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National agreements hold the sector together - and protect pay and pensions for us all

21 October 2019 | last updated: 5 March 2020

If you haven't yet voted in UCU's national HE ballots on USS and equality & pay, now is the time to do it. You have about a week to post your papers: the last date you can post them in order to make sure they arrive on time is Monday 28 October.

If you have lost or not received your papers, you need to order a replacement. The deadline for ordering replacements is 12 noon on Wednesday 23 October. 

Unfortunately the 50% ballot turnout threshold required by law means that if you miss these deadlines you risk depriving your colleagues of a chance to defend our interests. I know you will be overburdened with work at this point in term and it can be hard to find time to post your vote. But voting is the only way you can help us negotiate a better deal for all higher education staff.

National agreements that hold the sector together - and protect us all

Higher education institutions are bound together by a number of national agreements on pay and pensions. In these ballots, UCU is trying to strengthen the agreements we have and expand them to cover workload, job security and equality as well. Our enjoyment of a reasonable workload, or a secure contract, or freedom from discrimination should not depend on which university we happen to work for.

These national agreements are hugely valuable. If our employers decide that they can get away with abandoning the national bargaining framework we may have to switch to local bargaining in individual branches. This will place the burden of fighting for higher standards on you, your colleagues, and your branch committee. 

We have already seen signs that the sector could break apart as a result of government reforms to funding. Wealthy institutions have got wealthier and poorer institutions have struggled. If individual universities are allowed to offer different levels of remuneration to staff that process will only intensify. The inequalities that already exist will increase. 

Losing USS will change the face of higher education - for all of us 

USS is strategically vital to the sector because it is a mutual, collective scheme that provides a guaranteed pension. The need to guarantee pensions decades into the future means that employers have to be more prudent in their business planning and commit to underwrite each other's costs in the event of financial trouble.

Last year employers tried to close the guaranteed 'defined benefit' element of USS. They have not publicly or privately renounced their ambition to do this, but this time they are doing it bit by bit - increasing our contributions this month and increasing them further in 2021. The effect will be to destabilise the scheme by forcing members to leave and making its closure appear inevitable.

If employers close USS they will be able to play staff off against each other. Some staff will be offered a better pension than others. We can already see this happening with Trinity College, Cambridge's decision to leave USS and set up a 'mirror' version of USS for its own staff. A few 'elite' institutions can do this, but most would struggle to support a scheme like USS on their own. What used to be a common standard for the whole sector will become the preserve of a privileged few, while most staff will see their benefits reduced. And if the gender and race pay gaps are anything to go by, women and BME staff will suffer disproportionately in their pension provision as well.

National bargaining: use it or lose it

UCU members can be proud of what they have achieved in upholding these sector-wide standards. From the ground-breaking 2006 agreement on pay to last year's historic defence of USS pensions in pre-92 universities, we have done more for higher education staff than any other organisation.

We have to use our national bargaining frameworks or we risk losing them. If we do not act to defend the whole sector, employers will become more confident that they can divide and conquer us. That is why I am asking you to vote YES for industrial action. Post your ballot by Monday 28 October and remind your employers that higher education staff stand together. 

Jo Grady
UCU general secretary