After accepting a new pensions offer, the university staff union announced there will be no further strikes. Questions on the impact of the strike action on learning are now being made to university chiefs as the assessment period approaches.
An e-ballot, distributed to University and College Union (UCU) members across the country, resulted in a vote of 64 percent to 36 percent, with a record breaking turnout of 63.5 percent.
The union confirmed members’ agreement means a joint expert panel will be set up to re-examine the valuation of the pension scheme and make recommendations on future proposals.
UEA’s Vice-Chancellor Professor David Richardson welcomed the result, adding he was “relieved that a way forward has been found”.
“The result is good news and hopefully it will provide reassurance for our students as we enter the exam period; and to our staff who have concerns about their pensions.”
Initial responses to the latest offer by the Universities UK, the employer’s body, in March were welcoming. Members of staff used social media to express that they had “won” a battle for preservation of the ‘defined benefit’ aspect of their pension scheme. However, after further scrutiny many union branches stated a desire for a “revised and resubmitted” offer, hence UCU’s decision to take action in accurately gauging the desires of its members via e-ballot.
Speaking to Concrete on the outcome of the ballot, UEA UCU’s Pensions Representative Amanda Williams said the record turnout was “the best news of all”.
“It means that UUK know that although we are prepared to work with them to find a solution there is a huge level of critical scrutiny of what happens now,” she said. Prof Richardson described the joint panel as “a good opportunity for UCU and UUK to work together and come to a shared understanding of the USS 2017 valuation.”
Following the news of a ‘Yes’ vote, Universities UK confirmed that “current pension benefits are guaranteed until 1 April 2019”, adding that “reviewing the methodology and assumptions in the current valuation will build confidence, trust and increase transparency in the valuation process.”
The impact of last semester’s 14 days of strike action on student learning is still unclear. An exclusive Concrete poll at the start of the action found a majority of UEA students expressed support towards the strike. Whilst this appears to be a consistent sentiment across campus, concerns from students are mounting as deadlines and exams approach. The unknown effectiveness of the university’s proposed mitigation action, the distribution of strike funds and lack of clarity over deadline dates and exam content are all critical sources of unease for many.
One third year English and American Literature student described the circumstances surrounding their final months at UEA as “disheartening”. They added they “did not always feel comfortable contacting members of staff that were striking” and that they hadn’t seen most of their tutors “in months”.
Another student, a Politics first year, said that “although we’ve had some communication from lecturers and tutors about omitting topics we weren’t taught due to strikes I can’t help but worry. “A lot of the module material is inevitably linked and I’m afraid I’m missing important gaps.”
In response to student worries, UEA(su) have organised a Q&A session to give students an opportunity to raise questions to the Vice-Chancellor, UCU representatives a n d representatives of the Students Union. This will take place this Thursday in the Hive from 9:30am. A questionnaire available on the SU website also asks for suggestions on what UEA should do with its strike fund.
UCU general secretary Sally Hunt said: “‘We hope this important agreement will hearten workers across the UK fighting to defend their pension rights and was won through the amazing strike action of UCU members.
“UCU has more work to do to ensure that the agreement delivers the security in retirement that university staff deserve.”
Around 150 people gathered in the city before the Easter break to rally in support of staff on strike. A PhD student in the school of Education, James Craske, said he and his colleagues wanted to be in a valued profession, but felt as if that was not necessarily guaranteed.
“We’re all at a stage of our lives where we’re going to end up in higher education work, pensions for the next 40 years are going to be something we’ll be paying into. There’s a lot of insecurity, it’s very precarious.
“There’s a lot of anxious energy amongst Associate Tutors and others, hence why there’s been a large cohort of ATs on the picket line everyday,” he said.
The MP for Norwich South, Clive Lewis, told Concrete at the rally he gave striking staff his full support. “I think it’s important to understand why this strike is happening. It’s not just about the future pensions of your lecturers, it is also about the state of education.”
He said he knew some students who thought the strikes were wrong as they pay for an education.
“One day, you’ll be expecting a pension and pay of some kind, and if things don’t quite work out, you’re not going to be happy. In many ways, lecturers are fighting for your future,” he added.