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Strike action and the proposed changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme: information for students

The dispute in brief

Who is on strike?

Some academic and Professional Services staff will be on strike.

When are the strikes?

  • Week one: Thursday 22nd and Friday 23rd February (two days)
  • Week two: Monday 26th, Tuesday 27th and Wednesday 28th February (three days)
  • Week three: Monday 5th, Tuesday 6th, Wednesday 7th and Thursday 8th March (four days)
  • Week four: Monday 12th, Tuesday 13th, Wednesday 14th, Thursday 15th and Friday 16th March (five days).

What will happen?

Some lectures and other teaching activities will not happen on strike days. You will see striking staff outside university entrances explaining their protest to staff and students.

What if my course and lectures are affected?

We aim to reschedule any lectures and other teaching activities with reasonable notice to you, so you can plan ahead. Your Course Office will be in close contact with you throughout the dispute.

Why are there strikes?

Many staff at City and at more than 60 other universities, are in the same national pension scheme. They are facing an almost certain reduction in their pension benefits if proposed changes to the scheme are implemented. The proposals have been put forward because the government’s Pensions Regulator is required by law to insist that the scheme is made financially sustainable. The proposals do not change what universities spend on pensions, so our spending on your education is unaffected.

Frequently Asked Questions

About the dispute

Why are some City staff striking?

Some staff are striking in protest over proposed changes to their future pension arrangements. The proposed changes are to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS). USS is the principal pension scheme provided by old (established prior to 1992) universities in the UK, including City. It is one of the largest pension schemes in the country with over 370,000 members across almost 400 institutions. The USS scheme is not governed by City or any university, but by a separate, independent body. The proposed changes will see members’ pensions at retirement change from a mainly Defined Benefits (DB) basis to a Defined Contributions (DC) basis, which will almost certainly result in reduced benefits.

Are staff at all other universities also striking?

The employee union which has balloted members for strike action over this issue, the University and College Union (UCU), has done so at a local institutional level. As at 9th February 2018, the required majority of UCU members have voted for strike action at 60 universities, including City. Some other universities are being re-balloted.

It is important to note that post-1992 universities are not part of USS. For historic reasons the pension scheme operated by these universities is typically either the Teachers’ Pensions Scheme (TPS) or the Local Government Pension Scheme (LGPS) and they are unaffected.

Why are the changes being made to the pension scheme?

A valuation of USS was undertaken in March 2017 which found that the scheme has a substantial deficit of £7.5bn (£5.3bn at the previous valuation in March 2014). The USS Trustees are required by the Pensions Regulator to take action to address the deficit.

How has the deficit come about?

The deficit has come about for two main reasons. The first is that both existing and future USS pension recipients are enjoying longer lives and therefore the cost of providing current and future service benefits had risen by a third since the last valuation. The second reason is that the scheme has become more expensive to deliver due to slower and more unpredictable economic growth and lower expectations of investment returns. This is despite both employers and employees contributing significantly more to the scheme over the past decade. Contribution rates are already high, with the employer contributing 18% of salary and the employee contributing 8%.

Such issues are common to every pension scheme across the UK and the USS is not alone in having to face these challenges. Many other pension schemes have had to change from a Defined Benefit, DB scheme (based on salary and years of service) to a Defined Contribution, DC scheme (based on actual contributions).

What are the proposed changes to USS and are they City’s proposals?

As indicated above, USS is a national pension scheme with over 370,000 members across almost 400 institutions including universities, research institutes, charities and related higher-education bodies.

USS is an independent organisation governed by a Board of Trustees. Because it is a pension provider, under UK law it is regulated by the UK’s Pensions Regulator. The Pensions Regulator requires a valuation of USS to be undertaken every three years and insists that action is taken to address any significant concerns relating to financial sustainability. Given the size of the USS deficit, therefore, it is the Pensions Regulator who is insisting that USS makes changes to the scheme to put it on a sustainable financial footing.

The employers’ interests in USS are represented by Universities UK (UUK), the body which represents universities nationally on issues including funding, HE policy, immigration matters and pensions. The employees’ interests are represented by UCU. The employers and employees work with USS through what is known as a Joint Negotiating Committee (JNC), which has an independent chair and 50/50 representation of employers and employees.

