This article was published at HUART’s member bulletin 2/2018. Writer: Matti Eräsaari
While the University of Helsinki was undergoing its one-day strike in February, British universities went through a fourteen-day strike, spread over four weeks. We provide a brief synopsis for those who missed what the UK strike was about and how it was executed.
In 2017, Universities UK (UUK), a body that represents the majority of higher education employees in the United Kingdom, proposed changes to university employees’ established pension benefits. They announced that the current pension arrangement under the private Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), is running a deficit while facing a significant rise in the cost of future pensions. Universities UK proposed that the current system of guaranteed pension benefits should be replaced by a defined contribution scheme, where retirement income would depend on returns from money invested in the stock market. The Universities Superannuation Scheme involves mainly employees of UK’s older universities, those established before 1992.
According to a report commissioned by the University and College Union (UCU), employees just beginning their careers would be the hardest hit, seeing their pensions slashed by about 40 per cent should the proposed changes take place. Employees who have been paying into the scheme for longer periods would also face cuts, though less severe. Universities UK, in turn, highlighted that contributions paid into the USS would have to rise by approximately £1 billion per annum to maintain the current level of benefits, and pointed out that doing so would mean finding the necessary money elsewhere − teaching and research − and thus lead to redundancies.
The University and College Union responded to the proposed changes by balloting union members’ willingness to take industrial action. In January 2018, UCU reported that 88 per cent of the members who took part in the vote were in favour of strike action. UCU announced that sixty-one universities affected by the proposed pension cuts would be hit with a wave of strikes and other industrial action, should the negotiations over the pension issue be unsuccessful. Other action would include “union members working strictly to their contract”.
The strike began on February 22nd. The planned fourteen-day strike followed an escalating pattern: two days on the first week, three on the next, then four and finally five days on the week starting on March 12th. Institutions with reading weeks coinciding with strike days rescheduled their strike days for greater impact. According to UCU estimates, approximately 575,000 teaching hours would be lost during the strikes that would affect over one million students.
The National Union of Students (NUS) expressed its support for the striking university staff in a joint statement from the by NUS president and UCU General Secretary. In addition to expressing solidarities, NUS asked its members to participate in local demonstrations and make complaints about the impact of the strike on their learning. Students also demanded reimbursement from their universities for the strike days. At the start of the strike it was reported that the number of petitions was rising at the rate of 10,000 a day (Guardian 20. February), by March 5th the BBC reported that about 126,000 students had signed petitions calling for fee refunds.
On March 13th, the local branches of UCU soundly rejected a proposal drawn up at the negotiations between Universities UK and the University and College Union. Meanwhile, plans were underway for another 14 days of strikes, designed to coincide with the exam and assessment periods between April and June. The UCU also called those of its members who were external examiners at strike universities to resign their positions in order to cause universities a number of specific problems around the setting and marking of exams.
On April 13th, members of the University and College Union voted with a 2:1 majority to accept a second agreement between the UCU and UUK. Where the first, rejected deal had sought to moderately raise the percentage paid into the pension scheme by employers and employees alike, the second sought a more comprehensive solution through a thorough re-evaluation of the existing pension scheme. To accomplish this, both sides have now nominated their experts for a joint panel seeking to assess the valuation of the USS fund. To allow this to happen, the current deal will remain in place until at least April 2019. In terms of accomplishments, the strike clearly makes it possible for future negotiations to proceed on mutually established ground, though no actual solution has been found, which also leaves the door open for further industrial action in one year’s time.