University boss breaks ranks on pensions as UCU members prepare to ballot for strike action

A university vice-chancellor has broken ranks on the eve of a strike ballot to warn changes to staff pensions would have “serious consequences”.

In a blog, Professor Stuart Croft from the University of Warwick criticised the “conservative approach” adopted by the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), and called for “greater understanding and explanation” of the process by which the valuation has been made.

He also warned the “de facto end to the defined benefit scheme will require USS’s investment strategy to become increasingly cautious”, undermining the scheme’s future growth. Under plans from Universities UK (UUK), guaranteed pension benefits through a defined benefit scheme would be replaced by a defined contribution scheme, where retirement income would depend on returns from money invested in the stock market.

Professor Croft acknowledged that there are “alternative more attractive schemes in place elsewhere in the sector”, referencing the Teachers’ Pension Scheme which is available in the post-’92 sector. He called for “alternative, more innovative solutions” – including possible government backing for the pension scheme – to be explored in order ensure that USS remains competitive.

The UCU said his intervention – coming as the union prepares to ballot members for industrial action over changes to USS – showed employers’ opinions on USS reform were divided, and that concerns about the proposed changes are shared widely across the sector.

UCU general secretary Sally Hunt said: “Professor Croft is right to highlight the hugely damaging impact which ending the defined benefit scheme would have on both universities and their staff. These plans would remove members’ security in retirement and leave them facing years of uncertainty about whether their pensions will be sufficient to live on.

“This important intervention confirms our belief that the proposals from Universities UK do not have support from across the sector. While divisions in the employer position are beginning to show, UCU is united as we fight to defend our members’ pensions.

“We all want to avoid widespread disruption on campuses, but universities must be under no illusion that their staff will take industrial action to defend their pensions. I would urge all members to back the action in the ballot.”

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