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University strikes: Kent vice-chancellor signs joint letter with unions calling for fresh pension talks

By Chris Price

University bosses have joined forces with striking lecturers in a bid to reshape plans to change pensions which have caused weeks of industrial action.

Many professors are entering a fourth week of walkouts in protest at proposals to alter their USS pension scheme, which unions say will leave academics and administrators almost £10,000 a year out of pocket.

Kent is one of 65 universities which is taking strike action over the changes, due to come into force after April 2019.

The walkouts began with five days of strikes on Thursday, February 22
The walkouts began with five days of strikes on Thursday, February 22

Now, bosses have increased pressure on pension administrators in a joint statement signed by vice-chancellor Prof Karen Cox, University and College Union (UCU) Kent president Sian Lewis-Antony and Kent Union president Ruth Wilkinson, which represents students.

The trio called for "all parties to this dispute to work together to arrive at an agreed solution in a timely manner".

They said pension administrator USS had not had "sufficient discussion of the nature of the risks inherent in the scheme" with the universities and the UCU.

They acknowledged a review of the scheme might mean increased payments for employers and staff but said failure to address the problem would "threaten the entire higher education sector".

The walkouts began with five days of strikes on Thursday, February 22
The walkouts began with five days of strikes on Thursday, February 22

The statement said: "Staff recruitment, retention, and trust will be undermined significantly; and motivation and goodwill among existing staff will be diminished and lead to a decrease in engagement.

"In turn, students will suffer from reduced access to the best and most dedicated professionals, and the UK will suffer from diminished research innovation.

"Ultimately, if we do not resolve this crisis, there is a real danger of a long-term contraction of the sector, and the loss of the reputation and standing of UK higher education globally with the resulting loss in jobs and national standing."

USS claims the pension scheme has a funding deficit of £6.1 billion, which it describes as "a prudent estimate", meaning it is 91% funded.

University of Kent vice-chancellor Karen Cox
University of Kent vice-chancellor Karen Cox

The letter by Ms Cox, Lewis-Anthony and Wilkinson is in stark contrast to relations between their organisations at the start of the strikes, when the university was accused of bullying as it threatened “to withhold 100%” of lecturers’ pay if they took part in strikes.

They added: "Alongside the immediate need for a fresh look at the options, we need to consider more widely the future governance and rules of the USS scheme in order that we do not arrive at this position again.

"We wish to offer members the best retirement benefits possible based upon a properly informed discussion on risks and other assumptions, to achieve the best scheme possible within the parameters of sustainability.

"We seek an outcome that reflects Kent’s core values of fairness, equality, collaboration and respect and that will continue to make a career in higher education an attractive choice for both current staff and those just beginning their working lives."

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