The JNC has had more than 35 meetings with USS since the valuation in March 2017 to try to find a solution to the deficit problem. The proposal now under dispute was put forward by UUK, representing the employers, but was not supported by UCU and in this instance the independent chair had the casting vote. This is why UCU is in dispute with the employers. City, by itself, has little direct influence in terms of the proposed changes and it does not have a representative on the JNC. However, it was consulted by UUK on the proposals along with every other member institution.

Why can’t the (now) £9,250 tuition fee for UK undergraduates be used to help reduce the deficit?

Although student fees increased from £3,000 to £9,000 in 2012 (now £9,250) this did not result in additional income for universities because it was offset by an equivalent decrease in direct government funding. Over the past decade, employers have paid almost 30% more toward USS benefits for their employees and City now contributes 18% of the salary of every staff scheme member into USS. All UK universities are under financial pressure because costs are rising more quickly than income and the majority of universities, including City, do not feel that it is either possible or appropriate to increase pension contributions at the inevitable expense of reduced funds to support students and the educational experience.

Why are we spending money on new buildings - couldn't that be spent on the pensions issue?

It is vital for universities to continue to invest in buildings and facilities for students and staff to deliver the best educational experience for students and remain globally competitive. Any additional injection of cash into USS by universities would inevitably have an adverse impact on students by diverting funding from elsewhere, reducing the positive impact universities make in areas central to their core purpose. Increasing contributions to USS would pose a threat to the high standards that students, research funders and others rightly expect and could undermine the sustainability of some institutions. Moreover, such a decision would not solve the long-term issue of the financial sustainability of USS, which will only be achieved by more fundamental reform.

Is there any alternative model that could be considered which would prevent strike action?

In mid-December the University and College Union (UCU) made an alternative proposal for reform based on an increase in contributions by employers and employees to the JNC. The UCU’s plan would require employer contributions to USS to rise to 23.5% of salary and member contributions to increase to 10.9% of salary, according to the pension scheme’s modelling. Many proposals were modelled and considered during the 35 JNC meetings; however, this was the only UCU proposal considered by the JNC and it was rejected on the grounds of affordability for both members and employers.

Don’t the employees get to say what they think about the proposals?

Yes. Now that the USS Trustees have an approved set of proposals about changes to the scheme, they are required by law to undertake consultation with employees for a 64-day period. The consultation will commence on 19th March and City will be fully supporting it.

Many universities feel that the strike action is unwarranted at this stage because consultation with employees has not yet commenced.

City's position in the dispute

What is City’s position on the pension issue?

This is a very difficult issue for any employer because nobody wants to see a reduction in employee pension benefits. However, the recent valuation makes it very clear that the scheme is not sustainable on its current basis. City was consulted on the proposals by UUK and responded in support of the proposals as they would put the scheme on a sound financial footing, for the ultimate benefit of both current and future members and provide reassurance about future sustainability. Across the sector, 94% of universities responding to the consultation were in support of the proposals.

What is City doing to stop the strike?

Although UCU has balloted its members at the local (i.e., City) level – and it is therefore a local strike which has been synchronised nationally – City has little ability to influence the issue and bring an end to the strike. USS operates nationally and the employers’ interests in the scheme are represented by UUK. However, we are actively communicating with staff about the proposals which require formal consultation for a period of 64 days, commencing on 19th March. The consultation, to be led by USS, will be supported by City. In addition, we will arrange workshops for staff to help them to understand the personal impact of the proposed scheme benefit changes.

Types of action being taken

Who will be affected?

It is impossible to say at this stage who might be most affected by the strike. We know that levels of UCU membership are uneven across City but it is nevertheless very difficult to anticipate the impact of the action on programmes of study. We will be making every effort to minimise the impact on each and every City student. We will have a better idea of the impact when the strikes start, on Thursday 22nd February and we will make sure that we communicate with our students on a regular basis to ensure that they are kept up-to-date with the latest information about any disruption.

What might I expect to happen on a strike day?

