UCU plan ‘maximum disruption to forthcoming exams’ as talks fail to find resolution

Talks to resolve the dispute over pensions for University staff at a national level have so far failed to reach a resolution, with a further 14 days of strike action planned.

Negotiations between Universities UK (UUK) – with Sussex Vice-Chancellor Adam Tickell representing University VCs – and the University and College Union (UCU) began on Monday with moderation from conciliation firm Acas. The talks come after several Universities, including Oxford and Manchester, broke with the UUK stance to reverse their view on changes to the USS pension scheme.

In an email sent to UCU members at Sussex, General Secretary Sally Hunt said “As things stand there is no agreement at Acas. Because of this our negotiators today sought and received the support of HEC for a further fourteen days of further strikes if no acceptable agreement is reached.

“These strikes, if they are needed, would be staged in such a way as to maximise disruption to the forthcoming exams and assessment period in USS institutions between April and June. HEC also agreed to sanction, if necessary, further strikes immediately after Easter in institutions where scheduled teaching continues. Strike pay will be available for any action undertaken.”

Ms Hunt did, however, stress that dialogue was preferred and the UCU were serious about making the talks with Acas work – but that it was strike action which had led to even this success by bringing UUK back to the table.

The Badger understands that the dispute now is mainly focussed on the September 2017 valuation of the financial health of the USS. Universities at the time decided that valuation did not account for risk properly, with accountants hired by USS estimating a projected future deficit given current contribution requirements. Sussex was one of 42% of universities who supported this stance, arguing for a more risk-averse policy. UCU’s proposal calls for a return to the September 2017 risk assessment.

Sussex management have not commented this week on their stance, with Adam Tickell saying that “we agreed at our meeting yesterday, and reiterated today, that no member of either team would comment on any matter relating to the industrial action.” Members of senior management, including the VC, Deputy VC Saul Becker, and Chief Operating Officer Tim Westlake, had until today shown more willingness to communicate with students and the Sussex UCU – those lines look like changing, however, after Prof Tickell was drafted in to national negotiations. “After the first day of mediated talks, UUK asked me to join the negotiating team at ACAS. I am the only Vice Chancellor involved in this group”

The University has been contacted for comment.

An agreement, however, has been agreed at Sussex to not deduct pay from staff participating in industrial action short of a strike. This includes refusing to work overtime, and following discussion between the University, Sussex UCU and student campaigners no pay will be affected for working to contract.

The Badger has been conducted fornightly polling of student support for the strikes, which so far have found an increase in support despite disruption to teaching, 82% on Thursday 1st March. This is reflective of a national trend showing higher than expected solidarity between students and staff. It remains to be seen whether more serious disruption to exams, marking, or graduation – even the prospect of students failing the year on the back of strikes – will change that mood or solidify it.

One final year student told The Badger “I still support the strikes. If I write my dissertation and they refuse to mark it my support may be tested.”

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