On Friday 23 March UCU members were emailed by the union with a ″proposal for resolving the dispute″ on pensions from Universities UK.
The new proposal is a significant step back by the employer, and shows victory could be within reach, but does not guarantee enough for strikes to be called off just yet.
The new proposal commits UUK to a re-valuation of the USS scheme for the first time. This is a significant step back for UUK. This re-valuation is to be done by a formally agreed joint expert panel, comprised of actuarial and academic experts nominated in equal numbers from both sides. This is a significant change in how the USS pension scheme is managed. To allow the re-valuation to happen the current USS terms will stay in place until at least April 2019, although the original proposed changes to the scheme would have only taken effect from April 2019 anyway, it is yet to be seen if the Pensions Regulator will waive the 30 June deadline for valuation of USS.
It is not clear what will happen after April 2019 if the joint panel breaks down or fails to deliver.
Some UCU members have raised criticism of the joint-expert panel. The UCU is in effect signing up to be bound by the decisions of the panel, there is no guarantee that the panel members will be accountable to UCU members even in the limited way that the current negotiators are, and it seems the panel outcomes won't be subject to a ballot of UCU members. It also shifts the dispute into the realm of ″expert″ technical discussion over methods of valuation and ″whose numbers are right″, rather than an industrial/political question of pension provision.
A key point in the dispute up until now has been keeping the defined benefit scheme, rather than being moved to a defined contribution scheme which would see cuts to income in retirement. The proposal says, ″If in the light of [the valuation] contributions or benefits need to be adjusted in either direction, both parties are committed to agree to recommend to the JNC and the trustee, measures aimed at stabilising the fund to provide a guaranteed pension broadly comparable with current arrangements.″ [emphasis added]
This is unclear. Will ″guaranteed pension broadly comparable with current arrangements″ effectively mean retention of the defined benefit scheme, or something different? The UCU leadership is selling it as such, but it is far from certain. Some UUK commissioned financial reports concluded that defined contribution would only be 10-20% less in retirement; would that be ″broadly comparable″? It could mean something similar to the recent CWU-Royal Mail deal which agreed a ″collective defined contribution″ scheme, for which there is currently no legal framework. There are other possible hybrid schemes that could result from future fights and negotiations.
The proposal also refers to the “affordability” of the scheme. Such references may in effect act as a precondition on the outcome of the joint valuation panel.
However, this is the first serious offer from UUK; they are backing down and the job now is to keep pushing them backwards. This is also a proposal over which there has so far been no negotiation between the UCU′s negotiators and UUK; that negotiation process should happen.
The momentum of this dispute should not be squandered. It will not be easy to re-mobilise a dispute in a year′s time if the outcome of the joint panel is not good enough.
On the Monday and Tuesday before the UCU′s Higher Education Committee meeting, a number UCU branches across the country passed motions criticising sections of the proposal and called for assurances on a defined benefit guarantee amongst other things.
As Solidarity goes to press we don′t know what the UCU′s Higher Education Committee will recommend. If the proposal is put to members as an offer in its current state members should reject it.
For a national strike committee
This motion calling for a national strike committee was passed at a Sheffield University UCU meeting. UCU London Region has called a national co-ordination meeting on 28 April where rank-and-file coordination of the dispute could be organised. For details of the event see: bit.ly/ucumeet
1. That the reaction of branches around #NoCapitulation to the ‘agreement’ proposed jointly by UCU and UUK demonstrated clearly that the membership of UCU branches involved in the USS dispute are not willing to accept minor concessions and want to see a resolution which protects Defined Benefit pensions now and in the future
2. That members feel a lack of ownership over the dispute at the national level, as distinct to the high level of ownership they feel in relation to the dispute at the local level
3. That while some aspects of negotiations are confidential in order to maintain a sense of ownership of the dispute amongst the membership and therefore to maintain members incredible resolve to take industrial action members must have a sense of how negotiations are progressing.
4. Many members of HEC are not based at striking institutions
1. To request that HEC sanction the creation of a temporary extra-ordinary National Strike Committee made up of delegates from branches at USS institutions which national negotiators can report to and which can give a representative viewpoint on how to progress the dispute