Union chiefs on Monday confirmed 14 days of escalating strike action at 61 universities in protest against changes to UK higher education’s biggest pension scheme.
Confirmation of the strike follows a ballot in which 88 per cent of participating University and College Union members voted to walk out over Universities UK’s plans to scrap the element of the Universities Superannuation Scheme that guarantees a certain level of pension income in retirement.
Industrial action is set to begin 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).
Due to their reading week dates, staff at four institutions – the University of Stirling, University of Edinburgh, Queen Mary University of London and King’s College London – will not take part in the first two days of strike action and will instead walk out on 19 and 20 March.
Meanwhile, the seven universities that failed to meet the 50 per cent turnout requirement for strike action are being balloted again, with the ballot set to close on 16 February. If they vote for strike action, and at least 50 per cent participate in the vote, they will be able to join the action from 5 March.
UCU general secretary Sally Hunt said staff were “understandably angry” and felt “let down by vice-chancellors who seem to care more about defending their own pay and perks than the rights of their staff”.
“Strike action on this scale has not been seen before on UK campuses, but universities need to know the full scale of the disruption they will be hit with if they refuse to sort this mess out,” she said.
The Joint Negotiating Committee (JNC), the legally established forum for deciding changes to the USS scheme, voted on 23 January in favour of Universities UK’s proposal to scrap the element of pensions that guarantees members a certain level of income in retirement.
UUK’s proposal would move the entirety of members’ earnings on to a defined contribution model, in a bid to close a deficit that the USS estimates to be £7.5 billion. It includes a commitment to consider in three years’ time whether defined benefits can be reintroduced, should the scheme’s funding conditions improve. It also allows members to opt to contribute 4 per cent of their salary, rather than 8 per cent, while still benefiting from the 18 per cent employer contribution.
Commenting on the upcoming strikes, a spokesperson for Universities UK said: “Changes to USS pensions have been agreed by the JNC.
“That decision is a necessary step, made in the best interests of university staff, to put USS on a sustainable footing for the long-term. The scheme will continue to offer attractive pensions through market-leading defined contribution benefits.”