Staff at London universities are in their 4th and final week of strikes about proposed changes to their final pensions.

They are just some of the thousands of University and College Union (UCU) members around the UK involved in protests. The strike action is affecting students at more than 60 universities redbrick and older institutions including Oxford, Cambridge, Liverpool, Sheffield and Imperial College London.

The disputes concern plans by employers’ group, Universities UK  (UUK) to abolish the defined benefit element (guaranteed retirement income) of the University Superannuation Scheme. The  UUK claim the defined benefit aspect is too expensive to keep. Instead final pensions will depend on the pension fund performance and stock market fluctuations.

UCU, which has nearly 105,000 members, says the plans would leave a typical lecturer almost  £10,000 a year worse off in retirement.

Why are UUK proposing these changes?

UUK says the proposed changes are needed because there is currently a £6.1 billion deficit. This is exacerbated by an increase in the cost of future pension benefits which the employers’ group says would cost an additional £1 billion a year to maintain the existing benefits.

Why are the strikes taking place now?

The UUK and the University and College Union (UCU) have been discussing the issue for the past year, but a legal deadline (30 June) means reforms must be put in place soon. 

Talks between the 2 parties started on Monday 5 March and are continuing  – mediated by the conciliation service, AcasThe UCU is threatening a further14 days of strike action during exam time if the dispute is not resolved.

Student reaction

Since tuition fees were introduced at the end of the 20th century, students are increasingly being seen, and are seeing themselves as consumers. Generally, university students pay tuition fees of around £9250 each year. 

National Audit Office data shows that students typically have an average of £50,000 ‘debt’ after a 3 year degree. 

And nearly 100,000 students have signed petitions calling for compensation.

Michael Thompson, Deputy Director, Head of Comms and Campaigns, Universities UK (UUK):

“The focus of universities is on making every effort to work with students to minimise disruption to their academic experience. The issue of compensation is a complex legal area.  Taking legal action seeking compensation should be a last resort as universities should be able to make alternative arrangements so students aren’t disadvantaged”.

Government response

Universities minister Sam Gyimah has suggested universities should either schedule extra classes on days that are unaffected by the strikes, or pay students back for the classes they miss.  But the strikes reveal fundamental challenges faced by the higher education sector.

The NAO in a blog earlier this year questioned whether the market for higher education was working, stating that students don’t have the same protection at the point of sale as some other services and are vulnerable when deciding about higher education.

The future of the higher education sector?
From 1 April, a new Office for Students starts operating  – replacing the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE). Its remit is ‘to hold universities to account and promote students interests’. It will be the main regulator of higher education, and will hold universities to account for the quality of teaching they provide and assess whether they are providing value for money.

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