The union representing tens of thousands of staff at UK universities has warned of “chaos” on campuses after plans were unveiled to replace their guaranteed pension benefits with riskier retirement plans.

The University and College Union (UCU), the trade union for higher education staff, is to begin balloting its 40,000 members in late November, a move which it said could lead to “chaos” at campuses as staff walk out.

The move was triggered by proposals unveiled on Friday by Universities UK, which represents 350 university employers, to stop offering staff traditional ‘defined benefit’ pensions, which offer a certainty of income in retirement.

Instead, the UUK is proposing to shift staff into riskier, less generous pension plans, to address the DB scheme’s deficit and deal with the “rising cost of future pensions”.

But the UUC has said a defined contribution scheme could lead to a final pension “worth only around 20 per cent” of that in the best defined benefit schemes.

The union will ask members to back industrial action aimed at a “substantial disruption” of around 50 of the largest and most well-known universities in the UK including Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial and Manchester.

The action will include a series of strikes during February, as well as other measures such as refusing to cover or reschedule classes, or cover for sick colleagues.

“After months of negotiations these plans are a bolt from the blue and would effectively destroy the USS scheme,” said Sally Hunt, general secretary of the UCU.

“It is categorically the worst proposal I have received from universities on any issue in 20 years of representing university staff.”

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