University of Bristol teaching and research staff return to picket lines this week for a renewed round of strikes against pension cuts.
A small step forward occurred on Monday (March 28) when the Bristol University and College Union (UCU) issued a joint statement with the University of Bristol calling for a revaluation of the university pension scheme, the USS, and for a shake-up of governance at UUK, the representative body for university employers.
Last month, UUK pushed through proposals for 35% cuts to USS pensions despite widespread opposition from the UCU in which 68 universities have undertaken strike action, some, like Bristol University, multiple times. Staff are also striking over long-running issues of pay and working conditions, especially the rise of casualised contracts.
Jamie Melrose, Bristol UCU Branch President described the pension cuts as ‘scandalous’.
Speaking at a rally in December Melrose said: ‘These are life-altering changes to colleagues’ retirement and I think it’s our duty and our obligations as members of staff and as members of this union to oppose that and send a message loud and clear to the people around the negotiating table: it’s not on, stop your proposals, reopen negotiations and let’s start talking.’
The people around the negotiating table are the UCU, UUK (Universities UK), the USS pension scheme and the Joint Negotiating Committee (JNC) who decide how the USS is managed.
Monday’s joint statement calls for a revaluation of the USS scheme and for a shake-up of UUK governance.
In the statement, the two parties said: ‘It is important that the next valuation is concluded in the shortest possible timescale to deliver potential benefits to staff and restore staff confidence in the USS.’
They also state that a ‘key objective’ of the valuation would be to pass any benefits to staff ‘as quickly as possible.’
In a four-point roadmap, the joint statement suggests that the governing board of the USS should be reformed to give greater weight to the voices of members, for instance by election of trustee directors, and questions whether the current system, in which the chair of the JNC has a deciding vote, is ‘fit for purpose.’
Whilst a step forwards after months of gridlock, the joint statement falls short of meeting strikers’ full demands for the UCU proposals. In particular, the University of Bristol has not committed to compensate staff for lost pensions, nor has it committed to calling on UUK to revoke cuts and restore benefits.
UUK have said the cuts are necessary to account for a drop in the value of the pension scheme. Opponents argue that the most recent valuation was conducted in March 2020 at the height of pandemic-induced stock market turmoil resulting in a faulty valuation.
The USS stated in January that its assets have rebounded to more than £25bn higher than the previous valuation. The UCU responded to this by saying that UUK’s justification for the cuts “has now evaporated”
The UCU has issued counter-proposals for a path forward, including a new valuation and increased member and employed contributions to cover benefits in the meantime. They want UUK to back their proposals and push for their implementation by the USS. Monday’s joint statement goes some way towards achieving that and is a step forward after nearly four months of gridlock.
The current round of strikes lasts from March 28 to April 1 and follows strike action in December 2021 and February 2022.
The strikes have led to a breakdown in relations between staff and university management, and are increasingly involving student activists acting in solidarity with staff.
Staff have spoken at length of the effect that pension cuts, and deteriorating work conditions, have on them. From stress over workloads to difficulty finding housing to looking after student welfare staff are reaching breaking point and many say they are losing the motivation to continue.
A recent survey conducted by the UCU found that two-thirds of staff are likely or very likely to leave the sector in the next five years due to pay, pensions and conditions. For early career researchers aged 18 to 29 the figure rises to 81%. Nine out of 10 respondents say they are not optimistic about the future of higher education in the UK.
Last month, students occupied the great hall of the Wills Memorial Building in an attempt to exact concessions from the university, including agreeing to UCU proposals for pensions.
Last week, a banner drop by climate activists from the same building made a point about workers rights whilst simultaneously calling on the University to take more action on the climate crisis.