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Q and A: USS Pension Reform Dispute

What is the background to the current industrial action?
The Universities and College Union (UCU) has voted in favour of national industrial action across the higher education sector over reform of the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS).   The USS is a national pension scheme run by Trustees for academic and ‘academic related’ staff.   The trustees include both management (led by Universities UK) and trade union (led by UCU) representatives. The USS is currently showing a significant deficit and the independent Pensions Regulator is expecting the employer and union partners in the USS to work together to reduce it.

What are the proposed changes to the pension scheme?
You can read about the proposals and any updates to the negotiations on the UCL Pensions website.

If discussions are ongoing, why has industrial action already started?
It is UCL’s view that the national discussions create the opportunity for reasonable and sensible dialogue between employers and UCU, without direct conflict or the need for industrial action.  UCL regrets the position being taken by UCU.

What industrial action is UCU taking?
UCU recommenced action short of a strike in the form of a marking and coursework assessment boycott starting on 16 January 2015.  UCU has said the boycott is intended to ‘halt all actions necessary for, or associated with, student learning outcomes and includes a comprehensive boycott of all setting and marking, course work, assignments and therefore includes all student work submitted for assessment. This is not an exhaustive list’ and may escalate such action.

How many members of staff will be taking part in this boycott?

It is not possible to predict exact numbers but the proposed action only involves UCU members. Heads of Department need to ask their staff if they will be participating and to make alternative arrangements for coursework assessment and marking activities.

What effect will the action have on students at UCL? 

We assume only a small number of UCU’s members will want to cause disruption to their students and potentially lose pay for partial performance by taking this national industrial action. Nonetheless, UCU’s move to target students' education is a disappointing one.  Such action could have a very serious impact on our students, including their ability to progress or secure employment, as well as on the institution as a whole.

Can HE institutions pay more to end this industrial action?
No. Universities have agreed as a group that the 9% additional employer contribution required to close the deficit is too high for university business plans to bear. They decided that they can afford an additional employer contribution of 2% to tackle the deficit, combined with a change to the structure of future benefit accrual.

Will HEIs, including UCL, deduct pay from staff for participation in the marking boycott??
UCU members were warned on their ballot papers that taking industrial action might constitute a breach of their contract of employment. Any member of staff who refuses to carry out any of their contractual duties as part of the industrial action will be committing a breach of their contract of employment.  UCL’s position is in accordance with UCL Council's longstanding statement on pay negotiations and dispute resolution.

In line with this statement, we do not accept partial performance and our decision on pay deduction will be informed by the impact of the industrial action on the work of the University, and in particular the impact on students.  We will therefore keep the position under constant review, and reserve the right to decide at any point to start deducting pay from those who take part in industrial action. We reserve the right to deduct up to 100 per cent of pay.
Can UCL legally deduct pay for taking part in a boycott?
UCL is very clear on the well-established legal principle that employers are entitled to reject partial performance and to withhold pay for the full day.  Council’s 2008 statement on partial performance makes it clear that UCL will not accept partial performance of a contract of employment, including partial performance in the form of a part-day strike, and that pay will be deducted as a consequence.  Any industrial action is a breach of contract for which UCL is entitled to withhold 100% of pay for each day on which staff are unwilling to, or do not, perform their full contractual duties for that day.

If I plan to take action, what are my obligations?
We ask staff who intend to take action to inform their line manager or Head of Department beforehand.  The University is also entitled to ask staff if they intend to take action.   If you do not wish to inform UCL beforehand you must tell us as soon as you begin action.

How long will action continue?  What’s the discussion timetable?
The continuation of Industrial Action depends on UCU instructions to its members.

The independent chairman of the JNC has asked that final proposals be settled at the meeting of the JNC on 29 January 2015.  If the Trustees are satisfied that the proposals, in their opinion, address the needs of the scheme, they will ask all employers to undertake a statutory 60 day consultation with members and potential members of the scheme.  If, after consultation, changes are agreed, it is the current view that April 2016 is the earliest likely date of implementation.

Managing action short of a strike

Giving 'reasonable instruction'

Managers are entitled to give reasonable instruction on how and when contractual duties are performed and to set deadlines for the work completed. Managers can instruct which specific tasks are to be prioritised over others. For example, it is permissible to instruct staff who are not taking part in industrial action that they must meet all teaching commitments and prioritise all marking and other teaching related administration over all other duties.  This can override any normal discretion that an academic would have in terms of prioritising their work. 

Someone I supervise is taking action. What do I do?
You cannot ask staff who take action short of a strike, and for whom pay is being deducted to undertake any other work while they are taking action.  You are also not required to instruct them to leave.   You can however insist that they prioritise work not undertaken when the industrial action is withdrawn or the individual decides to withdraw from taking action.

What if the Head of Department is taking action?
If a Head of department intends to take action that leads to their absence, it is their responsibility to ensure that they have notified and delegated responsibility within their area to another competent person.

Can I ask who is taking action short of a strike?
It is permissible for managers to ask who is taking part in any action so that they can monitor any issues or concerns that arise. You must answer truthfully if asked.

Can I ask staff to provide cover or other additional duties?
Where the job role identifies this you can insist on this and prioritise it over other duties. If it is truly voluntary, you cannot insist on this.

What records should Heads of Department keep of the industrial action?
Heads are requested to collate information on those staff in their department who take industrial action.  It is important from an equalities perspective that all managers carry out this task with due diligence and ensure that lists are, to their knowledge, complete.  Further details on the process to be followed will be provided to Heads of Department. 

Further Advice
If you have further questions or concerns please contact your HR Consultant.