University bosses say they could reverse changes to lecturers’ pensions if economic conditions improve.
As strike action continues for a second day at 57 universities, the employers’ group, Universities UK, has written to pension scheme members offering to explore alternative ideas.
The University and College Union (UCU) says current plans will leave a typical lecturer £10,000 a year worse off.
Almost 90,000 students have now signed petitions asking for fee refunds.
Under the existing plans, the Universities Superannuation Scheme will change from a defined benefit scheme, giving members a guaranteed income in retirement, to a defined contribution scheme, where pensions are subject to changes in the stock market.
The employers say changes to the pension are needed because the scheme has a deficit of more than £6bn, but the union disputes the figure, saying the evaluation method used was “recklessly prudent”.
However, in an open letter to scheme members, UUK suggests the change might not need to be permanent.
“We wanted to make it clear that we have never refused to continue to try to find an affordable, mutually acceptable solution,” says the letter, signed by Prof Dame Janet Beer, UUK’s president, along with its chief executive, Alistair Jarvis.
“We are open to changing the scheme again to reintroduce defined benefits if economic and funding conditions improve,” it continues.
The letter invites members of the scheme to put forward “any proposals you feel may not have been sufficiently considered”.
The letter was sent as university vice-chancellors held their regularly quarterly meeting, but a spokesman said there would be no new statement on the issue of pensions afterwards.
In response to the letter, Sally Hunt, UCU general secretary, said: “Universities UK needs to stop sending out mixed messages on whether it wants to talk or not.
“We hope the sensible voices at this morning’s strike summit will give their negotiators a clear mandate to go back to the table and get this mess sorted out.
“If they want to talk to us without preconditions, as the universities minister has suggested, then let’s do it today. The sector is suffering from a serious image problem at the moment and staff and students deserve much better from their leaders than spin and subterfuge.”
In the first wave of a month-long programme of strikes, lecturers walked out at 57 universities on Thursday and Friday.
They will be joined by staff at four more institutions on a three-day strike, starting on Monday.
In weeks three and four of the action, staff will be on strike at a total of 64 universities.
Students have joined picket lines and tens of thousands off them have signed petitions across a total of 33 universities, with many supportive of the strikes, asking for compensation for lost teaching.