News round-up: UCU warns that strike action is ‘inevitable’ after Universities UK moves forward with pension cuts

UCU has warned that industrial action is ‘inevitable’ after Universities UK voted for proposals to cut thousands of pounds from the retirement benefits of university staff. The cuts will see a typical lecturer lose about a third of their guaranteed pension benefits.

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Employers force through plans to cut university retirement benefits – UCU, 31/08/21

UCU says industrial action in universities is now ‘inevitable’ after employer body Universities UK (UUK) voted to push ahead with its proposals to cut thousands of pounds from the retirement benefits of university staff. At a meeting of the Universities Superannuation Scheme’s (USS) Joint Negotiating Committee (JNC) employers voted for its package of cuts ahead of considering alternative UCU proposals and calls from the union for a month-long extension to negotiations to allow both employers and pension members to be consulted. UCU’s proposals would have delivered higher benefits in return for lower contributions than those put forward by employers. For the first time, they would have provided a secure pension for staff on low pay and insecure contracts who are currently priced out of the scheme. The proposals were intended to be a fair and short-term resolution to the flawed USS scheme valuation, which was carried out at the start of the pandemic when markets were crashing. However, employers repeatedly refused to agree to a small increase in their own contributions. They also refused to provide the same level of employer ‘covenant support’ for UCU’s alternative proposals as they were willing to provide for their own. Now, with UUK’s proposals voted through, those members who can afford to stay in USS will face significant cuts to their retirement income.

Union says strikes ‘inevitable’ as USS pension cuts progress – Times Higher Education, 31/08/21

The USS fund, which covers 340 employers has about 400,000 active and retired members, has an estimated deficit of between £14.9 billion and £17.9 billion. Planned reforms have been the subject of repeated strike action in recent years. It has a hybrid structure, with defined benefits – which offer a guaranteed amount of pension – accrued on earnings up to a salary threshold, currently set at just under £60,000. Twenty per cent of earnings above that threshold is invested into a defined contribution scheme, under which incomes are tied to stock market performance. UUK has proposed reducing the threshold for the defined benefit cut-off to £40,000, in the hope that this would allow the combined level of pension contributions made by employers and employees to remain at its current level of 30.7 per cent of salary, rather than rising to between 42.1 per cent and 56.2 per cent, as proposed by USS managers.

UK university union plans industrial action over pension cuts threat – Financial Times, 31/08/21

Students returning to UK university campuses this month face further disruption, including walkouts by their lecturers, after the sector’s main union said industrial action over pension cuts was “inevitable”. The University and College Union (UCU) issued the warning on Tuesday after a committee made up of employer and union representatives backed controversial pension proposals put forward by Universities UK (UUK), which represents the institutions, to ease an estimated £14bn-£18bn funding shortfall in the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), the sector’s main retirement fund. UCU foreshadowed a ballot for industrial action in the autumn as it on Tuesday emailed 50,000 members inviting them to a mass meeting to discuss the proposals, which it claims will see a typical lecturer lose about a third of their guaranteed pension benefits. “Employers represented by Universities UK (UUK) have today voted to implement a set of regressive USS pension proposals that will reduce member benefits, discourage low-paid and insecurely employed staff from joining USS, and threaten the viability of the scheme as a whole,” said Jo Grady, UCU general secretary. “Employers have failed to support alternative compromise proposals put forward by UCU, drawn up under the constraints of a flawed 2020 valuation of the scheme. Unless employers allow for a rapid consultation on our proposals with a view to revoking their decision today, the path looks inevitably to lead to industrial action.”

Thousands of British students in limbo with post-Brexit visa chaos – The Guardian, 01/09/21

Thousands of British students have been hit by post-Brexit visa hurdles, leaving many struggling to complete their language courses or take up internships in the EU. While some have delayed studying abroad or even switched continents because of visa delays, hundreds of undergraduates taking modern foreign language courses may miss out on a vital part of their degree. In the most extreme case, the UK government has asked Spain to set up a fast-track visa process for British students wanting to study and work there after the Spanish embassy in London was overwhelmed by applications. This month the UK Foreign Office contacted its Spanish counterparts, on behalf of UK universities, over the difficulties British students faced to get visas – the first time they have been required since Brexit ended freedom of movement for UK citizens last year. But Spanish officials have so far rebuffed the request for a fast-track process, saying students should check they have the right documents to avoid hold-ups and suggesting universities could centralise visa applications and submit them en masse.

