STRIKE!

by James Gilmour, Sarah Jane Callender and Michael Mander

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Members of the University and College Union (UCU) have voted in favour of industrial action, which will take place within the next four weeks. The strike action is in response to plans to change the pensions scheme for university staff to one that was branded “risky” by the union.

The strike is the biggest in UCU history, with up to 14 days of action taking place over four consecutive weeks. The strikes will begin with a two day walk out on the 22nd and 23rd of February. It will then escalate to a three day walk out on the 26th, 27th and 28th of February.

On the 2nd of March, UCU will meet to discuss if the industrial action should continue. If the union decides its conditions have not been sufficiently met, the strikes will continue with a four-day walk out from the 5th-8th of March, and culminate in a fiveday long strike from the 12th to the 16th.

Those dates are the Thursday and Friday of week 6, Monday to Wednesday week 7, Monday to Thursday week 8, and the entirety of week 9.

Why are they striking?

The industrial action is taking place nationally, in response to planned reforms to the staff pension schemes. The USS scheme (Universities Superannuation Scheme) is one of the largest private pension schemes for British universities – but changes are now being made to address the current deficit. UCU do not support the changes, which they say could cut pensions by up to 40%.

UCU General Secretary Sally Hunt said: “It is categorically the worst proposal I have received from universities on any issue in 20 years of representing university staff.”

One member of UCU spoke to SCAN about the proposals – suggesting that the reforms were taking place to help larger universities reduce their financial responsibilities to staff in order to borrow more money. The lecturer insisted that university management was not being vocal enough in negotiations and they are trying to sit on the fence: “but if you sit on the fence you get a fence post up your arse.”

Support for the strike was at 88.9% in a ballot, with 73.4% of eligible voters turning out to vote. Lancaster University UCU members had the highest turnout in England.

What does the University say?

Universities UK insist the changes are necessary to address 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.”

Speaking to SCAN, Paul Boustead (Director of HR) stressed that the University was only one of 184 institutions involved in the negotiations and could not unilaterally end the stand-off. Boustead defended the scheme: “the employer contribution rate will remain at 18% – one of the most generous rates of any sector.”

While he would not give his personal opinion on the changes to the pension scheme, or the strike, he said: “we encourage staff to join a union. A by-product of that is industrial action, it goes with the territory.”

Professor Sharon Huttly, Pro Vice Chancellor for Education, also spoke to SCAN regarding the industrial action. While stopping short of supporting the strike, Professor Huttly said: “we support the view that all staff here have the right to take the option of industrial action – but we must balance this with our duty to students.”

The University will support staff through the changes by offering financial advice and communicate information about the new scheme: “it is a very complex situation,” said Huttly, “it becomes apparent how little staff know about their pension schemes.”

A statement released by the University said: “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.”

Internal e-mails seen by SCAN shed more light on the University’s stance, stating that: “The University does not view strike action at this stage as being conducive to finding a resolution to the pension scheme issue because it is planned before the publication of the proposal for changes and the member consultation.”

How will students be affected?

The University states that mitigating the impact on students will be a priority: “Student welfare and academic progress remain the University’s top priorities”

Professor Huttly did not rule out financial compensation for students heavily affected by the strikes – but compared the impact to that of Storm Desmond in 2015 in which students did not receive a refund for lost time during an unexpected university closure. She suggested that students pay for “an education – that’s not the same as a day-by-day timetable.”

Professor Huttly did not rule out academic dispensation or mitigating circumstances for affected students – but said nothing will be confirmed until it is clear how much impact the strikes will have.

While the National Union of Students have called on their members to support local demonstrative action, the Lancaster University Students’ Union have adopted a significantly more neutral position:

“Lancaster University Students’ Union sympathises with the position of the UCU and their members, but in the best interests of our students we do not wish to see this action go ahead and believe all sides of the debate have a part to play in reducing the impact on our members’ education.”

Students are largely divided on the strikes. While a social media poll conducted by SCAN suggested broad support for the strikes, speaking to random samples of students reveals strong opinions both in favour of and in opposition to the strikes. Some departments have contacted their students, one email reading: “None of your lecturers want to harm your education through this industrial action. But at the same time, withholding our labour, which includes teaching, marking, examining and other activities that involve you, is the only way we can make our employers pay attention to the dire situation they are putting us in.”

A lecturer and vocal member of UCU told SCAN: “your anger is totally legitimate but your fight is not with me – it is with upper management of the University” – and many staff and supporters are encouraging students to contact the Vice-Chancellor expressing their anger and clarifying that they hold him responsible for the disruption caused by strikes.

This is a developing story. Follow all the latest at scan.lusu.co.uk/index.php/strike