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Notice of UCU ballot

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The University has received formal notice from the University and Colleges Union (UCU) that it intends to ballot its members for industrial action.

The ballot is being called across the higher education sector regarding disputes over pay, pensions, and working conditions (referred to previously as the “four fights”). Rather than a national vote, the ballot is taking place at local branch level, and the UCU local branch has determined that here at Reading, it relates solely to proposed changes to the USS pension arrangements. More detail about these changes is explained below.

The UCU will run from 18 October to 4 November 2021. This is a shorter period than provided for on previous occasions, designed to enable industrial action (in the form of strike action and/or action short of strike) to begin before the Christmas break, should there be a mandate for such action.

Vice-Chancellor Robert Van de Noort has said in response to the ballot: “In respect of the USS our genuine, albeit reluctant, view is that the changes proposed are necessary to avoid increases in the contribution rates that would price many members (and prospective members) out of the scheme. The increased costs for the University would also threaten our ability to invest in colleagues, the student experience and the general good-running of the University.

“The University has always respected the right of our union colleagues to engage in industrial action, but we are also obliged to do all we reasonably can to avoid disruption. It is regrettable that the UCU is asking its members to vote for action that will seriously disrupt the University and undermine students’ learning at a time when we are all tentatively recovering from the impact of the global pandemic.”

Robert, joined by Chief Financial Officer Sam Foley and Director of HR John Brady, will be hosting a special all-staff briefing on Tuesday 19 October to explain the proposed changes to the USS, the financial impact on the University and what this all means to those of you in membership of the USS scheme. There will also be plenty of time for your questions. An Outlook invitation for this session will be sent shortly to all colleagues.

Why has UCU called this ballot?

The ballot notification received by the University cites a “failure to reach agreement to revoke UUK’s proposed cuts to the Defined Benefit pension that were approved by JNC resolution on the 31 August 2021” as the basis for its dispute with the University. 

John Brady, our Director of HR, has asked UCU’s Head of Higher Education, Paul Bridge, to share UCU’s counter-proposals so that colleagues at Reading could be fully informed. No material has been provided, but we will share it with all colleagues if any additional information is received.

At Reading we have always been prepared to engage positively with our local UCU branch on matters of common interest. This ballot is restricted to the USS issues because the University had already reached significant collective agreements on, for example, the employment arrangements for sessional teaching staff (now referred to as Associate Lecturers) and the role profiles for teaching which has seen a large number of colleagues transfer from Grade 6 to teaching-intensive Lecturer roles at Grade 7.

What changes are proposed to the USS pension scheme?

As explained previously, the USS Trustee had accepted proposals from the USS Joint Negotiating Committee (JNC) designed to avoid significantly higher contribution rates for both scheme members and employers. The JNC comprises equal membership from UUK (acting on behalf of employers) and UCU (acting on behalf of scheme members).

Previously, following the 2020 valuation, the Trustee had indicated that without agreement on changes to the scheme the combined contribution rates (i.e. those paid by both employers and scheme members) would potentially increase to as high as 56.2% of salaries, from the current combined rate of 30.7%.

To avoid such unaffordable increases the proposals agreed by the JNC will see a small increase in contribution rates effective from October, with scheme members paying an additional 0.2% and employers an additional 0.6%, combined with changes to the scheme’s benefit structure. Employers have also committed to a series of measures designed to strengthen their long-term support for the scheme.

The changes to the scheme’s benefit structure are to be effective from 1 April 2022, summarised as follows:

  • The Defined-Benefit salary threshold is reduced to £40,000 (from the current £59,585).
  • The accrual rate (i.e. the rate at which you build up benefits as a percentage of salary) reduces to 1/85th from 1/75th.
  • Indexation (i.e. the rate at which the pension is increased each year) is based on CPI and capped at 2.5%.

It is important to note that the benefits built up in the scheme prior to 1 April 2022 are fully protected (including how the inflationary increases are calculated).

Find out more

Colleagues are invited to attend the briefing about USS pension reform on Tuesday 19 October. In advance of that session, you may wish to review the video of the previous USS session held in May.

In the meantime you may hear (or have already heard) many suggestions as to the impact of the changes on your personal pension entitlements. The USS has now produced a number of  worked examples that you may find helpful.

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