Thousands of students face disruption as lecturers go on strike

University workers hold leaflets they begin a month of walkouts in the latest stage of a bitter dispute over pensions. Pic: PA.
University workers hold leaflets they begin a month of walkouts in the latest stage of a bitter dispute over pensions. Pic: PA.

More than a million students around the UK could face disruption to lectures and classes today as university workers begin a wave of walkouts in an ongoing bitter dispute over pensions.

Members of the University and College Union (UCU) at 64 UK institutions are staging the first in a series of strikes after voting in favour of industrial action.

University and College Union general secretary Sally Hunt. Pic: PA.

University and College Union general secretary Sally Hunt. Pic: PA.

Tens of thousands of workers are expected to take part in the walkouts, which have been described as "disappointing" by university bosses.

Staff at Durham and Newcastle universities are believed to be taking part, but Sunderland, Northumbria and Teesside are not.

The dispute centres on proposals put forward by Universities UK (UUK) for changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS).

Employers argue that the pension scheme is billions of pounds in deficit, while the union says the proposals would leave a typical lecturer almost £10,000 a year worse off in retirement.

Strikes will take place today and tomorrow, with more in the coming weeks if there is no resolution, building up to a five-day walkout in the week beginning March 12.

UCU said it expected that tens of thousands of its members will take part in the action, with more than a million students affected and 575,000 teaching hours lost.

There have been reports that thousands of students have signed petitions demanding compensation from universities for classes lost due to the strikes.

UCU general secretary Sally Hunt said: "The scale of these unprecedented strikes reflects just how destructive the proposals would be for staff pensions and their anger at university leaders to come back to the table to negotiate.

"Despite the fact that over a million students are going to be affected, university employers have been unwilling to reconsider their position and look at reasonable alternatives which would give staff security in retirement.

"Nobody is taking this action lightly, but the ball remains firmly in the employers' court. If further disruption is to be avoided, university leaders must put further pressure on their representatives to get back to the table for meaningful discussions with UCU."

UUK said that the pension scheme has a deficit of more than £6billion that cannot be ignored, and there is a legal duty to put a credible plan in place by the summer to reduce the deficit.

A spokesman said UUK had met UCU over 35 times in the last year to discuss reforms.

He 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."

He added that there are scheduled discussions with 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."

Around 16% of academic staff that are UCU members in the 64 institutions affected voted in favour of strike action, according to UUK.

UCU has warned that if the dispute is not resolved, then action could continue, including into the summer exams period.

Hundreds of thousands of university workers are understood to be enrolled in the USS pensions scheme, mainly those working at older institutions established before 1992.