Featured image: @USUMMoss
By Harry Spindler
A total of 30 universities have now proposed a rethink to the government’s planned pension cuts, after Oxford University reversed their stance on supporting the cuts.
64 universities have taken to strikes in protest of the planned cuts, which could considerable lessen the amount lecturers and University staff would receive in their current pension scheme.
Oxford shows a potential change to the potential success of the strike, with the board at Oxford previously being regarded as a key ally in gaining support for the University Superannuation Scheme.
Universities UK, or UUK, the body which is made up of University Vice-chancellors around the country, recently announced a review into the University system, which includes the fees paid by students annually, targeting lecturers pensions in the University Superannuation Scheme, or the USS.
The USS plans to cut lecturer pensions by nearly £10,000, planning to change the scheme from a defined-benefit scheme, which has a defined benefit of the amount you receive per annum after retirement, to a defined-contribution scheme where you and your employer contribute to your pension, but this method is also heavily dependant on changes within the stock market, meaning lecturer’s pensions are strongly reliant on a successful stock market. This doesn’t mean that the lecturer and the university can now define their contributions, instead current lecturers will still have to contribute the same amount that they are contributing now if the planned changes proceed.
UUK said in an open letter recently that “Contributions would have to rise by approximately £1 billion per annum” to maintain the current pension scheme and that the UUK is currently facing a “£6.1 billion deficit and there has been an increase of more than a third in the cost of future pensions”, but the University and College Union, UCU, says that the strikes will be prolonged unless changes are made.
The strikes aren’t exactly spontaneous, the unrest within Universities has been growing over the past few weeks. Lecturers and academic staff across the country had been voicing their aggravation towards the scheme since it was announced, however very little of the unrest had been acknowledged by the university boards.
Sally Hunt, General Secretary of the University and College Union, said in her opinion piece for the Guardian: “what has exacerbated the situation is a sense that until last week many employers had not been interested in engaging with the strong feelings of staff about these cuts – that their views were not worth listening to. Politicians, students and parents are rightly worried and have made it clear in recent days that they think UUK needs to start listening. The pressure they have helped apply on UUK has got us to talks at Acas on Monday.”
Many of the staff on strike argue that USS is a cynical scheme to reduce Universities pension liabilities and not a way of making pensions more sustainable, like the UUK says. Lecturers are also reportedly outraged that their wages have been the primary target to attack the organisations deficit when a higher number of Vice-Chancellors have received pay increases throughout the year.
Bill Gavin, Chief Executive of the University Superannuation Scheme, received an £82,000 wage increase this year taking his total wage to £566,000, it is reported that two other members of the UUK received more than £1 million each in pay. Vice-Chancellor Glynis Breakwell of the University of Bath stepped down after it was revealed she had been earning £498,000 a year.
One of the main groups to be affected by the strikes are the students. A recent poll by Trendence UK found that 38% of students support the strike, while 38% disapprove of them. A group known as ‘Students Against Strikes’, whilst understanding the motivations of the strike, do not believe that the method used to get their voices heard is beneficial.
Students that attend the 67 universities are obviously affected by the strikes, with there being cancellations and postponements throughout seminars and lectures. Whilst some lecturers are aiming to provide their students with information, work and reading they can use during this time, this isn’t the case for all Universities.
Students are losing a crucial period in their time at University, and with the unrest of tuition fees still an underlying issue, many are demanding refunds or compensation on the cancelled lectures.
Many petitions have been gaining widespread support from students, and King’s College London have announced that the money saved from striking staff’s salaries will be placed into a fund to compensate students who have been affected by the strikes.
Hannah Morrish from The Student Room said: “With tuition fees in excess of £9,000 a year, students feel it’s unfair that they are the ones who will ultimately pay the price for missed tuition.”
Universities Minister, Sam Gymiah, said: “I am deeply concerned about the impact this strike will have on students, who deserve to receive the education that they are paying for. For many, this is a vital time in their studies” and continued on to call both sides back to the negotiation table. A call which was recently answered. The UUK had declared on the website on the 12th of March that after six days of negotiations, an agreement had been made between themselves and the UCU.
UUK released a short statement saying: “On Monday 12 March, ACAS talks on USS concluded with Universities UK (UUK) and the University and College Union (UCU) agreeing to a revised benefit reform proposal” but this agreement was short lived. The agreement relied on striking academic staff putting in higher contributions to their pension schemes, something which the institutions would also have to contribute to at a higher rate. Having agreed with representatives of the UCU, the UUK are clearly ruffled by the refusal of the staff, saying the deal had been jointly agreed as a “mutually acceptable way forward”.
Now the UUK and UCU are preparing for urgent re-negotiations to have an agreement on the table before the exam period, something which Sally Hunt is using to the Unions advantage, threatening an extra 14 days of strikes “designed to hit the exam and assessment periods between April and June”.
The previous agreement agreed to a higher contribution from both sides to maintain a temporary pension scheme, something which would then be re-opened in the long term to address the schemes sustainability past 2020. An independent review would also take place to investigate UUK’s claim that they were set to suffer a £6.1 billion deficit.
A spokesperson of UUK insisted that “Universities UK is committed to finding a resolution to this dispute. Every effort must be made by both sides to avoid further strike action and more disruption to students’ education.” with the UCU are ready to meet “any time, any place for talks”. However, it is not clear how long these strikes will truly last. Striking staff want to continue industrial action in hopes of a “more decisive victory” and to attack the pension issue now instead of delaying them until 2020.
UUK had stated before re-negotiations that if no agreement could be made, then the previous pensions proposal would be reinstalled, but with the volatile situation only growing, it may not be a possibility to follow such a claim.