Tensions between universities and staff – as well as students – were mounting in the run-up to strike action over changes to UK higher education’s biggest pension scheme.
Employees at 61 universities were preparing to start a 14-day walkout on 22 February in protest against Universities UK’s plan to scrap the element of the University 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 sign of the growing tensions, management at the University of Leeds were accused of “bullying” after they wrote to academics warning them that, as well as withholding pay for each day of strike action, the institution would deduct a quarter of their daily salary if they refused to reschedule lectures or cover for absent colleagues.
It is understood a number of other universities have unveiled similar deduction policies.
The UCU has called on striking academics to refuse to cover for absent colleagues and not to reschedule lectures, and to work to contract on an ongoing basis.
One member of staff at Leeds said the university had “never before taken such a hard position as this on strike action and especially on action short of strike”.
Sally Hunt, the UCU’s general secretary, called on universities to “stop trying to intimidate staff” and to work harder on lobbying UUK to negotiate with the UCU.
“We have seen these types of tactics before in efforts to bully staff ahead of the action they have democratically and overwhelmingly voted to take,” she said.
A Leeds spokeswoman said that the university's priority was to “minimise any disruption that the industrial action may cause to our students’ education”.
“After careful consideration, we have agreed on a voluntary and ex gratia basis that we will pay 75 per cent of a day’s pay each day to those staff who participate in action short of a strike that breaches their contract, but who continue to carry out all other contractual duties,” she said. “We remain committed to making up any activities missed during the strike, ensuring that we maintain the integrity of our students’ education and that they are not disadvantaged academically.”
Meanwhile, more students have signed petitions calling for learners to be compensated if their studies are affected by the strike.
One petition, signed by more than 3,100 students at Cardiff University, calls for “academic compensation” rather than financial reimbursement.
Depending on how long the strike lasts, compensation could be in the form of changes to exam papers, rescheduling of exam or essay dates or extenuating circumstances, said Samuel Veal, a third-year history student who started the petition with fellow student Katie Walters.
Mr Veal said that the petition aimed to show “lecturers that we are in support of them and that there’s a united front”.
“What we hope is that by calling for academic compensation, we can encourage vice-chancellors and UUK to recognise the full impact these strikes can have on students, lecturers and the academic community as a whole,” Mr Veal said.
After a two-day walkout on 22 and 23 February, the industrial action is set to escalate with strikes of three, four and five days in subsequent weeks.
Polling conducted for Times Higher Education found that students were divided over their support for the strike, with many sympathetic to academics’ plight but also holding concerns about the disruption to their courses.