THE UNIVERSITY AND College Union (UCU) has announced 14 strike days starting in 22 February across 61 universities across the UK. The strikes are in response to the proposals from the Universities United Kingdom (UUK) group to
reform the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS). The proposed changes would end the ‘defined benefit’ funds which provide a guaranteed income on retirement. Lecturers would be set to lose £10 000 per year or a total of £200 000. Out of 700 UCU members at the University of York, 430 voted on whether to take strike action with 88 per cent in favour.
The strikes are intended to put pressure on UUK to change or negotiate their planned reforms. The UUK is made up of vice-chancellors and principals of universities across England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. The University of York’s Vice-Chancellor Professor Koen Lamberts is a member of UUK, alongside the equivalent authorities at Oxford, Cambridge, and Imperial College London among others, with the UUK hosting 120 members and acts on behalf of 350 USS employers. They face UCU’s 120 000 members, the largest further and higher education union in the world. The proposed changes will not affect already retired teachers nor any benefits already earned under the USS scheme. Should they go through, it would mean that investments change from being guaranteed to a defined contribution scheme, which would be subject to stock market changes.
The University of York will experience strikes starting Thursday 22 February and continuing the next day in week 7. Weeks 8, 9, and 10 will have increasing numbers of strike days, with the entirety of week 10 being scheduled for strikes. The maximum impact is likely to be felt in the first two days, as the teachers need to demonstrate how much the University will suffer without them. The University’s official statement expressed a “deep concern” for the dispute and said they would work with “all parties involved; the USS pension provider, Universities UK (who are representing University employers) and UCU through the next phase of consultation and reform.”
Issues concerning University staff income have been the subject of discussion for months, with the former Universities Minister Jo Johnson saying in September that Vice-Chancellors should earn no more than £150 000 a year – the same as Prime Minister Theresa May – whereas in 2017 the average Vice-Chancellor’s pay was in excess of £275 000 a year.
A University staff member and member of UCU told Nouse: “although the majority of lecturers stand in solidarity over the need to strike due to changes in the pension scheme, there is an increasing likelihood that many will never be able to afford to retire, let alone worry about losing £10 000 each year”.
The UUK Deputy Director and Head of Communications and Campaigns, Michael Thompson, has said that without the reforms “universities will likely be forced to divert funding from research and teaching to fill a pensions funding gap, or if they did not, they would risk the sustainability of USS.” UUK and UCU met over 35 times to discuss the valuations made to do with USS from 2017, with a deadline extended twice for both parties to make a decision. UUK revised its initial proposals and brought forward new ones to the Joint Negotiating Committee in January 2018, but the UCU did not alter its position.
YUSU President Alex Urquhart outlined the Union’s aims to Nouse: “The union is focusing its efforts on lobbying the University and UCU officials to ensure the impact on students’ studies is minimal and holding both sides accountable. We are working to ensure the University put robust contingency plans in place across departments to mitigate any loss in teaching time. I have recorded an interview with the co-President of UCU York and the Vice-Chancellor so students can hear all sides to the debate, and I’m collecting questions and concerns and sending them directly to both leaders so you can hear their answers. Ultimately YUSU is here to represent and support York students’ interests to all those with influence in the debate.”
Concerning the effect on students, he stated that “It is important to remember that the strikes won’t affect everyone. A proportion of the staff are members, a proportion of that number were in favour of industrial action, and a proportion of that number will actually strike. I don’t doubt, however, that a significant number of students will be affected and this will have different impacts depending on your course, year, assessments etc. I urge students to email their departments for information, they are coordinating the response to the strike action. They will have the most up-to-date developments.”
Students’ reactions to the strike have generally been understanding to the reasoning behind them, but frustrated that they are necessary. York student Conrad White has begun a campaign for students to each be refunded £300 for the contact time they will miss due to the strikes. The petition online made national news. Students at King’s College London have taken a more extreme approach, demanding that if the university cannot negotiate, they must “issue a full tuition refund to all students for each day that academics are on strike”. At the time of writing, the York petition has nearly 2000 signatures while the King’s College petition has 1100.
There have been mixed reactions to this, with Urquhart saying: “Though I absolutely agree it is unfair for students to be caught as collateral damage in this dispute, I’m not convinced that a £300 deduction on the eye-watering debt a student will eventually graduate with is the right solution. What it is clear evidence of is that students increasingly view university as a marketed product which, though an inevitable and fair view in the current HE models, is a real shame. The petition both supports the strikes and demands compensation, which perhaps carries contradictory political sentiments. In my opinion, requesting reimbursement, amid a dispute which has stemmed from a deficit in funds – albeit from a different pot – is not the best way to support UCU’s goals, as it perpetuates the toxic, marketized, product-buyer elements of what should be a mutually beneficial and academically enriching relationship between students and their teachers. But sadly, this is a symptom of what the expense of education is doing to students’ relationship with the amazing academics that teach them. Yes, we deserve to get what we are paying for – or should I say will pay for, when we can afford it – and academics deserve to not have the T&Cs of their pension contract changed after they’ve signed the dotted line. The progression of university marketisation and pension disputes of this nature are undeniably linked and, as students, we must commit to our preferred direction, even if it costs us.”
Students should refer to the YUSU website and contact course reps and departments for information regarding their courses, but it appears a vast number of students will be affected by the action.