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UK university staff have rejected a proposal aimed at ending weeks of strike action over pension reforms for the country’s largest pension scheme, the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS).

The agreement, struck last night between employer organisation Universities UK and the Universities and Colleges Union (UCU), aimed to preserve the defined benefit (DB) element of USS’ hybrid arrangements but with higher contributions.

However, a significant number of union branches rejected the agreement today, according to posts on social media.

The UCU confirmed its members had rejected the deal in a statement this afternoon.

UCU general secretary Sally Hunt said: “Branches made it clear today that they wanted to reject the proposal. UCU’s greatest strength is that we are run by and for our members and it is right that members always have the final say.

“The strike action for this week remains on and we will now make detailed preparations for strikes over the assessment and exam period. We want urgent talks with the universities’ representatives to try and find a way to get this dispute resolved.”

The deal – facilitated by by the UK’s workplace arbitration service ACAS – involved a three-year “transition” period from 1 April 2019. During this time the DB accrual terms would have been reduced and discussions would take place about the possible introduction of a risk-sharing model such as collective defined contribution (CDC). 

The two sides had agreed to lower the cap for DB accrual from £55,500 (€62,000) a year to £42,000. Any staff earning above that threshold would have accrued additional benefits in a defined contribution scheme.

During the three-year transition period, employers would have contributed 19.3% and staff 8.7% of salary.

University staff have been striking for weeks in protest at proposed changes to the £60bn USS, and protests continued today as the new proposal was put to members.

In a statement, a Universities UK spokesperson described the UCU’s decision as “hugely disappointing”.

“We have engaged extensively with UCU negotiators to find a mutually acceptable way forward,” the spokesperson said. “The jointly developed proposal on the table, agreed at ACAS, addresses the priorities that UCU set out.

“We have listened to the concerns of university staff and offered to increase employer contributions to ensure that all members would receive meaningful defined benefits… Our hope is that UCU can find a way to continue to engage constructively, in the interests of students and those staff who are keen to return to work.”

Twitter-storm

UCU branches across the UK took to Twitter to declare a mass rejection of the agreement less than 24 hours after it was made public.

Craig Brandist, professor at Sheffield University and branch president of the UCU, said there was “not a single voice in favour” of the agreement when it was put to members this afternoon.

Other UCU branches made their views clear:

St Andrews University, Scotland

Sheffield University, England

Warwick University, England

Ulster University, Northern Ireland

University College London

UCU called for urgent resumption of talks to end the dispute.

Independent valuation group

In addition to the benefit proposals, the parties had agreed to the establishment of an independent committee to scrutinise the valuation methods used for USS.

Since USS’ triennial actuarial valuation was published last year along with a number of other estimates of the scheme’s funding position, academics, unions and universities have debated the validity and accuracy of the different figures put forward to illustrate USS’ liabilities.

“The objective will be to inform the next USS valuation and therefore will be completed by the end of 2019,” last night’s statement said. “The group will consider issues of methodology, assumptions and monitoring, aiming to promote greater transparency and understanding, and will take account of the real strengths, sustainability and viability of the scheme.”

Related images

  • Oxford University
  • UCU members striking at Warwick University over USS proposals

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