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In the news: 2 February

2 February 2018

February strike dates set in USS pensions row

Fourteen days of strikes at 61 UK universities will begin on Thursday 22 February, UCU announced on Monday. An escalating wave of strikes over a four week period will begin with a five-day walkout either side of a weekend.

There will then be four days of strikes from Monday 5 - Thursday 8 March and a full five-day walkout the following week (12 - 16 March). There was widespread coverage of the news across the UK.

Over 150 academics wrote to the Guardian saying there was no justification for the attack on pensions and UCU general secretary Sally Hunt set out in a blog why staff are prepared to take such action to defend their pensions.

The strike dates are:

Week one - Thursday 22 and Friday 23 February (two days)

Week two - Monday 26, Tuesday 27 and Wednesday 28 February (three days)

Week three - Monday 5, Tuesday 6, Wednesday 7 and Thursday 8 March (four days)

Week four - Monday 12, Tuesday 13, Wednesday 14, Thursday 15 and Friday 16 March (five days)

Due to their academic calendar, four universities have slightly different strike dates. A further seven institutions are being balloted to see if they want to join the action. All seven voted for action in the previous ballot, but failed to meet the 50% turnout threshold.


National Union of Students' message of support to staff ahead of USS pension strikes

Following the announcement of strike dates, the National Union of Students (NUS) was quick to send its support to UCU members in USS. In a joint statement, NUS president Shakira Martin and UCU general secretary Sally Hunt said staff are the cornerstone of the university experience and that proposals by Universities UK to cut the pensions of USS scheme members would be hugely damaging.

NUS said it is worried that the imposition of cuts would lead to a demotivated and unhappy workforce and consequent recruitment and retention problems as staff move elsewhere. Keen to avoid any disruption NUS called on university employers to meaningfully negotiate directly with UCU or through the conciliation service Acas.


The principals with £1m retirement pots opting out of USS and demanding extra salary

University principals are opting out of USS but still negotiating large top-ups to their salaries. About a third of principals at Scottish universities have stopped paying into USS for tax reasons, but are still receiving tens of thousands of pounds extra in their pay packets.

The Times reported how paying into the USS scheme can prove inefficient for big earners from a tax perspective if their pension pot hits a £1 million limit. Although they can continue to pay into the scheme, contributions above £1 million are taxed, so they request a salary top-up instead.

UCU Scotland official Mary Senior said that principals should accept the same pension arrangements as their staff, and that refusing to do so was "poor leadership". She said the situation showed there was "one rule for a few at the top and one for everybody else".

Mary Senior said: 'Staff in universities do not have the option of requesting extra money to best suit their private pension or tax arrangements. Principals feathering their own nests while backing changes to slash staff pensions is one of the reasons staff are so angry.'


Edinburgh University gives new principal £410,000 welcome package

The extra scrutiny afforded to Scottish principals' pension arrangements comes after it was revealed yesterday that the incoming principal at Edinburgh University, Professor Peter Mathieson, has accepted a 33% salary hike as part of a welcome package worth £410,000. UCU said the figures were "quite incredible" at a time when universities are under fire for the excessive pay and perks of their leaders and looking to slash the pension benefits of staff.

Sally Hunt said: 'Edinburgh must have looked at months of terrible headlines for higher education about pay and perks and considered the growing unrest about efforts to slash staff pensions. They have considered all this and decided a massive salary hike, a welcome package over £400,000 and a five-bed central Edinburgh home is the best response. It is quite incredible.

'There is a real crisis of leadership in our universities at the moment and things will come to a head when staff, who have been let down time and again by their leaders, walk out at 61 universities in the row over pensions. I implore vice-chancellors to show some leadership and to talk to us to resolve the dispute.'

 University of Hong Kong staff wrote to Edinburgh University to thank them for taking Professor Mathieson

Professor Mathieson hit the headlines earlier this year when it was revealed that staff at his former university Hong Kong said he had failed to protect academic freedom and did not understand the needs of students and staff. Mathieson was one of nine university heads in Hong Kong who wrote a letter saying "freedom of expression is not absolute" and described calls for independence as "abuses".

In comments addressed to Edinburgh University, William Cheung, chairman of the staff association at the University of Hong Kong, said: "Perhaps you may now appreciate why we thank you so many times for taking Professor Mathieson on board, as clearly it would give our university a fresh start sooner rather than later."


Equal pay at BBC and elsewhere needs proper examination

Sally Hunt was among senior female trade unionists calling on the Commons select committee - which was looking into pay inequality at the BBC on Wednesday - to examine the issue thoroughly. In a letter to the Guardian on Tuesday, Sally and colleagues said they wished to express their support and admiration for the women in the BBC fighting for equal pay.

They argued that reducing the salaries of a small number of high-profile men will not address inequality or the opaque nature of pay in the whole organisation and said that what is happening at the BBC is happening elsewhere. They called on the select committee to properly examine what is happening at the BBC, but to also look at Sky, Channel 4, ITV and other industries.


Women at Royal Holloway staff quit institution to gain recognition

UCU members at Royal Holloway said this week that some female employees had no option but to quit their jobs at the university to "gain the recognition they deserved". The comments came after Royal Holloway principal Paul Layzell was heavily criticised over controversial comments about the university's gender pay gap.

In a recording of a November staff meeting that came to light earlier this week, Mr Layzell argued women have a "natural tendency to not have a go and put themselves in for promotion". He also said the university has a "transparent and fair pay system".

Last updated: 2 February 2018