A month of strikes over changes to lecturers’ pensions, affecting a total of 64 universities and more than a million students, is starting.
Academics are walking out at universities from York to Bangor, and including Oxford and Cambridge.
Petitions signed by 80,000 students, many backing the lecturers, are demanding refunds for lost teaching.
But the employers’ group Universities UK says the scheme has a deficit of more than £6bn which it cannot ignore.
Members of the University and College Union say they are striking because changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme will leave a typical lecturer almost £10,000 a year worse off in retirement.
Younger academics could lose almost half of their total retirement income, says the union.
Under the plan, the USS will change from a defined benefit scheme, giving members a guaranteed income in retirement, to a defined contribution scheme, where pensions are subject to changes in the stock market.
The union says the existing scheme is performing well and UUK’s determination to push through the changes and refusal to compromise has left them no alternative but to strike.
“Staff are angry and significant disruption on campuses across the UK now looks inevitable,” said UCU general secretary Sally Hunt.
Lecturers – part of the gig economy?
Analysis by Branwen Jeffreys, BBC education editor
The strikes starting on campuses around the UK are about pensions.
It is one of the largest disputes since the government made industrial action harder with new legislation.
While the ballots were about the pension changes, the willingness to tick the box for strikes may be influenced by many other factors.
University lecturers may be notionally further up the educational pecking order but their existence is far less secure than teachers.
Many are on fixed-term contracts, or even zero hours, which give them no pension entitlement. While vice-chancellors’ pay has boomed with the investment from higher tuition fees and international students, pay for the average lecturer has felt the chill wind of public sector pay restraint.
At London’s City University, senior law lecturer Keith Simpson said the proposals would devastate academics’ pensions.
“They’re not particularly well paid but they do have the benefits of some certainty that when they retire they will have a reasonable pension,” he said.
“Under the proposals that are being put forward, that’s gone. There is no certainty whatsoever and really we think this is a stand we’ve got to make.”
The union estimates that over half a million teaching hours will be lost during an escalating four-week strike programme:
- week one – staff at 57 universities walk out this Thursday and Friday
- week two – the 57 will be joined by staff at four more institutions on a three-day strike from Monday
- weeks three and four – staff a total of 64 universities will strike for nine days
Members will refuse to reschedule classes lost on strike days.
Students at about 30 universities have signed petitions asking for refunds.
At King’s College London, petition organiser Robert Liow, a third year law student, said that if universities refused refunds they would be effectively profiting from the dispute as they would not be paying lecturers on strike days.
“I believe education is a public good and not a service to be sold – but we are being treated as consumers.
“If we are going to be treated as consumers we are going to ask for our money back if we don’t get the service we paid for.”
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City University’s petition asks for the amount saved by not paying striking lecturers to be divided among the students affected.
Katie Walters, co-organiser of the Cardiff University petition, said she feared the dispute could drag on into the summer term, affecting final exams and dissertations.
“Although we fully support the lecturers – they work so hard and deserve good pensions – this is a major disruption to our studies.”
Feelings are also running high among students at universities without petitions.
Georgia Davis at St Andrews fears the dispute will mean pickets outside university buildings, limiting access to libraries and potentially affecting her final degree result.
“I really don’t fancy pushing past lecturers who are losing tens of thousands of pounds just to get a book out.
“We are being disadvantaged again. If I don’t get a good 2:1, what’s the point?” she asked.
‘Secure and sustainable’
Universities UK said institutions were doing all they could to minimise the impact of the industrial action on students before they reached the stage of claiming compensation.
UUK called the strike action “disappointing” and said it was still “at the negotiating table”, accusing the union of failing to engage on how best to ensure the long-term sustainability of the scheme.
“The changes proposed will make the scheme secure, and sustainable, safeguarding the future of universities.
“University staff will still have a valuable pension scheme, with employer contributions of 18% of salary, double the private sector average,” said a UUK spokesman.
The proposed changes will affect staff at 68 older universities. Staff at post-1992 universities are members of a different pension scheme.