The National Union of Students NUS) has voiced support for the UCU’s plan, stating that “students will hold employers responsible” if a negotiated settlement is not reached.
Durham’s branch of the Union (DUCU) told Palatinate: “The employer likes to pretend they have no agency, but the reality is that they always had the option to argue against a very bad and totally unjustified cut to our pension, either publicly or in private.
“Incredibly hard work put in by staff through 18 months of the pandemic is immediately followed by a massive cut to our retirement income.”
The proposed changes to pensions are based on the 2020 USS valuation, which DUCU has labelled “flawed” due to the temporary and unstable nature of the mid-pandemic economic landscape. “This has been used strategically to justify the proposed cuts, despite the fact that the employers’ representatives initially joined UCU in criticizing this valuation.
“Having had our employers fail to consider any compromise or alternatives, our only choices are to accept further substantial degradation of our pay and conditions, or to fight for improvements.”
In response to the launch of strike ballots, Professor Antony Long, Acting Vice-Chancellor of Durham University, said: “It is regrettable that UCU has decided to ballot its members on further industrial action since this risks detriment to our students, who have already been impacted by Covid-19 and, for some, previous industrial action.
The pension proposals at dispute are a big improvement on what was originally proposed, and the Pension Regulator has made it clear that they are at the limit of what will be allowed. Without changes to the pension scheme the Regulator has made it clear that it will impose much higher increases in pension contributions that will be crippling to Durham University, our colleagues and the sector more widely.
“We are in discussion with student leaders and I am keen to engage our student body more broadly on these issues. This includes explaining the consequences of any further increase in pension payments on how the University is able to support our students. We will continue to meet regularly with and work constructively with Durham UCU.”
Image: Tim Packer