Who’s striking; when, where and why?

Credit: Kirsten Colligan

Michaila Byrne
Writer

A comprehensive look at the motivations and attitudes surrounding the strikes

In the coming days strikes are expected to affect around 60 universities over a four-week period. Affected universities include Queen’s Belfast, Brighton, Cardiff, UCL, Oxford, Manchester and Glasgow. As part of this national dispute, the University of Glasgow can expect to see lecturers from various departments participating. Some are expecting this to have the largest impact ever seen on UK campuses and will cause unprecedented, widespread disruption.

UCU is the largest higher education union in the country and have been in a long-term dispute over the proposed changes to staff pensions. Repeated negotiations have been underway for some time to no avail and this has culminated in the UCU’s decision to strike. Employers are being accused of wanting to put an end to guaranteed pension benefits which could mean that a typical lecturer will lose £10,000 per year in retirement, according to First Actuarial. The proposal included replacing a “defined benefit” pension scheme with a “defined contribution” scheme for those whose incomes come under £55,000 a year – meaning that pensions are subject to change from fluctuations in the stock market with no minimum guaranteed income.

The University of Glasgow management has expressed its desire to retain the best possible terms for their staff and say they are even willing to pay modestly higher employer contributions to achieve this, if it would help to reach a suitable resolution for all parties. However, any agreement made must be affordable to both employers and employees as well as being acceptable to the pensions regulator. The University has stressed its willingness for a resumption of talks between employers and the trade union to achieve a settlement that can guarantee long-term, sustainable pensions. A spokesperson for the University said: “The dispute is a national one between Universities UK representing higher education institutions which have staff in the Universities Superannuation Scheme – USS – and the University & College Union – UCU – representing staff. It has come about because of proposed changes to the USS pension scheme. UUK is concerned that the pension scheme is operating with a significant deficit, estimated at several billions of pounds, and wants to reduce the risk that employers are exposed to in the future. The UCU disputes the size of the deficit and wants to retain guaranteed levels of pension for academic and related staff.”

UCU members have been called upon to participate in “action short of a strike” which will include no covering for absent colleagues, no rescheduling of cancelled classes and assuming no voluntary activities. Emails have gone out to students who will be affected by the strikes, explaining that the UCU has advised that cancelled lectures and seminars should not be moved to later dates. UCU General Secretary Sally Hunt has stated that university employers need to “recognise the anger their staff feel”.

The UUK’s stance is that this change in the pension scheme from defined benefit to defined contribution is necessary because the status quo is currently unsustainable. The UCU, however, says that the valuation was based on dubious methodology and the risk factor was calculated on a “purposely pessimistic” and “overly conservative” assumption regarding the growth of the higher education sector. A UCU member of staff at Glasgow University planning to strike, who wished to remain anonymous, claims that this case has been made under mistaken assumptions, stressing that staffing costs are “the business of the University, not a drain on it and universities generally tend to see staffing costs as a nuisance and a drain.” They also pointed out that considering inflation, “real term pay has gone down by about 16% in the last seven years.” Echoing University Rector Aamer Anwar’s stance, the staff member also stated that “treating academics as such a low priority is also treating students and their education as a low priority.”

Honorary Secretary at UCU Glasgow, Craig Daley, highlights the scale of the action, saying “In my 37 years as a trade union member I have never felt such strong support for action on our campus. Our last General meeting was so well attended that we had to move to a much bigger hall. This is a clear sign that members are prepared to fight for a decent and secure pension for those that follow us into higher education.”

Some students have criticised striking staff’s lack of flexibility concerning rescheduling classes, calling the strike “short-sighted, particularly in regard to international fee paying students,” pointing out that the alternate suggestion of self-taught learning “undermines the university experience, since you cannot debate and interact with a book” and that it is the students who should be prioritised. The University’s position is that it does not accept that members of staff have the right to refuse to reschedule classes. They also stress that as an employer, they have the right to require members of staff to prioritise teaching duties over other activities on days when they are not taking industrial action. Hannah Banfield, a 4th year English Literature student, expressed support for the action but pointed out the unsettling, uncertain nature of it, “we cannot foresee the impact it will have on students so it would be comforting to know that if the strikes do go ahead, that we will receive extra support and materials to compensate.”

Sally Hunt has encouraged students to put pressure on their respective principals and ask directly what they are doing to resolve the dispute, saying that without the security of reliable, decent pensions, the prospect of staff leaving seems highly likely. A spokesperson for the UCU said, “students are understandably worried about what may happen, and angry that their universities appear to be doing absolutely nothing to avert the most disruptive strike ever seen on UK campuses.”

Much of the anger also stems from the pay at the top among the Principals of some universities. Hunt has called attention to universities continually ignoring calls for tougher sanctions to deal with problems of what they call “excessive pay and perks”. Principal and Vice-Chancellor at The University of Glasgow, Anton Muscatelli, is being accused of having an ever-increasing salary of £276,000 plus a £46,000 pension contribution for the 2015-2016 academic year. Since then however, according to the University website, “following court approval of a recommendation by the Renumeration Committee, the Principal’s salary was revised to £290,000 effective from 1 October 2017, and will be set at £300,000 from 1 October 2018 and £310,000 from 1 October 2019, representing increases of 4.1%, 3.3%, and 3.3% respectively, subject to continued high performance, as determined by the annual review process.”

On this matter, a spokesperson suggested considering output as well as income, saying: “The Principal’s salary is decided by a remuneration committee and he has no input to this whatsoever. The salary level, which is about average for the sector and by no means the highest even in Scotland, reflects the considerable success that Professor Muscatelli has overseen in his time as Principal. Student numbers have risen dramatically, as has research incomeGlasgow is established as one of the top 100 HEs in the world and is the Times/Sunday Times Scottish University of the Year, our annual turnover exceeds £600m and we have recently commenced a £1bn campus expansion plan.The Principal has provided focused leadership in delivering on all of these points and in stressing that the student experience and the student journey are at the core of Glasgow’s ambitions for the future.”

On this issue, the University website states, “The remuneration and terms and conditions of the Principal & Vice Chancellor are determined by members of the Remuneration Committee. The Principal is not a member of the Remuneration Committee and is not in attendance at its meetings while his salary, terms and conditions are under discussion.”

Currently there appears to be no scheduled plans for talks and it seems that the strike is likely to go ahead as planned, with students preparing for weeks of no contact hours. Staff will be penalised for the days they do not work in anticipation for change in their pension schemes.

A link to the open letter to be delivered by students in support of the strike: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1qpooCtlNimGD0J5Gq03OZ-BeyhjUiu520YX9Dc8qozk/edit

A link to the FAQs regarding the strike given to the Glasgow Guardian: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1cbBo7U53_Ng9f3F5VzfllUJeCHHjGF3IzbGeX2jLIXc/edit?usp=sharing