Today I am taking the unusual step of sending an all staff email that is outside of my weekly communication. From talking to you, reading your letters and following social media, I understand how much concern the pensions dispute is causing, so I wanted to reach out and engage in a more personal way.
I am writing to all staff, both those in the USS pension scheme and those who are not, as the long-term impact of this national dispute and its resolution has implications for us all.
Yesterday, Monday 5 March, saw the start of formal talks between UUK and UCU, mediated by the conciliation service ACAS. Talks will resume on Wednesday. I warmly welcome this development as a way forward to resolving the current pensions dispute.
If we are to continue to retain and recruit highly valued staff, who are leaders in their field, we must be able to offer a competitive benefits package, which includes an attractive pension. Leaving USS unchanged is not an option and any solution will have to meet the legal requirements overseen by the Pensions Regulator. We should not underestimate the challenge in relation to USS; employers and employees already make some of the highest contributions into a pension scheme, at 18% and 8% respectively, and every additional 1% increase in employer contributions will cost us an additional £800,000 per year. Given that the largest proportion of our income comes from student fees, and appreciating the challenge of recruiting more students in today’s competitive environment, putting more money into USS is difficult without making hard choices about where we can invest finite resources.
I appreciate the concerns about the current proposed changes and I reiterate my call, first published in my letter of 22 February, to UUK and UCU. The talks, which have just started, need to focus on alternative models for risk sharing in order to provide greater certainty about retirement benefits to USS members, as well as ensuring the greatest possible proportion of employer and employee contributions support future benefits, something particularly important to younger colleagues.
To help the talks, I have told UUK that we would be prepared to consider fully-costed, revised proposals. In the short-term, we would be prepared also to consider a modest increase in cost, should no other option be viable, pending a longer-term resolution to the funding of the scheme.
We find ourselves in a difficult situation, and I appreciate the respectful manner in which strike action has been undertaken on campus. Since negotiations are now proceeding in good faith, I hope that UCU members will consider how students, particularly those in their final year, can benefit from their remaining weeks of tuition.
The current pensions challenge is part of the rapidly changing landscape in higher education. We face many other challenges, including working within a new, tougher regulatory environment, demonstrating value for money to our students and their funders, a changing demography and student expectations, and increased competition for students and research funding. In the light of these challenges, I have made the decision to change the agenda for my Staff Open Meeting on Monday 12 March so that we can cover these topics and you can put questions directly to my senior team about how we are responding.
Professor Paul Layzell