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Lecturers on strike at University of Essex over pension changes

PUBLISHED: 13:24 22 February 2018 | UPDATED: 14:27 22 February 2018

Lecturers and other campus staff on strike at the University of Essex as part of a national dispute over proposed pension changes. Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

Lecturers and other campus staff on strike at the University of Essex as part of a national dispute over proposed pension changes. Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

Hundreds of lecturers and other staff angry over proposed changes to pensions began a 14-day staggered strike at the University of Essex today.

The EADT has been told up to 500 lecturers and other campus staff, such as admin and IT employees, were on strike at the Colchester campus in the first wave of the walkout, which is affecting 64 British institutions and could run into the summer exam season.

More than 14,000 students at the university could be affected. It has been described as the worst industrial action at universities in modern times.

The staggered strikes end on March 16 but could return in April, May and June if the bitter dispute is not resolved. Hundreds of lectures, classes, and assessments could be affected nationwide.

Universities have planned to minimise disruption.

The University and College Union (UCU), which represents lecturers and campus staff, is in dispute over proposed changes to pensions covered by the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS).

Vice-chancellors have proposed changes meaning academics could lose up to half their retirement income, analysis shows.

Students stand alongside their lecturers on the picket line.  Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN Students stand alongside their lecturers on the picket line. Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

The dispute centres on proposals to end the defined benefit element of the USS pension scheme, which has an estimated deficit of £6.1bn. The USS proposes to end the defined benefit (DB) structure, where members get a proportion of their final salaries in retirement, and make it defined contribution (DC), where retirement income is determined by the pension fund’s investment and returns. Talks to make pensions half DB and half DC broke down and vice-chancellors proposed to make it fully DC, triggering the strike.

Universities UK (UUK), which represents vice-chancellors, said: “We hope employees recognise that changes are necessary to put the scheme on a secure footing.”

At Essex, 91.2% of academics voted in support, with a turnout of 61.5%. A total of 519 staff were eligible to vote.

Lecturers and other campus staff on strike at the University of Essex as part of a national dispute over proposed pension changes. Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN Lecturers and other campus staff on strike at the University of Essex as part of a national dispute over proposed pension changes. Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

Professor Anthony Forster, vice-chancellor of the University of Essex, has criticised the proposals.

Lecturers and other campus staff on strike at the University of Essex as part of a national dispute over proposed pension changes. Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN Lecturers and other campus staff on strike at the University of Essex as part of a national dispute over proposed pension changes. Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

UCU regional official Lydia Richards said: “Nobody wants to take strike action, but staff feel they have no choice. These hardline proposals would slash staff pensions and are simply uncalled for. It is staggering that most universities have refused to engage with the union and a real insult to staff and to students.

“Professor Forster’s intervention is welcome and more vice-chancellors should be speaking out to try and resolve this dispute.”

Peter Patrick, vice-president of University of Essex UCU, said: “It’s encouraging that our own vice-chancellor shares common ground with staff opposing these devastating proposals.

Peter Patrick, vice-president of the University of Essex branch of the University and College Union (UCU). Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN Peter Patrick, vice-president of the University of Essex branch of the University and College Union (UCU). Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

“However, warm words won’t save anyone’s pension - if unnecessary disruption is to be avoided then university leaders across the country need to keep the pressure on Universities UK to get back to the negotiating table.”

University of Essex Registrar Bryn Morris said: “We’re working closely with our Students’ Union to provide guidance to all students and to minimise the impact on them. Individual students will be affected differently and we will be looking to keep them updated about any potential disruption to their studies. We’ve asked each of our departments to make plans to ensure they still achieve the learning outcomes of cancelled lectures and classes.”

A UUK spokesman said: “UUK remains at the negotiating table, but so far UCU has refused to engage on how best to address the funding challenges facing USS. It is important now that UCU engages on how best to ensure the long-term sustainability of the scheme.”

Scott Seton, 22, of Newmarket, a first-year philosophy undergraduate student at the University of Essex, who supports the strike action. Picture: MATT STOTT Scott Seton, 22, of Newmarket, a first-year philosophy undergraduate student at the University of Essex, who supports the strike action. Picture: MATT STOTT

He added that there are scheduled discussions with the UCU on key issues with the USS.

The spokesman continued: “The changes proposed will make USS secure and sustainable, safeguarding the future of universities.

“University staff will still have a valuable pension scheme, with employer contributions of 18% of salary, double the private sector average. This makes strike action very disappointing.

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