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Academic pensions are not a gift, but a right we have earned

The writer is general secretary of the University and College Union

This week marks the fourth successive year that tens of thousands of university staff in the UK have been forced out on strike in order to stop devastating attacks on their pensions.

In this latest round of the dispute, employers are on the verge of implementing a huge cut which we calculate as at least 35 per cent to the annual guaranteed retirement income of the typical University and College Union (UCU) member in the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS). Worse still, this cut comes on top of an average loss of £240,000 from the average lecturer’s retirement income over the past decade.

As someone who worked as a university lecturer until recently, I know that pensions aren’t a gift from employers. They are our well-earned deferred wages. Cuts to retirement income accompanied by the continuing degradation of pay — an estimated real-terms cut of 25.5 per cent over the past 13 years — constitute a sustained, two-pronged attack on the incomes of our members. We won’t stand for it.

Well before the first period of sustained strike action over pensions in early 2018, when employers sought to shut down the defined benefit (DB) element, the scheme had been unnecessarily forced into a state of decline.

For over a decade now, USS managers have consistently underestimated the underlying strength of the scheme, its long-term viability, and the growth of its asset base. Actual asset growth has outstripped, by tens of billions of pounds, the doggedly pessimistic projections that formed the basis for the shuttering of the final salary section of the scheme.

Without question, the nadir of this apparently disastrous mismanagement was in March 2020, when scheme managers insisted on proceeding with a valuation in the midst of the global economic shutdown. Since then, the scheme’s assets have rocketed. Yet employers, represented by Universities UK (UUK), are proceeding with cuts based on this inaccurate, outdated valuation and the imaginary deficit it creates.

Sadly, we do not believe UUK are serious about reaching a resolution. When UCU submitted its first set of proposals last summer, employers opposed even a small increase in their own contributions, and refused to underwrite our suggested payments adequately.

In our view, UUK has sought to mislead vice chancellors about the scale of the pension cuts they were pushing through: they claimed the reductions would be 10 to 18 per cent, until a calculation tool released by USS suggested the drop in guaranteed benefits would be as high as 41 per cent for some members.

And now, UUK seem to be guiding employers to reject our latest, pragmatic attempt to resolve the dispute. In new proposals that mark a significant compromise from our members, UCU is calling for a sensible, evidence-based valuation of the scheme’s financial health as of 31 March 2022 and small one-year contribution increases for both members and employers to protect benefits. This should be followed by a limit on contributions in the future. We would like to avoid more disruptive strike action, but it is in UUK’s gift to resolve this dispute: the ball is in their court.

These devastating pension cuts must be understood in the wider context of linked industrial issues — of degraded pay, the widespread change from permanent contracts to casual short-term ones, and a worsening workload crisis — over which we take further strike action early next week.

Our members know their pensions don’t need to be cut, as USS has consistently defied its doom-mongering custodians by growing bigger and stronger. And our members know employers have no excuse for disgracefully degrading pay and conditions in a sector whose income hit £41.9bn in 2019-20.

By taking such punishing industrial action every year to defend decent pensions, pay, and working conditions, UCU members are standing up not only for themselves but for the future of the sector. We have consistently demonstrated that DB schemes are viable and worth defending.

The workers who have kept universities afloat before and during the pandemic know what they deserve — and it’s dignity in work and in retirement.

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