Pensions aren’t the most exciting topic of conversation, but ensuring we have financial security after retirement is becoming more and more important as we live for longer. Representing a university constituency with tens of thousands of students and university staff naturally means I have taken a very keen interest in the current pensions dispute between the University and College Union (UCU) and Universities UK, the body responsible for the University Superannuation Scheme (USS). I also have a very personal interest too. I advised and represented members of the UCU for over 25 years as a trade union lawyer and have family who are USS members.
This dispute which has led to unprecedented industrial action by UCU members is all about fairness. Universities UK intend to push through their plan to end the defined benefit element of the pension scheme. University staff have paid into the scheme over many years on the basis that their contributions would result in a guaranteed level of pension. The Universities’ plans mean that a typical lecturer will be almost £10,000 a year worse off every single year of their retirement. They have refused to negotiate with the UCU.
The UCU balloted members about industrial action to protect their pensions and members overwhelmingly voted to strike. The industrial action is a last resort. Striking staff don’t get paid on strike days. This is how strongly they feel about the cut to their pensions. And they have huge support from students too, despite the inevitable impact that the industrial action is having on students. Students recognise that unless Universities treat their staff fairly, unless they provide a reasonable pension scheme, then they harm the chances of attracting the world class talent to our universities to teach and research developing the next generation of engineers, doctors, midwives, scientists, business leaders and yes, even politicians.
University Vice Chancellors, who make up Universities UK, are clever people. But they’re not handling this issue very cleverly in my opinion. Neither are the government.
Whilst this dispute was brewing, the Government just sat on its hands. Back in December, I signed a Parliamentary motion that said that staff should be entitled to “decent and secure” pensions.
In January I asked the Universities Minister what he was doing to persuade Universities UK to try to resolve the dispute, but his answer was that he wasn’t prepared to do anything.
Last week the Universities Minister finally came out of hibernation and said that Universities UK should get back round a table with the UCU and negotiate without preconditions. Universities UK have refused to drop their precondition – the decision on the pension scheme which is at the very heart of this dispute.
I joined the Cardiff University striking staff last week, along with students, fellow trade unionists and members of the public at a rally in support of UCU members. You can watch my speech at the rally here:
I hope Universities UK drop their precondition and recognise that they have lost the argument, lost the public and lost the vast majority of students on this issue. UCU members must keep their pensions and I hope that the dispute is resolved immediately so our University staff can get back to doing their world leading work that I am so proud of.