The first lecturers’ strike in five years has interrupted teaching at the University today, Thursday 17 March. Unionised tutors have been asked to not turn up for work, and many were expected on picket lines around campus.
The lecturers’ union, University and College Union (UCU), has initiated industrial action in response to proposed changes to academics’ pension arrangements. The UCU says the changes would cost its members hundreds of thousands of pounds over the course of their careers.
“The proposals are an attack on … pension benefits. They would create a two-tier system of benefits and worsen retirement arrangements for existing members while saddling employees with benefit reductions and an unfair share of any future costs,” the UCU says on its website. In contrast, the group representing employers describes the changes as “moderate and reasonable”.
Currently, academics’ pensions are administered jointly by employers and the UCU on a national level through the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS). Employers (universities) are proposing to reform the way USS calculates contributions and benefits. It wants to raise employees’ yearly contributions but freeze employers’ contributions, while also significantly cutting benefits paid to both existing and new members.
Employers claim the changes are necessary to avoid future problems funding the scheme, though the UCU points out that the USS is self-financing, has a large budget surplus, and is very stable compared to schemes in other sectors.
Talks over the changes have reached a stalemate. UCU wants to take the dispute to ACAS, the independent arbitration service, but employers are refusing, instead asking the UCU to continue talks within the USS.
The UCU says it will strike unless employers agree to take the dispute to ACAS.
“We’re being forced into this position; the employers are being completely intransigent – they wont even go into ACAS…. We’re really hoping we won’t have to take this action and that the employers will get back around the table [before Thursday],” said Vin Hammersley, President of Warwick UCU.
It is still unclear exactly how the planned strikes will affect students, though many lectures and classes are expected to be cancelled this Thursday. “We won’t know till it happens – we don’t know who will strike,” said Peter Dunn, University Press Officer.
“You cant take action at a university without it affecting students…. Personally, I’m against strike action, but we’re left with absolutely no choice now,” said Hammersley.
UCU argues that the strike is not the only part of the dispute that would affect students. It says the pension changes would make it difficult for universities to recruit and retain world-class staff, who may be tempted to leave the UK or leave academia altogether.
Leo Boe, Warwick SU’s Welfare Officer, speaking in a personal capacity, agreed: “I will be supporting the strike because of the long-term impact that these changes would have on the academic staff. These changes would directly negatively impact upon the student experience…. The proposals mean that Warwick would implicitly find it difficult to recruit and retain the very best staff.”
Hammersley expressed his hope that the SU and students would be supportive of the action: “We would welcome any support from the students and SU. UCU was very active [in supporting student protests]. While we understand some students have got other things on their mind, we would welcome any support they can give us.”
“Taking strike action and action short of a strike are always a last resort and I and other UCU members regret the immediate impact they will have on students. But unfortunately they are necessary and hopefully they will eventually benefit both students and staff,” said Dr Jonathan Davies, a lecturer in the History Department.
“Many members of Warwick UCU joined with students to protest at the raising of tuition fees. Hopefully students will show us the same solidarity,” he said.