Universities should make contingency plans for planned strike action, says expert

Out-Law News | 30 Jan 2018 | 12:56 pm | 3 min. read

Universities across the UK should put in place contingency plans to deal with planned strike action by some academics, a specialist in industrial relations has said.

Yesterday, the University and College Union (UCU) confirmed its intention to stage 14 days of strikes after staff at 61 universities voted to take part in such action. Further industrial action short of strike action is also planned. On Monday, it confirmed that strikes would begin on 22 February.

The vote was organised by the UCU over proposed reforms to pension arrangements for university staff. The UCU said lecturers stand to lose out on £10,000 a year in pension savings as a result of plans to shift the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) from a defined benefits model to a defined contributions scheme.

UCU general secretary Sally Hunt said: 'Staff who have delivered the international excellence universities boast of are understandably angry at efforts to slash their pensions. They feel let down by vice-chancellors who seem to care more about defending their own pay and perks than the rights of their staff. Strike action on this scale has not been seen before on UK campuses, but universities need to know the full scale of the disruption they will be hit with if they refuse to sort this mess out."

However, a Universities UK spokesperson said that there are "significant funding challenges facing USS" which need to be addressed.

A day after the UCU announced the result of its vote, Universities UK announced that a body set up to look at reforms to the USS, the Joint Negotiating Committee, had agreed on the proposals that the union has objected to.

Under the proposals, the USS would shift to a defined pension contribution model from 1 April 2019. Universities UK said, though, that there was a "commitment to consider in three years' time if defined benefits can be re-introduced should the scheme's funding conditions improve". 

A Universities UK spokesperson said: "The reform proposal will tackle the scheme's deficit and the significant rise in the cost of future pensions so that universities can continue to offer attractive pensions to staff, now and in the future. It will also ensure that contributions remain affordable to both staff members and employers… Our focus now is to work with USS and UCU to shape the details of the new benefit structure so that it offers flexibility, choice and market-leading defined contributions pensions."

Sarah Ashberry, a specialist in industrial relations at Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, said that a pensions consultation process, formally notifying university staff of the planned reforms, is due to begin in mid March.

Many universities are already "grappling with the operational headache" of running events such as student Open Days without the goodwill of lecturers, she said.

"UCU has been aggressive in naming so many proposed days of strike action," Ashberry said. "If these days of action go ahead, this is going to be the biggest campaign of strike action for many years. It is a dramatic gesture and will place more pressure on individual universities who are not in a position, on their own, to end this dispute."

Ashberry said that individual universities could take steps to mitigate the impact at their centre, by making contingency plans and making direct appeals to employees based on co-operation and goodwill.

"Levels of participation in the strike vote were patchy," Ashberry said. "In several institutions turnout was below 50%, such as at the London School of Economics and University of Birmingham, and the ballot therefore failed in those centres and will now be re run. In many cases turnout was 50 – 60 % which indicates a large number of academics were not sufficiently interested to vote. People who were not motivated to return a ballot paper are unlikely to take part in a strike."

Despite this, universities should "make sensible contingency plans" for the strike action planned, Ashberry said. Preparations should also include clear communications with staff, she said.

"Institutions should take care to communicate to academic staff that people who are absent without satisfactory explanation on a day of a strike will be assumed to be taking part in the strike and can expect to have their pay deducted," Ashberry said. "Take care over your communications. The extent to which each university is affected will depend on the level of take-up of strike action on the day. This is going to vary wildly. Therefore there is still plenty of scope to influence matters at your centre. Strike activity is likely to be more muted at workplaces where relationships are sound and morale is otherwise good."