Today, (19 Mar), Universities Minister Sam Gyimah issued a statement on the ongoing dispute between Universities UK (UUK) and the Universities and College Union (UCU) over changes to university staff pension scheme.

Minister Gyimah is clear that a constructive agreement needs to be reached to ensure that students’ education – which is the key priority – is protected. No student’s future prospects should be put at risk because of a disagreement between UUK and UCU, and steps must be taken to minimise any disruption.

It is important to note assessments and exams is a contractual obligation which is not covered by the current UCU strike mandate.

Furthermore, the majority of universities involved in this dispute will have already set assessment titles and exam questions. So, unless there are extreme circumstances, all students should be able to submit assessments and take their exams.

On top of this, universities are able to mitigate against disruption to exams by using non-academic invigilators and non-striking academics from others parts of the university to provide support.

Universities Minister Sam Gyimah said:

Our universities are a prized national asset, with a well-deserved global reputation. They contribute to our society through education, by creating opportunity, through their research, and through the vital civic role they play in communities around the country.

But I remain deeply concerned about the impact on students as a result of the failure to settle the USS pensions dispute. Last week, UUK and UCU negotiators agreed a potential settlement to the dispute in talks facilitated by ACAS, this deal included an independent valuation of the scheme. I was disappointed that the deal was rejected by UCU the next day.

I call on all sides to redouble their efforts to reach a constructive agreement that will protect students’ education. Under the UCU current mandate for strike action – they have no remit to directly disrupt students exams. However, as I have already made clear – no student’s future prospects should be put at risk as a result of this dispute and providers should be taking steps to minimise any disruption or impact on their students’ studies.

While I welcome the efforts that some universities are already taking to do that, I am calling on all universities involved to be crystal clear and set out what action they are taking. The Office for Students also has wide-ranging powers to ensure students interests are protected, and they will be working closely with universities to avoid or minimise disruption to students caused by strike action. But as I have underlined before - in the event that a student’s experience has been seriously affected, I expect universities to offer compensation.

Panel of independent experts to review processes for arriving at pension deficit

Universities UK is announcing yesterday (18 Mar) that it is to establish a panel of independent experts to review the processes behind the valuation that put the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) deficit at £6.1 billion.

The idea of establishing an expert panel was agreed with the University and College Union (UCU) at this week’s ACAS talks to inform future valuations, but is now being introduced immediately to address concerns over the current valuation. UCU will be invited to play a full role in providing evidence to the panel.

The panel will consider issues of methodology, assumptions and monitoring, aiming to promote greater transparency and understanding of the USS valuation. It will have an independent chair, involve academics and pension professionals, and will liaise with both USS and the Pensions Regulator.

The terms of reference and panel composition will be announced shortly, and the panel will be asked to report back as soon as possible.

The establishment of the panel will not impact on the legal requirement for USS to submit a plan to put the scheme on sustainable footing to the Pensions Regulator by 30 June 2018. Furthermore, it won’t prevent both sides reaching a resolution ahead of the summer exam period, during which time UCU is proposing further strike action.

Alistair Jarvis, Chief Executive of Universities UK said:

Concerns have been raised over the way the scheme has been valued, which has led some to question whether there is, in fact, a very large deficit. This panel of independent experts will consider issues of methodology, assumptions and monitoring, aiming to create more transparency and understanding of how the scheme is valued.  I hope it will give assurance that the valuation undertaken by USS has been robust, and boost public confidence in the process.

The Pensions Regulator has imposed a clear, legal deadline for a plan to be in place to tackle the scheme’s financial challenges. We have proposed changes only because they are necessary.

Both sides must work urgently to avoid the dispute impacting on the exam period. In the interests of our students, I hope we can now reach a speedy resolution. Students are caught in the middle of this dispute through no fault of their own.

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