Thousands of hourly-paid part-time lecturers and teachers stand to gain from a relaxation of superannuation regulations that took effect last week.
Previously, hourly-paid teaching staff were not entitled to an occupational pension even though they might work 1,000 hours or more a year. From May 1, however, they have been able to opt into the Teachers' Superannuation Scheme, a right that has only been enjoyed by part-timers whose pay is based on an annual salary.
Part-time schoolteachers invariably have their pay based on salary but most of the 120,000 part-time lecturers in higher and further education, some home tutors, and teachers employed by organisations such as the Sports Council are hourly-paid.
The new ruling stems from last September's European Court of Justice judgment that all part-time workers should have equal access to pension schemes. In the court's view, to exclude part-timers from superannuation schemes would be tantamount to sexual discrimination as most part-timers are women.
Granting pension rights to hourly-paid staff could prove expensive for universities and colleges as the employer's contribution equates to 8.05 per cent of the teacher's salary (the employee pays 6 per cent) and the Government does not appear ready to underwrite this extra cost. The Open University will find the new regulation particularly expensive as it employs 8,000 part-time lecturers.
The employers are, however, much more concerned about the costs that will be incurred if hourly-paid part-timers are allowed to backdate their pensions to 1976, an option that is potentially open to them under European law.
The teachers' unions are expecting a statement on backdating from the Government within the next two to three weeks.
The Pensions Bill passing through Parliament would allow for two years' retrospection, but the unions are hoping that this can be improved on.
If the Government were to permit backdating to 1976 many universities and colleges could face bills of more than Pounds 1 million. But they may end up paying much less, irrespective of the length of the backdating - which may eventually have to be decided by the courts - because relatively few lecturers have lodged retrospective claims.
Joan Gordon, a pensions specialist who works for the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education, said this week that only 1,500 of the union's members were pursuing claims through industrial tribunals. "A great many people have not put in applications," she said. "It is worrying because many of our members, particularly single parents, are on a low income, having been forced to work part-time. Now they face the prospect of retirement without a pension.
"One of the reasons for the lack of claims is that although some part-timers keep piles and piles of pay slips and contracts many others, inevitably, don't have any documents relating to past years. It is also true that some people can't afford to lodge claims because they would have to contribute 6 per cent of whatever their salary was in those earlier years. It would help, however, if they didn't have to make one lump-sum payment but could pay it off over a period of time. We hope that will happen."
Another possible obstacle is that many potential claimants have bought personal pensions. If these lecturers now seek backdated contributions to the occupational scheme they could risk losing past tax relief on their personal pension.
Joyce Harris, 37, a part-time lecturer in community care at Gateshead College and a regional support officer for NATFHE, is one of those who have been balked by the cost of backdating. She no longer has a personal pension, having been forced to stop the payments a year ago when her husband lost his job. But she does not envisage lodging a claim.
She says: "I worked as a part-time lecturer for two years about 15 years ago, went into youth work and then returned to lecturing two-and-a-half years ago. But even with my broken service I worked out that claiming a backdated pension would cost me more than Pounds 1,000. I'm afraid we can't afford that.
"I will, however, certainly consider joining the Teachers' Superannuation Scheme because it's obviously an excellent deal. If I suffered from ill-health, for example, it might allow me to retire early. I was in a car crash last year and it was a reminder that anything can happen."
o Hourly-paid part-timers can obtain TSS application forms from their employers. Further information is available from the Teachers' Pension Agency (tel. 01325 392361).