Strikes organised by the Universities and Colleges Union will begin this week across 61 UK universities. The strikes, set to last from Thursday 22nd February until Friday 16th March mark one of the largest instances of national union action for the past ten years.
The UCU voted in favour of the strikes on the 22nd January after changes in pension plans were introduced by the USS. The UCU vote saw 58% of its members vote, with 88% choosing to support the strikes and 93% agreeing that some other form of industrial action was necessary. The strikes will disrupt teaching at all Russell group universities established before 1992. It’s the first time since November 2014 that the UCU have taken action against the USS, emphasizing the magnitude of the issue.
Why are lecturers striking?
Lecturers are striking in opposition to proposed changes to their pension funds. At present, lecturers are guaranteed a retirement income at the end of their careers. However, the new changes would make pensions plans subject to changes in the stock market. This means that the financial stability of lecturers’ futures would very much hang in the balance. The proposed changes could mean that lecturers starting their careers now would lose approximately £200,000 over the span of their career.
The changes are being justified as attempts to decrease the financial deficit in higher education and tackle rising future costs. However, they mean that lecturers working at pre-1992 universities will be, on average, £385,000 worse off than lecturers at post-1992 universities.
What does this mean for students?
The strikes are aiming to disrupt student learning by reducing contact hours for a period of over two weeks. This will mean lectures, seminars and office hours will be cancelled during this time (but only if your lecturer has chosen to tow the picket line). For UK students, this could mean losing approximately £1200 worth of contact time. For international students, this figure stands at a staggering £2000, as fees are on average £15,500 per academic year.
How have students reacted?
Students have reacted in a mixed way, but overall the majority stand in support of their lecturers. In fact, several students across the country have taken to signing petitions demanding reimbursement for the loss of contact hours they will face. Since university education is now technically a commodity, students are arguing that they are entitled to a reimbursement under the rights that come with consumer law. Currently, most students are calling for a reimbursement of £300 from their university. However, it is unclear whether the demand is for an immediate reimbursement or for the money to be taken off the (approx.) £52,000 worth of debt most students are left with after graduating.
Lauren, a third year Law and Politics student expressed her concerns over the strikes, “As a final year I’m worried that I’ll be missing out on vital information that could be detrimental to my final grade. In law, you need to know everything in your course in order to qualify so I’m quite scared that this will hinder my chances of pursuing sponsorship after graduating or even getting a place in post-graduate study”.
Politics lecturers at the University of Manchester have already stated that they will completely omit the content that would have been taught during the strikes, meaning that students will not be tested on material that they weren’t taught in final exams.
What are lecturers hoping to achieve?
At best, a reversal in policies to change pension funds. However, as this seems somewhat optimistic, aims for negotiations and at least a decrease in the intensity of the changes have also been put forward as a common goal of the UCU.