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UK scientists brace for disruption from huge academic strike

Pension changes spur more than 40,000 university academics to walk out on research activities, conferences and lectures.

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Demonstrations on the picket line at University College London

Academics are striking over changes to their pensions that they say would leave them tens of thousands of pounds worse off. Credit: Lizzy Brown/Nature

Britain’s leading research universities are coping with the disruption wrought by a nationwide strike by academics over changes to their pensions. The walk out, which began on 22 February, is one of the largest by university staff in the country’s recent history and is likely to disrupt scientific experiments, conferences and lectures.

More than 42,000 academics — members of the University and College Union (UCU) — were called out on strike from 64 institutions across the United Kingdom. About 25,500 of those members are research staff, and the dearth of lecturers is predicted to affect more than 1 million students.

Fourteen days of strikes are planned over four weeks, with picket lines erected at universities across the country. Academics are walking out over planned changes to their pension scheme intended to address a large deficit in the fund. They say the changes would leave them worse off in retirement by thousands of pounds a year. Universities UK, which represents the academic employers, says that the pension fund will be difficult to sustain without reform.

Academics already face pay rises below inflation, an insecure career path and increasing workloads, Sally Hunt, general-secretary of the London-based union, told a press conference. “It has always been understood that part of the package that they could look forward to was a reasonable pension,” she says. The willingness of staff to lose 14 days of pay “tells you everything you need to know”, adds Hunt.

The action is the most significant by UK academics in more than a decade, if not the most substantial that the UCU has ever taken. It is “unprecedented”, says Hunt. “I can’t within my time in UCU remember anything as serious,” she says. Union action in 2006 that included a one-day walk out affected teaching and grading duties, rather than research activities.

Science to the side

Striking staff won’t conduct research or attend tutorials, lectures or external commitments. Missed laboratory time will be difficult to make up and cancelled lectures will not be rescheduled, according to the union. The first strike period will last for five days, and four- and five-day phases are scheduled to follow.

Ian Gent, a computer scientist at the University of St Andrews, says that the strike could stop his team from bidding to host a doctoral training centre in artificial intelligence, worth around £5 million (US$7 million). UK funding agencies announced the opportunity two weeks ago, with a short deadline for applications. “With three working weeks taken out of seven weeks to prepare a bid, it would be no surprise if we could not write the bid on time and lose any money we might have got,” writes Gent. “I am potentially hurting this wonderful university's finances by endangering a million pounds a year of income, roughly half a per cent of the university’s budget,” he says. “But on the other hand, I do think that my own and other universities are jeopardizing the future wellbeing of their staff. This has to be stood up against, and that means striking.”

strike at a glance

The action will no doubt impact research, says Aimee Grant, a public-health researcher at Cardiff University who is on a research-only contract. She says that she will lose 14 days of work on her current project, which is on breastfeeding in public spaces. “My research is desk-based, but for people who are experimenting in a lab, I could imagine it would be very disruptive. This could potentially set people back a month or more, to get the lab up and running again as normal.”

Some researchers’ funding is based on completing a defined project, which means many will have to catch up at evenings and weekends. But Grant urges other research-only staff to take part. “Even though it might feel like the only person you’re hurting is yourself, if you don’t come together and strike with colleagues we will all have terrible pensions in our old age,” she says.

“The strength of feeling about this issue is very high,” says Andrew Pontzen, an astrophysicist at University College London (UCL). Parts of that university’s research computing service could be affected because anything that requires human intervention “will be hampered by these strikes”, Owain Kenway, who runs a computing team at UCL, wrote on Twitter.

“We hope that employees recognise that changes are necessary to put the scheme on a secure footing, and that the proposed strike action will only serve to unfairly disrupt students’ education,” Universities UK said in a statement.

Cancelled academic conferences include the Gordon Childe seminar on archaeology and genetics at UCL, scheduled for 22 February, and a seminar on the Rohingya refugee crisis in Myanmar at the SOAS University of London on 28 February. A political-science seminar at the University of Oxford and an agroecology conference at Newcastle University are also among the losses. Because faculty members are not required to inform universities that they plan to strike, the number of affected events is likely to increase.

The UCU estimates that across the 14 days, 575,000 teaching hours will be lost. Tens of thousands of students have started petitions calling for financial compensation for missed lectures and seminars.

Students join academic staff on the picket line at University College London

The picket line at University College London.Credit: Lizzy Brown/Nature

Future money

The action is centred on the Universities Superannuation Scheme, the main pension fund for employees at many of Britain’s research-intensive universities. A 2017 valuation found that the fund had a growing deficit of £12.6 billion — one of the largest of any private UK pension scheme.

To address the deficit, Universities UK and academic employers propose changes that would see pension income go from having a guaranteed element to being entirely dependent on investment return. According to financial models commissioned by Universities UK, the changes would cut pension income by £2,000–£5,000 a year, depending on salary. The UCU puts the figure at as much as £10,000 a year. The changes would affect the future pensions of some 190,000 faculty members and staff.

The union says that the planned changes are based on an overly pessimistic view of the fund’s deficit. That position is backed by a growing number of UK institute heads, who have broken ranks on the issue.

The strike comes after formal negotiations between the two sides about the pension changes ended in January. A narrow majority of the joint negotiating committee sided with Universities UK and approved the group’s proposals to address the fund’s deficit (none of the five UCU members of the committee voted in favour of the changes). The changes are subject to a consultation period during which Universities UK would discuss the plans with employers and affected employees. Earlier in January, the UCU had balloted its members on their willingness to strike should talks end without changes to the proposal. Fifty-eight per cent of its members voted, and 88% of them backed the strike action. Universities UK estimates that those voting in favour of the strike represent around 16% of academic staff in institutions represented by the UCU.

The board that runs the pension scheme must submit its final decision on the changes to the UK Pensions Regulator by the end of June.

Union representatives will meet on 2 March after the first five days of strike. If they deem that university leaders have not committed to “meaningful” negotiations, they will continue with nine more days of action. Since the start of the ballot, the UCU has seen a swell of support, receiving 5,000 membership applications, says Hunt, and the union has needed to employ more people. “People aren’t walking away from this,” she says.

Grant says that she hopes that a critical mass of response will force employers to reopen negotiations. “We don’t want to be on strike,” she says.

Nature 555, 14-15 (2018)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-02350-1

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Updates & Corrections

  • Update 22 February 2018: This story has been updated to note that the strike has begun, with comments from Ian Gent, and with pictures and video.