University strikes 'much more likely' as bitter pensions row continues

Strikes at 61 universities are "much more likely" to go ahead after talks over potential changes to pensions ended without an agreement between unions and employers, the University and College Union (UCU) has said.

Lectures, classes and exams could be hit if UCU pushes ahead with industrial action, beginning with a two-day walkout next month, due to the ongoing dispute.

The union had earlier announced that its members had overwhelmingly backed action over proposed changes to pensions covered by the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) in an industrial ballot.

Around 61 universities could face disruption if UCU pushes ahead with industrial action. (Peter Byrne/PA)
Around 61 universities could face disruption if UCU pushes ahead with industrial action. (Peter Byrne/PA)

On Tuesday, Universities UK (UUK), which represents university employers, said a Joint Negotiating Committee, made up of an equal number of UUK and UCU members with an independent chairman, had voted in favour of the proposed reform.

UCU said in a statement that "the chair sided with the employers' representatives", adding that strikes "have become much more likely".

UCU general secretary Sally Hunt said: "Staff will feel utterly betrayed by their leaders. We are disappointed at how talks ended today, particularly after UUK suggested yesterday that it wanted more talks to avoid strikes.

"Universities must be on notice that unless there are dramatic changes in their negotiators' position then strike action will be arriving on campus next month.

"There is much talk of a crisis of leadership in higher education at the moment, especially after the recent vice-chancellor pay and perks scandals.

"Now is the time for university leaders to recognise the scale of this problem, how angry their staff are and to work with us to avoid widespread disruption in universities."

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The union said it would now firm up start dates for strikes, with action likely to begin with a two-day walkout on February 22 and 23, followed by three-day, four-day and five-day strikes in future weeks.

Other action could include members working to their contracts, meaning they could refuse to cover classes, reschedule classes lost on strike days or undertake voluntary duties.

UUK said a "negotiated settlement" could not be reached following more than 30 meetings with UCU, adding that the pension changes would "offer members greater flexibility and choice".

A spokesman said: "The reform proposal will tackle the scheme's deficit and the significant rise in the cost of future pensions so that universities can continue to offer attractive pensions to staff, now and in the future.

"It will also ensure that contributions remain affordable to both staff members and employers.

"Today's decision is a necessary step to put the scheme on a sustainable footing for the long term.

"Our focus now is to work with USS and UCU to shape the details of the new benefit structure so that it offers flexibility, choice and market-leading defined contributions pensions."

Proposal agreed to reform USS pensions. UUK's statement is on our website

-- Universities UK (@UniversitiesUK) January 23, 2018

Hundreds of thousands of university workers are understood to be enrolled in the USS pensions scheme, mainly those working at older institutions established before 1992.

UCU has been balloting members enrolled in the scheme since November.

It previously announced that 88% of members who voted backed strike action, while 93% backed action short of walkouts.

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