When are the strikes at the University of Essex and what is it about?
- Credit: Archant
Hundreds of lecturers and other campus staff angry over proposed changes to pensions are this week staging the first two days of a planned 14-day strike, lasting until mid-March, at the University of Essex. See a full list here.
The first wave of the staggered 14-day walkout, which is affecting 64 British institutions and could run into the summer exam season, is planned to start on Thursday and Friday.
The EADT has been told up to 500 lecturers and other staff, including admin and IT employees, could go on strike at the Colchester campus. More than 14,000 students are enrolled at the university and it is understood all will be affected. It has been described as the worst industrial action at universities in modern times.
The strikes take place intermittently over four weeks, ending on March 16. But they could potentially return in April, May and June if the bitter dispute is not resolved.
Hundreds of lectures, classes, and assessments are likely to be affected nationwide. Universities are planning to minimise disruption to students, who pay £9,250 in annual tuition fees at the University of Essex.
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The University and College Union (UCU), which represents lecturers and campus staff, is in dispute with university chiefs over pensions. Vice-chancellors have proposed changes meaning that academics could lose up to half their retirement income, according to analysis.
UCU members at 64 institutions, including Essex, University of East Anglia, and Cambridge, backed the action in an industrial ballot over proposed changes to pensions covered by the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS).
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At Essex, 91.2% of academics voted in support, based on a “strong” turnout of 61.5%. A total of 519 staff were eligible to vote.
The dispute centres on proposals to end the defined benefit element of the USS pension scheme, which is worth about £65 billion but has an estimated short-term deficit of £6.1 billion. 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 instead to make it fully DC, which has triggered the strike.
UCU says this would leave a typical lecturer almost £10,000 a year worse off in retirement than under the current set-up.
Universities UK (UUK), which represents vice-chancellors, warned that change to the pension regime was essential.
“The USS pension scheme has a deficit of £6.1 billion and the cost of future pensions benefits has increased by one third since 2014,” a spokesman said.
“To maintain current benefits, overall contributions would have to increase by approximately £1 billion every year.
“We hope that employees recognise that changes are necessary to put the scheme on a secure footing, and that the proposed strike action will only serve to unfairly disrupt students’ education.”
The union has a mandate to take industrial action up until July 19, which covers the period when exams are being taken by students and marked. It means that institutions could potentially face industrial action during this important point of the academic year.
The full strike dates for all 64 institutions are:
Week one – Thursday 22 and Friday 23 February (two days)
Week two – Monday 26, Tuesday 27 and Wednesday 28 February (three days)
Week three – Monday 5, Tuesday 6, Wednesday 7 and Thursday 8 March (four days)
Week four – Monday 12, Tuesday 13, Wednesday 14, Thursday 15 and Friday 16 March (five days)
In a blog post, Professor Anthony Forster, vice-chancellor of the University of Essex, criticised the Universities UK proposal and urged them to negotiate in order to avert the strike.
Peter Patrick, vice-president of University of Essex UCU, said: “It’s encouraging that our own vice-chancellor shares common ground with staff opposing these devastating proposals.
“However, warm words won’t save anyone’s pension – if unnecessary disruption is to be avoided then university leaders across the country need to keep the pressure on Universities UK to get back to the negotiating table.”
UCU regional official Lydia Richards said: “Nobody wants to take strike action, but staff feel they have no choice.
“These hardline proposals would slash staff pensions and are simply uncalled for. It is staggering that most universities have refused to engage with the union and a real insult to staff and to students. Professor Forster’s intervention is welcome and more vice-chancellors should be speaking out to try and resolve this dispute.”
Other action is likely to include members working to their contracts, meaning they could refuse to cover classes, reschedule classes lost on strike days or undertake voluntary duties.
A University of Essex spokesman 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.”