22/02/2018 16:33 GMT | Updated 27/02/2018 15:05 GMT

Lecturers Begin First Day Of Strikes 'With A Heavy Heart' Over Pension Dispute

'We are striking reluctantly but we also feel angry.'

Lecturers have told HuffPost why they are striking over cuts to their pensions, as 14 days of walkouts begin.

Lectures and seminars are being cancelled, and more than a million students could face disruption in the coming weeks as members of the University and College Union (UCU) take industrial action at campuses around the country, which is expected to take place over a month.

Academics could lose up to £10,000 a year in the cuts, says the union.

″We are striking reluctantly with a heavy heart,” history lecturer Mike Berlin said on a picket line at Birkbeck University in London.

″But we also feel very angry about the fact that we stand to lose so much.”

PA Wire/PA Images
University and College Union members outside the University of Kent campus in Canterbury

As the first wave of walkouts began, Jeremy Corbyn sent his “solidarity and thanks” to those striking and said his party was “deeply concerned” about proposed changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), as he urged employers to commit to negotiations.

Universities UK (UUK) maintains the pension scheme has a deficit of more than £6 billion that cannot be ignored, and that it has met union officials more than 35 times to discuss reforms, the Press Association reports.

The UCU has argued that the current proposals would leave a typical lecturer almost £10,000 a year worse off in retirement.

In a video message, Corbyn said: “On behalf of the Labour Party, I want to send solidarity and thanks for all the work you do in our universities and colleges. We are deeply concerned by the proposed changes to the USS that would leave our university staff up to £10,000 a year worse off in retirement.

“Downgrading the pension scheme will affect recruitment, retention, and ultimately our ability to offer world-class higher education.

“Everyone deserves the dignity and security in old age that comes from a decent pension.”

He added: “It’s been great to see strong support from students for striking staff, but for everyone’s sake we need to find a solution which avoids further disruption.

“So I join staff and students in calling for the employers to commit now to meaningful negotiations, through Acas if necessary, to resolve this dispute.”

His comments follow those of universities minister Sam Gyimah, who warned UUK and the UCU on the eve of the walkouts to resolve the “damaging and avoidable impasse”.

In a tweet referencing an editorial in the Times newspaper, the minister said: “Times Editorial on Uni strikes is spot on. For the sake of students and the reputation of our Universities, @ucu and @UniversitiesUK need to find a way through this damaging and avoidable impasse ASAP.”

Tens of thousands of staff are expected to take part in the action, which will take place at a total of 64 universities over the coming weeks.

Strikes are planned at 57 institutions on Thursday and Friday, with more over the next month if there is no resolution, building up to a five-day walkout in the week beginning 12 March, by which time 64 universities will be affected.

UCU general secretary Sally Hunt said: “Jeremy Corbyn’s support is a huge boost to staff striking today and we thank him for taking the time to send the message.

“In a rare show of unity, both Labour and the Tories are now telling Universities UK to get back round the table with us. Both parties and the National Union of Students have suggested we use the mediators Acas if necessary.

“We are ready to meet at any time for serious negotiations about how we resolve this mess – either directly with UUK or through Acas. The time has come for UUK to listen to the many voices telling them to start talking.”

New polling commissioned by the UCU has found that the majority (61%) support strike action by university staff, with nearly a fifth (19%) opposed.

Asked who was most to blame for the pensions dispute, half (50%) of those polled said it was the university employers, with 2% saying it was university staff and a fifth (20%) saying both parties were equally to blame.

A UUK spokesman said: “UUK remains at the negotiating table, but so far UCU has refused to engage on how best to address the funding challenges facing USS. It is important now that UCU engages on how best to ensure the long-term sustainability of the scheme.”

He added that there are scheduled discussions with the UCU on key issues with the USS.

The spokesman continued: “The changes proposed will make USS secure and sustainable, safeguarding the future of universities.

“University staff will still have a valuable pension scheme, with employer contributions of 18% of salary, double the private sector average. This makes strike action very disappointing.”

Around 16% of academic staff that are UCU members in the 64 institutions affected voted in favour of strike action, according to UUK.

Hundreds of thousands of university workers are understood to be enrolled in the USS pension scheme, mainly those working at older institutions established before 1992.

Gyimah said: “I am deeply concerned about the impact this strike will have on students, who deserve to receive the education that they are paying for. For many, this is a vital time in their studies.

“I am speaking to both Universities UK and the University and College Union.

“I call on them to get back to the negotiating table, without pre-conditions, and to find a solution that avoids further disruption to students.

“Where any strike action takes place, we expect universities to keep a close eye on the impact on students, and to put in place measures to maintain the quality of education that they should receive.”