Striking university staff irate over pensions deal
Striking university staff have expressed anger and widespread opposition to a deal struck by their own leaders to bring an end to a bitter dispute over pensions.
The proposed agreement between the University and College Union (UCU) and employers represented by Universities UK (UUK) was reached on Monday nightafter six days of talks at the conciliation service Acas and three weeks of strike action.
The initial reaction from many of those on the picket lines was overwhelmingly hostile with protests planned outside UCU headquarters in north London, where the deal was due to be discussed by senior members on Tuesday morning.
Many UCU branches and individual members expressed their hostility on social media to the proposed deal, which was described as derisory. Using the hashtag #NoCapitulation, many posted on Twitter calling for the deal to be rejected.
“This is not the deal that I have put my research and my students’ educations on hold for,” Dr Donna Yates, an archaeologist, posted. “This is not the deal that I stood outside for hours in a blizzard for. This is NOT the deal we have been striking for.”
Picket lines were said to be busier than usual as striking staff turned out to express their opposition to the deal, and meetings were being held on campuses up and down the country to discuss next steps. Thousands more added their names to an open letter calling for the deal to be rejected.
Des Freedman, the UCU vice-president at Goldsmiths, University of London, said: “It’s just incredible. I’ve not seen one tweet or one message saying anything other than this is just letting us down.”
“The level of anger about this deal is so strong,” said another striking Goldsmiths lecturer. “The picket line is bigger than at the beginning. People are livid. It’s a complete capitulation.”
Staff were particularly angry that part of the proposed deal included an undertaking by the UCU to encourage its members to prioritise the rescheduling of teaching lost during the strike in order to minimise the disruption to students.
“We are in a situation where we’ve lost two weeks’ pay and they are saying part of the deal is you make up the lessons – it’s extraordinary. The level of anger – I’ve never seen anything like it,” the Goldsmiths lecturer said.
The University of London, Liverpool, Cambridge, Warwick and other UCU branches have already rejected the deal. The National Union of Students has added its voice to the growing opposition.
The proposal was being considered at a meeting of the UCU’s higher education committee and at a separate meeting of branch representatives at the union’s headquarters in Camden, north London, but all the signs suggest members feel let down by their leadership.
University staff have been striking at more than 60 universities because of plans to shift their pensions from a defined benefit scheme, giving members a guaranteed income in retirement, to a defined contribution scheme, where pensions are subject to changes in the stock market. The UCU says its members stand to lose £10,000 every year of their retirement.
UUK has claimed the changes are necessary because the massive universities superannuation scheme (USS) is £6.1bn in deficit, but UCU has consistently disputed the valuation of the fund, which they say is performing adequately.
The proposed deal on the table is a three-year interim arrangement. The revised scheme will retain what is described as a “meaningful level” of defined benefits for lecturers and other university workers.
If agreed, it will come into effect from April next year and will require employers and members to pay higher contributions for the interim period with total employer contributions up to 19.3% of salary, and members’ contributions rising to 8.7%.
Beyond the three-year deal, the two sides agreed to explore risk-sharing alternatives for the future from 2020, in particular collective-defined contributions (CDC). The two sides also agreed to convene an independent expert panel to look again at the USS scheme, the valuation of which has been fiercely disputed.
The open letter signed by striking staff said the proposed agreement amounted to kicking a serious solution to the dispute into the long grass. “The employers’ valuation has been demonstrated to be bogus, yet the UCU leadership is now accepting to increase our contribution while we re-evaluate. Employers’ contribution however will rise by only 1.3%,” it said.
“In three years’ time we will be demobilised and pressured to accept a worse deal. In our opinion we should keep going and throw UUK’s offer out all together.”