14 days of strikes at universities across the UK came to an end on Friday, with no deal reached between the University and College Union (UCU) and Universities UK (UUK).

Over the past month, lecturers and professional staff at more than 60 universities have taken part in the strike, which was the largest industrial action in the history of the UCU.

There was hope of a deal last week after both sides reached a proposed agreement that both universities and staff would contribute more to pensions, in order to plug the funding gap for the next two years.

However, the deal was rejected by the UCU’s higher education committee and branch representatives, and the strike continued for the rest of the week.

How did it come to a strike?

Industrial action began when changes to academics’ pensions, called the Universities Superannuation Scheme, were proposed. Under the scheme, lecturers’ pensions would change from a “defined benefit” scheme, which gives a guaranteed retirement income, to a “defined contribution” scheme, in which pensions are subject to changes in the stock market.

The UCU says this would leave the average lecturer almost £10,000 a year worse off in retirement than under the current set-up.

students support stoke action university lecturers london
Journalism students at City, University of London, show solidarity with striking lecturers. Photo credit: Jasper van Emmerik/Jericho.

But UUK say that the pension scheme has a deficit of more than £6 billion which they have a legal duty to reduce. UUK argue that without reform, both employers and staff would have to contribute far more to pensions. They say this would mean cuts to other spending by universities, and could even lead to redundancies.

Even after the proposed changes, UUK say the scheme will compare well with contributions by universities – double the private sector average. Most “defined benefit” pension schemes in other sectors have already closed.

Over 30 vice chancellors have broken ranks with UUK and spoken in support of striking staff, with more under pressure from their students to do so.

How did students react?

The level of support from students was unexpected. A YouGov poll in February found that 61 per cent of students supported the strike, with half saying university employers were most to blame for the strike going ahead.

Students at more than fourteen universities have joined picket lines and conducted sit-ins in solidarity with their striking staff, including at the universities of Glasgow, Bristol, City, Leicester, Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh, Bath, and Strathclyde.

More than 126,000 students have also signed petitions demanding that universities reimburse them for lost lectures. Domestic students in England pay £9,250 a year (EU and international students pay more) and have their rights protected under consumer law. Whether these rights apply to industrial disputes is as yet untested.

King’s College London (KCL) was the first to agree to reimbursement, setting up a fund to compensate students for missed classes and lectures during the strike. In a statement KCL said: “Once the nature and scale of disruption has become clearer, we will develop a mechanism for considering cases for any further compensation that may be warranted in light of cancelled classes”.

No deal was reached, so what’s the next step?

Further industrial action is likely this summer, with the UCU now making “detailed preparations” for more strikes during exam season. The UCU’s Higher Education Committee (HEC) has sanctioned another fourteen days of strike action between April and June.

On Friday the UCU also called for external examiners to resign at striking universities. Sally Hunt, the general secretary of UCU, said: “We are calling on external examiners to resign their positions at those universities in dispute over plans to slash staff pensions. External examiners ensure the rigorous quality standards in our universities, which must be upheld.”

This row over pensions is part of a bigger debate about the marketisation of UK universities, with students increasingly being seen as consumers. Anna Oppenheim, who is on the National Union of Students (NUS) executive committee, said:

“Extortionate tuition fees, arbitrary market-driven metrics for teaching and research and attacks on workers and their pensions are all part of the same corrosive neoliberal agenda. Students and staff are united in fighting for an ideal: that education is a public good far richer and more meaningful than what can be crudely measured in ‘efficiency’ and profitability.”

Further action

The strikes also seem to have added momentum to non-academic staff strikes. More than 100 outsourced University of London workers are threatening to walk out next month over pay and conditions after a near-unanimous vote for industrial action.

These workers are made up of cleaners, porters, security officers, receptionists, and other non-academic university staff, who are represented by the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain.

The fact remains that the strike came to an end without a satisfactory resolution. Ill-feeling towards university leaders, whose responses to the pension changes were widely seen as sluggish and inadequate – combined with divisions among students already dissatisfied with the amount they pay for higher education – mean that this is unlikely to be the end of the matter.

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