At a time when it seems impossible for higher education to be any more troubled, the UCU (University and College Union) has called for the lecturers of 67 of the UK’s leading universities, including Royal Holloway, to withdraw labour over sustained periods of time. Action is likely to focus on the marking of exam papers and admissions for the next academic year, affecting the progress of over one million current and prospective students. Voting in a UCU ballot 77% of members voted YES to ‘action short of a strike’, whilst 58% were discontented enough to vote YES to ‘full strike action’. A “major programme of sustained and disruptive industrial action” has been threatened by the UCU as the disagreement fails to find a resolution.
The dispute arose after the University Superannuation Scheme (USS – the second largest private pension scheme in the UK) made unpopular changes to pension plans. Changes due to come into effect in October require members to make higher payments into their pensions, whilst a cap has been placed on protection from inflation. New members are to be granted smaller pensions and those made redundant will receive reduced pensions. Lecturers from Royal Holloway and many other universities will be affected.
The changes are described as ‘draconian’ by representatives of the UCU who argue that such severe cuts are not necessary for financial maintenance of the scheme. Indeed a document produced in July reveals that “the scheme is likely to be around 98% funded” and that the deficit is expected to be lower than was [originally] predicted. With near-full funding secured, the pension scheme appears to have little change to make to maintain a good service. However, employees of the USS contest that the company will in fact suffer from a £1 billion deficit, and that this has to be covered by its trustees.
Consequently, disruption looms as lecturers feel they are being treated unfairly. Education could hardly escape from the financial restraints of the recession and such discontent has become all too familiar. The highly unpopular tuition fee rise proposed by the coalition at the end of 2010 prompted widespread demonstrations, including those in London that involved an attack on the car of Charles and Camilla. Now it’s the turn of the lecturers to react. Sally Hunt, general secretary of UCU stated: “Industrial action is always a last resort for educators and we will work closely with students to minimise problems where possible. However, the nature of any industrial dispute means disruption and there will be widespread and sustained
disruption unless USS is prepared to return to the negotiating table”. The University and Colleges Employees Association (UCEA) has stood against the proposed UCU disruption, stating: “The changes to the scheme were approved by the USS Trustee Board, which includes UCU representation. They are moderate by any standards and include the retention of a final salary pension for all existing USS members”. It appears as though the UCU is calling for action that is disproportionate to the pension changes proposed. Students of Royal Holloway and other UK universities may experience the consequences of the lecturers’dissatisfaction in the coming year that are viewed by some as simply unwarranted.