Student support for strikes over changes to UK higher education’s biggest pension scheme is divided, according to exclusive polling conducted for Times Higher Education, which reveals widespread sympathy for academics’ plight alongside concern about disruption to courses.
Staff at 61 universities are preparing to start a 14-day walkout on 22 February in protest against Universities UK’s plan to scrap the element of the Universities Superannuation Scheme that guarantees a certain level of pension income in retirement. The University and College Union claims that the reforms would leave the typical lecturer almost £10,000 a year worse off in retirement, compared with the current terms.
In a survey of 1,556 undergraduates and postgraduates at 84 universities, conducted by market research firm Trendence UK, support for the strike was finely balanced, with 38.4 per cent of respondents in favour, and 38.4 per cent opposed. The rest were undecided.
When asked whether they would support their lecturer if he or she chose to walk out, students were more decisive. More than half (51.8 per cent) said that they would back their lecturer, with 29.3 per cent saying that they would not.
There was widespread concern about the impact of the industrial action, which starts with a two-day strike on 22 and 23 February, escalating to walkouts of three, four and five days in subsequent weeks.
More than two-thirds of respondents (69 per cent) said they believed that the strike would harm their education, compared with 18 per cent who disagreed.
But when asked who was to blame for the strikes, students were most likely to name the government, their university or its vice-chancellor, with only one in 20 criticising the union.
David Palmer, UK and Ireland research manager at Trendence, said: “Students tend to sympathise with the lecturers who plan to go on strike, but students are very aware that the impending industrial action will harm their education.”
Students at a number of universities have launched petitions that express support for academics but call for tuition fees for days lost to strike action to be refunded. One set up by learners at the University of York had attracted more than 2,000 signatures by the start of this week.
Robert Liow, a law student at King’s College London who has started a Refund Our Fees campaign, told THE that students “should not face financial pressure to cross picket lines”.
Sally Hunt, UCU’s general secretary, described the survey results as “encouraging” and said that students’ fears about the impact on their education “makes it all the more outrageous that UUK has…refused to engage meaningfully with us”.
A UUK spokesman said that USS pensions would remain “attractive and sustainable” and that a consultation on the proposed changes would be launched on 19 March.