Oxford votes to strike

Staff threaten two weeks of walk-outs following pension dispute

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Oxford University staff have voted to join a nationwide strike by members of the University and College Union (UCU), after negotiations over proposed changes to academic pensions broke down.

Lectures, classes, and exams could be hit if UCU pushes ahead with industrial action, beginning with a two-day walkout next month.

The University has said it aims to “minimise any disruption” to students.

The umbrella group Universities UK (UUK) wants to change the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), which covers pensions for academic staff in universities such as Oxford.

This would see academics’ retirement funds moved from a scheme that gives a guaranteed income, to one where pensions are subject to changes in the stock market.

Independent analysis of the proposals claim that a typical lecturer would lose £200,000 in retirement if the UUK plans were imposed.

Garrick Taylor, president of Oxford University’s UCU branch, and Bruce Shakespeare, the pensions officer, told Cherwell: “We share the national sentiment expressed by the UCU’s leadership that the decision to deprive our members of a decent pension after many years of hard & dedicated service is an appalling indictment of their trust.

“Following the outcome of the meeting with Universities UK at the Joint Negotiating Committee, we now face the real possibility that many of our local staff will lose a considerable part of their retirement income as a result of these talks.

“USS will now begin a consultation with fund members with a final decision made by the board at the end of June 2018. There are further negotiating meetings which will take place between now and June at which UCU will continue to fight the proposal to end the guaranteed pension.

“During this period the local branch of the UCU will support the agreed decision by the majority of its membership to take industrial action in support of staff who have been betrayed by the decision to significantly devalue their pension rights.”

UCU said the first strikes would likely start with a two-day walkout on 22 and 23 February. The action would then expand to three, four, and five day walkouts in future weeks.

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The industrial action will also see members work to contract, refusing to cover classes or reschedule those lost to strike action.

In response to the strike ballot result, an Oxford University spokesperson told Cherwell: “The UCU has announced that it will call on its members to take industrial action in the form of days of national strikes in support of its dispute with Universities UK over proposed changes to the USS pension scheme.

“Oxford University is looking at measures to minimise any disruption arising from this action. Students should therefore attend as normal for any scheduled examinations.

“Teaching in colleges will not be affected but it is possible that some departmental teaching may be. Students should attend all teaching as normal, unless advised of alternative
arrangements.”

Oxford was one of 61 universities to vote in favour of the ballot. More than 85 per cent of Oxford University members called for strike action, with a turnout of just over 50 per cent.

Across the country, 88 per cent of members backed strike action.

Members at the seven universities that failed to meet the 50 per cent turnout threshold to allow them to take action will be balloted again.

Oxford SU told Cherwell they supported academic staff going on strike, though raised concerns about the negative impact on students.

They said: “We stand in solidarity with UCU in their strike, as we believe those working in higher education should be treated and remunerated fairly.

“However, it is regrettable that this proposed action could have adverse effects on the education of students. The strike action will affect teaching in departments and could potentially have other consequences such as slower feedback to students.

“We call on Universities UK and UCU to continue with talks, and urge that the University put increasing pressure on UUK, to reach a better resolution for those affected by the  pension reforms, before the scheduled strike.

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“This is an ongoing situation, with possible developments in the coming weeks. As a student-led organisation, we want to represent student perspectives during this process, and will continue to consult with students, through Council and student representatives, as the situation evolves.”

Speaking to Cherwell, Lizzy Diggins and Keir Mather, chairs of Oxford University Labour Club, affirmed the academic staff’s right to industrial action.

They said: “We stand in solidarity with all academic staff in their struggle for fair treatment as regards to their pension dispute. OULC will always defend people’s right to organise in their own workplace for equality and just treatment.”

The dispute follows growing concerns over inequality in the university pay system, with recent revelations about vice chancellors’ pay-packets causing controversy. Meanwhile, average staff salaries have fallen 16% since 2016.

Sally Hunt, the UCU general secretary, said: “There is much talk of a crisis of leadership in higher education at the moment, especially after the recent vice chancellor pay and perks scandals.

“Now is the time for university leaders to recognise the scale of this problem, how angry their staff are and to work with us to avoid widespread disruption in universities.”

Oxford vice chancellor, Louise Richardson, was one of the university leaders whose pay came under scrutiny, after it was revealed she earned £410,000 a year including pension.

Defending her high salary, she said although her pay was high compared with that of less senior staff, “compared to a footballer or a banker, it looks very different”.

Last term, Cherwell also revealed that she had claimed almost £70,000 in expenses since she arrived at the University.

The vice chancellors of Warwick and Loughborough universities last week broke ranks to criticise Universities UK for failing to guarantee retirement incomes for USS members.

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