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Exeter UCU rejects new pension deal

Image: Owain Evans

The Exeter branch of the University and College Union (UCU) has rejected a proposal agreed by national negotiators and Universities UK regarding changes to the USS pension scheme.

The rejection comes after a committee meeting this afternoon, in which members voted unanimously to adopt a position of defending the status quo on pensions. “In line with that unanimous vote”, a tweet from @ExeterUCU said, “Exeter does not accept the agreement between UCU and UUK reached at ACAS today.” The branch President, Barrie Cooper, told Exeposé that he predicts that “branches across the UK will resoundingly reject these poor proposals.”

The agreement, described as a ‘transitional benefit arrangement’, would see employer and member contributions increase, a lowering of the salary threshold and an independent valuation review. The USS, with the above changes, would continue to offer a defined benefit pension for the next three years, before further negotiations are undertaken.

However, many staff have come out against the agreement, not least as it effectively gives recognition of a deficit in USS which they dispute. Some described the agreement as “kicking the can down the road” and announced their expectation to “be on strike again in three years” on Twitter. The UCU branch at Keele simply tweeted: “You call that a deal?”

The most controversial point of the agreement is that the union has agreed “to encourage its members to prioritise the rescheduling of teaching in order to minimise the disruption to students,” despite striking academics having already been docked pay for their action to date. Again, a significant number backlash has ensued on Twitter.

Several other branches have already come out opposed to the agreement, which will go to the UCU’s Higher Education Committee (HEC), as well as branch representatives, tomorrow. An open letter in opposition to the agreement has already gained over 4,000 signatures at the time of this article being published.

As it stands, the agreement would see industrial action halted from Wednesday – however, if it is rejected, the approved 14 days of strikes over exam periods would remain on the table.

This agreement comes after a week of ACAS talks between UCU and UUK over the future of the USS pension scheme. UUK continues to argue that a deficit has made a change from a defined benefit scheme (which guarantees a specific income on retirement) to a defined contributions scheme (which provides a sum based upon the value of the contributions invested over the course of a career) necessary, as backed up by the University of Exeter’s Vice-Chancellor, Sir Steve Smith. Meanwhile UCU has argued that the deficit put forward by UUK is unrealistic, and that the current recovery plan is successful, allowing for a continuation of the defined benefit scheme.

In a statement given to Exeposé, Barrie Cooper, the UCU’s Exeter branch President, said:

This campaign has produced the biggest show of strength and unity UCU has ever seen as staff and students have fought to protect guaranteed pension benefits. Sustained industrial action, coupled with strong evidence-based arguments have brought our employers back to the negotiating table. UCU has negotiated in good faith, but at a time when members were hopeful of a successful outcome and a return to doing the job we love, UUK has served up another terrible offer that would see pensions slashed.

Ahead of the national meeting of UCU branch representatives on Tuesday 13th March, the committee of the University of Exeter UCU met and agreed unanimously that our position is to maintain the status quo, and we will be advising our national negotiators to reject the proposals.

The amount being paid into the USS pension fund is more than enough to pay the benefits promised provided those monies are invested properly, and the changes to benefits implemented less than two years ago as part of a 17-year plan agreed by all parties appear to be working.

I predict that branches across the UK will resoundingly reject these poor proposals and that members of this proud, democratic, worker-led movement will instruct the UCU leadership to continue the fight to save our pensions.

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