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Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, University of Michigan / Flickr

University Staff Strike to Protect Their Pensions and Their Profession

The University and College Union (UCU) is currently in dispute over proposed changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) which would see members lose around £10,000 a year in retirement income. Last December, I wrote a piece for the CLASS blog about these plans and suggested three ways in which we could resolve the dispute and avoid industrial action, but these suggestions have been ignored.

The proposal from Universities UK (UUK) to end defined benefits within USS would effectively transform the pension scheme from one with a guaranteed retirement income to one where pension income is subject to changes in the stock market. This is the worst offer I have seen from an employer in 20 years.

As a result, UCU members in 61 universities across the UK have voted overwhelmingly for industrial action to defend their pensions, with 88% of those who voted backing strike action.

An escalating wave of strikes will now take place over a four-week period, beginning with a two-day walkout in week one starting on Thursday 22 February, followed by three, four, and then full five-day walkouts in the following weeks. The planned action will also see members work to contract and refuse to cover classes or reschedule classes lost to strike action.

University staff love their jobs, working with students and on their research, but the anger people are feeling on this issue is of a different order to anything I have seen previously. The financial cost is one thing, but this dispute isn’t just about pensions; it is about the future of our universities themselves. 

In response, just under a thousand professors have signed an open letter published in Times Higher Education, saying: “We feel it is our responsibility to speak out now about the damage the changes will do to the future of our profession. Young university staff work hard yet have endured years of pay restraint and casual contracts while watching many at the top in our universities enjoy great rewards. Now that USS…  is at risk we want to stand shoulder to shoulder with all our colleagues and especially the next generation to defend our profession.”

The UCU is very pleased to also have the support of students who have voiced their concerns that the “imposition of these cuts in the face of sector wide opposition will lead to a demotivated and unhappy workforce and consequent recruitment and retention problems as staff vote with their feet and move elsewhere.”

Staff who have delivered the international excellence British universities boast of feel let down by vice-chancellors who seem to care more about defending their own pay and perks than the rights of their staff. Strike action on this scale has not been seen before on UK campuses, but universities need to know the full scale of the disruption they will be hit with if they refuse to sort this mess out.

Nobody wants to see upheaval in our universities and we can reassure students and their families that we are ready for further talks to resolve this dispute at any time. We welcome the support of NUS in our fight for a decent, guaranteed pension. Students understand that it is staff who are the backbone of our university system and we will do everything we can to bring this dispute to an end as soon as possible.