Cambridge University warns it could pull out of pension scheme
Vice-chancellor Professor Stephen Toope said the current situation could not go on.
Cambridge University has warned it could pull out of the pensions scheme at the centre of a bitter industrial dispute if a resolution could not be found.
Vice-chancellor Professor Stephen Toope, said that the institution may have to consider the possibility of its own specific pension scheme “if all else fails”.
Members of the University and College Union are part way through 14 days of walkouts, taking place over four weeks, in protest at changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS).
In a statement published on the university’s website, Prof Toope said that the current situation cannot go on, and has led to “anger from staff and anxiety from students”.
The current situation cannot go on. It has, understandably, led to anger from staff and anxiety from students Cambridge University vice-chancellor Prof Stephen Toope
He urged UCU and Universities UK, which represents employers, to agree a solution and end the dispute.
The two parties have agreed to hold fresh talks at the conciliation service Acas.
The row centres on proposals that would change the USS from a “defined benefit” scheme, which gives workers a guaranteed income in their retirement, to a purely “defined contribution” scheme, in which pensions are subject to fluctuations in the stock market.
UUK maintains that the pension scheme has a deficit of more than £6 billion that cannot be ignored, while UCU argues that the current proposals would leave a typical lecturer almost £10,000 a year worse off in retirement.
In his statement, Prof Toope said: “If all else fails and no sector-wide scheme is deliverable, Cambridge will have to consider whether there is scope for a Cambridge-specific scheme – either within or outside the USS.
“We must recognise, however, that there are serious obstacles to such an approach.
“Cambridge University is also prepared to consider assuming the costs of additional contributions in the short-term should no other option be viable.
“It should be noted, however, that this approach would likely require trade-offs and cuts in other parts of the university.”
The Cambridge boss said he recognised that UUK has “limited room for manoeuvre” and that the university’s influence over the situation was limited.
But he added that there needed to be compromise and hoped that further disruption to students’ studies could be avoided by talks continuing.
“The current situation cannot go on,” Prof Toope said.
“It has, understandably, led to anger from staff and anxiety from students. I therefore urge the parties to agree a pragmatic solution to bring to an end the current dispute.
“Once this has been achieved we can focus on a long-term, sustainable solution which is in the best interests of the sector, the university and individual members of the USS.”
Prof Toope noted that pensions were a key part of Cambridge staff’s pay packages and the institution had been working on options and discussing these with UUK.
He also said he believed a sector-wide scheme had “significant benefits”.
UCU general secretary Sally Hunt said: “Professor Toope is right to say things cannot go on as they are.
“We would argue they never should have been allowed to get this far in the first place.
“It is important we all move forward to Monday’s talks looking to resolve this dispute.
“We are pleased Professor Toope has suggested we explore the ideas UCU put forward to resolve the dispute, and hope the people negotiating on behalf of the universities will listen to his words and his other suggestions on the future of USS.”
A UUK spokesman said: “The employers’ proposals for reform are built on a mandate, recognising the majority view of employers following surveys, town hall meetings and extensive professional advice to build a viable proposal to address the scheme’s funding challenges.
“The collective position of employers is that university pensions must be affordable, sustainable, and continue to offer a meaningful benefit to staff.”
He added: “In the interest of students, we have asked UCU to stop the industrial action while talks continue to find an alternative, viable and affordable solution.”