Industrial action: information and updates for parents
The Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), a pension scheme for academic and professional staff, has a significant deficit. The University and College Union (UCU), a trade union that represents many of our staff, is in dispute about proposed changes to recover the shortfall and achieve a sustainable scheme for the future. Talks are taking place nationally, on behalf of all universities, to resolve the situation.
On 13 April 2018, UCU members voted to accept the new USS pension proposal put forward after further negotiations with UUK (see the UCU webpages for more information).
We appreciate that the dispute has caused uncertainty and anxiety for many of our students and their families. We are doing everything we can to help remedy this, including a major programme of extra support that includes free sports sessions, exam stress management, study skills workshops and financial assistance. Find out more on the dedicated 'Supporting your studies' webpage.
We have drafted some FAQs (see below) to help answer any queries that you might have, and we will revise these accordingly.
We still hope that ongoing national negotiations will resolve this dispute and we will continue to keep you updated on the suituation.
If you are concerned about any aspect of the industrial action and its possible effects on your son or daughter's studies, please call our industrial action information line on (0117) 394 0618 and leave us a message.
Frequently asked questions
(Please note: we have a separate information page for our current students; if you have questions that are not answered below, have a look at the FAQs for students in case they're answered there.)
What is the strike about?
This strike is about pensions. Bristol is among 61 universities where members of the Universities and Colleges Union (UCU) voted in required numbers in support of strike action or action short of a strike over the proposed changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), a national pension scheme. You can find more information about the proposals on the Universities UK website. For more about the UCU position, see the UCU website.
Where does Bristol stand?
We are one of 61 universities whose members of the national UCU have voted in support of strike action. At Bristol, we have around 7,000 members of staff, of whom a percentage of academic and academic-related staff are members of UCU. Only UCU members can take strike action.
Since the original proposals were put forward, we at Bristol have reconsidered our position on a number of key issues in response to the recent strength of view from our staff, Union colleagues and students about the valuation process and the employer proposal. We have stated that we are prepared to:
- take more risk than we indicated in our submission to the September 2017 valuation consultation;
- make additional contributions to staff pensions, acknowledging that affordability will be a constraint which is exacerbated by the uncertainty surrounding the government's student fees and funding review; and
- continue with defined benefits that will be financially sustainable.
We support the right of our staff to take strike action and make their voices heard. We know that they will not have taken this decision lightly as they are dedicated staff who want to provide the best possible teaching for all their students. We will do all we can to mitigate the impact on students.
Q: Who are the people behind Universities UK (UUK) and the University Superannuation Scheme (USS)?
The Pensions Act 2004 states that the trustees of all pension schemes must consult with employers on various topics relating to their scheme. The rules for the USS scheme state that UUK will represent all employers on any consultations to do with the scheme.
Where does UUK stand?
Please see the UUK website for full details of the pension proposal.
The future of university pensions is a matter of law. The Pensions Regulator has a responsibility to ensure the security of pensions, for the sake of all members. Employers must act in the interests of current and future members, to ensure existing pensions are secure and future pensions sustainable and attractive.
The challenges facing USS are not unique and have been faced by many other defined benefit (DB) schemes.
Talks between Universities UK and UCU began in January 2017 and since then employers have put forward two proposals that secure the sustainability of members' pensions. Neither proposal was deemed acceptable by UCU.
Employers have listened to the concerns that UCU set out on behalf of their members and compromised. Employers have proposed to increase contributions to the scheme to maintain meaningful defined benefits. The proposal jointly developed with UCU negotiators at ACAS would ensure that more than 50% of USS members retain full DB benefits.
Given the concerns about how the scheme has been valued, we will establish an independent, expert group to examine the valuation assumptions which will report back as soon as possible.
Update: on 13 April, UCU members voted to accept proposals which included establishing such a group.
Faced with the prospect of employers and member representatives failing to agree necessary reforms, the USS Trustee Board would have no option but to raise contribution requirements in line with the costs of current benefit accrual, without undue delay. This would mean that USS triggers automatic increases in salary contributions of around 11%, split 65%/35% between employers and staff.
All universities want an urgent, affordable solution to end this dispute which is having a damaging impact on students and staff.
Do all universities support the changes to the pension scheme?
The changes to the scheme proposed by Universities UK (UUK) were developed through extensive engagement with over 350 Universities Superannuation Scheme employers that it represents. In addition, UUK held a survey of all employers in September 2017 that received responses from 116 institutions (representing 92% of USS’s active membership).
A vast majority of employers want a solution that prevents employer contributions exceeding 18%, and support benefit reform to ensure that the scheme remains affordable and sustainable. In terms of the shape of this reform, a majority of employers prefer moving to defined contribution benefits at this valuation. The proposal also includes the possible reintroduction of defined benefits if scheme funding improves at future valuations.
