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We need a long- as well as a short-term solution

5 September 2019 | last updated: 5 March 2020

As the USS and equality and pay-related ballots open in higher education, Jo writes to members with the latest developments and the importance of the ballots to force a long-term solution.

From Monday onwards, you should expect to receive two sets of ballot papers: one for the USS dispute and one for the dispute on pay, equality, and other pay-related issues. 

I am writing now to update you on the latest developments regarding USS and to urge you to vote for strike action. Now is our chance to reverse a long-term trend of detrimental changes and secure a future for the pension scheme which we all share.

As I have warned you previously, employers are forcing USS members to pay towards contribution increases arising from USS's refusal to implement key proposals of the Joint Expert Panel (JEP). Employers have done little to challenge USS's rejection of those proposals, preserving their comfortable relationship with USS at the expense of their relationship with staff. 

Our contributions will rise to 9.6% of salary from October 2019, and 11% of salary from October 2021.

The cumulative effect of detrimental changes since 2011

These are just the latest in a series of changes to USS that have hurt members from 2011 onwards. UCU commissioned an analysis of the changes from independent experts First Actuarial. They showed that, compared with the situation members would be in if the Scheme had continued in its pre-2011 state:

  • the typical USS member stands to lose £240,000 in retirement
  • for many members, losses will climb as high as £730,000. 

Combined with the persistent wage suppression which we have endured over the same period, this has been an extraordinary attack on the overall remuneration package of university staff.

If we do not contest it, it will keep happening. At the next valuation, our contributions are scheduled to increase even further to maintain the same benefits. But employers have already signalled that they intend to cut benefits.  They warn that they would refuse to pay even a 65% share of an increase to 33.7% but the rate for the next valuation is scheduled to climb to 34.7%. In that situation, employers will put benefit cuts on the agenda.

Update on negotiations

During negotiations in the last two weeks, employers put an offer to our negotiators that required UCU to commit not to ballot for or take strike action over USS for over two years, until October 2021, in exchange for an initial member contribution increase of 0.3%, followed by a much larger increase to 11% after the 2020 valuation. Employers' intentions were clear: they were hoping to prevent UCU not only from going on strike now, but also from contesting whatever detrimental changes they may wish to impose on us in the next valuation cycle.

Negotiations continue, and UCU has convened an emergency meeting of its higher education committee (HEC) to consider whatever offer may be on the table at the end of this week. We are serious about considering a viable offer if employers are willing to make it. But I am not hopeful of any progress unless employers recognise that a temporary softening of contribution increases is not good enough. We need guarantees that last longer than two years. 

We need a long-term as well as a short-term solution

We have been offered short-term compromises before, and they have all proven inadequate. We don't want to keep taking industrial action over USS at every valuation. This time, we need a long-term solution.

The second report of the Joint Expert Panel will be published later this year. If you vote and give us a strong mandate for strike action, we will be ideally placed to make sure that this time, employers not only cover the costs of increases but also make firmer commitments to honour the JEP's conclusions and hold USS to account. 

Please vote as soon as you receive your papers, pass this message on to as many of your colleagues as you can, and urge them to vote. In the meantime, email me with any questions you have about the dispute, and I will endeavour to answer them in future emails.

Jo Grady
UCU general secretary