Members of the University and College Union (UCU) have announced a wave of strike dates, after discussions with Universities UK (UUK) over pensions ended without an agreement. Strikes are set to take place over 14 days at 61 universities in the UK, including Imperial. The strikes will occur in escalating waves, with the first week seeing strikes from 22nd-23rd February and the second week from 26th-28th February; there will then be a week’s break, before a four-day strike from 5th-8th March, and finishing with a five-day walkout from 12th-16th March.

Universities that have reading weeks across these dates will postpone the strike for maximum impact.

“UCU members voted in favour of industrial action, with 88% of those balloted supporting a strike”

UCU members voted largely in favour of industrial action, with 88% of those balloted backing a strike. 58.5% of UCU Imperial members voted, in line with the national average of 58%. UCU secretary general Sally Hunt said: “[The results] provide a very strong mandate for UCU to continue the fight for a decent, guaranteed pension.”

Talks were held last week between UCU and UUK – the group representing UK universities – but ended without an agreement being reached. Hunt said they were “disappointed at how talks ended”, and said “staff will feel utterly betrayed by their leaders.”

Dr Michael McGarvey, President of Imperial College UCU, told Felix: “This morning at the meeting of the Academic and Related Staff Joint UCU Management Committee, management finally conceded they could pay increased contributions in order to fund the continuation of defined benefit USS pensions, but have chosen not to.

“At a time when real pay has fallen by around 20% since 2009 and staff facilities are being withdrawn (the latest being the swimming pool at the St. Mary’s Campus), this is another disappointing indication of the value management place on staff at Imperial.”

“Imperial UCU said the refusal to fund the pension scheme was ‘another disappointing indication of the value amnagement place on staff’”

A College spokesperson informed Felix that UCU notified them of 522 members at Imperial, of whom 276 are academic staff, 102 are research staff, and the remainder are postgraduate students, or administrative and managerial staff. A College spokesperson said they were “disappointed” by the industrial action, telling Felix: “We appreciate students may have concerns about disruption to their education, and we will work with departments and the students’ union to discuss and implement mitigation plans. We hope to keep disruption to a minimum.”

The National Union of Students (NUS) this week issued a joint statement with UCU, saying they were “sister organisations committed to promoting the interests of our members and defending education”. The unions said they were “proud of our work together in calling for a better deal for students and staff”, and the NUS asked its members to “continue to call for the university employers to recognise the seriousness of the situation”.

A spokesperson for Imperial College Union, which is not affiliated with the NUS, told Felix: “Imperial College Union will soon meet Imperial UCU to discuss their view on the strikes. We will also ask Imperial UCU and College to let us know what impact they believe the strikes will have on our students, so we can keep you as informed as possible of how your studies may be affected.”

UCU will be offering strike pay to their members, saying they will “look to prioritise help for those most in need”.

The UCU has recently produced a video explaining the rationale behind the strikes to students, which claims a typical lecturer would lose £10,000 per year in retirement benefits. They say “without the security of a decent pension, staff will simply leave”.

What is the debate about?

The debate centres around proposed changes to pension schemes for university staff. The current pension scheme used in higher education is the University Superannuation Scheme (USS) – a defined benefit pensions scheme in which the employer is responsible for contributions up to a salary of £55,550. Beyond this, the USS switches to a defined contribution scheme, where pension value is linked to the performance of the stock market.

UUK proposes to end the defined benefit scheme and switch to a fully defined contribution scheme – a move UCU general secretary Sally Hunt called “the worst proposal I have received in twenty years of representing university staff”. Alistair Jarvis, the chief executive of UUK, has said the changes are necessary to “ensure the scheme remains sustainable.” Sam Gyimah, the new universities minister, however, last month wrote to Ellie Rees MP saying the USS pension scheme was “strong and stable”.

Dr Michael McGarvey, President of Imperial College UCU, told Felix: “Depending on calculations – which are highly contested – the increased contributions required to fund the defined benefit USS pensions might be very little, or – at the very most – 10% of Imperial’s annual operating surplus”

There are concerns this could leave pension funds at the mercy of fluctuations of the stock market in the future. Last year Professor Michael Otsuka, of the London School of Economics, estimated for some staff switching to the new scheme would lead to a reduction in the value of their pension of 60%. An Imperial working group, which was commissioned by College management, produced a critique of the basis upon which UUK is recommending changes, saying “lack of transparency remains a key issue” in the debate.