Why can’t the University use its own funds to fill the pension gap?
We are one of 350 organisations that are part of the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), so any changes would need to be agreed by USS and the Pensions Regulator. For Bristol, every 1% additional contribution to the scheme would represent around £1.5m less to invest in our academic activities, pastoral care and infrastructure.
Strike action: what and when
When are the strike days?
The initial series of strikes ended on 16 March 2018. If further strikes are announced, we will update this section. Please note that 'action short of a strike' is set to continue until no later than 19 June 2018.
What is 'action short of a strike'?
Action short of a strike (ASOS) includes the University and College Union (UCU) members working to contract, not undertaking voluntary duties, not covering for absent colleagues and not rescheduling lectures or classes cancelled due to strike action. We have asked staff who are working to contract in this way to prioritise student wellbeing support activities (including personal tutoring) and the preparation and delivery of teaching, coursework assessment, marking and feedback activities.
When is 'action short of a strike' taking place?
Continuous 'action short of a strike' began on 22 February and will end no later than 19 June 2018.
Will all staff be on strike?
No. At Bristol we have around 7,000 members of staff, of whom a percentage of academic and academic-related staff are members of UCU. Only UCU members can take strike action.
Will the strike affect my son or daughter's lectures, seminars or tutorials?
Since a percentage of our staff are UCU members, including many academic staff, some teaching, but not all, will be affected by the industrial action. We will keep our students informed via their University email address. We have advised them to attend teaching as normal unless they are advised otherwise.
Will the University be shut?
No. We will be open. This includes the Libraries and Study Centres, but if any closures are possible as the strikes continue we will let students know directly.
Will Student Services operate as usual?
Some Student Services staff may be members of UCU but we anticipate that all services will remain open. If individual appointments have to be cancelled we will make every effort to let the affected students know in advance.
- Text of the Vice-Chancellor's email to all students (PDF, 71kB) on the UCU ballot outcome, 13 April
- Joint statement by the Vice-Chancellor and the Bristol UCU, 15 March 2018 (PDF, 60kB)
- Letter from the Vice-Chancellor to UUK, 9 March 2018 (PDF, 25kB)
The USS pension proposals
You can find more information about the USS proposals and the potential impact on pensions on the UUK website.
Tuition fees and finance
Will my son/daughter be compensated for any lectures, seminars or tutorials that don’t take place?
No. We do not plan to provide financial reimbursement for any specific missed teaching sessions due to industrial action. Tuition fees relate to education as a whole, including other services and facilities that students receive, and not individual teaching sessions. This is outlined in section 9 of our Student Agreement.
How might industrial action affect studies?
How will my son/daughter know if their teaching is happening?
We will endeavour to them as soon as possible of any cancelled teaching, but staff will not always inform us in advance that they are taking strike action, so there may be occasions when we are not able to provide advance notification of cancellations. This is a feature of strike activity. We are asking our students to keep checking their University of Bristol email account for updates.
If lectures, seminars or tutorials are cancelled will they be rescheduled?
It is possible that some teaching can be rescheduled, but we cannot guarantee that this will occur as we cannot require staff taking industrial action to complete work that they have missed due to a strike day.
If lectures or tutorials are cancelled how can my son/daughter prepare properly for exams or other assessments?
We will be doing all we can to reduce the impact of the industrial action on their studies. We have asked all our students to continue with their own studies and look out for communications from their school about any alternative arrangements that will support their learning and assessment.
How are you making up for lost teaching time?
We have an agreement with UCU that we will not be asking UCU members to make up for lost teaching time, although we appreciate that some may choose to do so to support their students. Students will not be assessed on material that has not been taught due to the strike. It is our responsibility to establish alternative means to assess the learning that is essential for programmes of study including professional programmes.
Will the strike action count as extenuating circumstances?
No. If any courses are affected by strike action we will address this on a unit-by-unit basis, not via individual extenuating circumstances claims.
Will my son's/daughter's PhD or research degree viva be affected?
If they have a viva that is scheduled for a strike day we will aim to email them on an individual basis to let them know whether the viva will be taking place. We have asked our postgraduate students to assume that their viva will go ahead unless they hear otherwise.
My son/daughter is an international student with a Tier 4 visa. Will the strike affect their attendance record or visa?
The industrial action should not affect their Tier 4 visa. We have advised international students that, unless they are told that a specific class or contact point has been cancelled, they should attend as normal, and normal processes for attendance monitoring will apply to classes which are not cancelled. Any classes or contact points which are cancelled as the result of industrial action will be recorded as an authorised absence with a note to say that this is due to industrial action.
We hope this reassures you, but if you have any further concerns about the industrial action and the impact on your son or daughter's visa, please do contact our International Student Visa Advisers through our visas website.