Mandatory Credit: Photo by REX/Shutterstock (1510633d) Pickets at Swansea University Public sector strike, Swansea University, Wales, Britain - 30 Nov 2011 Members of the University and College Union which represents lecturers and academics, supported by Student Union members gather at the gate of Swansea University in south Wales.
The number of universities on strike will increase over the coming weeks © Rex/Shutterstock

Tens of thousands of academics will begin their most severe strike action to date on Thursday, disrupting dozens of Britain’s top universities including Oxford, Cambridge and Imperial College London.

Members of the University and College Union at 57 institutions will walk out on Thursday and Friday this week in protest at plans to downgrade their pensions.

The planned 14 days of strikes, running until March 16, come as British universities face serious questions about nearly every aspect of their funding and future direction.

On Monday, Theresa May announced plans for a year-long review of funding for higher education, prompted by concerns over the £9,250 annual cost of tuition for most courses in England and the 6.1 per cent interest rate on loans.

Institutions have also faced a series of questions over their governance, many prompted by the generous pay packages of university vice chancellors.

“It’s quite a combustible mix,” said Nick Hillman at the Higher Education Policy Institute think-tank. “Serious industrial action has been threatened in the higher education sector for quite a long time. This time, it looks certain to go ahead.”

The number of universities on strike will increase over the coming weeks. A further four institutions that are on vacation this week will join the strikes from Monday to Wednesday next week. Another three will join the strikes from the four days of action due to start on March 5.

Academics are striking over a move to change the pensions offered by the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) from defined benefit schemes to defined contributions schemes.

USS is £6.1bn in deficit and universities are unwilling to find the extra £1bn in pension contributions needed to maintain the existing system. Universities have said they would have to cut spending on teaching and research and jobs in order to do so.

“University staff will still have a valuable pension scheme, with employer contributions of 18 per cent of salary — double the private sector average,” said Universities UK, the umbrella group for the sector. “This makes strike action very disappointing.”

But the union has not shown any signs of flexibility. It says that the proposed changes would leave an average lecturer £10,000 a year worse off in retirement.

Sally Hunt, the UCU’s general secretary, said this week that the union had a mandate to continue strike action until July, raising the possibility that students’ final degree exams in May and June could suffer.

“We doubt any universities want a prolonged dispute that carries on towards exam season and would urge vice-chancellors to put pressure on Universities UK to get back around the table with us,” Ms Hunt said.

The UCU has been working hard to ensure students blame universities, rather than academics, for the disruption. On January 30, Ms Hunt issued a joint statement with Shakira Martin, president of the National Union of Students. It said the NUS was concerned the pension cuts would harm universities by creating a “demotivated and unhappy workforce”.

Students, meanwhile, have already begun complaining that they would like to be refunded for disruption to their lectures.

Chris Forde, a UCU member and academic at Leeds University, has gathered petitions from students demanding refunds for the industrial action.

He tweeted on Wednesday morning that the petition already had 77,000 signatures and that the rate was rising at 10,000 a day. A precedent for reimbursements for poor teaching was set last year when Central Saint Martins, part of the University of the Arts London, refunded students back their full £5,000 fee for a dramatic writing course that it accepted had fallen “below our usual standards”.

Academics have long felt frustration and alienation that their pay, in line with much of the public sector, has declined in real terms since the financial crisis. UCU calculates that pay has fallen between 15 to 20 per cent decline in real terms earnings since 2009.

At the same time, higher tuition fees and the removal of a cap on student numbers mean that universities have fared relatively well financially.

“Demonstrably, higher education has not faced the issues of austerity that other parts of the public sector have faced,” said Chris Husbands, vice-chancellor of Sheffield Hallam University, to MPs on the Education committee on Wednesday.

Saladin Meckled-Garcia, a lecturer in human rights, summed up the mood at a meeting of University College London staff earlier this month.

“I don’t remember having it put before me that you can either have pretty, new buildings and an expansion of student numbers or you can have your pension,” Dr Meckled-Garcia told the meeting.

Even Michael Arthur, provost of UCL, accepted in an interview with the Financial Times this month that his institution had undergone a “difficult transition” as the source of its funding changed.

“It’s very hard to predict how it’s going to go,” Mr Hillman said. “I think this could run and run.”

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