As a university leader, I think we can afford a better pensions deal for striking staff | Anthony Forster | Education
University lecturers are striking for the second over pensions at the end of the month. As a university vice-chancellor, I know that members of the University and College Union will not have voted for this lightly. Staff are deeply committed to their universities and the success of their students and the vote reflects the strength of feeling about the future of their pensions and working conditions. I too am disappointed that the pension scheme trustees have not struck the right balance between fairness and sustainability in determining the future of the scheme.
I believe that high-quality pension arrangements are an important part of the benefits available to university employees. I also believe that the trustees of the pension fund in question, the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), are being overly cautious in their calculations of what it will take to sustain it.
A better deal can be available for staff and as an employer, the University of Essex is willing to increase contributions to the scheme to sustain critical features of the USS, including defined benefits. We want our staff to continue to be able to plan with certainty for retirement, earning a reliable level of pension based both on their service and the level of contributions employers and employees have made.
It’s true that if we don’t agree on the future of the pension scheme, the financial sustainability of universities will be harmed – but it’s equally the case that a bad deal for staff means that we will struggle to recruit and retain talent in future.
I know these are inconvenient truths – as some senior figures in the sector have made clear. But undaunted, I continue to advocate for what I believe is right.
In 2018 we had a painful strike that dragged universities and their staff to the negotiating table. It’s a matter of enormous regret that we again find ourselves in a position in which the negotiators who represent us – both employers and employees – will not accept principled compromise. If neither side changes its position, the most likely outcome is that a solution will be forced on us by the pensions regulator. This will benefit nobody.
Our university council remains committed to paying more into USS to safeguard the best parts of a defined benefit pension scheme. But if the scheme is to remain unchanged, employees should also be willing to contribute more, reflecting a shared commitment to the scheme’s value.
That said, we are concerned that additional employee contributions could be unaffordable for some staff, which may force them to leave the scheme – making it more expensive for everyone else. Likewise, we recognise that this is a national scheme and if universities and colleges leave the USS because it is too costly on the employer side, this too undermines the viability of a national university pension scheme.
That’s why we would like to see the joint expert panel – which includes members appointed by both UCU representing employees and Universities UK, which represents employers – speed up its work and find where common ground might lie, before strike action takes place.
This might include, for example, differential contribution levels, so that USS members on lower salaries contribute a lower percentage of their pay to the scheme in a manner similar to the Teachers’ Pension Scheme. Or it might smooth contribution increases over a longer period. A report prior to the commencement of strike action is urgently needed.
The strikes will inevitably have a negative impact on our students. At Essex we have therefore taken the decision to make a mitigating payment to students who have lectures and classes cancelled – even though we know that refunds can’t fully offset the impact of strike action on our students’ university experience.
It’s for our staff and students’ sake that we need employer and employee representatives to return to the negotiating table immediately and with open minds. We need to recognise the value of principled compromise and discard win-lose strategies. There is so much at stake.