Thousands of students across East London could face disruptions during their studies this year, as various branches of the lecturer’s unions (UCU) prepare for four-phase action against changes in their pension scheme.
At Goldsmiths, University of London, staff have started discussing what form their action might take. Four phases have been put on the table, starting with working to contract and, if nothing changes, potentially rising to stage four, which could mean an examination boycott. According to the secretary of Goldsmiths UCU, Des Freedman, that is still way too far ahead. “What we’re after now is a nationally coordinated work-to-contract and work-to-rule action, starting on October 10.”
The changes in the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) are to take effect on October 1, restructuring the universities’ staff pension schemes and affecting over 67 institutions across the country. The new scheme, first introduced last May, will ask for increased contributions, reduce pensions for those made redundant and hand out lower pensions to new staff, thereby creating a two-tier system.
“This is a very healthy pension scheme and we think that the changes are not necessary for its future health, nor for any of the members involved. We think the changes are illegitimate and part of the general onslaught against pensions across the public sector,” said Freedman.
Other options under discussion include departmental strikes or a boycott of the “Research Excellence Framework”. The latter proposal divides union members, since not everybody is affected by it. Institutions where many of the staff are actively involved in research, as well as teaching, would bear the brunt of such action.
Freedman hopes for the support of Goldsmiths students, saying the union’s action is not just about pensions but the, “general funding of quality higher education”. He also hopes parents and students alike will show understanding: “Most of the parents are probably suffering from cuts in living standards, frozen wages, declining pensions, so they may well understand why we’re likely to take these actions. Few people are immune from the austerity measures that we’re going through.”
James Haywood, President of Goldsmiths Students’ Union, said the union “is 100 per cent” behind UCU’s campaign. “Defending the quality of education goes hand in hand with defending the conditions of the staff that make education possible. Therefore we support our staff and will defend any action they deem necessary to defend their conditions. In regards to industrial action, every student at Goldsmiths knows that staff would never intentionally disrupt their learning.”
Queen Mary, University of London is also planning to participate in the industrial action. UCU member Lee Jones, said their fight also reflects the frustration caused by extensive cuts in staff pay and university services. “Over a hundred staff have been made redundant over the last months. We’ve seen cuts in library services, language and learning units, front line services and they’ve just announced they want to sack 43 academics,” he said. He also expressed lack of faith in the efficiency of the industrial action’s first stage: “Working to contract given how loose most academic contracts are, doesn’t mean very much. I think it will have to escalate.”
For the latest on UCU’s industrial action you can check this website.