UK universities strike over pensions dispute

Durham University prepares for auto-enrolment

Employees at a number of UK universities including Oxford and Cambridge have gone on strike in a long-running pensions dispute.

Employees are in dispute over proposed changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme, which could see the existing defined benefit (DB) pension scheme axed and around 150,000 active scheme members moved to a hybrid scheme and receive career-revalued benefits on up to £50,000 of their salary.

Beyond the £50,000 salary threshold, employers will contribute 12% of income towards a defined contribution pension pot, which would yield a retirement income based on annuity rates at the time.

Employee contribution rates will be set at 6.5% at all pay points, with employer contributions rising from 16% to 18% on salary up to the threshold.

The proposals resulted in an assessment and marking boycott on 6 November across 69 universities for members of the University and College Union (UCU), with members having stopped marking work, returning marks and setting or sitting exams and coursework.

In response, the universities have threatened staff who have participated in the strikes with a number of sanctions.

The University of York has said it would halt all pay due to academic staff that take part in the strikes, and Imperial College London proposes to deduct 25% from the pay of employees engaged in the action.

Sally Hunt, general secretary at the UCU,  said: “Docking 100% of pay from staff who are continuing to perform the vast majority of their duties is completely unethical and risks causing greater damage to students’ education. Punitive pay docking could lead to lectures and seminars being cancelled as members refuse to work for free. Any institution docking full pay and claiming it has students’ interests at heart is lying.

“The union is clear that not only will we fully support any members facing punitive pay docking, but we will take steps to isolate the worst offenders as pariahs within the global academic community.

“Universities should be sending a clear message to their Universities UK (UUK) negotiators that they want them to recognise the strength of views among staff and negotiate seriously before real damage is done both to students and to industrial relations.”

Louise Lindsay, director of human resources at Imperial College London, said:We recognise that pension provision is very important to our staff. We believe that reform is necessary. We have made clear our priority is to maintain the best scheme possible for our staff on a financially sustainable basis. Our preference is for the Universities Superannuation Scheme to maintain a DB scheme based on career average earnings.”

But she added: ”The college cannot condone industrial action that will impact on the quality of our students’ education. If a member of staff decides to take part in the UCU action short of a strike, they will be undertaking some of their contractual duties but refusing to carry out all work associated with student learning outcomes and the setting and assessment of student work.

”This is partial performance of the member of staff’s employment contract. The college is legally entitled to reject partial performance and will do so for this industrial action. In these circumstances, the college is entitled to withhold pay, in full, for those who do not comply with their employment contract.”

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A spokesperson for the University of York added: “We are very disappointed that the UCU has chosen to take industrial action just as the national negotiations are getting underway.

”We do not recognise partial performance of contractual duties and will withhold pay from members of staff who participate in industrial action.  However, as a gesture of goodwill, we will continue to make employer contributions for those staff participating in industrial action. Any pay withheld from staff will be used to support student causes.”