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The 2018 USS Strike: Background

A selection of content from the 'Great University Strike of 2018'

Against the Slow Cancellation of the Future

Message from Universities and College Union (UCU)

The Strike in the News

Work in Progress

The guide is an attempt to archive selected content on the USS strike and to create an open education resource. 

We have attempted to present the full range of reasoned arguments pertinent to the USS strike on social media and in the news. However, readers should be aware of the problems of digital filter bubbles and echo chambers, where social media has a tendency to weed out disconfirming views. If you have additional resources and/or a reasoned argument that you would like to be hosted on this site, please contact Nazlin Bhimani 

Acknowledgements

Many thanks to for linking to this guide. Thanks also to Professor Vian Bakir for the list of resources listed under 'Governance' and to the many university staff with expertise in education, journalism, media and communications who have suggested content for this resource.

The USS Strike 2018

The USS Pension

The USS pension scheme was a Final Salary defined benefits scheme. However, on 1st September 2011, new entrants to the scheme lost the final salary element and were instead enrolled on a career-defined benefit scheme where their pension calculations are based on the average earning throughout their career. This was equivalent to an 11% drop in their total compensation or a 13% drop in their salaries (ref.). The Final Salary element was lost to all members in April 2016 for benefits accrued from this date onwards and a defined benefits scheme was implemented for any salary above £55k (read comments by members on the proposal here). Professor Felicity Callard has written about the history of the move to convert the scheme to a Defined Contributions (DC) here.

The current dispute between the University and College Union (UCU), which represents the university staff (made up of academic and professional staff), and the representative body of the employers, Universities UK (UUK) is over further imposed cuts to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS).  According to UCU, the annual retirement income of university staff will be reduced between 10 to 40 per cent. This drop in pension is compounded by the real-term pay cut of 19.5 percent since 2009/10

 

The Deficit

The deficit has been the contested issue and its history has been explained here. In short, this deficit is based on assumptions made by UUK including the extreme circumstance that all 64 pre-1992 universities would shut down and that there would be a 16% increase in salary growth over four years.  These assumptions are being challenged. Michael Otsuka, Professor of Philosophy at the London School of Economics (LSE), together with other academic staff such as Professor Felicity Callard, Professor Dennis Leech and Dr. David Husseyn have challenged UUK on several occasions. Otsuka has consistently questioned UUK's stance in his posts on Medium - see also his tweets. More recently, in 2017 over fifty academics asked the fund managers to explain the calculations behind the the deficit. 

The deficit can be traced to the fact that employers reduced their contributions: between 1983 and 1997, they paid 18.55%; and in 1997 they reduced their contributions to 14% until 2009 when they raised this to 16% - today the employers contribute 18%. UCU members propose that had the employers not reduced their contributions, the pension scheme would be healthier today with another £7 billion. This, in effect, would more than compensate for UUK's projected deficit of £5.1 billion (in 2017) to £7 billion today.  In real terms, the pension scheme funds increased in value in 2016-17 by 20% to £60 billion. In addition, UUK have been accused of 'building a misleading prospectus for ending Defined Benefit' scheme by skewing the results of a survey on the level of risk employers would be prepared to take to maintain the scheme as it is.  This was achieved by running the survey at a time when most employers were on holiday and giving individual Oxbridge colleges the same status in the vote as single universities - see for instance, the letter from the Master of Churchill College, Athene Donald, to the Chief Executive of UUK, Alistair Jarvis.  A petition has been set up asking for USS trustees to make public their calculations of the deficit. 

As a result, UCU members are angry as they see that managers in HE and in USS, including the vice chancellors, have been awarded high salaries and, in some cases, have claimed excessive expenses whilst the salaries of university staff have remained static. The have also questioned why employers took a cut in their pensions' contributions whilst university staff continued to pay the same amount. An open letter from UCU members to the Chief Executive of UUK, Alistair Jarvis, questioning reduction in employer contributions was published on 2nd April 2018. UUK have made two offers, on 2th March and the other on 23rd March - and the latter has raised more questions and appears to have resulted in a growing lack of trust between university staff and management.  Information about the negotiations can be seen here. What is becoming clear from exchange of views on Twitter is that following the 23rd March offer, there was uncertainty among USS members on whether or not to continue the strike. To counter this and provide information so that members can make an informed choice on the e-ballot that UCU launched on 4th April, a group of academics have written short papers called 'USS Briefs' on all aspects of the pension issue. The strike ended on 13th April 2018 following an e-ballot to USS members.

 

The strike is about much more than the deficit

However, the 2018 strike was about more than the pension. Underlying issues which have impacted teaching, learning and research such as the marketisation of higher education, the increasing casualisation of newly appointed staff, and the lack of democratic scrutiny from members of staff and the wider community, are some of the reasons for decision to strike and reflect the symptoms of a deeper malady in higher education, according to Steve Watson. The strike has received support from students and this has surprised management in HE.  Information on the negotiations is presented here.