Brunel University strike: How will it affect you?


(Brunel University London. Picture: Bradley Hayden)

Bradley Hayden looks at the impact the upcoming lecturers' strike will have on students at Brunel for IKB Insider.

The second term at university is often frantic. With deadlines and exams on the horizon for many, it is a stressful time for students, as they bid to end the academic year in style.

However, students from 60 institutions throughout the country, including Brunel, could be without lectures for up to four weeks, as part of intended strike action planned by the University and College Union over proposed cuts to pensions by Universities UK, the organisation which represents universities throughout the United Kingdom.

As part of the changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme, which is one of the largest pension systems for university and higher education employees, lecturers will witness a ‘drop of £10,000 annually after retirement’ within their pensions, according to Brunel’s UCU Chair Stanley Gaines. These pensions will also be based on stock market performance, rather than an individual’s current salary, Mr Gaines added. However, Brunel University declined to comment on this when asked.

The strike is set to commence on Thursday and will last until the 16th March, with 14 days of industrial action planned. Two days of industrial action will take place this week, with this increasing by an additional day over the coming weeks, meaning that from the 12th March, a full week of lectures will not take place for some students.

Mr Gaines told IKBInsider: “We are in a situation where the employers represented by Universities UK are proposing a complete loss of guaranteed pension. Now this doesn’t mean that pensions in principle go away, but in practice the amount of pension one can draw upon will be tied to stock market performance, in a way that has never been done before. It’s gambling with our pensions that we view not just at Brunel, but throughout the UCU nationally, as unacceptable. We’ve been trying for months to get Universities UK to sit down and negotiate a different way forward and they have refused to engage in such negotiations.

“We are still at the national level seeking dialogue with Universities UK. It still isn’t happening and we are barrelling towards this imminent strike action which I don’t think anyone wants, but we’ve reached a point within the union, again not just at Brunel but across the UK, where if we don’t make a stand now, then the only guarantee we have is that we won’t have a guaranteed pension anymore and it is just unacceptable.”

The news has been greeted by support from the National Union of Students and NUS president Shakira Martin said in a joint statement with the UCU: “We believe that fairly rewarded staff are the cornerstone of the university experience and that the proposal by Universities UK to substantially cut the pensions of members of the USS pension scheme will be hugely damaging if implemented.

“As representatives of students, NUS is worried that the imposition of these cuts in the face of sector wide opposition will lead to a demotivated and unhappy workforce and consequent recruitment and retention problems as staff vote with their feet and move elsewhere.”

Potential strike action has divided opinion among students at Brunel. Environments Management student, Shivalee Patel, told IKB Insider: “I think it is good for people to strike when they feel injustice is being done and I don’t blame the lecturers for doing something like this. I do have some lecturers that are going on strike, but I don’t think it will affect our grade.”

This was a view echoed by Biomedics student Subeen Maden, who said: “I feel like it doesn’t really affect people as much. I feel like if the students want to study, there is facilities all around campus to do that. There’s enough time in the term to go through the lectures.”

However, first-year Biomedics student Anastasia Saitnagalova felt the strike would have a negative impact. She said: “I’m kind of upset because it is going to take four weeks and we don’t have enough time for anything. It’s my first year and we have quite a lot of labs we have to finish and we have strikes on a lot of those days. Labs are compulsory and you can’t skip them so I don’t understand what they are going to do about it. I don’t know what to do.”

The UCU is the largest higher education union in the country and of the 700 members at Brunel, 51% participated in a ballot, with 85% supporting strike action.

Brunel University said in a statement to IKB Insider: “At Brunel, we estimate that 150 of our 800-academic staff have supported the ballot and may strike, so the majority of our students could well be unaffected. For those that are, we will ensure that the impact is minimal, by rearranging lectures or using pre-recorded materials, for example, and we have communicated this to our students. Since we cannot ask for staff’s intentions prior to the strike, we ask that students turn up for lectures and submit work as usual.”

In a further email to students, the university said: “Brunel fully understands staff concerns about the changes, and also values the pension scheme we have been able to offer staff until now.

“However, we believe that the proposed changes are the best way to secure the long-term sustainability of the pension. The alternative (proposed by the staff union) is that we increase employer and staff contributions – an additional £1 billion would be needed each year across the sector in order to keep pension benefits at their current levels. At Brunel, employer contributions alone would increase by £3.6million per year. This is unaffordable to us.”

In a statement online, Union of Brunel Students President, Dr Pauldy Otermans, called for ‘a return to negotiations’ between the UCU and Universities UK to avert strike action and for a ‘sustainable pension system to be put in place.’ However, Brunel UCU chair Stanley Gaines is not confident talks will take place.

He said: “I’m an eternal optimist. I want to believe we still have that opportunity between now and next Thursday. On behalf of Brunel’s UCU branch, I can say we hold on to that hope and I can’t speak for the national union, but my sense is they share that optimism. We would like to avoid strike action very much. At the minute, I would say it is very unlikely we will avoid it, but we continue to have an open stance regarding resumed negotiations.”

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