UCU members back strikes over pensions but turnout falls short

Barely half of campuses pass 50 per cent voting threshold required for walkouts to go ahead

November 4, 2021
Source: Eleanor Bentall

Union members have backed strike action over cuts to UK higher education’s biggest pension scheme, but barely half of campuses balloted met the 50 per cent threshold required for walkouts to go ahead.

The University and College Union said the 76 per cent vote in support of strikes over reforms to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) gave it a “clear mandate” for industrial action.

Universities UK said the results suggested that support for walkouts was “limited”, with 31 of the 68 campuses where ballots were held failing to reach the 50 per cent turnout that is legally required for action to proceed.

But the vote means that UK higher education faces a fourth round of strikes in little over three years, further disrupting the education of undergraduates who have also seen their on-campus learning significantly interrupted by the coronavirus pandemic.

The latest round of the pensions dispute focuses on UUK’s plan to reduce the benefits provided by the USS in a bid to stave off increases in contributions that it describes as unaffordable.

The UCU has estimated that the reforms could cut employees’ guaranteed benefits by as much as 35 per cent, costing members thousands of pounds annually in retirement, but UUK’s figures suggest that the reduction is between 10 per cent and 18 per cent.

Of the 66 universities covered by the 50 per cent threshold, 35 passed it. Queen’s University Belfast and the University of Ulster are not covered by the rule, and UCU members there also backed strike action.

But union branches at 31 institutions – including the universities of Manchester and Oxford, Newcastle University and UCL – fell short of the threshold. Votes at Cardiff University, the universities of Exeter and Warwick, and Queen Mary, University of London, also missed the mark.

The pensions vote was held alongside a separate poll on strike action over pay and conditions, the results of which were expected on 5 November.

The UCU, which has previously indicated that strikes could take place before Christmas, said its higher education committee would meet on 12 November to decide on next steps, including “whether and when to re-ballot some branches”.

“These results are a clear mandate for strike action over pension cuts and should be heard loud and clear by university employers,” said Jo Grady, the union’s general secretary.

“Staff in universities they have given their all to support students during the pandemic, but management have responded by trying to slash their guaranteed pension by 35 per cent.”

UUK said that while it was “disappointing” that some branches had backed industrial action, fewer had reached the legal threshold than in previous ballots.

“These results suggest that support for industrial action is limited. In most places where the threshold was reached, it was the votes of those saying ‘no’ to action that carried the numbers over the 50 per cent legal threshold,” a spokesperson said.

“The employers’ proposals for reform are the only viable plans under current regulations that will keep the scheme affordable for members and universities and keep the defined benefit section of the scheme open. Discussions with UCU will continue, and the consultation is currently taking place with the scheme’s wider membership.”


USS pensions ballot 2021: the results

Institutions passing 50 per cent threshold

Institution Turnout (%) Support for strike (%)
Aston University 58.2 64.2
University of Bath 51.7 77.0
Birkbeck, University of London 60.5 75.0
University of Birmingham 61.6 73.6
University of Bradford 50.8 73.3
University of Bristol 52.0 82.0
University of Cambridge 51.7 71.0
Durham University 63.1 79.4
University of Dundee 58.2 79.2
University of Edinburgh 59.0 81.2
University of Essex 58.7 78.5
University of Glasgow 59.4 78.7
Goldsmiths, University of London 69.4 80.6
Heriot-Watt University 64.3 74.4
Institute of Development Studies 71.4 73.4
Imperial College London 55.9 71.7
Keele University 61.9 73.4
University of Kent 53.4 79.3
King’s College London 64.5 81.8
University of Leeds 60.8 75.2
Lancaster University 52.6 75.2
University of Liverpool 54.1 75.5
London School of Economics 55.1 89.1
London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine 55.2 78.2
Loughborough University 59.4 72.8
University of Nottingham 62.6 71.6
Open University 53.0 72.8
University of Reading 50.6 61.6
Royal Holloway, University of London 52.6 76.9
University of Sheffield 60.7 78.8
SOAS University of London 63.4 90.8
University of St Andrews 56.7 79.9
University of Stirling 50.8 73.5
University of Sussex 54.9 79.0
University of York 53.7 68.5

Institutions failing to pass 50 per cent threshold

Institution Turnout (%) Support for strike (%)
University of Aberdeen 46.2 70.2
Aberystwyth University 42.1 77.6
Bangor University 35.0 73.0
Brunel University London 41.3 78.8
Cardiff University 47.3 78.6
City, University of London 48.6 73.8
Courtauld Institute of Art 47.2 66.7
Cranfield University 29.2 74.5
University of East Anglia 44.8 73.5
University of Exeter 47.0 72.8
University of Hull 37.9 74.4
University of Leicester 49.1 67.5
Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine 21.7 70.0
University of Manchester 49.95 77.7
Newcastle University 49.5 80.1
University of Oxford 46.2 76.3
Queen Mary, University of London 46.4 83.3
Royal Veterinary College, University of London 39.5 68.8
Ruskin College 13.3 100.0
Scottish Association for Marine Science 35.5 66.7
Senate House, University of London 49.7 72.4
St George’s, University of London 24.4 89.5
Swansea University 48.2 88.8
University of Salford 49.2 84.1
University of Southampton 49.2 71.5
University of Strathclyde 43.7 77.4
University of Suffolk 35.2 77.4
University of Surrey 45.7 68.7
UCL 49.4 77.9
University of Wales Trinity Saint David 42.1 79.2
University of Warwick 44.1 77.6

Institutions not covered by 50 per cent threshold

Institution Support for strike (%)
Queen’s University Belfast 74.5
Ulster University 71.2

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Reader's comments (2)

There is currently a consultation process with USS in which they propose to keep contributions at the same level but cut the retirement benefits. GRRRR. I would rather pay a bit more, whilst I'm earning a decent salary, if I have to and get the pension that I originally contracted with them to provide! They seem quite unconcerned at their mismanagement of our funds that has led to this situation. Somehow I suspect that they won't be facing a pension shortfall themselves!
There has been no mention at all of the benefits being reinstated once the deficit is reduced or reversed. This is definitely a one way street to a worse pension. To try and sell the changes against the ludicrous fallback position which would probably topple the scheme completely if implemented is quite insulting.