Tensions between university staff and the vice-chancellor have flared up again as Sussex University and College Union (UCU) representatives reaffirm their plans for strike action over pensions.

Members of the UCU – at Sussex and nationwide – have come into conflict with employers over planned changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS). The USS is a final salary occupational pension scheme mainly used by Higher Education staff.

After receiving what they deemed an unsatisfactory reply from Professor Michael Farthing to a letter outlining their concerns, Sussex UCU has said it may hold a further day of strike action at the end of May.

Professor Luke Martell, President of Sussex UCU, added that the union “will have a fresh ballot to take action affecting admissions and external examining next year. This will be at the same time teachers take action on the same issue.” If the ballot is successful universities will face a highly disruptive year  during 2011-12.

Employers are attempting to make several changes to the scheme which would devalue pensions for staff. The most contentious issue is a proposal to change the USS from a ‘final salary’ pension to a CARE (Career Average Revalued Earnings) scheme.

Currently pensions are calculated based on an employee’s years of service and salary when they take retirement – which is usually the highest it has been. Switching to a CARE model likewise takes into account length of employment but instead bases pension value on an average salary. Almost all salary averages will be much lower than final salaries.

USS is governed by a Joint Negotiating Committee (JNC) made up of equal numbers of UCU members and employer representatives headed by an independent chair person who can use a casting vote to break a deadlock. UCU members had been boycotting the meeting as a protest at what they saw as unreasonable USS proposals.

At the end of April Sussex UCU sent Vice-Chancellor Farthing an email asking him to play a more direct role in helping settle the industrial dispute over the USS proposals. The reply made clear that he would not intervene and that he hoped UCU representatives should attend the JNC.

UCU attendance is a better option, he added, “to continue discussions for safeguarding USS as a sustainable pension scheme, rather than continued refusal to attend and suggestions of further industrial action, neither of which will serve anyone well in the shorter or longer term.”

On 10 May UCU representatives did indeed return to the committee, under threat of legal action, where employers finalised their proposals.

As well as pushing for a change from ‘final salary’ to CARE pensions, employers want to increase the amount employees pay while freezing their own contributions. The changes to the pension model will not save public money as the USS is not a public service scheme and is currently in a very stable financial state, which members say is proof that it does not need to be tampered with.

On 11 May Sally Hunt, UCU general secretary, wrote in a letter to members: “I have tried everything to resolve this dispute without asking you to take further disruptive industrial action. Now, with the employers using strong arm tactics, I need you to help me send a powerful message telling them to rethink and return to normal industrial relations.

“…In my judgement, one-day strikes will not be enough. That is why your negotiators are seeking permission from the HE officers to call a fresh ballot of all USS members.

“I make no bones that this new ballot will spell out proposals for sustained industrial action during 2011/2012.”

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