Why are lecturers from more than 60 UK universities on strike?

22 Feb 2018

Supporters from the University and College Union at the Britain Deserves a Pay Rise protest rally and demonstration in October 2017. Image: John Gomez/Shutterstock

UK university lectures are in revolt, with industrial action now underway at more than 60 different institutions. How did it get to this point?

Lecturers who are members of the University and College Union (UCU) in the UK are planning to make the next month very difficult for their universities’ representatives – Universities UK (UUK) – through a series of strikes that aim to give a single voice to hundreds over what they deem a threat to their futures.

But what exactly has led to such a dramatic development and is there one simple way of mending relations between the two?

The issue stems from the announcement made by the UUK that it planned to overhaul its Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS). This, the UCU’s members claimed, would see them lose £10,000 per year when they reach their retirement.

According to the BBC, the UCU also claimed that the youngest of academics entering the system will end up with half of the retirement income that they would have had before the adoption of the USS.

The change would see members no longer receive a guaranteed income in retirement, but they would instead be entered into a contribution scheme that could be subject to changes in the stock market.

Taking a stand, the UCU issued a notice that it was to take industrial action – spread across more than 60 universities, including Oxford and Cambridge – over the course of the next month, and possibly more months after that if demands are not met.

What has been the reaction from UCU and UUK?

Well, the UCU has been understandably critical of the UUK, but it is hoped that the pair can get discussions going again after a previous breakdown in talks.

UCU general secretary Sally Hunt said: “We have been calling for talks for weeks either directly or through Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS), so, if UUK are willing to now meet without preconditions with a view to resolving this dispute, this is good news.”

One of the UCU’s regional support officers, Martyn Moss, said to the Manchester Evening News: “It is staggering that the universities have refused to engage with the union, and a real insult to staff and to students. We hope students will continue to put pressure on the vice-chancellors to get their reps back around the negotiating table.”

The UUK’s response, meanwhile, has been critical of the UCU, claiming that this industrial action is being targeted directly at the students.

“It will be young people and the next generation of students who will also suffer if their education deteriorates because employers are forced to make cuts to pay more into pensions,” a spokesperson said.

“Employers are committed to continuing to pay in 18pc to staff pensions for the next five years – double the private sector average.”

The UUK added that the introduction of a new USS scheme is essential because it has a £6bn deficit it needs to reduce.

How have students reacted?

Many students appear to sympathise with the UCU’s decision to strike, with a number of students speaking to the media about the potential damage. A German student named Laura Femmer said to The Guardian that the situation could see foreign students like her look elsewhere.

“If they cut the pensions, a lot of the lecturers will probably leave and the quality of the teaching will probably drop,” Femmer said.

Deej Malik-Johnson of Manchester University’s students’ union also defended the UCU’s actions, saying: “The university will try and do its best to pit students against staff.

“We know who did this. This is not the UCU. It is not our teachers. It is not our mentors who have chosen to do this.”

During the writing of this piece, a group of young students posted a photo of themselves from what appears to be the UUK headquarters, issuing a statement saying that they are occupying the building until the UCU’s demands are met.

Despite the general support, some students are fearful of how this could affect their studies if the strike goes on for months.

Speaking to the BBC, a student from the University of St Andrews said: “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?”

Supporters from the University and College Union at the Britain Deserves a Pay Rise protest rally and demonstration in October 2017. Image: John Gomez/Shutterstock

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic