UCU Industrial Action. The Lecturers Strike

What is it?

The term “industrial action” covers any collective action taken by a trade union during a dispute with employers. This may be working to rule (action short of a strike), or a full strike. When a member of staff strikes, they are not paid for the full day they are on strike. A strike is very simply UCU members not turning up to work. The UCU website has a good list of FAQ’s on strike action https://www.ucu.org.uk/strikefaqs. Strike action may be taken by any member of staff covered by this collective action (which is any member of University staff at grade 3 and above).


Who is involved?

The employers, who are the Universities within the USS scheme are represented by Universities UK (UUK). The University of Surrey is a member of Universities UK. The staff are represented by the University and College Union (UCU). Many staff employed at the University of Surrey are members of UCU.

What is the USS Pension Scheme?

The dispute is about the University pension scheme USS.The University pension scheme (called USS) is in deficit. USS pension fund provides pensions for more than 360 UK Universities, higher education and research institutions, most post 92 Universities are in the Teachers Pension Scheme, and the London Universities have their own (SAUL). USS is a hybrid scheme which consists of both defined benefit and defined contributions. For the defined benefit part of the scheme, this means that the amount of money you are paid when you retire is a fixed amount, your benefit is defined. The amount you receive is based on how much you earned over your career, and how long you worked in a USS University. Every year you work in a USS University you are due 1/75 of your salary each year as a pension, for life. So, if you work two years, then when you retire your pension will be 2/75 of your salary (up to £55,550), and if you work 36 years then your pension is 36/75 or roughly half of your salary, which will be paid each year as a pension. This is called the accrual rate, or how much your pension is compared to how long you work. The pension you are paid when you retire, increases each year with inflation. Money is put into USS from both employees and employers. Employees pay 8% of their salary (before tax) and Universities pay 18% of the salary into USS. For an employee earning £1000 each month this means they pay £80 into USS and the University pays £180, so the actual salary cost to the University of that member of staff is £1180. Above £55,550 salary, any pension contributions go into a defined contribution scheme. A DC scheme really is no more than large savings account, where the amount of money that goes in is fixed (hence defined), but the amount that comes out at retirement is not (the benefit is not defined)


What is the Valuation?

The pension valuation is at the heart of the dispute, and you can read all about it here


What is the dispute about?

The dispute arose because through the national discussions the UCU and the employers (Universities UK - UUK) cannot agree on what steps should be taken to address funding shortfalls to USS.  After a year’s discussions at the Pensions Joint Negotiating Committee (JNC), which consists of equal numbers of employer representatives from UUK and employee representatives from UCU, and an independent Chair.  This national body (JNC) is tasked with responding to the challenge of how to fund the USS, and the Independent Chair cast his vote on the side of the employer proposals.  These proposals are not accepted by UCU, who have triggered a trade dispute and secured a mandate for strike action and action short of a strike in 61 of the 68 institutions balloted.


What are the proposed solutions?

The employers believe the deficit and the future funding of the scheme is unaffordable and are proposing to reduce the defined benefit cap to zero, so that all contributions will go into the defined contributions section of the scheme, whilst leaving the ability to re-open the defined benefit section should the market conditions improve.  The proposed changes are an attempt to both deal with the deficit over time and ensure that future benefits remain affordable. Importantly, however, this is (confusingly) not the closure of the USS scheme it merely alters the current conditions, and technically the scheme could revert to a DB scheme in the future, however to the staff this means USS becomes a defined contribution scheme. This would mean only the money going into the pension fund is defined, and then the actual pension on retirement is dependent on what sort of pension you can buy with your pension pot. As there are no obligations on how much needs to paid to the pensioners there can be no deficit. There is a dispute over how much less this would mean in pensions, however both sides are agreed pensions would reduce as a result.

The UCU have proposed three changes;

  • The 'accrual rate' changes from 1/75 to 1/80. This means you have to work five years longer to get the same pension
  • Employees to pay an increase of 2.9 percentage points to the pension (they would pay 10.9%)
  • Employers (the Universities) to pay an increase of 5.5 percentage points (they would pay 23.5%)

These proposals would still mean staff were in a worse position than currently (as it would mean less take home pay), however the defined benefit scheme would remain. The third solution is the "default" solution which would be imposed by the trustees of USS (outlined below).


Why have the solutions been rejected?

The UCU have rejected the employer’s solution as it would take away the defined benefits of the USS pension scheme. The employers have rejected the UCU proposals as they believe that the additional 5.5% is too much for Universities to afford. This deadlock between each side meant the independent chair of the JNC needed to exercise a casting vote, which is the agreed procedure. He voted to agree with the employers’ proposals.


What happens next?

The rules of USS mean if an agreement is not reached then a pre-agreed solution is imposed.  If USS cannot show the pensions regulator that the scheme is viable by June then the trustees have to, by law, explain what they propose to do next – the trustees will then have to impose a scheme that funds the deficit and future benefits, having considered the ‘affordability’ to universities or employees.


How will this affect students?

