By Jess Clayton-Berry
ANGRY Essex University Academics have taken to picketing outside the university entrances to fight for their pension rights.
The first day of a month-long pension strike by members of the University and College Union (UCU) began on the 22nd of February, which sees pickets placed outside university entrances, encouraging others to join in the protest.
The need to take such action has arisen after pension fund manager, Universities UK (UUK), proposed changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) that the Union believes could leave lecturers having up to £10,000 a year taken off in their retirement pension.
According to the UCU, younger academics are due to be even worse off, potentially losing 53% of their pensions.
University of Essex lecturers have joined 61 other universities currently striking over the dispute in a bid to make university heads negotiate a better deal.
The changes to the USS include switching from a defined benefit scheme which allows lecturers to receive a guaranteed income after retirement, to a defined contribution scheme, which means the pensions will change depending on the stock market.
Cathy Crawford, a history lecturer, was among those withstanding the cold weather on the picket frontlines.
She has been a member of the UCU for 25 years and is also president of its Essex branch, she said;
Anthony Forster, Vice Chancellor of the University of Essex, published an article agreeing with the views of the strikers.
The article has been posted on the University of Essex’s website as well as being featured in the Times Higher Education online.
Within his article, Anthony Forster stated; “University employers must step up to the plate and commit to increasing employer contributions to the scheme, alongside increases in employee contributions, to safeguard what staff tell us is one of the most important elements of the current scheme.”
Cathy Crawford responded to this with; “He agrees that we have plenty of money already in the scheme for the foreseeable future and there’s not a problem; he’s willing to pay a bit more to cover the deficit.”
“Hopefully, there are a lot of Vice Chancellors in the middle of the debate who haven’t thought of their position, or are rethinking them, being persuaded by the strike pressure and the arguments by people like our Vice Chancellor.
“We really should be able to negotiate a fair settlement that will protect pensions and continue to make British universities attractive as it’s a global market now in teaching administration and people won’t stay if there is not a decent pension.”
The reason for the proposed cuts has come from a deficit in the pension fund, however the fund is said to be running satisfactorily despite this and the Vice Chancellor has described the assumptions on the deficit as ‘overly prudent’.
According to the UCU, the cuts will put lecturer pensions as the worst in the education sector, even below that of school teachers, despite the fact that student debt has risen to up to £50,800 and academics have lost 14.5% of their wages in real terms since 2009.
Steffan Kennett, a psychology lecturer and member of the UCU for 18 years, said; “Pensions are easy to dismiss as something in the distant future, but they are actually part of our pay.”
Tara Van Ho, a lecturer in the School of Law, said; “Right now we’re actually risking our current pay with the hope of having a sustainable future at the end of our lives.
“When we’re not going to be able to work as much, when we won’t be able to stand out in the cold in the freezing weather to protect the sustainable life that everyone should have at that point in their lives.
“We actually don’t like striking, for those of us who are teachers, it’s not just a job – it’s our passion and our calling. We’re sacrificing as it’s as hard for me to give up a day of teaching as it is for my students to give up a day of learning from within the classroom.
“It’s terrifying because we have rents to pay and food to live on, a lot of us have people that we’re responsible for paying for.”
Emily Jones, another lecturer from the School of Law, said; “The pension is basically a real term pay cut in the end because people of my generation are probably going to retire at 80 at this rate and it’s a scary thought to retire at 80 and have no money.”
Ruby Barry, a first-year drama student supports the action. She said; “All I know is that lecturers should have guaranteed pensions, because it’s the right thing to do. The government cannot force them not to have their full pensions – it’s their right.”
However, students across the country have taken to social media to protest that the strikes are interfering with their education – claiming that missing out on lectures during the crucial exam period could affect their overall results.
UCU have informed employers that the terms of the strikes include a refusal to reschedule missed lectures or classes.
Sydney Hitchcock, a student at the University of Essex, said; “We should get a reimbursement; we are consumers who are not receiving the services we are paying for.”
Various petitions for more than 30 universities have been launched in a bid to convince universities to refund students who are affected by the strikes.
Daniel Seorici, also a drama student, said; “If everyone is making a sacrifice for this cause, staff and students alike, then why isn’t the university making a sacrifice by giving us our money back?”
An advocacy group at the University of Essex, Student Action (StAc), has a mission solely to convince the Vice Chancellor to agree to refund students who face missing out on up to £300 worth of lectures.
They have launched a petition for University of Essex students to be refunded, which can be found on their Facebook page.
So far their efforts have been featured in Rebel magazine and BBC Essex’s official Twitter account.
However, Vice Chancellor Professor Anthony Forster remains unmoved, having sent out an email to students addressing the setbacks students are due to face as a result of the strikes.
Within the email, he said; “While a number of you have asked about fee refunds or reimbursements, I am afraid that the University will not be making any refund payments.
“It is our intention to ensure that the overall impact on your learning is as minimal as possible and that all of your intended learning outcomes are met.”
However, expenses students have already paid for trips cancelled as a result of the strike action will be refunded using the Hardship Fund, where the salary deductions taken from staff who have chosen to strike are currently being sent.
A recent turn of events has seen a deal to end the lecturer’s strike being rejected after four weeks of striking.
Union leaders are now prepared for a further 14 days of strikes to be held during the crucial exam period of May and June with the aim of putting pressure on the assessment season to bring about a better deal.
The deal was made after six days of negotiation and suggested protecting defined benefit pensions, but only for the next three years and at a lower rate than before.
Universities are now considering putting into place contingencies for exams to make up for lost lectures.
University of Essex students have been assured that their marks and degree results will be protected and exam papers and assessments will be adjusted in consideration with the strike’s impact.