Breaking: Lancaster University staff vote to strike

"The ballot result, which was released on Monday the 22nd of January, indicates that support for the strike was at 88.9%, with 73.4% of eligible voters turning out to vote."

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A graphic produced by the UWU in protest of the reforms

Members of the University and College Union have voted yes to industrial action, which will take place within the next four weeks in accordance with the law. The vote was in response to plans to change the pensions scheme for university staff to one that was branded “risky” by the union.

The ballot result, which was released on Monday the 22nd of January, indicates that support for the strike was at 88.9%, with 73.4% of eligible voters turning out to vote.

UCU general secretary Sally Hunt had previously described the pension reforms as a “bolt from the blue”, and threatened “disruption on campus of a kind never seen before”.

“(The proposals) would effectively destroy the USS scheme. It is categorically the worst proposal I have received from universities on any issue in 20 years of representing university staff.

The USS scheme (Universities Superannuation Scheme) describes itself as one of the largest private pension schemes for British Universities. The current system depends on employee contributions, while the new scheme is dependent on the success of USS investments.

USS cuts since 2011 have left university staff pensions on a lower level than that of school teachers, and lower than those of the academic staff in non-USS universities. The new pensions scheme could cut pensions by up to 40%, as they would depend solely on stock market performance rather than the guaranteed income that the current system provides.

The USS faces severe funding shortages under the current system, with the projected cost of the pensions scheme having risen by almost a third since 2014. Alistair Jarvis, chief executive of Universities UK (who represent more than 350 higher education employers in the scheme), has previously described a failure to reform the pensions scheme as “a dangerous gamble.”

“The costs of USS need to be controlled to ensure the scheme remains sustainable and secure for the long-term.  Change is needed to address the scheme’s deficit and the rising cost of future pensions. Our proposals for reform will tackle the scheme’s funding challenges so that universities can continue to offer attractive pensions benefits to staff.”

“Most universities can’t afford to pay more into pensions without diverting money from other central areas, such as teaching or research, reducing their positive impact. Increasing contributions could damage the high standards that students, research funders and others rightly expect.  It could even undermine the sustainability of some institutions.”

In response, Lancaster University released the following statement:

“Lancaster University continues to support and act to influence, where possible, the negotiations that are taking place at a national level between Universities UK and UCU. The University’s position is that the best outcome would be for a negotiated resolution that maintains USS as an attractive, sustainable and affordable pension scheme.

The concerns of colleagues about the future of USS are shared by the leadership of the University, who are also committed to ensuring that any impact from industrial action on our students is minimised.   Student welfare and academic progress remain the university’s top priorities.

The next meeting of the national Joint Negotiating Committee will take place on Tuesday 23 January, where proposals from both Universities UK and UCU are under consideration. We will update students, as soon as possible, after the outcome of this meeting is known”

An email sent to UCU members one week before the vote, seen by SCAN, urged them to vote yes in what they described as “the last chance to save the USS”. It also highlighted the importance of a 50% turnout, which is essential for the industrial action to be legally carried out.

A parliamentary motion on “Defending academic pensions” has been timetabled in the house of commons. The bill has been signed by a cross party group of 57 MPs, and would force the government to intervene in the dispute if passed

The last large-scale industrial action at Lancaster University took place in 2016, following a dispute over pay and working conditions. That strike was timed to coincide with university open days in order to maximise the impact, with union members forming picket lines at Alexandra Square and the Sports centre.

UCU said the first strikes would most likely start with a two-day walkout on 22 and 23 February. The action would then escalate to three-day, four-day and five-day walkouts in future weeks.