The first two days of industrial action from UEA staff last week saw students join staff on two picket lines, to protest plans to change pensions. On Thursday 22 February and Friday 23 February, staff belonging to the Universities and Colleges Union (UCU) did not turn up for work.
The first week of the strike fell during UEA’s Do Something Different week, when most courses did not have classes anyway. The action scheduled for next week, set to occur on Monday 26 February, Tuesday 27 February, and Wednesday 28 February is being regarded by many at UEA as the first real week of action as it will involve scheduled lectures not taking place.
The university employers body, Universities UK (UUK), said their changes are necessary as the present scheme is in a deficit worth billions of pounds.
However, the UCU disputed this and argued university staff could be up to £10,000 a year worse off after they retire.
UCU members voted to back action by a strong majority, with 88 percent nationally supporting the strike. 87 percent of the unionís members at UEA voted in support, with a turnout of 66 percent.
The unionís regional officer Lydia Richards said that nobody at the university wants to action, “but staff at UEA feel they have no choice”.
“These hardline proposals would slash staff pensions and are simply uncalled for.
“It is staggering that the universities have refused to engage with the union and a real insult to staff and to students. We hope students will continue to put pressure on the Vice-Chancellors to get their reps back round the negotiating table.”
Brett Mills, president of the UCU branch at UEA, said they had been ìbowled overî by support from students so far.
“At UEA we place great emphasis on giving students the best experience we can, so going on strike is a really hard thing to do.
“We hope this can be resolved as quickly as possible so we can all get back to doing the work we’re passionate about,” he said.
Speaking in support of the strikes, MP for Norwich South Clive Lewis said: “Cuts to staff pensions will do great damage and without decent pensions, universities will struggle to recruit and retain staff.
“The race to the bottom in pension provision is a clear example of people’s economic security being eroded.”
“It’s time to find a solution which avoids further disruption. We’ve had 19 VCs so far call for talks to end the dispute. UEA needs to join those calls and Universities UK should commit to meaningful negotiations, through the arbitrations service Acas if necessary, to resolve the dispute,” he said.
Staff were dissatisfied with UEA’s Vice-Chancellor Professor David Richardson for not putting pressure on the UUK to enter negotiations with their union. The students’ union said they encouraged students to email the VC to ask him what he is doing to reopen negotiations and end the strike
After the first two days of action, the UUK said they would meet the UCU for talks on Tuesday 27 February. However, at the time of writing the next days of action were still set to continue.
The UUK said they were not prepared to discuss the decision on changing pensions, something the UCU said they were disappointed with. Prof Richardson called the dispute a national one “which has to be resolved at that level.”
He said UEA’s executives were concerned that ìthe pension scheme should continue to remain an attractive one for people entering academia and an affordable scheme with a sustainable, long-term future.”
He said: “At UEA I would like us to keep focused on the long-term relationships with academics, professional staff and students once this debate is resolved.”
Prof Richardson said he wished to assure students and staff that UEA was listening to and understanding staff concerns.
“I’m extremely mindful of the issues raised and the heartfelt stance of our staff,” he said.
Money not paid into striking staff wages will go into “a fund to support students to achieve their learning outcomes”. The VC said he would review how the fund could be used after the strike finishes, as “at this stage it is hard to know the full impact of the action.”
Both the UEA UCU and Students’ Union welcomed the news of the student fund, however said they had reservations about the university’s handling of the dispute.
SU Postgraduate Education officer Maddie Colledge said it was “encouraging to learn that the Uni will not let withheld wages from the strike disappear into the central pot”.
However, she said, “It is worrying that the intention seems to be to try spend this fund once it’s over- which given the strength of feeling amongst our academics, could be months.”
“We’ll be meeting with the University regularly to ensure that studentsí concerns and voices are heard and communicated, that the Uni takes steps to support students throughout the period, and that this is done in a way that does not place undue pressure on academic staff or Associate Tutors that are also members of the SU.”
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A representative for UEA’s UCU told Concrete they were pleased by the universityís fund announcement, and they had made a formal request for such a fund to be instated.
“It has long been the position of the local UCU branch that any money the university saves from not paying wages during a strike should go into a student hardship fund,” he said.
“We continue to believe that the money should be primarily directed to alleviating student hardship and hope that this view will be taken into account when allocating these funds.”
YouGov found 61 percent of students supported the strike, reflective of UEA’s 63 percent.