Staff at all eight universities in Wales are to be balloted from Monday on possible strike action over pay and pensions.
Just as universities return to some normality after more than 18-months of Covid disruption, further problems are on the way with the threat of action by University and College Union (UCU) members - both academic and support staff - at 152 universities around the UK.
In Wales UCU members at Aberystwyth, Bangor, Cardiff, Swansea and the University of Wales Trinity Saint David will be balloted on pay and USS pension while those at the University of South Wales, Cardiff Metropolitan University and Wrexham Glyndwr University have a different pension scheme and will be balloted on pay only. The dispute has been rumbling since before Covid hit.
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The University and College Union told UK university employers they have “three weeks to save term” as it begins balloting members today (Monday 18 October).
It said changes to pensions left members £240,000 worse off and wants a £2,500 pay rise.
UCU general secretary Jo Grady has written to Universities UK chief executive Alistair Jarvis and Universities and Colleges Employers’ Association (UCEA) chief executive Raj Jethwa urging them to “meet staff demands and avoid disruption this term”.
In a statement the union claimed the sector is “built on exploitation of staff” with university income hitting a total £41.9bn in 2019/20 amid what it described as “cuts to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) pensions, declining pay, the use of insecure contracts in the sector, unsafe workloads and serious equality failings”.
Members at 152 universities will be balloted in total, six will be balloted on USS only, 78 are to be balloted over pay and working conditions, with another 68 institutions facing two ballots over both USS and pay and working conditions.
The ballots (for strike action and action short of a strike) will run at the same time, and for three weeks, closing on November 4.
The union said it is balloting on pensions after employer body Universities UK (UUK) voted to cut thousands of pounds from the retirement benefits of university staff in August. UCU claim the plan is based on “a flawed valuation of the USS scheme conducted at the beginning of the pandemic as markets were crashing” and represent a cut of 35% to a typical member’s annual guaranteed pension and guaranteed lump sum. Employers dispute this calculation putting the cut at between 10% and 18% .
The union said a series of changes between 2011 and 2019 have left typical members around £240,000 worse off each. It claimed university coffers have “bounced back” since the start of the pandemic.
“Pay for university staff fell by 17.6% relative to inflation between 2009 and 2019. Since then employers have made further below-inflation offers, despite university income from tuition fees growing by a third in the last five years," the UCU said in a statement.
“The latest pay offer from University and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA) was just 1.5%, despite the monumental efforts of staff during the pandemic.”
The union wants a £2.5k pay increase; an end to what it describes as race, gender and disability pay injustice; a framework to eliminate zero-hours and other precarious contracts and action to tackle unmanageable workloads.
UCU general secretary Jo Grady, said: "University staff are the backbone of the sector, but for a decade they have been thanked with massive cuts to their pensions, collapsing pay and the rampant use of insecure contracts.
“Industrial action can easily be avoided if employers withdraw their disgraceful pension cuts and make credible offers on pay and working conditions.”
Speaking on behalf of USS employers, Universities UK said the reforms proposed make USS one of the most attractive pension schemes in UK, that the UCU had not formally proposed an alternative solution and its figure of a 35% reduction is “misleading” when USS calculations put it at between 10% and 18%.
A spokesperson added: “We are disappointed UCU is pressing ahead with an industrial action ballot over USS pensions.
“The proposed reforms secure USS’ status as one of the most attractive pension schemes in the country, and eliminate the need for massive contribution rises that would severely reduce pay and force employers to make cutbacks in other budgets.
“Discussions over the valuation are still ongoing. Employers met with UCU representatives last Tuesday (12 October), and further meetings are planned for the coming weeks. However, it is hard to see how UCU’s demands can be reconciled without an alternative solution, which we have consistently asked them for and are willing to consult employers on.
“After a difficult 18 months, students do not deserve any further disruption. It is unclear why UCU thinks it’s appropriate for students to suffer due to the scheme’s increased costs and the regulatory constraints under which pensions operate in the UK.
“If no changes are made, USS will implement unaffordable contribution rises from April 2022, escalating every six months and reaching 18.8% for members and 38.2% for employers by 2025.
“Universities are well prepared to mitigate the impact of any industrial action on students’ learning, and minimise disruption for those staff choosing not to take part.”
Universities Wales, which represents employers here, was approached for comment.
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