Strike action could disrupt summer examinations if there is no resolution to the dispute over UK higher education’s biggest pension scheme, union bosses have warned.
The warning comes as staff at 65 universities prepare to start a 14-day walkout on 22 February in protest against plans to scrap the element of the Universities Superannuation Scheme that guarantees a certain level of pension income in retirement. It follows a ballot in which 88 per cent of participating University and College Union members voted for strike action.
According to the union, the reforms would leave the typical lecturer almost £10,000 a year worse off in retirement, compared with the current terms.
Speaking on Monday, UCU’s general secretary Sally Hunt said the union could not rule out strike action being extended.
“The current ballot mandate runs until July – in other words it includes the exam period and I don’t rule that off the table at this point in time,” she said, adding that they would also be looking at action further into the autumn.
Industrial action begins with a two-day walkout on 22 and 23 February, escalating to strikes of three, four and five days in subsequent weeks (26-28 February, 5-8 March and 12-16 March).
The union’s higher education committee is due to meet on 2 March, two weeks into the action, to decide whether further action is required.
More than 1 million students are set to be affected with around 575,000 teaching hours lost as a result of the strikes, according to union estimates.
Ms Hunt insisted, however, that the union is committed to negotiating a solution with employers.
“We are keeping the channels of communication going but there are no formal negotiations. We have had no indication from the employers that they intend to shift that position.
“That being the case, we are very clear that we are going to follow through on what our ballot has asked us to do. There will be significant strike action from Thursday, and it will be ongoing until we find a resolution.”
Responding to the threat of extended strikes, a spokesman for Universities UK, which represents university employers, said change was necessary to plug the scheme’s £6.1 billion deficit.
“We hope that employees recognise that changes are necessary to put the scheme on a secure footing, and that the proposed strike action will only serve to unfairly disrupt students’ education,” he said.
He added that UUK met with UCU over 35 times during the last year in an attempt to find a joint solution.
“Unfortunately, the only proposal put forward by UCU would have led to unaffordable contributions for employees and employers,” he said. “The UCU proposal would necessitate large cuts to budgets in other areas such as teaching and research, and put many jobs at risk.”