By Tom Mitchell
Proposed strike action by academics at over 60 UK universities amid an ongoing pension dispute has divided Durham student opinion.
Industrial action orchestrated by the University and College Union (UCU) was approved by 88% of Durham UCU members, resulting in the threat of widespread disruption to lectures, seminars and exams.
The strikes are set to begin on February 22nd, to be followed by a series of escalating walkouts for four consecutive weeks that will disrupt 14 days of the teaching timetable in total.
The dispute revolves around changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) that Universities UK (UUK) is seeking to introduce. This will make pensions subject to changes in the stock market, and could lead to significant falls in retirement income.
Independent forecasting estimates that a typical lecturer would lose £10,000 a year in retirement as a result of the reforms.
Some lecturers have asked students to support them in their strike action in an attempt to force UUK back to the negotiating table. Professor Deidre McCann, of the Durham Law School, asked students in an email to “tell all your lecturers you support our fight”, “complain to the vice-chancellor” and “join the picket lines with us”.
At an extraordinary meeting of Durham SU Assembly on the 14th February, the SU passed a motion that read: “Durham SU supports the University and College Union’s industrial action.
“Our academic staff [have] the right to protect their pensions through striking, and through action short of a strike.
“The University must understand that career academic staff deserve security in their employment and can’t be part of providing a world-class education when they are under threat.”
It goes on to state it will continue to seek to minimise disruption to students’ education and maintains that “students won’t accept their education being used as a bargaining chip.”
George Walker, Van Mildert College’s Durham SU representative and SU presidential candidate, said at the assembly that students should “put pressure on the University to change their position.
“Students and staff have shared interests and we shouldn’t be pitting them against each other. We have to accept disruption and fully support our lecturers”.
In the aftermath, ‘Durham Student-Staff Solidarity’ – a Facebook page dedicated to encouraging students to support the strike, issued a public statement criticising SU President, Megan Croll, for the position she has taken.
The group said: “We are disappointed [by] the confusing and contradictory messages Megan Croll SU is sending out. The SU on Wednesday passed a motion which supported the strikes. Here the SU President is informing students to act like the strike isn’t happening and to cross picket-lines.
“Don’t assume classes will be on (most likely your lecturer will inform you on the day they are not), don’t cross the picket, and don’t be a scab!”
Student opinion on the issue of strike action has been decidedly mixed. Tom Harwood, a Durham NUS delegate, told Palatinate he thinks the UCU “are trying to use Durham students as pawns in their dispute.
“It’s unacceptable that we are being caught in the crossfire. The strike will cost students hundreds upon hundreds of pounds in lost contact hours. It is outrageous that we will not receive any remuneration.”
A petition organised by a student at the University of York that demands remuneration for lost lecture time has received more than 2,500 signatures.
Conrad Whitcroft-White, a first-year politics student at York, said in an interview with Palatinate: “Universities need to take our needs into account when it comes to situations where our education isn’t being provided.
“The universities have failed to use our tuition fees appropriately to pay our lecturers to give us an education. We don’t get reimbursed for the money we’ve spent, which is fundamentally unfair.”
He added: “It is not against the lecturers, we support them in their endeavour.”
Alan Houston, Durham’s Pro-Vice Chancellor (Education), said: “On strike days we ask that your actions reflect your understanding that this is a complex national issue. “Individual opinions vary; please show respect for all members of the community.”