Durham academics’ strike set to cause major disruption

By Cameron McIntosh

Durham students will face 14 days of disruption over the course of the next five weeks, after University staff voted overwhelmingly to support strike action amid an ongoing pensions dispute.

Lectures, seminars and exams are threatened by industrial action orchestrated by the University and College Union (UCU) at 61 universities nationwide, including Durham, Oxford and Cambridge.

The strikes are set to begin on the 22nd February, to be followed by a series of escalating walkouts for four consecutive weeks that, in total, will disrupt 14 days of the teaching timetable.

Controversial proposals to alter how pension remunerations are calculated, introduced by Universities UK (UUK), has provoked vehement opposition from the UCU.

UCU General secretary, Sally Hunt, said: “Strike action on this scale has not been seen before on UK campuses, but universities need to know the full scale of the disruption they will be hit with if they refuse to sort this mess out”

As previously reported by Palatinate, a ballot of Durham’s 853 UCU members resulted in 88% approval for strike action and a further 93% approval for other forms of industrial action, in which the turnout was 57%.

UCU general secretary, Sally Hunt, said: “Staff who have delivered the international excellence universities boast of are understandably angry at efforts to slash their pensions.

“They feel let down by Vice-Chancellors who seem to care more about defending their own pay and perks than the rights of their staff.

All withheld pay from the strikes will be donated to the Student Hardship Fund

“Strike action on this scale has not been seen before on UK campuses, but universities need to know the full scale of the disruption they will be hit with if they refuse to sort this mess out.”

According to independent analysis, the average academic will lose £200,000 during retirement under plans to change the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), which will make pensions subject to changes in the stock market.

Professor Alan Houston, Durham University’s Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Education told Palatinate: “The University will take every measure possible to minimise disruption to our students and is working with Durham Students’ Union to try to achieve this.”

Furthermore, in a message addressed to all members of staff, Durham University’s Vice-Chancellor, Stuart Corbridge, acknowledged his colleagues’ concern about changes to pension schemes and said: “I am aware that the decision to vote in favour of industrial action will not have been taken lightly by many of our staff.

“I could not support strike action where the goals were to cause as much disruption as possible to students, thus using student outrage and frustration as an amplifier to give weight to academics’ case to the University”

“Durham University respects the right of staff to take part in industrial action and we understand the strength of feeling in relation to the proposed changes to USS.”

He further clarified the position of the University in relation to the strikes in setting out the relevant procedures for those involved, adding “any industrial action that has an impact on the education of our students goes to the heart of the contract of employment.”

In a subsequent email to University staff, seen by Palatinate, it was confirmed that all withheld pay from the strikes will be donated to the Student Hardship Fund. This offers support to Durham students in times of financial difficulty.

The email also made clear that their intentions were to keep University and college services running as far as possible to minimise student disruption.

“Deeply disappointed that the greed of a well remunerated academic class is threatening my education”

President of Durham Students’ Union, Megan Croll, expressed her concerns regarding the impact of the planned strike action on students. In a public post, Ms Croll outlined the position of Durham’s SU: “It is vitally important that our academic staff are represented, and able to get their voices heard on issues that are impacting them, and ultimately students too.

“I have the utmost respect for the position of UCU in this regard and understand that this is a highly emotive issue for both the staff and students affected.

“In particular, I respect the right of academic staff to strike. Our priority when speaking to both UCU and the University on any future strike action is to ensure that the negative impacts for students are as limited as possible.

“I could not support strike action where the goals were to cause as much disruption as possible to students, thus using student outrage and frustration as an amplifier to give weight to academics’ case to the University.

“Lecturers are not demanding any increase in remuneration, they are simply asking to not lose £10,000 a year in retirement”

“While I understand the appeal of this tactic, it hurts students, most of whom are not a party in this dispute. I believe that strike action can be planned in ways that have only minor impact on students, and significant impact on the University internally. We believe that by directly disrupting University activity, rather than student learning, our academics will be able to more effectively have their voices heard.”

Durham University Labour Club (DULC) issued a public statement to express their disappointment at the stance taken by the Students’ Union. DULC Co-Chair, Joe Dharampal-Hornby, told Palatinate: “DULC expresses solidarity with all staff members affected by the proposed pension-changes and supports their planned strike action this month, backed by 88% of staff at 61 universities.

“We hope that all universities, including Durham, will see sense and reach a fair agreement with the UCU as soon as possible, which will benefit both staff and students in the long run.”

Durham NUS delegate and former President of the Union Society, Tom Harwood, voiced his opposition to the strike action. He tweeted: “Deeply disappointed that the greed of a well remunerated academic class is threatening my education.”

The planned dates of the strikes are as follows. In February: Thursday 22, Friday 23, Monday 26, Tuesday 27, Wednesday 28. In March: Monday 5, Tuesday 6, Wednesday 7, Thursday 8, Monday 12, Tuesday 13, Wednesday 14, Thursday 15, Friday 16.

Fellow NUS delegate, George Walker, responded by stating: “Lecturers are not demanding any increase in remuneration, they are simply asking to not lose £10,000 a year in retirement, which is not unreasonable.”

Mr Walker further clarified his stance: “I broadly support the SU position which is to sympathise with UCU members and working with them behind the scenes, whilst also seeking to minimise disruption and push for the University to put unpaid wages into a student hardship fund (suggested by the UCU).”

The National Union of Students (NUS) issued a statement in support of the UCU and urged its members to express solidarity with academics by making their views known to Universities.

It read: “NUS and UCU are sister organisations committed to promoting the interests of our members and to defending education. We are proud of our work together in calling for a better deal for students and staff and in challenging the marketisation of education.”

It went on to state: “We believe that the current policy of paying ever higher salaries for VCs and Principals while cutting pensions for those who do the work sends a hugely damaging signal to both students and staff.”

The planned dates of the strikes are as follows. In February: Thursday 22, Friday 23, Monday 26, Tuesday 27, Wednesday 28. In March: Monday 5, Tuesday 6, Wednesday 7, Thursday 8, Monday 12, Tuesday 13, Wednesday 14, Thursday 15, Friday 16.

In total strike action was approved by 21,685 UCU members nationwide.

Photograph: Tom Wills via Flickr

 

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