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Why University and College Union members have voted to strike, and our response

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We know that many students will have questions about the strike action planned over the next two weeks. Last week we published everything you need to know about the strikes in relation to your studies, and today we’ll look at why UCU have asked their members to strike, and our response.

We pride ourselves on the collegial culture of our University, and we very much hoped this would be avoided and a solution found. We fully recognise the rights of staff members to take industrial action, and we know that staff will have thought hard about whether to vote and how to cast their vote. Our University is fundamentally about the people who work and study here, and we do everything we can to attract, keep and develop our staff. Pay and pensions are an important part of this but they are both negotiated at a national level, so decisions cannot be made by a single University alone.

We are in regular contact with UCEA and UUK (which represent employers on pay and pensions respectively) to try and find an early resolution to the current dispute.  Whilst we disagree with UCU on a number of issues we do share some of the same concerns, for example on the importance of actions to address gender and BAME pay gaps.

Our staff costs have risen significantly in recent years, and will do so much further this year with our increased pay and pension costs. Since fee income for home/EU students has remained level, while all other costs have risen with or above inflation, we have very real pressures on our limited resources. You can see where our money comes from and where it is spent here, including how tuition fees break down.

Why are the strikes happening?

The national University pension scheme, USS, has over 200,000 members and it needs more money to be able to meet future benefit payments. Universities and staff have been asked to pay more into the scheme to meet the higher cost of these pensions.

There are over 340 USS pension scheme employers, who have already agreed to pay an extra £250m a year more; 65% of the increased cost. UCU members have voted to go on strike in 46 universities because they don’t believe they should pay any more towards the cost of their pension, and it should be covered by their employers. They want employers to pay all the increased costs.

The rates of pay in most universities are negotiated annually by the University and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA), and an increase in rates of pay has already been awarded in August 2019.  UCEA believe that what has been paid is fair and reasonable, whilst UCU do not believe that it addresses concerns about the real terms erosion of the value of earnings.

In addition, UCU has asked Universities to commit to reducing the number of staff on Fixed Term Contracts, reduce gender and BAME pay gaps, and increase pay.

Our response: USS Pensions

We know how important pensions are to our staff. USS is one of the few remaining defined benefit pension schemes providing guaranteed benefits for the majority of members, that is funded by members and their employers. In most other sectors, this sort of pension has virtually disappeared because it is very expensive and the costs are also hard to predict. As a result of a recent national agreement, both the University and staff members of USS pay more in pension contributions so that members’ benefits continue to be protected at current levels. 

There are over 340 USS pension scheme employers, who have already agreed to pay an extra £250 million a year more. Our University contribution increased from 19.5% to 21.1% of salary, whilst members’ contributions increased from 8.8% to 9.6%. We are paying 69% of the extra costs as the employer, and staff are paying 31%, which is better for staff than the contribution ratio of 65:35 which had already been agreed.

We have to balance what is paid into the pension scheme with the needs of all our people. We need to invest in our students, academic and support staff, and in the wider community. The extra USS contributions will cost our University about £4.6m a year, which we have agreed to given the great value of pensions to our staff, but it will limit our ability to invest in other areas that are important for our staff and students. We will simply not be able to meet further increases.

Our response: Pay

In August this year, all our staff received a pay increase of between 1.8% and 3.65%, with the average being 3.5% and greater for lower paid staff.

Data from the ONS Annual Survey for Hours and Earnings shows that full-time average pay in universities continues to be higher than in the wider economy.

For academic staff (lecturer) and PS staff at Grade 7 the normal entry salary is currently £41,256 p.a. and average pay for our academic staff is £63,369 p.a. We also provide a generous benefits package, including training and development, generous annual leave allowance, and a range of wellbeing services.

We are addressing gender and BAME pay gaps. We hold national accreditation for Athena SWAN and the Race Equality Charter Mark, and we are among only 3% of employers to report on our BAME pay gap.

We aim to minimise the number of staff on fixed term contracts. Most of our staff on fixed term contracts are PhD students with a contract for a small amount of teaching or staff who are supported on externally funded grants or contracts with a defined period of funding. This is normal for any research university.

More information

If you have any questions that haven’t been answered here, please contact

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