The ballot for strike action allows for significant disruption, of several days at a time from February onwards.  Lectures and tutorials may be cancelled, and coursework could be marked late. It will mostly affect academic activity although non-academic staff could also strike.  Modules may not be completed by exam time, and feedback not provided in time for improvement. It is an important point of strike action that it MUST be an inconvenience, or there is no point in striking.  Imagine a train strike, and all the trains run normally….


What does the Students' Union think?

On 22nd and 23rd February, there will be national strike action across the UK at over 60 Universities, including the University of Surrey. While strike action is extremely disruptive to our students, this is a complex situation that can only be resolved by more negotiations. We urge Universities UK and the UCU to work towards a negotiated settlement so we can prevent any further disruption for students. We call on the University management to ensure that the effect of strike disruption is minimised, and we also ask the UCU membership to be sensitive to students, particularly those who face long commutes and childcare commitments in order to attend university.

The Union Exec will be discussing the strike action on Tuesday 20th Feb at 6:30pm in Lecture Theatre J. This meeting is open to all students.

The view from UCU


UCU members are taking industrial action because UUK’s proposed changes to the pension scheme will cause significant loss of financial security during the retirement years of university staff. Strike action is not being taken lightly, and at this stage we are asking nothing more than for UUK to re-open negotiations with UCU. We believe a better solution to the current proposal can be found through further negotiations.

The USS pension scheme is currently very attractive compared to many equivalent schemes available outside the public sector, and this has occasionally been used to justify such drastic cuts to the scheme. However, business and industry can afford higher salaries and other benefits that are not available to university staff – the USS pension scheme is therefore one of the benefits that draw high-quality staff to work in universities. Although strike action may cause short-term disruption to teaching, by not taking such action we risk a long-term erosion of quality in universities that will be to the detriment of future generations of students, academics, and many other members of university staff.

UCU members have voted overwhelmingly to try and fight for a better outcome – 80% of those who voted supported strike action and 90% supported ASOS. We have also seen a 10% increase in UCU membership since the ballot, which reflects how concerned staff are about the proposals. Acceptance of a poor pension deal is clearly not an option but since UUK are refusing to re-join negotiations we see no alternative than to take industrial action. We would invite students to join us in bringing this situation to a swift conclusion by writing to the VC, Professor Max Lu, and asking that he joins a number of other VCs who openly support the UCU position and who support the re-opening of negotiations in order to secure a better outcome.

The view from the University of Surrey Management


"We have not reached this position lightly. Nationally, more than 25 meetings took place during 2017 between the employers and the unions to discuss the valuation and response. The escalating costs of the defined benefit pension is a serious problem for universities. Although money earned in the pension scheme to date is protected, for the University of Surrey, if we are to continue to provide the level of benefits that we have done in the past, this would require significantly higher payments into pensions, around £10 million a year more than the £16 million we spend on USS each year already. To put this in context, this is like asking 15,000 students to each pay an additional £650 a year in fees to fund pensions for our academics, our administrators and our management. There is no spare money laying around that we can simply use. Money spent on pensions is money that cannot be spent elsewhere, and this would mean that we would have to redirect funding that has been allocated to students, to our infrastructure and to our existing staff commitments. Unfortunately, an inevitable consequence would be job losses if we have to find that level of extra money, and we believe we should look to live within our means. Job losses are bad for staff, and they would be bad for students, as there would be fewer staff to support you and provide academic and other services.

In changing our pension arrangements, we are only doing what most major commercial organisations have already done many years ago. When the current USS was set up, people tended to live on average for c.7 years after retirement. Now that figure is nearer 19 years after retirement, which is good news for everyone, unless you are running a pension scheme that has to provide the pension for so much longer. We are happy to continue paying 18% of salaries into the pension scheme, a figure which compares very favourably to other employers. The average payments in the UK are nearer 7%. We think we can afford that and keep the University financially sustainable.
Around 44% of UCU members voted for strike action. We accept that they have a right to strike, but we are asking them to give us 48 hours notice so that we can do whatever we can to minimise the impact of any disruption on students. The Union has advised staff not to give us such notice. The action they are proposing is knowingly targeting students, rather than say academic research, and the Union has advised its members not to reschedule lectures, or to cover for other staff.

We are conscious that many students may well be empathetic to staff whose pensions may be changing. We would rather changes to pensions could be avoided too, but we do not believe that this is possible. Accordingly we believe that we must act now to make these changes and, in doing so, we are encouraging staff to respond to the formal Consultation being undertaken about the changes rather than take damaging strike action. We will do everything we reasonably can during the period of any dispute to mitigate the impact on students and to continue to provide you with the education and support you deserve."

Frequently Asked Questions (provided by Student Services)

1. Why are staff striking?

Following their recent ballot across 68 higher education institutions (HEIs), University and College Union (UCU) has notified the University of Surrey that its members will be taking industrial action over proposed changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) pension. These proposals are subject to further consideration once the formal consultation process has been undertaken, and we expect this consultation to commence in mid-March and run for at least 60 days. We have been notified that strike action will commence on 22 February, and run for 14 days over the following 4 weeks. In addition Action Short of a Strike (ASOS) will commence on 22 February and will terminate no later than 19 June 2018. This ASOS will consist of working to contract; not covering for absent colleagues; not rescheduling lectures or classes cancelled due to strike action; not undertaking any voluntary activities.


