Dundee University could see further strikes over scheme closure plans

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The University of Dundee has seen five days of strike action by support staff over the proposed closure of its career average scheme. Negotiations are expected to resume, but unions are not ruling out further walkouts. Scotland’s first minister has called on the parties to get back around the table and minimise disruption to education.  

Members of Unison and of the University and College Union walked out for five days between 29 September and 5 October over the university’s plans to replace the CARE scheme with a defined contribution arrangement next year, and Unite has also finished balloting its members, receiving a mandate for future strike action.

mallowstreet understands that talks between the employer and unions are set to resume on the back of the walkout, but all three unions are considering further strikes if the university does not abandon its plans to close the CARE scheme. 

'We are preparing further industrial action'

 
In March 2021, the University of Dundee began a consultation about replacing the current scheme with a defined contribution arrangement. The move would affect about 900 members who make up the university’s support staff.  
 
The recent strike could however prompt the university to improve its current offer. Unison regional organiser Lorcan Mullen said the university has indicated that it will be responding with some type of offer this week.  
 
“The principal appeared at an angry, very well-attended picket line on Monday morning, this is when he signalled a new approach," said Mullen, adding: “We will have a close look at what the principal offers after the undertakings he gave to the picket line and representatives on Monday.” 
 
He said the union would consult its members on any substantive new offer but in the meantime, “we are preparing further industrial action” in case there is no resolution.  
 
Sister union Unite said it has repeatedly asked for other pension options to be considered, including the actuarial valuation to be rerun, as it was carried out as at the start of the pandemic. While the university did not agree to updating the valuation, it agreed to extend the consultation period until 14 November. 
 
Referring to the fact that higher paid staff, mainly academics, will continue to accrue defined benefits in the nationwide Universities Superannuation Scheme, Susan Robertson, Unite industrial officer, said: “The University of Dundee prides itself on its slogan, ‘One University, One Dundee’. How much further from the truth could this slogan be?" 
 

Sturgeon urges parties to find solution and minimise disruption 

 
The matter was even raised in the Scottish parliament in mid-September, as the university receives government funding. At the time, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon responded: “I would strongly encourage [the university] to get around the table with unions and with workers in order to find solutions that do not penalise staff in the ways that have been set out but also ensure that there isn’t disruption to education. So I will unequivocally call on our universities and trade unions to get around the table and find solutions.” 
 
Robertson pointed to the first minister’s remarks and added: “The question for the University of Dundee is: are you even listening?” 
 

Unions highlight equality impact 

 
Unite has raised equality concerns, estimating that about 70% of its members in the CARE scheme are women, and pointed to the public sector equality duty.  
 
Unison has similarly highlighted that most of the affected staff are female. Regional organiser Mo Dickson said the university “continues to insist that its lowest-paid, mainly women workers take on all future pension risks and pay for a situation not of their making”. 
 
Dickson added: “We are calling on the university to ditch this proposal and start discussing a fair solution.” 
 

Employer has offered higher contributions 

 
A spokesperson for the University of Dundee said the pension scheme has a significant deficit according to the latest valuation, at around £55m, and “remains high risk and unaffordable to the University as the employer”. 
 
The university carried out an equality impact assessment and found that most of those affected are women, but still concluded that the closure was acceptable. It argued that “the potential disproportionate impact on some groups... are as a result of wider issues such as gender segregation and not in the design of the proposed scheme per se” and that this would still be the case if the additional proposals were implemented.   
 
The university’s initial proposal in March was improved in late July after negotiations. The new offer included increased employer contributions, a delayed implementation date of any changes, improved death-in-service benefits and measures to ensure those on the lowest wages receive greater benefits. 
 
“In the revised proposal the cost to the university will increase because we have to fix the funding gap in UODSS to secure pension benefits already accrued, in addition to supporting the new scheme,” the spokesperson said. 
  
The university is due to pay an extra £40m into the scheme over the next 10 years to help plug the deficit.  
 
Addressing the unions’ criticism that academics will continue to accrue defined benefits in USS, the spokesperson said: “The proposals would mean we will be paying more into pensions for everyone currently in UODSS and at a higher percentage of salary than we are paying per member into the national Universities Superannuation Scheme.” The spokesperson added that changes have also been proposed for USS, “due to similar issues of unaffordability for both employers and employees”. 
  
The consultation period over the Dundee University scheme closure continue until 14 November. “We remain very much keen and open to discussion with the campus unions on proposals for the scheme and we have called for them to return to negotiation,” the spokesperson added. 
 
Other universities have also been making changes to their schemes for support staff. Earlier this year, the pension scheme for the University of London, SAUL, proposed to introduce a ‘feeder’ scheme for new joiners, whereby the first three years of membership are in a DC scheme before moving to CARE. The University of Oxford proposed to close its CARE scheme in 2018. 

Some experts believe the university sector suffers from a lack of monitoring of scheme funding in between valuations, which leads to larger deficits that can come as a shock to employers.
 
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