In March we emailed to thank you for your contributions to the hardship fund of our striking colleagues at The University of Sheffield, who were fighting against the proposed changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) pension fund. Our collection at the branch AGM raised £134.57 and £25 in food vouchers, and the Branch Committee passed an emergency motion to send a further £250. These funds were prioritised to striking UCU members at Sheffield undergoing financial hardship during the dispute – primarily lecturers on ‘casual’ contracts and postgraduate students with teaching responsibilities.

In April we received the following message of thanks from the UCU branch president at Sheffield:

On behalf of Sheffield UCU I would like to express our sincere thanks for your donation to the local strike hardship fund.  Your solidarity is much appreciated and we would want to reciprocate should your branch have a future need.

The dispute ended on 13th April with 64% of the affected members voting to accept an offer from Universities UK. The offer promised the convening of a ‘Joint Expert Panel’ to ‘agree key principles to underpin the future joint approach of UUK and UCU to the valuation of the USS fund’ and to explore alternative scheme designs with a view to preserving the Defined Benefit scheme. For now at least, the proposed move to Defined Contribution has been taken off the table.

However many branches – including Sheffield – are deeply unhappy about the offer negotiated by the UCU Higher Education Committee and Leadership.  The failure to secure a ‘no detriment’ clause, the proposed Joint Expert Panel’s lack of transparency, and what some view as the tacit promotion of the UUK offer by UCU leadership led a number of branches to try and unseat the General Secretary at UCU’s national conference this month. This effort resulted in some fraught scenes and ultimately did not succeed, but controversy around the leadership’s perceived failure of its members is unlikely to go away.

Despite these current difficulties, it is important to recognise what our UCU colleagues have achieved. In what was possibly the biggest ever strike in UK Higher Education, UCU members managed to unite lecturers, support staff and students in opposition to the proposals. Public support remained high throughout the dispute, and – remarkably even the Conservative Universities Minister failed to condemn the action when given the chance.

In the longer term the successful action has showcased the financial viability of shared Defined Benefit schemes, and also hopefully warded off any immediate questions around post-92 universities’ participation in TPS and LGPS. A change in the law is required to remove our right to access these schemes, however calls for ‘fairness’ and parity with USS would undoubtedly have been used against us if the strike had failed. The strike also symbolised for many a strong rejection of the continued marketisation of Higher Education.

The branch extends its best wishes and thanks to our UCU colleagues, for their courageous defence of our employment rights.