University staff join ‘biggest strike for a generation’

University lecturers and support staff are on strike over pensions today, joining national action that unions say will involve up to two million public sector workers.

November 30, 2011

At post-1992 universities, where staff are members of public sector schemes, support staff unions Unite, Unison and the GMB are on strike alongside lecturers in the University and College Union and the Educational Institute of Scotland.

And in pre-1992 universities, the UCU is holding a strike over cuts to the private Universities Superannuation Scheme, while the EIS is striking over the Scottish scheme.

At the School of Oriental and African Studies, there was a picket line of around 60 staff and students for the USS strike.

Students banged drums, sang Christmas carols with adapted lyrics on an anti-coalition theme, and chanted “I’d rather get a third than be a scab”.

Graham Dyer, Soas UCU branch chair, said there were 100 staff on picket lines across the institution’s four entrances.

“Unison members are not crossing the picket line and the place is empty as far as students are concerned,” he said.

Dr Dyer argued that as universities undergo increasing marketisation, “they have to attack the cost base so they can create profit opportunities. That means they will attack our wages and pensions.”

He added that he believed the employers “would have to start making some concessions” on the USS, particularly on accrual rates in the career-average section of the scheme, introduced for new entrants from 1 October.

Members who joined the scheme before that point will remain on final-salary pensions.

Dr Dyer said: “In two or three years’ time, they [the employers] will start coming for final-salary members as well and move us all over to career average. So it’s really important to get a higher accrual rate.”

At the University of Westminster, where staff are in public sector schemes, union members on the picket line on Regent Street claimed the institution had been forced to cancel “most classes”.

Bob Bryant, Unison branch treasurer, rejected the “myth” that public sector pensions are “gold-plated”.

He added: “In terms of the local government scheme [which includes non-academic staff at post-1992 universities], the scheme is very well funded.”

Mr Bryant said the extra contributions the government wants from members “isn’t going into the scheme, it is going to go into paying of the deficit”.

George Osborne, the chancellor, told the BBC today: “The strike is not going to achieve anything, it’s not going to change anything. It is only going to make our economy weaker and potentially cost jobs.”

He said unions should be holding talks with the government to resolve the pension dispute, rather than taking strike action.

A spokesman for the higher education Employers Pensions Forum said on public sector pensions: “HE employers look to the government and the TUC to resolve the issues and negotiate an agreement so that students and their institutions are not impacted. This sector recognises the need for attractive and sustainable pensions benefits, at a cost that both employers and employees can afford.”

On the USS, the EPF spokesman said that even with the latest valuation showing a £2.9 billion deficit in the fund, there was “no suggestion” that the employers would seek further changes to benefits.

john.morgan@tsleducation.com

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