On Thursday 6 November, a marking boycott began across the UK – including at the University of St Andrews – in protest against proposed pension reforms. This boycott is intended to affect students and thus to pressure university employers into negotiations to resolve the dispute. The Saint has put together a Q&A for those students who may not be aware of this boycott or its consequences.
Why is this boycott happening?
Academics at universities across the UK are protesting pension reforms. Pensions are regulated according to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS). Changes to this scheme have been proposed in response to an expected deficit.
According to trustees of the USS, the proposed reforms are the best possible deal for everyone involved. However, the University and College Union (UCU), whose members are participating in the boycott, believes that the USS’s proposed reforms are unfair. UCU members are demanding that new terms be set that both accommodate the deficit and honor academics’ work.
Is this a strike?
Not quite. Instead, protest will take the form of a marking boycott. On Thursday 6 November, academics participating in the boycott stopped setting, marking, and returning coursework.
How will students be affected?
This boycott is intended to affect students in an attempt to force university employers to meet the protesters’ demands. Students whose professors or lecturers are participating in the boycott will have neither their coursework marked nor it returned to them. New coursework may not be assigned either.
Dr Chris Hooley, President of the St Andrews UCU branch, told The Saint: “Naturally all UCU members regret the considerable disruption to students that is caused by a boycott of the setting and marking of assessed work. However, we know from history that such boycotts are the form of action that influences the universities most quickly, and in the face of such a grievous attack on our terms and conditions of work that kind of quick influence is needed here.”
What about exams?
In addition to not receiving marks, students may find their exams will be delayed if the boycotters’ demands are not met before the examination diet starts.
Who are the key players in this boycott?
Get ready to mind your acronyms. The boycott is comprised of members of the UCU (Universities and College Union). Only members of the UCU are allowed to participate in the boycott, though not all members are obliged to. The boycott is in response to changes being made to the USS (University Superannuation Scheme), whose trustees are responsible for the terms of pension reform. Universities UK (UUK) represents the employers in this dispute, so university administration who are responsible for establishing and maintaining their employees’ pensions.
To recap: UCU members are the protesters. Proposed changes to the USS are the problem. And the UUK is responsible for responding to the boycotters’ demands.
Who at St Andrews is participating?
Academics at the University who are members of the UCU are able to participate in this marking boycott. Across the UK, the UCU represents over 120,000 academics and university faculty, and this protest will affect some 69 universities. While official numbers have not been publicized, the UCU branch at the University of St Andrews counts hundreds of academics here as members.
Furthermore, members of the UCU nationally voted overwhelmingly in support of industrial action to protest pension reform. Over 87 per cent of UCU members who voted in a recent ballot were in favor of action short of a proper strike – such as a marking boycott – which suggests that there is widespread support and consensus among UCU members for this marking boycott.
What is the timeframe for this boycott?
The boycott began on 6 November, and the UCU has said it will continue until the dispute is resolved. The UUK said to the BBC that it was “committed to continuing negotiations” with the UCU. A spokesperson for the University said, “The University is determined to minimize the risk of disruption to students, and will take all responsible steps to mitigate the impact of any strike action.”
The worst-case scenario, at least for students, is that the boycotters’ demands are not met and that the protest will then affect our exams.
What exactly are the pension reforms that are being challenged?
According to the UUK, some of the pension reforms that have been proposed include:
- Ending final salary arrangements as they currently stand. Instead, academic pensions would be based on average career earnings, but only up to £50,000. Employers (i.e. the universities themselves) would be responsible for increasing their contributions to pensions by 2 per cent.
- For those earning more than £50,000, their pensions will depend on a defined contribution scheme. This means that they will be affected by the performance of investments and thus will not be set or secure in any meaningful way.
Why are these reforms being proposed?
According to the UUK, the USS pension scheme as it stands is simply unsustainable. Trustees of the USS have reported an £8 billion deficit, which is obviously significant.
If reforms are not made, this deficit will have to be covered by the universities themselves. If universities are obliged to make up the difference, they would have to cut costs elsewhere, most likely leading to job cuts, pay freezers, and a curb on recruitment.
However, the UCU has challenged the validity of this deficit report. According to The Guardian, the UCU says that ‘the methodology [of the USS’s trustee report] is misleading and doesn’t take into account the actual investments held by the scheme and the expected returns on these investments.’
Regardless, there is a deficit when it comes to the academic pension scheme, and reforms must be made. The terms of these reforms are up for debate, hence the marking boycott.
What is the University’s role in all of this?
A spokesperson for the University said, “It is widely known that the USS Scheme… is facing a considerable deficit. A recovery plan has to be agreed. It is our belief that all parties should be working together to address the underlying issues.”
What can students do?
Dr Hooley told The Saint, “We hope that students will understand and support our industrial action, and that a reasonable settlement on the future of USS will be reached before too long.” The UCU branch at the University can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.