Staff who strike are not obliged to inform the University or their students in advance, which is why it is difficult to predict the impact. You may see striking staff outside university entrances explaining their protest to staff and students. Some lectures and other teaching activities (including class tests, examinations or assessments) may be disrupted and thus may not happen on strike days. However, unless you are contacted directly and informed otherwise, please assume all classes, examinations and assessments will take place as scheduled. It is also possible that there may be short delays in providing you with feedback on your assessments.

Is it only academic staff who will be striking? Will Professional Services staff be on strike?

Academic and some Professional Services staff are members of USS and may feel that they want to join the strike to protest against the proposed changes to the scheme. UCU membership also includes both academic and Professional Services staff but direct engagement in the action is, at this stage, difficult to predict.

I am confused. Is this a full strike or ‘action short of a strike’?

It is both. UCU has, at this stage, declared a total of 14 days as strike days, a set of dates from Thursday 22nd February to Friday 16th March. On these days it is asking members not to come to work. Additionally, it is asking members to engage in ‘action short of a strike’ from Thursday 22nd February. Some members might therefore decide to observe the strike days and engage in ‘action short of a strike’ on the other days. Others may decide to take one form of action or the other. Some members may decide not to engage in the strike at all.

Both forms of action will involve some withholding of pay and this will deter many staff from taking action. Many other staff members will recognise the issues facing the pension scheme and feel that although their future benefits will be reduced, USS will nevertheless continue to be a good pension scheme and will not feel that strike action is an appropriate response. It is difficult to gauge, at this stage, the mix of responses.

What does ‘action short of a strike’ mean?

Strike action means not doing any work at all for the whole of the strike days. ‘Action short of a strike’, which staff may also take, means the following in this action:

  • working to contract (for example strictly observing any working hours stated in a contract of employment)
  • not covering for absent colleagues (unless required to do so in a contract of employment)
  • not rescheduling lectures or classes cancelled due to strike action
  • not undertaking any voluntary activities (for example evening or weekend work, unless specifically stated in a contract of employment).

City's response to the action

What measures will be taken to minimise disruption?

We will be monitoring the situation closely to assess the impact daily. Schools and student-facing and other operational services have developed contingency plans to ensure that any disruption, if it occurs at all, is minimised. We will aim to reschedule any cancelled lectures and other scheduled activities with reasonable notice. We will also endeavour to ensure that we communicate directly with affected students in the case of any unavoidable timetable changes or cancellations.

It is difficult at this stage to predict how many staff will take part in either strike action or action short of a strike. We will be making it clear to staff that both forms of action will result in loss of salary and this may limit the level of engagement in the strike.

Where will the loss of earnings of striking staff go?

In the first instance, the withheld salaries of striking staff will be used to cover the costs of any immediate contingency actions. Any surplus arising out of withheld pay will be contributed to the Student Hardship Fund.

The strike and my teaching

What if my course and lectures are affected?

Our aim is to put in place contingencies to ensure your course continues smoothly. This may include rescheduling affected lectures, teaching activities, class tests or assessments. We will let you know about any delays in feedback or assessment with reasonable notice, so that you can plan ahead. Your Course Office will be in close contact with you throughout the dispute.

Why can’t the University tell me what lectures or other teaching activity will be disrupted?

It is difficult at this stage to predict how many staff will participate in the strike action until it has begun. Staff are not obligated to tell the University or their students that they are taking action. The aim of the strike action is to be as disruptive as possible.

City is taking reasonable steps to establish with its staff the likely impact on the timetable and will be seeking to notify affected students as soon as practicable if lectures or other teaching activity are likely to be cancelled.

Should I now not bother attending lectures or other teaching activity?

No. We would recommend that you attend all your scheduled teaching and any assessments, as normal, unless you have specifically been told otherwise through your Course Office. We will endeavour to give as much notice of any cancellation as possible.

I don’t want to cross a picket line?

Pickets do not prevent people from going to work or study if they want to.

You are expected to attend teaching and any assessments as usual, including to submit any assessments in hard copy, if this is a specific requirement. The University does not plan to repeat teaching, tutorials or related activity that goes ahead normally during the strike action.

