Industrial action background

Find out about the disputes over pensions and pay and our position on this. There’s also a glossary of terms to understand the detail.

What we think about the strikes

This national industrial action is taking place at 74 UK universities, including Sussex.

It was called by the UCU trade union over two separate but related issues – the USS pension scheme, and pay and conditions. Both issues are negotiated at a national level by representatives of all relevant universities and UCU.

Because of this, individual universities, such as Sussex, do not have the power to resolve the disputes.

Despite UCU announcing 14 days of strike action in February and March 2020, positive talks are still taking place on pay-related issues and the future of USS. These discussions are making significant progress and are ongoing.

We are continuing to focus all our energies on minimising the impact on you – our students. We are not able to predict exactly how your studies might be disrupted, as we will not know beforehand which staff are planning to observe the strike action.

However, we know many of you care about your lecturers and other staff and might have read or heard things about their conditions or pensions that concern you.

At Sussex, we have consistently shown a strong commitment to investing in our staff, who are the people who power our university. We spend about £150 million a year in staff pay, benefits and pensions. We have already implemented the national pay award for this year, which is in line with inflation for all staff and above inflation for lower-paid colleagues.

Around half of staff also have received a second pay rise this year, which is automatically awarded each year for the first few years in a new role.

We are also covering the majority of the increased costs of the USS pension scheme, which have been requested by the scheme’s trustee as part of their legal responsibility to ensure the pension fund has enough money. For every USS member at Sussex, the University now pays 21.1% (up from 18%) on top of their salary into their pension; individual staff members contribute 9.6% (up from 8%).

The USS pension scheme remains one of the best pension schemes in the UK, with benefits that far outweigh the majority of schemes across all other employment sectors. We wish to retain this high-quality scheme as it offers a valuable protection to staff in retirement. However, we believe this needs to be balanced in a way that does not severely impact the amount of money spent directly on students. We need to ensure you get value for money from the fees you pay. That also means enabling the University to invest in the campus for the benefit of students for years to come.

UCU wants employers to pay for all the increased costs in USS and to increase pay by inflation plus 3%. While a small number of universities may be able to afford this, the vast majority, including Sussex, would find this unaffordable.

While the University is not in financial difficulty, there is very little difference between the amount of money coming in and money going out. The small surpluses we make are reinvested back into the University for the benefit of students and staff. This is not affected by recent large construction projects – East Slope and West Slope – which are financed by a third party, meaning there is no upfront cost to the University.

About the USS pension scheme

A valuation of the USS pension scheme was carried out by the USS Trustee in 2017.

The USS Trustee are required by law to value the scheme every three years, taking into account things like how well the stock market is doing and how long people are living. They then decide whether contributions need to go up or down.

This valuation indicated that USS had a large deficit, meaning there wasn’t enough money going in to cover everything that it was predicted would need to be paid out.

UCU felt the valuation from the USS Trustee was overly negative.

The JNC discussed what to do about this. UUK suggested changing pension benefits to keep costs down for staff and employers. UCU disagreed with this approach and wanted to retain existing benefits with no increase in costs for members. The two sides were not able to find a compromise and the Union carried out widespread industrial action in early 2018.

The 2018 strikes ended when the two sides agreed to jointly bring together a panel of experts (called the Joint Expert Panel or JEP) to look again at the 2017 valuation and recommend how future valuations should be conducted.

The JEP has published two reports: one in September 2018 and one in December 2019. UCU, UUK and USS are holding a series of tripartite talks, mediated by the Chair of the JEP, to try to find a way forward for the scheme, based on the recommendations of the second JEP report. These will continue until at least March 2020 and good progress is being made.

Both parties agree that the comprehensive pension benefits should remain the same.

About pay and conditions

Every year, UCU and UCEA get together to review university staff pay.

Last year, UCEA made a final offer to raise pay by 1.8%, which is in line with inflation, with bigger increases for lower paid staff. This pay rise was implemented across UK universities in August.

Around half of university staff also got another pay rise because, in most university jobs, salaries automatically go up during the first few years in a role.

UCU said that 1.8% was not enough and asked their members whether they wanted to take industrial action to try to secure a bigger rise. They also felt not enough was being done on three related issues: casualisation, workloads and the gender/BAME pay gap.

UCEA and UCU have met a number of times to discuss a sector-wide approach to these three related issues and, in January 2020, put forward a positive offer to UCU.

In addition, significant progress has been made at a local level. Sussex made a commitment several years ago to remove zero-hours contracts for teaching delivery, in a very constructive approach with UCU. In addition, our plans outlined to close the gender pay gap are progressive, there is no equal pay gap, and there are plans to focus on the progression of BAME staff.

UCEA has consistently been clear that there is no mandate to re-open negotiations on the 2019 pay increase. Talks begin in March on the 2020 pay award.

Glossary of terms

USS: The Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) is the largest private pension scheme in the UK and is the main scheme for academic and some non-academic staff in UK universities. The costs of running the scheme are shared between staff and university employers. Staff members pay a proportion of their monthly salary (currently 9.6%) into the pension scheme and universities make an even larger contribution (currently 21.1%) on their behalf. The USS pension scheme is available to all members of University staff who are on grade 7 or above – i.e. for those staff earning over £33,500 a year.

USS Trustee: The group of people responsible for making sure there is enough money in the pension scheme to pay all current and future pensions.

UCU: The University and College Union (UCU) is the trade union representing staff members on both the USS and pay.

UUK: Universities UK (UUK) is the body representing university employers on pensions.

UCEA: The Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA) is the body representing university employers on pay.

JNC: The Joint Negotiating Committee (JNC) has the same number of representatives for staff (UCU for both pay and pensions) and employers (UCEA for pay and UUK for pensions). It decides on pay and any changes to the pension scheme, including how any increased costs should be shared. If a vote is tied, an independent chairperson has the deciding vote.

The Pensions Regulator: This is the government body legally responsible for making sure all pension schemes have enough money and are being run well. If they believe that not enough money is being paid in or a scheme is at risk, they have the power to take over management of the scheme and impose higher contributions. Anything agreed by the JNC and the USS Trustee must also be approved by the Pensions Regulator.

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