Lecturers prepared to strike again during summer exam period
University lecturers in Essex are prepared to strike again this summer, cancelling final year exams and delaying graduation ceremonies, if the bitter pension dispute remains unresolved.
Around 500 lecturers and other campus staff today began a month of walkouts at the University of Essex as members of the University and College Union (UCU) took industrial action around the country.
The number of cancelled lectures and seminars at the university was unknown but it is understood all 14,000 students will be affected by the 14-day intermittent walkout, which builds up to a five-day strike in the week beginning March 12.
Emails were sent on Wednesday night to today’s affected students, it is understood.
The dispute centres on proposals to end the defined benefit element of the Universities Superannuation (USS) pension scheme, which is worth about £65bn but has an estimated short-term deficit of £6.1bn.
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The USS must by law show the regulator how it plans to plug it. It has proposed to end the defined benefit (DB) structure, where members get a proportion of their final salaries in retirement, and make it defined contribution (DC), where retirement income is determined by the pension fund’s investment and returns. Negotiations to make pensions half DB and half DC broke down and vice-chancellors proposed to make it fully DC, triggering the strike.
Union chiefs say this would leave a typical lecturer almost £10,000 a year worse off. Lecturers could earn more in the private sector so a strong pension is vital. Universities UK (UUK), which represents vice-chancellors, said the union’s “dismissal of the funding challenges is hugely concerning”.
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Thousands of students have reportedly signed petitions demanding compensation. The University of Suffolk has not been affected. But staff are on strike at the University of East Anglia in Norwich.
Peter Patrick, vice-president of University of Essex UCU
“We have run strikes over pay and other issues over the last 10 years but there has never been this level of turnout or this level of support.
“I think it will do some damage, and to be honest every strike has some impact on the industry. That’s why we only do it as a really last resort. But hopefully strike damage can be reversed if and when the employers decide to come back to the negotiating table. We are there ready to talk to them, any day.
“I am (prepared to strike during the summer exam season). I am prepared to do whatever the union believes is necessary. I have to say that if we do go for a marking and assessment boycott, that will probably require a second ballot even though we do have the mandate. There will be time to reflect.
“I’m pretty sure they would (vote in favour of strikes during the summer exam season) because we had 91% voters at Essex supporting strike now, not knowing what the tactics would be. It could have been marking and assessment now. That said, the longer the strikes goes on, the harder it is on both sides. I know the idea of not having summer exams or assessments turned in is the worst thing for them (our employers) and also for us, because it is our students’ future and we don’t want to go there, but we will if we have to.
“They might have to have resits, assess people on what’s already been done, it would delay graduations if it came to that – it would all be changing the deal that the students signed up to at the beginning of the year. But that’s a decision for management. That’s not going to be up to us. They’ll have to look at it and see what is the best way to save the situation.
“We would certainly lose the support of some students for sure because they’re here to get the education and to frankly get the degree, and I don’t blame them. That’s what they’re here for.
“Students have already begun asking for their money back. There’s a movement going on all around the country. I have to say it’s not my business, but if they’re paying for something and not getting it, and if they are thinking and being treated like consumers, then by all means, ask for your money back. That will put the pressure on university finance directors and vice chancellors as well.
“I would rather students not think of their education as a product to be consumed, but I would rather they didn’t have to pay fees for it either, and that’s not the situation. In the situation they’re in, if they’re consumers, then behave like consumers. Ask for your money back.”
Cathy Crawford, senior lecturer in history and Essex UCU president
“There is no crisis with our pensions. It is completely manufactured. There is over £64bn in the pot which is going to pay our pensions for a long time to come. More money is coming into the pot than is going out to pay the pensions. It’s a very stable, solid, huge pension fund, and the money is there. This notional crisis has been greatly overestimated for what I guess must be political reasons or ones that I cannot understand.
“We are perfectly willing to participate in restoring the deficit but it is a very short-term little blip and a deficit of £6gn when we have got a pot of £64bn is not unmanageable.
“The strike is securing the reputation of British universities for the future because if we don’t have a decent pension package, people won’t stay or come here. There is a global market in academic work and it is really about making sure we have a sustainable, high-quality future.
“I have been overwhelmed by the feelings of unity within the university, the union, everywhere. The students seem to be very sympathetic although they are anxious about their position too. It really is a make or break situation. We have already taken two enormous hits to our pensions in the last several years and this is now completely removing any guaranteed benefits to people who are not particularly well-paid.
“We have the mandate, we overwhelmingly voted in favour of it, I would hate to do it but if we have no choice, we have no choice. Hopefully we’ll be back to the bargaining table by then. Hopefully there will be some solution. We are so willing to compromise and be creative. It’s the other side which needs to show some willingness to negotiate. We can’t negotiate with ourselves.
“(Missing summer exams due to strikes) wouldn’t be my problem. It would be the university’s problem. It would be pretty awful. I really hope it wouldn’t come to that but we are determined to stand up for ourselves.
“Students can email their vice-chancellor, email their financial head of their institution, write letter to the newspapers, complain, and support us.
“It’s still quite new for students to be paying so much for their education, and I can quite sympathise with why they would want to get some kind of a refund for being deprived of what they pay for. On the other hand, it’s not just about absorbing things from lectures. They could be getting on with an awful lot of resources and on their own, especially at this time of the year. They pretty much know what they have to do. There’s no reason why they can’t continue to learn, grow and develop with some intermittent strikes at this moment. It is serious but hopefully not fatal.”
Scott Seton, 22, of Newmarket, a first-year philosophy undergraduate student at the University of Essex, said: “It’s astounding the amount of work and passion that lecturers put in to producing a module, and I am so grateful for them opening a world of ideas to me, I think these pension changes are a big slap in the face and just shows education is not being treated with the respect it deserves. An attack on lecturers is an attack on students because their working conditions are our learning conditions.
“Lecturers aren’t doing this on a whim or to get a few days off. It’s about their future.
“I totally understand why they are withholding their labour because they are being completely screwed, just like students have been completely screwed with tuition fees.”
A UUK spokesman said: “Union leaders need to listen to the concerns of the Pensions Regulator and USS. Pensions risk is very real.
“Their dismissal of the funding challenges is hugely concerning, the very reason employers and the scheme must act responsibly to protect pensions and students.
“We remain at the negotiating table to engage with UCU on the long-term sustainability of the scheme and we continue to seek further talks. If a credible, affordable solution were to be put forward by the union, employers would want to consider it.
“This industrial action is targeted at students. It will be young people and the next generation of students who will also suffer if their education deteriorates because employers are forced to make cuts to pay more into pensions.
“Employers are committed to continuing to pay in 18% to staff pensions for the next five years, double the private sector average.”
University of Essex Registrar Bryn Morris said: “We’re working closely with our Students’ Union to provide guidance to all students and to minimise the impact on them. Individual students will be affected differently and we will be looking to keep them updated about any potential disruption to their studies.
“We’ve asked each of our departments to make plans to ensure they still achieve the learning outcomes of cancelled lectures and classes.”