Imperial College London senior management have called on Universities UK to reevaluate their proposed changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), amid concerns over data and analysis.
In an email sent out to staff on Tuesday afternoon, Professor Alice Gast, President, and Professor James Stirling, Provost, said the College “are now calling upon UUK and USS to jointly convene an expert group, including both their advisers and leading academic experts, to provide full transparency” on UUK’s proposals. It came four days into industrial action by the Universities and College Union (UCU), which could last up to 14 days.
A proposal by UUK, the organisational body for UK higher education institutions, claimed the current USS pension was operating with a deficit of £7.5bn, and the employee contributions had increased by more than 50% since 2014. This proposal has been criticised by a number of parties, however, including an Imperial working group, who said a “lack of transparency remains a key issue” in the debate.
College has committed to “fully resource any staff” who participate in the evaluation of the proposals. In a statement for Felix, a College representative said: “recognising that this work may take time and go beyond the statutory deadline for changes to be introduced, and if asked to do so, the College has pledged to carry its share of the risk of staying on the current scheme while this work is completed.”
“In an email, Alice Gast said the College ‘are now calling on UUK to convene an expert group’”
This week saw the completion of the first five days of strike action, with a number of Imperial staff and students braving the cold weather to stand on picket lines. The fifth day of action ended with a demonstration in central London, joined by Imperial staff and students. Last Tuesday, UUK and UCU announced a joint arbitration attempt through Acas, an industrial conciliation service. Talks are scheduled to begin on Monday 5th March.
Speaking to Professor Stirling at the picket line earlier this week, he told Felix the developments over talks were “positive”: “UUK and UCU are getting Acas involved and getting back around the table. I think this is a really positive development, so I am hopeful that we will be able to reach an agreement on this, and a good way forward for our staff.”
He went on to say: “I think it would be foolish for anyone to predict the outcome of the analysis, so let’s do it, and then work out what the best way forward is.”
Rhidian Thomas, Imperial College Union’s Ethics and Environment Officer, who has been supporting staff on the picket line, told Felix: “For too long, we’ve accepted the marketisation of higher education as inevitable. It’s not just students paying fees who are suffering as a consequence – we’re now seeing staff’s pensions being gambled on the stock market. In the context of skyrocketing fees, higher student numbers and rampant executive pay rises, it’s unacceptable that ordinary staff are expected to bear the cost. As students of Imperial College, we ought to be calling on our senior management to defend their staff and lobby UUK to ditch the proposed pension changes once and for all.”
UCU representatives welcomed the news. Dr Michael McGarvey, president of Imperial UCU, told Felix: “During the second week of the strike our members at Imperial have continued their tremendous support and this has been mirrored at universities throughout the country. We have also been heartened by the great support that we have received from our students with many joining us at the picket lines every day.”
“The Imperial UCU membership continues to rise at an unprecedented rate as more and more people realise the enormity of how damaging these pension proposals are, and is now up by more than 25% since the dispute started. Many have joined the union specifically to support the action, and up to a hundred of our members have joined picket lines.“
“The UCU said ‘it is up to UUK to get to grips with the reality of the situation. Until then our strike will continue’”
“On Tuesday the President announced a huge shift in the position of the senior management at Imperial, altering their hard-line stance in supporting the implementation of the very detrimental changes to staff pensions. It shows that the senior management are at last beginning to grasp the level of outrage among staff at Imperial. Why didn’t they do this from the outset? If they had used their influence properly we might have averted the strike.
“It is up to UUK to get to grips with the reality of the situation and come to a fair and acceptable settlement. Until then our strike will continue.”
The development came after more than 60 universities were affected by industrial action, with tutorials and lectures cancelled. UCU have tabled a set of proposals, including provision of a guaranteed pension for members and universities accepting a small amount of increased risk.
UCU general secretary Sally Hunt said: “We are pleased the employers have agreed to more talks… We have listened not just to our members, but also to the many university leaders who have contributed ideas.”
A number of university leaders had called on UUK to reopen talks with UCU, in an effort to limit the likelihood of further industrial action. Senior leaders from 18 universities, including Cambridge, Newcastle, and Sheffield, called for talks to resume.