You may be aware that a series of national strike days and action short of a strike in Higher Education are scheduled to take place in February and March. The action has been called by the trades union which represents some academic, professional and managerial staff at St Andrews and other universities across the UK, the Universities and Colleges Union (UCU).
The reason is a protest at planned changes to the national pension scheme, the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS). A total of 61 universities across the UK are affected by this action.
In St Andrews, we care deeply about our students, as we do our staff, and it is our hope that our colleagues who decide to take part in this national action are able to exercise their rights in ways which minimise any disruption to you, our students.
The briefing below is intended to provide the facts about the national dispute, the dates on which classes in St Andrews could be affected by action, and the steps which the University is taking to restrict the impact on you and your education.
I hope you find this helpful. We will email all students once again should there be any unexpected change in circumstances.
Professor Lorna Milne
Proctor and Senior Vice-Principal
University of St Andrews
What is action short of a strike?
UCU have said that action short of a strike may involve staff taking action in one or all of four different ways:
- Working to contract
- Not covering for absent colleagues
- Not rescheduling lectures or classes cancelled due to strike action
- Not undertaking voluntary activities
This action will take effect from 22 February.
When are the strike days?
UCU has called for its members to strike on:
- 22, 23 February (Thursday and Friday)
- 26, 27, 28 February (Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday)
- 5, 6, 7, 8, March (Monday to Thursday)
- 12,13,14,15 and 16 March (Monday to Friday)
How will I know if my classes are to be cancelled?
By law, staff do not have to tell the University in advance if they are taking strike action; therefore we do not know which members of staff may exercise their right to strike on the days noted above. We encourage you to ask your lecturers and tutors to let you know as a courtesy in advance, and to seek clarity on when classes may be rescheduled. We have asked our staff to ensure our students are kept informed and to do everything possible to minimise the impact of their action on you. In St Andrews, we know that our staff are genuinely and intimately concerned with the academic welfare of students, and some will already have told you about their plans.
How widespread is the UCU action likely to be in St Andrews?
As mentioned above, staff are not obliged to tell us if they are taking action. The majority of academic, professional and managerial staff at St Andrews however are not members of UCU.
What is the dispute about?
The USS pension scheme now has one of the biggest deficits of any pension scheme in the UK. Its investments have fared badly, it has suffered a series of crises and there are widespread concerns about the governance of the scheme and its ability to avoid repeated crises in future. As it is currently run and managed, it cannot meet its future obligations: it is not sustainable. After a statutory valuation of the Scheme in March 2017 revealed the latest extent of the problem, the USS is now required to submit a recovery plan to the Pensions Regulator by 30 June 2018.
Decisions about the shape of the recovery plan and the future of the pension scheme are taken by a body called a Joint Negotiating Committee. The JNC comprises five representatives from the Union (UCU), five from Universities UK (the body which represents all UK universities), and an independent chair.
UCU and Universities UK agree that the pension scheme requires reform. They disagree, however, about the extent and nature of both the deficit and the required reform.
Following a series of over 30 meetings between UCU and Universities UK over several months, a negotiated settlement could not be found.
UCU and Universities UK each tabled different proposals for the future of the scheme. Both involved staff and universities having to make additional contributions to pensions. At the JNC, UCU and Universities UK each voted for their own proposal.
The independent chair cast his vote in favour of the universities’ proposal.
This proposal offers market-leading Defined Contribution pension benefits on all salaries from 1 April 2019, with a commitment to consider in three years’ time if Defined Benefits can be re-introduced should the scheme’s funding conditions improve.
USS will conduct a formal consultation with universities about the proposals, beginning in March. This is our chance to make a contribution to progress, so in St Andrews we have already started informal consultation with our staff and have encouraged them to make their views and questions known in order that we can feed back in full to the national negotiations.
There have been calls for the University to support a return to national negotiations with the union, is St Andrews doing this?
Negotiations between UCU and Universities UK are actually continuing at a national level.
Will the University pay any tuition fee compensation to students if classes are cancelled?
No. Our terms and conditions clearly explain that compensation is not payable in these circumstances.
Will exams or marking be affected by the industrial action?
Neither exams nor marking will be affected by the action announced thus far.
What is the University doing to mitigate the impact of UCU’s action?
In St Andrews, we are committed to doing all we can to ensure that staff continue to have access to an attractive, affordable and well-managed pension scheme as part of a comprehensive benefits package.
It is important to remember that this is a national dispute, however. St Andrews is just one of 350 higher education employers represented by Universities UK. Similarly, the industrial action called by UCU is being led and coordinated by the union’s national leadership. The next formal opportunity for individual universities to influence negotiations will be the March consultation. No single university can take steps that will make up the USS deficit.
That said, locally, we have:
- Offered to write jointly to the JNC with our UCU colleagues in St Andrews on the need for the reform of scheme governance.
- Written to all staff about the strike, urging them to ensure that if they take action, they do everything possible to keep students fully informed and to limit the effects of action on teaching and tutorials.
- Briefed all Heads of Schools and Units and asked them similarly to take all reasonable steps to minimise the impact of the strike on students.
- Briefed your Students’ Association representatives in order that they can also address any concerns or questions students may have about the action.
- Written to all staff to advise them that, as is normal practice in these circumstances, striking is a breach of contract and the University will withhold pay from staff who withdraw their labour for each day of action taken. All such monies will be donated to our student hardship fund.
- Signalled to staff that we expect that cancelled classes will be rescheduled and, where academic expertise permits, colleagues will cover for those who are on strike.
- Reminded staff that all assessments in these circumstances must be fair.