The academics’ union, University and College Union (UCU), has threatened “marking boycotts and a refusal to set exams” over pension changes.
The dispute is over Universities UK’s proposed changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), a pension plan for academics at the UK’s “old” universities including Oxford. The changes are in response to deficit in the USS. With nearly 10,000 members, Oxford has the largest number of members in the USS pension scheme.
UCU’s strike ballot closed on Monday. The union reported that 78 percent of voters backed a strike and 87 percent backed action short of a strike. The turnout of 45 percent was the highest seen in a strike ballot since the UCU was formed in 2006.
This development does not mean that a strike will necessarily occur. UCU general secretary, Sally Hunt, said: “UCU members at universities across the UK have made it quite clear today that they reject the radical changes being proposed for their pensions. We will go into talks on Wednesday hopeful that we can resolve the current impasse.”
Hunt added: “However, we will go into that meeting with a serious mandate from members that they need to see real improvements. If the employers do not address our concerns then we will meet on Friday to determine what forms of disruptive action we take and when they would start.”
A UCU statement described the possible consequences for Oxford students: “The ballot made it clear to members that a vote for action would most likely lead to a marking boycott and a refusal to set exams. The action would stop students being set coursework or receiving formal marks and feedback, as well as halting exams.”
The dispute between the union and Universities UK centres on the effect of proposed reforms to the USS pension scheme. Universities UK have argued that the changes are required to solve the scheme’s deficit. However, the UCU argue that the methodology used to calculate the deficit is “too simplistic” and “doesn’t take account of the scheme’s underlying strengths”.
A UCU statement said: “Since 2011, when the last set of detrimental changes to members’ pensions were made, the fund’s investments have grown by £8bn, the number of members have grown by 18 percent and returns on investment have outperformed both average earnings and inflation.
“However, Universities UK want to reduce the coverage of the defined benefit element of the scheme and introduce a riskier defined contribution pension scheme, with those in or aspiring to the highest academic grades suffering most.”
Oxford University appeared to have backed the UCU’s criticisms in a working group paper on the pension changes. The report characterised Universities UK’s arguments as “misleading”, and claimed a more realistic estimation “would show a much greater reduction of benefits to the average academic member of staff than is shown in the UUK… examples.”
A Universities UK spokesman accused the criticisms as containing “considerable speculation and numerous misconceptions” and said that UUK would hit back in the Times Higher Education supplement on Thursday.
Despite Oxford’s support for the UCU’s arguments, the UCU confirmed that Oxford academics would stop work if a strike goes ahead.
An Oxford spokesperson told the OxStu: “The University will always respect the right of individuals to take part in lawful industrial action. If such action should go ahead, contingency plans will be in place aimed at minimising any disruption or inconvenience to students and staff.”
OUSU President Louis Trup: “OUSU is and always will be a democratic organisation. None of our elected officers have been elected on a platform of support of this UCU strike or marking boycott and there is no existing policy on this particular issue.”
“As such, it would be unfair on the students we represent to take a position on this issue which has valid arguments on both sides. In a personal capacity, I refuse to use this position to voice my own personal political beliefs, so will only speak on this following a vote at OUSU council. If this is an issue students have strong feelings on, I urge them to bring a motion to OUSU council.”