UK university population becoming ‘more British’ post-Brexit – Times Higher Education, 01/09/21

The UK’s university population is already becoming “more British” post-Brexit, as plummeting numbers of European Union students means the proportion of UK students is on the rise. Data from admissions service Ucas, 15 days after A-level results, show that UK students now account for 89 per cent of placed applicants, up from 86 per cent last year. Analysis by education consultancy DataHE showed that this year would constitute the first increase in the share of UK students since the late 2000s. This year also saw a record number of UK applicants placed on results day, although DataHE estimates that, following a quiet clearing period, the final number of students will be about 450,000 to 460,000 − similar to the 2020 total of 454,000 but still an increase on 2019 numbers. However, 2021 saw a 59 per cent drop in EU students placed at a UK university two weeks after results day, from 27,510 to 11,390. Numbers of non-EU international students have gone up by 7 per cent so far this year to 44,240 in total.

Afghan Chevening scholar relieved after evacuation to UK – The Guardian, 26/08/21

A Chevening scholar who has arrived in the UK after being airlifted out of Afghanistan has said she is relieved to escape the “hell” of Taliban rule but is worried about how the trauma of her ordeal will affect her studies. Afsana Hamidy, 26, arrived at Birmingham airport on Wednesday, and will be studying a master’s in inclusive education at Roehampton University in London. “I have worked for almost two years to get this scholarship. This is the only thing that has given me hope for the future,” she said. “But I’m not sure how my studies will go with the mental situation that I have right now. It’s not easy to forget what has happened overnight. “I have excitement in my heart but I’m nervous about my country, my friends and all the people who I left behind. I have a punishment feeling for myself because I left for a richer, safe country, but I couldn’t help others.” There are 35 Afghan scholars due to be evacuated who are part of the Chevening programme, which funds one-year master’s degrees at UK universities. It is thought there are still a number stuck in Kabul, including one who said he felt let down by the absence of assistance from the UK. “The British could have done more to help by arranging transportation to the airport,” he said. “As a Chevening scholar, they promised to evacuate us but they have left as alone at this hard time.”

More students turn to crypto investing to plug financial gap – BBC News, 30/08/21

The proportion of students investing in cryptocurrencies tripled in a year, website Save the Student found. But one 22-year-old investor said he had lost money and warned others to do their research before getting involved. Three-quarters of those surveyed said they had considered dropping out of their studies. Mental health issues and the pandemic were the most likely reasons, but 41% said money was the key issue. “With an unstable part-time job market as well as some parents losing earnings due to the pandemic, the usual funding sources for students bridging the finance shortfall have become hard to come by,” said Jake Butler, from Save the Student. The survey found that the typical student faced a shortfall of £340 every month, as maintenance loans failed to cover the average monthly living expenses of £810. Financial help from parents, a part-time job and savings are still the most likely ways by far to plug that gap.

Freshers’ week parties could cause huge jump in Covid cases, scientists warn – The Guardian, 28/08/21

Government scientific advisers have warned universities about hosting freshers’ weeks next month, saying they could lead to “very large spikes” in coronavirus cases. Universities across the country are planning to hold in-person events for first-year students next month for the first time since 2019. Professor Susan Michie, director of the centre for behaviour change at University College London, a member of the government’s Covid-19 behavioural science team and part of the Independent Sage group of scientists, said that even if freshers’ events were held outdoors there would still be a “high risk” associated with them. “Freshers’ fair week will have the potential for being a superspreader event, and however much universities pay attention to making it as safe as possible, it’s the behaviour of people that won’t be known,” she said, speaking in a personal capacity. She added: “The other thing, traditionally, is they’ve been associated with people drinking, and we know alcohol consumption disinhibits behaviour. So even if people go in with very good intentions of behaving in a low-risk way, after a couple of pints these things can change.”

Cambridge University Stem support for Covid-hit students – BBC News, 31/08/21

About 750 state school A-level science and maths students are expected to take part in a Cambridge University scheme to bridge the gap in their education during the coronavirus pandemic. Tuition by academics and a stay at a Cambridge college will be offered during the free 17-month programme. The aim is to “build confidence in disadvantaged students” encouraging applications to “leading universities”. The scheme is run by the university and the Department for Education. Cambridge University said the initiative was open to “maths, physics and chemistry A-level (or equivalent) students at non-fee-paying schools from widening participation backgrounds”. “This will include students who live in areas of high deprivation, those who have been eligible for free school meals at any point during their secondary schooling, those who are care-experienced, those at schools unable to offer further mathematics as an A-level, and mature students who are self-studying, among others,” the university said. The Stem Smart scheme (science, technology, engineering and mathematics/subject mastery and attainment raising tuition) will include online tutorials, small group supervisions, mentoring and a residential stay at a Cambridge college.