The fallout from UK higher education’s pension strike threatens to poison relations between university leaders, their staff and students, academics have warned, while it has also revealed significant divisions among vice-chancellors on the way forward for the sector.
Negotiations between Universities UK and the University and College Union were continuing this week at the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service, aimed at ending the walkout at 65 institutions that was triggered by plans to scrap the part of the Universities Superannuation Scheme that guarantees a certain level of income in retirement.
But, regardless of the outcome, lecturers said that significant damage had already been done to campus relations and the reputation of the UK’s university sector.
Several institutions have sparked outrage among staff by threatening to deduct further pay (on top of that withheld for strike days) from employees who take part in action short of a strike, such as refusing to reschedule lectures or to cover for absent colleagues.
The University of Kent told staff that failing to reschedule classes would see them lose half – and, in future, potentially all – their pay per day.
Meanwhile, with staff due to walk out for four days this week and for the full week beginning 12 March, concern was growing among students and their families about the impact of the ongoing dispute on their education.
Sam Marsh, a teaching fellow in the University of Sheffield’s School of Mathematics and Statistics, described the pensions dispute as the “final straw” for staff who were already exasperated by vice-chancellors’ stance on issues such as executive pay.
“It will be very hard for vice-chancellors – along with their executive teams – to rebuild the relationship with their staff,” he said. “This is a relationship that was in many cases already becoming strained, as we saw most clearly in [the University of] Bath.
“What we are seeing now is a result of years of taking those who work in higher education for granted, with pay erosion on an unprecedented scale coming alongside reduced autonomy and increased workload demands.”
Alice Evans, lecturer in international development at King’s College London, warned that academics were “sleepwalking into a neoliberal nightmare, marked by escalating fees, precarity and inequality”. “These long-standing anxieties have been exacerbated by the pensions dispute,” she said.
UCU warns that the changes to the USS proposed by UUK could leave the average lecturer about £10,000 a year worse off in retirement.
Sally Hunt, its general secretary, said that, whatever the outcome of the latest negotiations, “the sector has important lessons to learn”.
“As with the public criticism of vice-chancellors’ pay, too often the response to genuine staff concerns has been tone-deaf, giving the impression that universities are led by a group of leaders talking only to themselves and detached from reality,” she said.
While the dispute may have exacerbated the gulf between vice-chancellors and staff, it has brought lecturers and the 1 million students affected by the strike closer together, according to Tom Slater, reader in urban geography at the University of Edinburgh.
“It is stunning how many students have grasped that our working conditions are their learning conditions, and have joined picket lines up and down the country in solidarity with us,” he said.
The dispute has also revealed divisions among UUK’s membership, with several university heads seeking to make peace with lecturers. Vice-chancellors including Sir Anton Muscatelli and Sir Keith Burnett have joined the picket lines at the universities of Glasgow and Sheffield respectively, while Robert Allison has done the same at Loughborough University.
On 7 March, the University of Oxford's council decided to reverse the institution's previous position of supporting a reduction of the level of risk in the USS scheme. The desire to reduce risk lay behind UUK's proposals.
The council's decision after a symbolic vote of the institution's governing body, the congregation, overwhelmingly voted for a change of stance.
Also on 7 March, Stephen Toope, the vice-chancellor of the University of Cambridge, said that he would be asking the institution's council to support accepting a greater level of risk "in the short-term as a bridge to a sustainable long-term solution".
Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said that UUK would need to do some “bridge-building” once the dispute is resolved.
“[The strike] is exposing differences in opinion that everybody had assumed were there anyway,” he said. “Sometimes differences of opinion are best expressed in private so that the sector can show a united point of view to the world. But with pensions it’s just not possible – it’s too big an issue.”
A spokesman for UUK, which says that the reforms are needed to plug an estimated £6.1 billion deficit in the USS, acknowledged that solving the dispute was “complex and difficult”.
“There are 350 employers in USS, representing a diverse group of institutions, with a range of opinions, and varying abilities to pay more into pensions,” he said. “They are united in their belief, however, that USS must be affordable, sustainable, and continue to offer a meaningful benefit to staff.”