What is DUPS?

The Durham University Pension Scheme (DUPS) is a pension scheme that current employees on grades 1–5 are eligible to join. It’s a defined benefit pension scheme, meaning that it guarantees a certain amount of income – and, as such, greater financial security – for members in retirement.

What are University management doing with DUPS?

Management have announced that they intend to close DUPS to members of staff on grades 1–5 who join the University from 1 November 2024. They have done this by highlighting the launch of a proposed new scheme (the Durham University Retirement Savings Plan, or DURSP) and presenting it as a replacement for DUPS. DURSP is an enhanced version of the existing Aviva scheme, and while it is better than the current Aviva scheme, it is still a defined contributions scheme, meaning that the value of the scheme is dependent on any investments associated with it, and that there is greater financial insecurity for members. Moreover, DURSP would almost certainly have lower employer contributions than DUPS. The ‘Your Pension Options Guide’ document on the University website makes clear that DUPS, as a defined benefit scheme with higher employer contributions, offers more financial security than defined contribution schemes.

We believe that all staff, on all grades, should have access to a defined benefit pension scheme.

Why does this matter to current staff?

Our future colleagues deserve the same security in retirement as colleagues in DUPS have now, with a defined benefits pension. We don’t want to create a two tier workforce. Colleagues in grades 1–5 are already underpaid for their work, this proposal is now threatening their right to a decent retirement.

While it is true that there are currently no plans to close DUPS for current employees, closing a scheme to new members puts its future viability at risk, because as current members of the scheme retire or leave the University there will be fewer members contributing to the scheme.

Some of our members may also be directly affected by management’s plans if they are currently on casual contracts (which are not eligible for DUPS) and move to employment contracts after the change is implemented.

We also believe that it sets an extremely worrying precedent, in that the removal of one defined benefit scheme will make it harder to justify the continuation of other defined benefit schemes such as USS for colleagues above grade 6. Colleagues across the University and the sector took industrial action for years to defend this scheme; we are willing to do the same when the changes will affect some of the most essential and lowest-paid workers within the University.

What is the local claim, and what issues are part of it?

At the end of the marking and assessment boycott (MAB) last year, the branch (with limited leverage at that point due to the imminent end of the MAB) accepted the Phase 1 package of measures that included some significant wins: the University committing to becoming a real living wage accredited employer, enhanced support for immigration expenses, all assistant professors on two of three academic tracks (Research & Education + Education) starting on grade 8, and a commitment to career development for PSS staff through the ‘Durham Professional’ initiative. At the same time, the branch submitted a local claim demanding further progress on a variety of issues that affect us all. The Vice-Chancellor said when agreeing the Phase 1 package, “this is an important first step in a phased programme of work. We … commit to further negotiations on issues of local importance identified by the trade unions. This will include the issues raised in a local claim submitted by DUCU.” Your branch committee later shortened our local claim in a priority list at management’s request. However, management now refuses to engage your branch negotiators on the vast majority of these issues, stating that they only intend to review the local pay scale, and that if they do that, they will not be able to afford any further changes.

Some of the issues on the local claim are directly related to the MAB, such as ensuring pay deductions as a result of that action are returned to staff members. However, it is far more wide-ranging than that: improving job grading, moving staff to higher grades, the conditions of research staff, hourly-paid and casualised staff, issues of promotion and career development for professional services staff, rights for migrant workers, fair workloads for all staff, and university democracy are all crucial parts of the claim.

Can Durham University afford to make progress on our claim?

Durham University senior management has made choices of where they think money should be spent. The proposed changes to DUPS will increase how much the University spends in the short term. Durham University also bought the Waterside building for £84m from Durham City Council (2x the cost of the new Maths and Computer Science building that was built from scratch), when it cost the Council £51m. Their choices are reflected in the graphs with which they present the staff costs as a percentage of income: ‘lower is better’!

Screenshot of Durham University Financial Sustainability Indicators showing Staff Costs as % Income by Year, captioned 'Lower is better' with a big ol' downward arrow.

In recent weeks’ Vice-Chancellor forum events, the interim Chief Financial Officer (CFO) shared financial projections showing that staff costs as a percentage of income have increased to 55.9% for 2023-24, but that they intend to reduce it back down to approximately their ‘lower is better’ 53% target by 2026-27. This deprioritising of staff is an active decision that creates the financial constraints they use as a reason to renege on last year’s commitment to negotiate on our claim. The CFO’s financial information also shows that a projected small loss in 2024 is much smaller than surpluses 2018-2022, and that a larger projected loss in 2023 was averted.

It is also worth noting that some of the working conditions issues raised in our claim are not financially onerous for the university.

Does this mean we’re going on strike?

No – or at least, not yet. This ballot is to determine whether you would be willing to move to a subsequent ballot on industrial action. Before any ballot on industrial action happens, there are formal stages of dispute resolution which will involve us negotiating with management. Knowing that our members are willing to take action over these issues strengthens our position significantly when it comes to these negotiations.

Why is it important to vote before 11 June?

While the ballot will remain open beyond that date, 11 June is when the University Executive Committee meets to finalise their decision on closing access to DUPS for new starters. Therefore, we need as much support and as many votes as possible between now and then to try and prevent them from taking this decision. An early vote also strengthens the hand of our negotiators in the two stages of negotiations of the dispute resolution procedure that have to precede any industrial action.