Staff set to strike

Published

Nick Sikora

University lecturers  across the country are set to walk out this month in a strike over disputed changes to staff pension schemes.

The strike, which has been organised by national academic-based trade union the Universties and College Union (UCU), will see two planned demonstrations by staff and lecturers toward the end of March, due to take place on Thursday 17 and a week later on Thursday 24.

Over 135,000 students at eight Scottish institutions are to be affected by the first planned strike, while over a million students across the UK will be affected by the nationwide strike on the 24th.

The industrial action, which is going ahead despite only 4,404 votes in favour from a UCU membership of over 130,000, comes on the very last days of teaching before students sit their end-of-year exams.

The UCU’s decision to call a strike has been made as a result of an ongoing disagreement between the Employers Pensions Forum (EPF), who wish to alter the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) through which many academics and university staff build their pensions, and UCU leaders, who argue that academics’ higher than average pension payouts compensate for the lower salaries than they would receive in the private sector.

UCU General Secretary, Sally Hunt, explained.

She said: “University staff really value their pension rights and have made their views of the detrimental changes crystal clear and if a settlement is not reached, they are prepared to strike to defend their pensions.

“Strike action is always a last resort and I am ready and willing to clear my diary to meet the employers through ACAS immediately. We can avoid widespread disruptions on campus, but both sides must be prepared to go that extra mile and move quickly.”

The EPF, who run the scheme, argue that it is currently unaffordable, pointing out that the average employee lives 13 years longer today than they did in 1975 when the scheme was introduced. Changes proposed by the EPF include raising the pensionable age from 55 to 65 to bring it into line with the national retirement age, increasing the contribution rate for employees to 7.5% and introducing a cap on inflationary increases at 10%.

The EPF have responded to the UCU’s announcement by labeling their plan to strike as ‘damaging to students’, with EPF Chair, Professor Brian Cantor, hitting out at the UCU’s approach to the ongoing negotiation process.

He said: “UCU has repeatedly failed to engage in the established process for agreeing scheme changes. The union is ignoring the past three years’ of negotiations and seeking to overturn the decisions of the USS Trustee Board, the Joint Negotiating Committee and the Independent Chair by not exercising its shared stewardship.

“Strike action that is damaging to students and the sector as a whole is not the answer.”

The timing of the move has raised particular concern, with some fearful that crucial teaching days may be missed. A Glasgow University spokesman tried to allay fears, calling on the UCU to avoid damaging students’ prospects as exam season nears.

He said: “The University expects that most classes and tutorials will be unaffected by the planned industrial action and has asked UCU members to ensure that students are not disadvantaged by their action.”

The SRC recognised the threat posed to students’ education as a result of the walk out, but stated their support regardless.

Tommy Gore, SRC President, said: “Obviously the SRC is disappointed at strike action, and the effect that this will have on students’ education, particularly those in the final year, but we’re confident that academics involved in the dispute will make every effort to minimise disruption to students.

“However, we also sympathise with the position that staff find themselves in, and are therefore willing to support the strike.”