University heads are failing to even admit the pension strikes are happening. It's no wonder people talk of a crisis of leadership in our university sector.
We are less than a week away from the start of 14 days of strike action at 61 UK universities – and with universities’ representatives refuse to speak to the University and College Union (UCU), the dispute is only growing.
This week saw students are setting up petitions calling for tuition fee refunds, over the dispute between UCU (who represent staff) and Universities UK (UUK – who represent universities).
It centres on hardline changes to staff pensions: UCU estimates that a typical lecturer would lose around £10,000 a year in retirement under changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) that UUK wants to bring in.
In negotiations, UUK refused to budge from that position and – understandably furious at the proposals – university staff voted in record numbers for strike action to defend their pensions.
Staff and students are united in their anger at UUK’s refusal to negotiate with the union, and it looks like strikes are now inevitable after UUK took the bizarre decision to not even mention the strikes this week.
Writing for the Guardian, UUK’s chief executive listed the challenges universities currently face and omitted strikes and the scandals over senior pay and perks.
It is no wonder that people talk of a crisis of leadership in higher education: we are days away from unprecedented strikes on UK campuses and the people with the power to stop them are trying to ignore them.
The timing of the article was more than a little unfortunate as it was sandwiched between a weekend of headlines about angry students demanding tuition fee refunds, and the revelations that university vice-chancellors at 95% of universities can attend the committee that signs off those excessive pay deals.
Elsewhere this week it was revealed that despite 69% of students expecting the strikes to harm their education, over half said they would back their striking staff, compared to just 29% who said they wouldn’t.
When it comes to who is to blame for the strikes, just one in 20 students said the union was at fault.
My message to students is a simple one. Thank you for support so far. Thank you for the messages on social media and those to your individual staff – they really do mean so much. Please keep up the pressure on your vice-chancellor or principal to do all they can to get UUK back to the table with us.
My message to UUK is even simpler: Listen. Listen to students, listen to university staff, listen to the vice-chancellors telling you to come back to talks. And start talking to us.
Sally Hunt is General secretary of the University and College Union.
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