University staff strike over pay and pensionson December 1, 2021 at 1:17 am

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Students have been urged to check with their lecturers to see if their classes are running.

UCU members in London hold signs and chant

Image source, Getty Images

Staff at 58 universities are taking part in a three-day strike over pay, working conditions and pensions.

Students, facing more disruption after 18 months of remote learning during Covid, have been urged to check with their lecturers to see if their classes are running.

The union organising the walkouts has warned of further strikes next year.

Employers have called the strikes “frustrating” and said most staff do not support them.

Some of the walkouts are over pensions – a dispute that, having rumbled on for nearly a decade, has been reignited by what the University and College Union (UCU) called a “flawed valuation” of the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), a pension fund used by university staff.

It was “carried out at the start of the pandemic when global markets were crashing” and would lower members’ guaranteed retirement income by 35%, the UCU said.

Others are striking over pay and working conditions.

The UCU has demanded a £2,500 pay increase for members, an end to “pay injustice” and zero-hours contracts, and action to tackle “unmanageable workloads” – some of which relate to the pandemic.

Staff at 33 institutions are taking action over pay, working conditions and pensions.

Tom Horn

Tom Horn, 19, studying history, at the University of Leeds, told BBC News many students were “very angry”.

“They just don’t think it’s fair that after having a year of strikes followed by a year and a half of online learning… things are just about starting to get back into the swing and then we’re facing possibility of months of strikes again,” he said.

But politics student Sharifah Rahman, 22, said the disruption was a result of employers’ decisions, not the “very reasonable” demands of staff.

“We’re paying for a service and then we’re having to suffer from strikes, which are disrupting our learning,” she said.

“We’re also paying… for our staff to get paid decent pay and have decent working conditions, which they’re not getting.”

Sharifah Rahman

Declan Kenny, a PhD student who also teaches at the University of Leeds, said low research funding and being paid hourly meant he was always “treading water” financially.

“I know most people are completely distracted from their research and find they don’t have time to do their PhD, because they’re always trying to find the work and income to actually pay their rent,” he said.

“I literally just get by.

“It’s usually borrowing a bit of money from next month’s pay cheque and going into my student overdraft, and just trying to make ends meet – or taking on a little bit of cash-in-hand work to make up for it.”

Declan Kenny

Staff at 74 universities held a 14-day strike over pensions, pay, and conditions last year.

UCU general secretary Jo Grady said it was “deeply regrettable that staff have been forced into taking industrial action again”.

“Sadly, university bosses have shown little interest in negotiating in good faith and addressing the serious concerns of staff over falling pay, massive pension cuts, equality pay gaps and the rampant use of insecure contracts,” she said.

And members would “be forced to take further industrial action in the new year” if vice-chancellors “continue to ignore the modest demands of staff”.

But Oxford Brookes University vice-chancellor Prof Alistair Fitt told BBC News the USS pension scheme was “very generous” although “too expensive” for many academics.

“One of things we’re committed to doing is to try and make USS a little bit more flexible and to try to give particularly young academics and young university staff a range of options,” he said.

“We’re really disappointed that there are strikes now.

“I think our poor students have had enough over the past 18 months.”

Although, deadlines could be changed and teaching methods adapted to mitigate the impact on students.

Alistair Fitt

Striking staff are not required to warn universities in advance but some students were advised this week to ask their lecturers whether they would be walking out.

A spokesman for Universities UK (UUK), which represents 140 institutions, said fewer than 10% of pension-scheme members had voted “Yes” to strike action in UCU ballots last monthUCU ballots last month – as not all staff are UCU members and not all UCU members supported the strikes.

Raj Jethwa, chief executive of the Universities and College Employers Association (UCEA), which has 174 member organisations, called the strikes over pay an “unrealistic attempt to try to force” 146 employers to reopen a concluded national pay round, which would “impact on students who have endured so many recent disruptions”.

Higher and Further Education Minister Michelle Donelan called the strikes “very disappointing” and further disruption to students’ learning “wholly unfair”.

“Students deserve good quality face-to-face teaching from their universities and we need a resolution that delivers this for them as soon as possible,” she said.

“It’s what the vast majority of teaching staff want – and what students rightly expect.”

A full list of affected universities can be found here.

In addition to the 58 where staff are striking, a further six institutions will not see strikes but staff voted for action short of a strike, over pay, which, the UCU said, would “include strictly working to contract and refusing any additional duties”.

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