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BRITAIN’S top universities are to see an unprecedented wave of strikes from next month after lecturers voted overwhelmingly to fight an attack on their pensions.
Higher-education bosses are seeking to switch a scheme covering 68 universities from a defined-benefit plan to defined-contribution. It would mean that retirement income is subject to changes in the stock market, and dons could lose up to £200,000 each.
The University and College Union (UCU) announced today that 88 per cent of its members at these institutions had voted to strike.
Overall turnout in the ballot was 58 per cent — and all but seven institutions had a turnout higher than the 50 per cent turnout threshold required in the 2016 Trade Union Act.
The union then announced it would launch an “escalating” campaign of strikes, beginning with a two-day walkout on February 22 and 23. If bosses do not come back with a better deal after this, lecturers will walk out for three-day, four-day and five-day stints in the weeks following.
Ninety-three per cent of staff voted in support of action short of strike. Due to the potential effect of marking boycotts, such action can sometimes be even more disruptive than walkouts.
UCU general secretary Sally Hunt said: “Universities will be hit with levels of strike action not seen before on UK campuses if a deal cannot be done over the future of pensions.”
The dispute affects institutions signed up to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS). These include most of the traditional pre-1992 universities, including Russell Group members. Staff at post-1992 universities — which include the former polytechnics — are mostly part of another pension scheme. Since 2011, the scheme has already faced two rounds of cuts.
Ms Hunt said: “The USS already offers worse benefits than other schemes available in universities, and [the] proposals would make matters worse.
“Even at this late stage we urge universities to work with us to reach an agreement that protects the defined benefit element of USS pensions.”
Last week the vice-chancellors of Warwick and Loughborough universities broke rank to criticise Universities UK — the management body implementing the change — for failing to guarantee retirement incomes.
Talks between the union and management are scheduled to end tomorrow, but UCU said it was happy for talks to be extended in an attempt to resolve the issue without strike action.
A Universities UK spokeswoman described the ballot result as “disappointing” and called for further talks between the parties to avoid disruption on campuses.
“A solution to the significant funding challenges facing USS needs to be found,” she said. “We should be under no illusion: this is not a problem that will go away if ignored. To retain the status quo would only serve interests in the short term.
“Without reform now, universities will likely be forced to divert funding allocated from research and teaching to fill a pensions funding gap. The option of no reform is a dangerous gamble. It is a risk that employers cannot take.”
But lecturers won praise from student activists for taking a stand. Labour Students vice-chair Lara McNeill told the Star: “From the butchering of staff pensions to sky-high rents in student halls, our education system is facing attack after attack.
“But this massive mandate for strike action shows that we can fight back against this wave of corporate greed — even in the face of the harshest anti-union laws in Europe.
“Students should not only support their lecturers in this dispute but also organise to fight alongside them for free and accessible higher education.”
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