If you choose not to submit an assignment required as a hard copy, this may be taken as a non-submission, and you should contact your Course Office.

How can the University reschedule lectures or other teaching activity when there is little, if any, available space?

While we will aim to reschedule lectures or other teaching activity, and with reasonable notice, this may not be practically possible in all cases. UCU is asking its members not to reschedule teaching cancelled due to strike action. However, we will seek to make alternative arrangements, wherever practicable, and you will be advised as soon as possible of those arrangements by your Course Office.

I am a Tier 4 student and I need to ensure my attendance is logged?

You should continue to attend all monitoring points wherever possible. Your visa status will be unaffected by the industrial action. In the event that the industrial action leads to some of your monitoring points being cancelled, your School will put alternative points in place.

Will students be able to make a financial claim where teaching is cancelled?

No. As the present industrial action arises out of circumstances which are beyond City’s reasonable control, City is not contractually obliged to compensate its students where it takes all reasonable steps to minimise the potential disruption to those students.

City remains committed to delivering an educational programme for each student during any period of industrial action and it will seek to ensure that students remain able to complete their programmes of study and graduate as anticipated.

All reasonable attempts will be made to make contingencies for students to continue their studies without detriment to their learning and assessment outcomes which may include rescheduling lectures, agreeing extensions to assessment deadlines, and assessment boards may be given exceptional instructions to ensure students are not disadvantaged or penalised.

The strike and my assessment and feedback

I have an assessment deadline, should I submit?

Yes. Where you have been set coursework, you should work towards submitting this on time, as usual, and work on the assumption that normal penalties will continue to apply to late or non-submission of coursework. This includes deadlines falling on planned strike days.

How will my course be assessed if I have not received the teaching?

Where scheduled teaching time is cancelled, no student will be academically disadvantaged. If for any reason it is not possible for missed teaching to be given, changes will be made to the assessment content in liaison with External Examiners. We recognise that some courses have particular accreditation requirements; these specific issues will be worked through, and your Course Office will advise you. Assessment Boards who make decisions regarding your performance will also be aware of any impact the industrial action has had.

Will coursework be marked and feedback provided on time?

Where staff have taken industrial action there may be cases where feedback is returned later than you expect. However, wherever possible, will continue to meet deadlines for the return of feedback. All delays will be minimised, wherever possible.

I asked for an extension, but have heard nothing?

If you module tutor has not responded to your request for a coursework extension, you should contact your Course Office in writing, including the original request you made to the module tutor. You should submit your work as soon as you are able to do so.

Can I make an application to submit extenuating circumstances for the impact the strike action has had on me?

Where a cancellation of teaching, or delays in returning marks and providing feedback affect your ability to prepare for your next coursework assignment, examination or another form of assessment, the Assessment Board will have the relevant information to enable it to take account of the disruption when determining course results.

There is no need for you to report the disruption through completion of an Extenuating Circumstances form for this specific purpose.

Will the strike affect my examinations this summer?

Disruption is taking place across 60 universities. The initial period of action confirmed by UCU at City runs to 16th March. There is thus no reason at this stage to expect the summer examination period to be disrupted.

As at other universities, we will ensure that students are not academically disadvantaged by the industrial action. More information from the University will obviously be made available when we know.

Will Graduation go ahead in the summer?

Yes. All graduation ceremonies are expected to go ahead on the days as planned.

How can I progress to my next year if I have not completed all teaching content and assessed work?

We will take all available steps to enable those students who are eligible to progress to do so. The initial period of action confirmed by UCU runs to 16th March. Further planning for contingencies on the continuation of the dispute will obviously take place. More detail will provided here.


What if some of my lectures are cancelled?

At this stage, we do not anticipate that any student will face significant disruption to their programme of academic activities. Wherever possible we will reschedule any cancelled activities. Where this is not possible, we will identify other ways to ensure that students are able to continue their studies without detriment to their learning and assessment outcomes. If any student feels that this has not been achieved we will deal with formal complaints through our established complaint processes.

Further information

Where can I find out more about the dispute?

Information about this complex issue is available on the websites of USS, UUK and UCU.