With teaching staff at 64 universities across the country voting to strike after pension changes, only the University of Birmingham and the London School of Economics (LSE) remain fully open out of the elite Russell Group institutions
Last month, the University and College Union (UCU) asked its members twice to strike all teaching, administration, research and conferences – and any other work for their respective universities – after talks with Universities UK (UUK) to reverse pension changes collapsed. However, members of the Birmingham branch of the UCU failed to make the 50% quorum threshold, and so despite up to 92% of those staff members voting in favour of industrial action the ballot does not legally provide a mandate for it.
The issue stems from UUK’s plans to change the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), the higher education pensions programme currently chaired by our VC Professor Sir David Eastwood, from a ‘defined benefit scheme’ to a ‘defined contribution scheme’, which would see lecturers’ guaranteed retirement incomes replaced with pensions liable to changes in the stock market. This alteration was proposed to cut the alleged £6bn deficit in the current USS, which UUK argue could result in rising pension contributions, cuts to university spending and redundancies without reform. The UCU estimate that this could leave higher education teaching staff up to £10,000 a year worse off in retirement, with their savings subject to inflation.
Out of the 68 universities that are members of the USS, 64 voted in favour of industrial action, meaning that UoB is only one of four institutions not participating.
The UCU estimate that over one million students nationwide will be affected by the strikes – which are planned to continue for a month – and over 575,000 teaching hours will be lost. Despite this loss of contact time, a poll conducted for the Times Higher Education magazine found that 51.8% of the 1,500 students asked supported lecturer strikes and only 29.3% did not.
Over 80,000 students from 30 institutions have, however, asked for compensation for the lost teaching hours, citing consumer law that has not yet gained precedent in relation to industrial action. The petitioners are in support of the UCU strikes but believe that universities are profiting from the dispute, in that they are not paying lecturers but still collecting tuition fees.
Despite the damage that the strike could have on students’ learning approaching exam season and dissertation deadlines, a compromise seems to be a long way off. The two sides met again this week, but they are not yet agreeing on the facts; UUK claims that it is ‘inaccurate and misleading’ of the UCU to tie the proposed changes to significant falls in pensions, whilst the union argue that the current system works well and say that the government’s measuring of the deficit is ‘recklessly prudent’.
Speaking to Redbrick, one senior UoB lecturer said: ‘no educator ever wants to withhold teaching, but Birmingham faculty [of the UCU] can understand the desperation that has driven their colleagues across the country to strike, and many support their decision and are grateful for the stand they’re taking on behalf of us all’.
Following the most recent round of negotiations, President of the Birmingham branch of the UCU, Dr Roland Brandstaetter, told us: ‘While it is disappointing for the local branch officers and almost 500 branch members who voted for strike action that we were not able to join the strike we stand in full solidarity. We are supporting the strike in every possible way including social media presence and financial contributions to the UCU hardship fund which has already received more than £85K. We are amazed by the enormous solidarity and support shown by students all over the country which shows that staff and students are a unity and form the core of Universities. 17 Vice Chancellors, the media, and politicians, including Jeremy Corbyn, have taken the side of UCU and called for further negotiations.
‘The group of stubborn hawkish VCs who have taken control of some Universities and UUK are becoming more and more isolated. They have now agreed to further talks. But the question is why now and why not earlier? Why did they wait for a nation-wide escalation until they admitted that their USS figures and data analysis were wrong? This strike is not just about pensions; it shows that the time of autocratic VCs, like our own who is the Chair of USS, and anti-democratic governing bodies which cannot be trusted, including UUK, is over’.