University College Union (UCU) has sanctioned another 14 days of strike action during exam and assessment periods if the current dispute with Universities UK (UUK) is not resolved. The news comes as the third week of strike action comes to an end, with academic and support staff across the country walking out from Monday to Thursday. The strikes are scheduled to continue throughout all of next week.
UCU have been meeting with UUK this week, with the conciliation service Acas as a mediator, to discuss a solution to the current pensions dispute. UUK, the governing body for UK higher education institutions, wants to put through a number of changes to the USS pension scheme. UUK claim that a£7.5 billion deficit means the changes are needed, a position UCU disputes. UCU say the changes could mean members of the scheme – which includes both academic and support staff – lose up to £10,000 per year in pension payments.
While UCU had originally scheduled 14 days of strikes in escalating waves, they say further action may be warranted “in defence of our pensions”. 65 higher education institutions would face further strike action, which would take place between April and June. UCU have not specified dates for the strikes, but say they would “gather information on when the 14 days of action would be most effective at different universities.”
Sally Hunt, general secretary of the UCU, said: “I want to stress that I consider all this a necessary precaution against the failure of talks to deliver an acceptable settlement. The union would prefer dialogue and I have given my personal commitment to Acas that UCU is serious about reaching an agreement.”
How the strikes will affect examinations has been a concern for both students and staff. Last month, Professor James Stirling, Provost, and Professor Simone Buitendijk, Vice-Provost (Education), said “no students would be placed at a disadvantage due to the strike” and they would “not be examined on any material that you have not been taught.” It is, as of yet, unclear how the College will define missed content.
However, this promise has been disputed by some staff. A number of students in the Department of Computing, for example, have been told the examinations were set weeks ago, and the email shows “the Provost and Vice-Provost for Education [sic] have apparently no idea how examinations at Imperial work.”
In a statement published earlier this week, Professor Stirling and Professor Alice Gast, President, said they “recognise and regret the impact that the current UCU strike is having on teaching… [senior staff] have been working with Department representatives to advise on the development of local plans to minimise the impact on our students’ education. This work will of course continue.” Last week the College changed their position on the UUK valuation of the USS deficit, calling for the convening of an expert group by UUK and USS to reassess the deficit. They said assembling the group may push them past the deadline for changes to be made, but they would stay in the current scheme until the work is completed.
In the update to staff, Prof. Stirling and Prof. Gast said they had met with Richard Craster from the Department of Mathematics, to discuss “how best to take forward our call for UUK and the USS to convene an expert group, including university academics, to look closely at the valuation work, and be fully open and transparent about what they find.”
In a statement, Dr Michael McGarvey, President of Imperial UCU, said: “after nine days of strikes, and despite the weather, the UCU picket lines were just as strong and the members just as determined as they were on day one. The branch at Imperial continues to grow rapidly, now up 36% since the dispute started. While the recent moves by senior leaders at Imperial – as well as those elsewhere – are welcome, if they are genuine in wanting to have a fair agreement on pensions then they have to make sure UUK changes its hard-line position.”
“The current Acas talks between UCU and UUK continue, and UCU’s commitment to a negotiated solution remains undimmed. So far, however, there has been no agreement at Acas.”
Professor Tom Pike, Imperial UCU’s local Vice-President, said the strike action was “unprecedented”. He told Felix: “At this point we don’t know whether the current talks at ACAS are leading to an agreement. We do know that staff at Imperial will never see senior management here in quite the same light. The next item on the agenda, after the defence of pensions has been completed, is a closing not of any suggested pension deficit, but rather the yawning democratic deficit which has opened wide at Imperial.”
His words were echoed by UCU representative Roddy Slorach, who told Felix: “It’s important to recognise the broader issues that have driven this dispute. The attacks on our pensions can be traced back to the creation of tuition fees and a market in education. Since then, universities have increasingly seen themselves as competitors, with students seen as customers and staff as costs to be cut. University staff in London have lost 20% in wages in the last ten years while university management pay themselves massive salaries. Who chooses a career in education – to teach, to research or to support students – because we think of it as a business? I think lots of people see us as campaigning not just in defence of our pensions, but also in defence of education as a good in itself; as a right for every generation, and not as a privilege.”
Imperial is one of a number of universities who have broken with UUK’s stance: earlier this week the University of Oxford announced they would reconsider their position. The move comes following a meeting of staff on Tuesday – known as a congregation – in which a debate over the changes was blocked. Hundreds of staff then left the venue, and organised a separate vote on a resolution to change Oxford’s position, which passed 442 votes to two.
Louise Richardson, Oxford’s vice-chancellor, said: “In light of the depth of feeling of so many colleagues we will convene a special meeting of council… and will be recommending that council reverses its response to the UUK survey in line with congregation’s resolution.”
Cambridge, Manchester, St Andrews, and Warwick universities have all also moved away from the UUK position.