Class cancelled, there's a strike on

Pedagogy postponed as scholars and support staff join huge pension action. John Morgan writes

December 1, 2011

Credit: Getty
On the line: lecturers are among the up to 2 million expected to strike

Teaching was called off at some universities during the UK's biggest industrial action for a generation, as support staff and academics mounted strikes over pension cuts.

On 30 November, as up to 2 million public sector workers went on strike over pensions, higher education's support staff unions - Unison, Unite and the GMB - joined lecturers in the University and College Union and the Educational Institute of Scotland in stoppages at post-1992 universities. Staff in those institutions are members of public sector pension schemes.

The UCU also mounted a strike in pre-1992 universities on the same day, part of its ongoing dispute over cuts to benefits in the private Universities Superannuation Scheme. The EIS took similar action over the Scottish scheme.

As Times Higher Education went to press, the universities of Strathclyde and Sunderland had postponed all teaching for the day, while the University of Brighton said all buildings would be closed. Unions predicted that others would call off classes at short notice to minimise adverse publicity.

A Sunderland spokesman said: "In line with many universities across the UK, we have taken the decision to enact partial closure, meaning the postponement of all academic activity on that day."

The two biggest unions in the sector - the UCU and Unison - put their higher education membership at 62,000 and 45,000 respectively.

Jon Richards, Unison's national secretary for education and children's services, said the strikers would include "catering [and] cleaning staff, porters, admin and clerical staff, technicians, managers - we might even get a few HR people out". He said that the coalition's plans could amount to a 50 per cent increase in university staff contributions to local government pensions, following three years of "very meagre pay increases" in the sector.

Sally Hunt, the UCU general secretary, said the union was set for new talks on the USS with pre-1992 universities on 16 December, following its work-to-rule action.

The UCU would focus on pension rights in redundancy, accrual rates in the section for new members, the scheme's valuation and the cap for inflation-proofing, she added.

Ms Hunt said that employers in the USS should keep a "careful eye" on developments in the Teachers' Pension Scheme, used by academics in post-1992 universities, to ensure "comparable" provision across the sector. On the TPS, Ms Hunt said that while the senior civil servants negotiating for the Department for Education were respected by the unions, they were constrained by an inflexible "Treasury cap" that hampered talks.

On the public sector schemes, a spokesman for the higher education Employers Pensions Forum said it looked to the government and the TUC to negotiate an agreement so that students and their institutions were not affected.

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