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UK universities face fresh wave of strikes over pension dispute

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Universities in the UK are likely to face a fresh wave of strikes this year, paving the way for more disruption after university staff voted in favour of industrial action.

But the union fight over pensions and poor workplace conditions was weakened by many university branches missing a 50 per cent turnout threshold needed to mandate action, leaving the scale of eventual strike unclear.

Staff at 58 universities in the UK now have a mandate to take strike action, following two separate ballots over changes to pensions and pay, and working conditions.

Jo Grady, the president of the UCU, said the results were a “clear mandate for strike action” over both pensions changes and issues around pay.

“We truly hope that disruption can be avoided. That is what staff and students alike all want,” she said.

“But this is entirely in the gift of employers, who simply need to end their attacks on pensions, pay and working conditions and finally demonstrate they value their staff.”

The ballot is the latest in more than three years of union action over proposed changes to the University Superannuation Scheme, the pension fund for the sector, and in escalating tensions over poor conditions that have prompted strikes at several universities in recent years.

Over the past three weeks, union branches at the 68 institutions that use the university pension scheme were balloted on strike action over changes that could see guaranteed pensions for about 200,000 staff become less generous. Of these, 37 voted to strike.

At the same time, 146 universities were balloted for action on the “four fights” of pay, workload, casualisation and equalities, either as a standalone vote or alongside pensions. Of these, 54 voted to strike.

The union said the results delivered a “big mandate” for strike action, with overall turnout of more than 50 per cent and more than 70 per cent backing strike action in both ballots.

But the vote was hampered by a short balloting period that fell in part during university holidays, leaving many individual branches short of the 50 per cent turnout required to mandate strike action under laws passed in 2016.

Institutional branches and the union’s Higher Education Committee will next week formally decide whether to go ahead with strikes and when. Members at some branches that had narrowly missed the threshold for strike action said they were likely to reballot.

Universities UK, which represents vice-chancellors, sought to play down the results, saying they suggested that support for industrial action was “limited”.

“Universities facing the prospect of industrial action are well prepared to mitigate the impact on students’ learning and minimise disruption for those staff choosing not to take part,” it said.

The USS, the retirement scheme at the centre of the pension dispute, said it understood the concerns of members over the reforms to their pensions. But it added that the “fundamental truth” was that guaranteed pensions were much more expensive today than they were in the past.

Meanwhile, there was an angry response from lecturers to the elite Russell Group of universities’ statement that industrial action would only penalise students “who are enjoying the buzz of campus life after a challenging 18 months”. 

“I’m just wondering what a buzz it would be to see Russell group university management show even the slightest degree of care for their staff,” David Farrell-Banks, an academic at Ulster university, wrote on the social media site Twitter. “It’s been a fairly challenging 18 months for us too.”

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