2. What is the difference between strike action and action short of a strike (ASOS)?

Strike action is where employees refuse to work. ASOS occurs when employees of an organisation engage in action that cannot be classified as a full strike. Such action can be working to contract or refusing to work additional hours.


3. Will my studies be impacted?

UCU have 282 members and 123 voted for strike action and 137 for ASOS. As such, some lectures will need to be rescheduled and turnaround time for essay marking may be delayed. The strike action could impact some students more than others, depending on the numbers within each department who decide to strike or take ASOS.


4. What happens when a member of staff is on strike and so refuses to teach a scheduled lecture?

The relevant Head of Department will designate an alternative member of staff to take the lecture. If this is not possible the Head of Department will use appropriately qualified current, new or previous Associate staff who are familiar with the module to deliver its content. Where it is not possible for a teaching session to be delivered in its timetabled slot due to industrial action, the Timetabling team will work with academic staff to re-schedule the teaching. Where lectures have to be cancelled due to strike action students will be informed by the Timetabling team via text and email at the earliest possible opportunity.


5. How will I find out if my lecture is going ahead?

We will text and email students if we have to cancel. Please assume your lecture is on if you don’t get a message from the University. However, if lecturers don’t tell us in advance (as they are being advised to by UCU), then you may turn up for a lecture and discover that no lecturer present. If this happens, please contact the timetabling team who will investigate and try to reschedule.


6. I have to travel a long distance to campus, when will I know if my lecture is cancelled?

Where lectures have to be cancelled due to strike action students will be informed by the Timetabling team via text and email at the earliest possible opportunity.


7. What if I have a class test on a strike day?

Class tests scheduled to take place on strike days should be unaffected by the industrial action.


8. Where should students report to if they believe that a lecture has been or may be cancelled due to strike action?

Students should contact the Timetabling team at timetablehelp@surrey.ac.uk


9. Can temporary staff be hired to cover the work of employees involved in the industrial action?

The University is not able to hire temporary agency workers to cover the work of those involved in industrial action. The University can, however, cover the work by temporarily reallocating work to other appropriate staff not involved in the action or by identifying other workers (NOT agency) who could provide suitable temporary cover, such as Associate Staff or retired staff.


10. Does the University withhold pay for strike action?

The University withholds full pay for each day of action, whether strike action or ASOS.


11. What happens to money that the University will save by withholding pay for staff who go on strike?

The money will go towards the student hardship fund.


12. Does the University withhold pay for working to contract?

So long as an individual fulfils the full range of his/her contractual duties, the University will not make any deductions to pay. However, where working to contract results in partial performance of the individual’s explicit and implied contractual duties this will amount to a breach of contract and pay can be withheld.


13. Is it possible that the Semester will be extended to make up teaching time?

We are not currently planning to extend the semester. Where lectures are cancelled the timetabling team will work with academic staff to reschedule the teaching.


14. Will I receive compensation for loss of teaching?

Where it is not possible for a teaching session to be delivered in its timetabled slot due to industrial action, the timetabling team will work with academic staff to re-schedule the teaching.

Where it is not possible for a teaching session to be delivered in its timetabled slot due to industrial action, the timetabling team will work with academic staff to re-schedule the teaching.
We remain committed to minimising disruption or disadvantage to students. However, we will keep this under review and give individual consideration to cases where students believe they have not received appropriate teaching provision. The University has a complaints and appeal process available to students should you wish to make a complaint and appeal based on the impact of the strike on your studies.

The University has a complaints and appeal process available to students should you wish to make a complaint and appeal based on the impact of the strike on your studies.


15. What happens if one or more of my dissertation or project supervision meetings is cancelled due to strike action?

Supervision meetings will normally be rearranged for a day when the staff member is not taking industrial action, and if for some reason that is not possible then your department will put alternative appropriate supervision in place for you.

If a dissertation supervisory meeting is cancelled due to strike action, please therefore liaise with your supervisor to reschedule the meeting. In the event that this proves problematic, please contact your Head of Department so that she/he can make appropriate alternative arrangements.


16. How will my course be assessed if I have not received the teaching?

We will ensure that students are not disadvantaged in their assessments where some module content is not delivered as a result of strike action (e.g. if lectures are cancelled and cannot be rescheduled). In such circumstances we will review and if necessary revise the content of assessments. The formal Boards which review and ratify the outcomes of examinations and assessments will also be made aware of any impact the industrial action has had on your teaching and learning, so that they can take this into account in their considerations.


17. Can I make an application to submit extenuating circumstances for the impact the strike action has had on me?

There is no need for you to submit an Extenuating Circumstances application, since the Exam Board will be made aware of all the relevant information concerning the impact of the industrial action on every module and assessment (see detailed response to previous question).


18. Will the strike affect my examinations this summer?

As things stand at present, and at all universities, the period of strike action will end on 16 March and Action Short of a Strike on 19 June. The UCU could decide to proceed to a subsequent period of action affecting the examination period, and if this were the case we would again take all practical steps to minimise disruption and disadvantage to students. As yet, however, this is unknown. We will provide more information when it is available.