As I am sure we are all aware, strike action started on Thursday at more than 50 universities across the country. Universities UK (the group that runs the pension fund for university lecturers) intend to cut our professors’ pensions – in order to try and redress the large £6billion deficit in the fund.
Under the current plan, the Universities Superannuation Scheme will change from a ‘defined benefit scheme’ – one which guarantees the lecturers a steady, fixed income during retirement – to a ‘defined contribution scheme’ – whereby the lecturers’ pensions are subject to fluctuations in the stock market. This change would not only make investments in the scheme unreliable, if the stock market crashes, but also would see lecturers lose up to £10,000 a year of their pension!
Hence, it is hardly surprising that tens of thousands of lecturers have taken strike action to prevent this, as funnily enough, they did not agree to their pensions being cut when they became lecturers?!
It is also worth noting that the average lecturer’s salary is only £39,000 a year, which to me seems remarkably low, given the work they have to do, as well as the responsibility they have of ensuring they are teaching future doctors, lawyers, and leaders to the highest possible standard. Therefore, having a secure pension seems only fair for a job that is not as well-paid as one might think.
Another very valid reason for striking is that these pension cuts would affect future lecturers if Universities UK does actually implement them – which could see a sharp decline in the numbers of those wanting to become university lecturers if they know their pensions are poor. As many of our lecturers have pointed out, this would leave a negative legacy in the field of academia, which could have further knock-on effects such as preventing people from even wanting to go to university.
It has also been reported that approximately 90,000 students have signed petitions asking for fee refunds – or at least some compensation for the hours we could potentially miss for up to four weeks if a compromise cannot be made between the UCU and Universities UK before then.
The strikes, of course, will cause a lot of disruption to students’ learning – particularly to those who have to sit exams. Having said that, I hope I speak for at least the majority of students when I say that we wholeheartedly support our lecturers’ decision to take strike action; desperate times call for desperate measures – especially if you want to make your voice heard.
Fortunately, though, Universities UK has sent an open letter to members of the pension scheme, stating that the changes do not need to be permanent. Whilst this is still not an ideal solution, it does suggest that the group are willing to compromise, so hopefully, the UCU will be able to meet with them and come to a fair agreement, to help our lecturers keep their full pensions which they rightly deserve.
A university spokesperson said:
“While only a minority of our staff are members of the UCU, we are planning for every eventuality, and our priority is to minimise any disruption to students, including through asking striking staff to reschedule their teaching.
“The pension scheme’s multi-billion-pound deficit needs to be tackled so that we can provide all staff with a scheme which is sustainable, stable and fair – particularly to younger colleagues who would suffer the consequences of short-term fixes. The University’s standard contribution of 18% of salary to the scheme will continue under the proposed reforms, but we could not support directing more money away from our core academic activity – including teaching – into staff pensions. Five members each of UCU and UUK have been at the negotiating table for more than 30 meetings on this issue. The University has not been directly involved in those discussions and we are encouraging staff to take part in the official consultation that starts next month.
It’s too early to assess the impact although many teaching activities went ahead today, but for those students affected, we know this is a real concern and we’re doing everything we can to ensure they get the right support.”