Thousands of university students face disruption as staff strikes continue

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Strikes, canceled conferences, loss of pay and pension cuts: it’s been a tough year at Queen Mary University of London.

Even good news about the value of the employee pension plan – at the center of the longstanding dispute between staff and employers – has failed to mend the strained relationship between academics and university administrations.

Students, who lost valuable teaching time after two years of pandemic disruption, remain stuck in the middle. “I’m really unhappy with the situation,” said a first-year English student who declined to be named. “Some students can manage their studies on their own, but others actually need support.”

QMUL is one of dozens of UK universities to be disrupted this year by changes to the university pension scheme, the UK’s largest private sector pension scheme, and poor pay and conditions, leading to relations acrimonious between academic staff and administrations.

Staff saw their guaranteed future pension payments cut in April by an average of a third according to their union, the University and College Union, to plug a £14-18billion hole in the scheme identified after a controversial valuation in March 2020.

University staff charged that by carrying out the valuation under unfavorable market conditions at the height of the pandemic, USS administrators failed to act in their best interests and voted to call a strike .

Jo Grady, General Secretary of the University and College Union, calling on universities to take “urgent action” to improve employee benefits © Wiktor Szymanowicz/NurPhoto/Shutterstock

Last week, an interim report from USS showed the funding hole had fallen from £14bn to £1.6bn, with the overall value of program assets rising by £22.3bn . Rising interest rates have also reduced the cost of future pension promises.

The resumption has left academics feeling vindicated but frustrated as the increasingly acrimonious dispute drags on. UCU general secretary Jo Grady said it proved the review had ‘grossly underestimated the enduring strength of the programme’ and called on universities to take ‘urgent action’ to improve staff benefits .

And while employers insist the benefit cuts were partly responsible for the improved pension fund, they also admit the increased value of the scheme meant they could reassess benefits for staff. “Constantly better” performance of the scheme “could make a real difference and lead to better benefits, lower contributions or a combination of the two”, said Universities UK, which represents the vice-chancellors of universities.

At QMUL, UCU members hope the improved financial situation will improve employees’ hand in negotiations with management. Branch organizer James Eastwood said he hopes continued pressure on individual universities, including marking boycotts at QMUL and nearly 20 other institutions, will inspire individual employers to push ASU to restore benefits.

“A negotiated result with employers’ organizations seems more difficult, but we can do much more locally,” he said.

James Eastwood, UCU Branch Organizer at QMUL
James Eastwood, UCU branch organizer at QMUL: ‘A negotiated outcome with employers’ organizations seems more difficult, but we can do a lot more locally’ © Anna Gordon/FT

But for QMUL students, it means the grading boycott, part of a series of ongoing strikes this year that has deprived them of weeks of lessons, will continue.

“We support the reasons for the strikes but we still pay the same costs. . . we’re struggling,” said a freshman neuroscience student who asked to remain anonymous.

Striking students and staff hope QMUL will follow other universities and push ASU to improve benefits to end the dispute. Management and unions at establishments such as Durham, Bristol and Loughborough have issued joint statements saying pension pot improvements should be used to improve member benefits.

In a joint letter, Oxford, Cambridge and Imperial College London also raised concerns about the management of USS, recommending that it adjust its ‘risk measurement’ to focus more on benefits to the staff, regardless of adverse circumstances.

Mark Taylor-Batty, the head of UCU pensions at the University of Leeds, said he was optimistic more institutions would issue joint statements as improved finances prompted university heads to reassess their positions.

In the meantime, the students deal with the consequences of the disruption. Those in their final year are now facing the possibility of a postponement of their graduation, and others are worried about their studies after missing months of classes.

As the grading boycott continues at QMUL and several other universities, officials are threatening to withhold 100% of salaries from staff who refuse to grade work, further straining industrial relations.

A spokesperson said QMUL’s “first priority” is to protect “the education and experience of all of our students. . . and to maintain academic quality and standards”. They said less than 2 percent of staff went on strike.

A 2022 strike booklet at Queen Mary University of London

A 2022 strike booklet at Queen Mary University of London © Anna Gordon/FT

But many QMUL students blame the continued disruption on the university administration. A third-year staff campaigner, who asked not to be named, said QMUL’s “draconian” handling of the dispute had increased sympathy for academics. “We know that staff go on strike for very good reasons,” he said. “There is consensus that requests can be triaged.”

UCU’s Eastwood said such support for students, along with the improved financial performance of the pension scheme, meant that staff would maintain their industrial action until benefits were improved.

“You cannot enjoy your work because you are in conflict with your employer. People don’t like to feel like that – they like their students, their teaching and their research,” he said. “But there is a real determination to go all the way.”

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