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The offer includes the creation

Universities have made fresh proposals to staff in an effort to end strikes set to disrupt the ex
am season next term – including an offer to maintain the pension benefits at the heart of the dispute while discussions continue.

Universities UK, representing employers with staff members belonging to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), has made the improved offer after its previous attempt to end the strike at more than 60 universities was rebuffed by staff earlier this month.

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The offer includes the creation of a joint panel of experts to “agree key principles” for a revised valuation of the pension scheme acceptable to both employers and the University and College Union (UCU).

While the panel is meeting, the agreement “will require maintenance of the status quo in respect of both contributions into USS and current pension benefits, until at least April 2019” – effectively preserving the pension scheme for a year to allow talks to continue.

Sally Hunt, general secretary of UCU, said in a message to union members: “We have worked hard to gain these concessions, but they were won on the back of the strike action that so many of you have taken.

“As always it will be for members to decide whether what has been achieved is sufficient to suspend our strike action.”

UCU said the new offer would be considered by its member branches on Wednesday 28 March.

Universities UK said the proposal for the joint expert panel was made under the auspices of the Acas conciliation service, where talks between the two groups had been taking place.

“Support for this process will need to be sought from the USS trustee and the pensions regulator, recognising their statutory responsibilities. UCU will consult its branches and members on ending industrial action,” UUK said in a statement.

“This would be very good news for our students, who want strike action to stop to prevent further disruption to their studies.”

UCU’s plans are for a further 14 days of strike action until the end of the summer term, which is likely to create difficulties in awarding final exams and could result in some undergraduates being unable to complete their courses.

The expert panel of actuaries and academics will be able to reopen the controversial valuation of the scheme that led to the long-running strike action.

“If, in the light of that, contributions or benefits need to be adjusted in either direction, both parties are committed to agree to recommend … measures aimed at stabilising the fund to provide a guaranteed pension broadly comparable with current arrangements,” the letter from UUK states.

UCU says members could lose £10,000 each year of their retirement under the proposals, while UUK has previously claimed that substantial reforms were necessary because of changes required by the pensions regulator.

The latest UUK letter concedes that the presumption for any settlement should be in favour of defined benefits pensions, offering fixed payments after retirement.

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“The work of the group will reflect the clear wish of staff to have a guaranteed pension comparable with current provision whilst meeting the affordability challenges for all parties, within the current regulatory framework,” the UUK letter states.