University staff vote in favour of strike action over pension cuts

University and College Union (UCU) members voted 76% in favour of strike action, while 88% voted for action short of a strike.

The ballot covered 68 universities, of which 35 met the 50% turnout threshold that is legally required for strike action. Two universities in Northern Ireland did not have to meet this threshold so their votes also counted.

Another ballot will take place today (5 November) on pay and conditions.

UCU argues that university employers are cutting the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) guaranteed annual pensions by 35%.

Earlier this year, employer body Universities UK approved plans to cut the retirement benefit based on what UCU believes to be a “flawed” valuation of the scheme that was calculated before the pandemic hit the financial markets.

UCU claims that changes to the pension scheme between 2011 and 2019 will lead to an average member being around £240,000 worse off when they retire.

The dispute has been going on for many months. Staff at 74 universities chose to strike in early 2020 over the pension changes and other issues with pay, equality, workloads and casual contracts. And in November 2019, 40,000 academics at 60 institutions went on strike.

UCU general secretary Jo Grady said the latest ballot showed “a clear mandate for strike action over pension cuts” that should be heard “loud and clear” by university employers.

“Staff in universities have given their all to support students during the pandemic, but management have responded by trying to slash their guaranteed pension by 35%,” she said.

But Universities UK contested whether the mandate had been met. “While it is disappointing to see some UCU members think industrial action over pensions is justified, the union has failed to secure a mandate for industrial action in 31 of the 68 institutions, meaning fewer branches have reached the threshold than in previous ballots.

“Union members voting ‘yes’ to strike action at eligible branches account for less than 7% of the scheme’s total active membership,” it added.

Universities UK claimed that employers’ proposals for pay and pension reform were the “only viable plans under current regulations that will keep the scheme affordable” for members, enabling them to keep the final salary element of the pension open.

It added: “Universities facing the prospect of industrial action are well prepared to mitigate the impact on students’ learning and minimise disruption for those staff choosing not to take part. The majority of university staff are not members of UCU.”

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