Strike action planned by university workers over the exam season has been suspended following a breakthrough in pension negotiations.
Wales Online reported “In a record turnout for a national ballot, University College Union members voted by two to one to accept proposals aimed at resolving the pensions dispute at the heart of the biggest industrial action ever to hit UK universities.
A second wave of walkouts due to begin next week and to continue into May and June have now been suspended.
However, the UCU said that, while all planned strike action is suspended, it will keep its strike mandate live as a precaution.
Work at 65 institutions, including four in Wales, was stopped by 14 days of staff walk outs late last term, prompting petitions from tens of thousands of students here and around the UK demanding payment for tuition not delivered to be refunded.
Staff at four universities in Wales walked out. They were Cardiff, Bangor, Aberystwyth and the University of Wales Trinity St David.
Cardiff Metropolitan University and the University of South Wales have a different pension system and were not involved in the dispute and the Swansea UCU branch did not get enough support to strike.
The dispute was sparked by proposals from UUK to remove the guaranteed “defined benefit” pension for members of the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) which the UCU said would leave typical members £10,000 a year worse off in retirement.
On Friday, UCU members and employers’ organisation Universities UK agreed to set up joint expert panel to review the pension valuation at the centre of the row.
In a 63.5% turnout 64% of UCU members voted to accept the offer and 36% to reject.
The agreement means a joint expert panel will now be set up to re-examine the USS valuation and make recommendations.
Universities and UCU members in Wales responded with a cautious welcome.
Cardiff University Vice-Chancellor, Professor Colin Riordan said: “This gives students important reassurance that they won’t be affected by further disruption during their summer study and exam period.
“Whilst this is not a final agreement and there is still some way to go, I am more confident than I have been for some time that a long-term solution can been found.
“There can be no doubt that the last few months have been extremely difficult and challenging for staff and students alike.
“I am hopeful that now that there is much greater understanding on the employers’ part of how colleagues feel, and generally more understanding of the issues surrounding pension schemes in the UK, we will be able to work together on an approach that is sustainable and future-proof.”
An Aberystwyth University spokeswoman said: “Our hope is that the discussions over the coming weeks will lead to a fair, affordable and sustainable solution for all. “Students returning from their Easter break on Monday 16 April will be able to follow their timetable as usual, in the knowledge that their studies won’t be affected by industrial action over the May-June exam period.”
Cardiff University UCU branch spokesman Andy Williams warned members would be watching UUK carefully throughout the panel process.
“This is a big victory. There was no chance we would have got a joint expert panel to re-evaluate unless we had taken strike action,” he said.
“We are really optimistic we have got a good deal which would not have been possible without the strike. We would never have got this deal if we had not taken such strong, united action.
“But the large number voting against shows there is still scepticism and mistrust and there is no way they can foist a sub standard deal on us. They will be watched closely.”
The UCU and UUK will now jointly present the plans for the expert panel to the USS Board and the Pensions Regulator. The union said it expected the agreement between the fund’s two key stakeholders to be welcomed. However, it said that, while all planned strike action is suspended, it will keep its strike mandate live as a precaution until this has process taken place.
UCU general secretary Sally Hunt said: “The union has come a very long way since January when it seemed that the employers’ proposals for a defined contribution pension were to be imposed.
“Now we have agreement to move forward jointly, looking again at the USS valuation alongside a commitment from the employers to a guaranteed, defined benefit scheme. USS, the regulator and government now need to ensure that UCU and UUK have the space to implement the agreement effectively.
“We hope this important agreement will hearten workers across the UK fighting to defend their pension rights and was won through the amazing strike action of UCU members.”
A UUK spokesman said: ““Reviewing the methodology and assumptions in the current valuation will build confidence, trust and increase transparency in the valuation process.
“Working in partnership with UCU, we will now appoint a jointly agreed chair for the panel as soon as possible.”
He added that current pension benefits are guaranteed until April 1 2019, so the panel needs to conclude its work in time for that date” here.