For tutors and lecturers to go on strike during the second semester is a nightmare for students, especially for those in their final years for whom the period is absolutely crucial. Yet if tutors had chosen to walk out at a less contentious time, during August, perhaps, it is unlikely their concerns would be heard.
On 22 February staff from universities across the four nations of the UK will go on strike over pensions, affecting an estimated 61 campuses and several thousand students. If the issue is not resolved by Wednesday, 28 February, the following three weeks could see walkouts of up to five days. Members of the University and College Union (UCU), who voted to take industrial action in late January, have announced that they are happy to return to the negotiating table, but for now have no alternative but to obstruct crucial periods of teaching.
The UCU is the country’s largest higher education union, representing university employees – that’s your lecturers and tutors – at a national level. They first warned of possibilities of strikes last November when changes to pensions were proposed by Universities UK (UUK), the advocating body of university employees. They claim that changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme, which provides pensions to staff at pre-1992 universities, are a financial necessity.
The changes they propose would transform the scheme from a guaranteed benefit system, which ensures a stable income in retirement, to a so-called defined contribution scheme, in which the pensions would be subject to fluctuations in the stock market. Since the proposals were announced, a war of statistics has broken out between the two camps to fill the vacuum of the failed negotiations: the UCU says the changes could make employees up to £200,000 worse off, while UUK says it is the only way to tackle a deficit of £17.5bn, a figure which is also disputed.
Of the sixty-eight universities who are members of the pension scheme, sixty-one voted in favour of either action or strikes, despite a law passed last year requiring turnout to be above 50% for ballots to be valid. As the change would affect all university employees who earn under £55,000 a year, it is no surprise so many voted to strike, and reveals the gulf between the unions and UUK. As one spokesperson for the latter told the BBC, ‘Without reform now, universities will likely be forced to divert funding allocated from research and teaching to fill a pensions funding gap.'
As for students, how the strike will affect their studies is unclear and depends somewhat on individual campuses, but in general lectures and classes due to take place on strike days will not be rescheduled, nor covered by other staff, as both actions would constitute a crossing of the picket line. Many students are also encouraged not to cross the picket line themselves by attending lectures and classes, even if this means them missing out on examined information.
Money has come into this argument in another way in that students from several universities across England and Wales have demanded reimbursements of tuition fees for weeks of missed classes. Watching their lecturers take industrial action has led many to question why they are paying £9000 a year when pension cuts are still taking place. Campaigns for reimbursements have been launched by students in Manchester, Liverpool, Cardiff and many other cities.
Conrad Whitcroft, a student of politics at the University of York, who launched a petition which reached over 2,500 signatures by 13 February, spoke to us about his campaign. He insisted that his protest was not 'to-hash' the contentious student fees debate but to 'force universities to face up to the reality of their new status,' that of 'businesses' with their students as clients. ‘They are no longer the publicly-funded education institutions of old that can treat their students like hungover sixth-formers or stop classes at a whim over industrial action.’
While acknowledging that lecturers were ‘livid’ at the prospect of changes to their pensions, Whitcroft claimed students were also being mistreated. 'Rather than try to resolve their funding issues for the sake of keeping the education system afloat, universities have completely overlooked the interests of students by continuing to charge us for the fourteen non-consecutive days of strike action throughout which we will not receive an education.'
That education will continue to be provided by non-union members during the days of industrial action, unless individual staff members choose to walk out in a show of solidarity. Organisations such as the National Union of Students have called for more talks, with President Shakira Martin commenting that it was ‘in the interests of both staff and students that we have a university sector in which staff are treated and remunerated fairly.’
This is the first time since 2006 that staff at universities have voted to go on strike. What makes the action doubly dramatic is that the students are every bit as involved, both concerned for their own financial status and that of their lecturers.