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SCAN interviewed Paul Boustead and Sharon Huttly to find out more about the university position on the strikes and the sustainability of the pension scheme that underpins the confrontation.
Paul Boustead (Director of HR) stressed that the University was only one of 184 institutions involved in the negotiations and could not unilaterally end the stand-off. Boustead defended the scheme: “the employer contribution rate will remain at 18% – one of the most generous rates of any sector.”
“The pension scheme is one of the best in the country” he stated, explaining that the USS is a private scheme, unlike the publicly owned pension schemes that cover other professions such as primary and secondary school teachers. He also stressed that Lancaster had been outvoted in the consultation process that had led up to the current confrontation.
While he would not give his personal opinion on the changes to the pension scheme, or the strike, he said: “we encourage staff to join a union. A by-product of that is industrial action, it goes with the territory.”
Professor Sharon Huttly, Pro Vice Chancellor for Education, also spoke to SCAN regarding the industrial action. While stopping short of supporting the strike, Professor Huttly said: “we support the view that all staff here have the right to take the option of industrial action – but we must balance this with our duty to students.”
The University will support staff through the changes by offering financial advice and communicate information about the new scheme: “it is a very complex situation,” said Huttly, “it becomes apparent how little staff know about their pension schemes.”
Huttly put the emphasis on how the transformation of the financial landscape after the 2008 financial crisis had made the current pension settlement “unsustainable”. There had been marginal tweaks since 2011, but none of them had succeeded in solving the problem. She also suggested that the economic instability following the EU referendum might have a role to play, as anything that would impact growth in the future would make the need to reform a “risky” pension scheme all the more pressing.
She made clear that there was no plans for financial compensation of students though did not rule it out, and mentioned that there were “provisions” in place for academic compensation for students who are severely disrupted by the strike.
It was repeatedly stressed that it was not the role of the University to resolve the strike. There are over three hundred institutions in the USS pension scheme, and Lancaster cannot unilaterally end the pension dispute without bringing other universities on board.
As on the question of whether the pension reforms tie in to a more general marketisation of education, Huttly and Boustead stated that the USS had been a private scheme long before the current government had been in place. The changes would be a shift from a defined contribution scheme to a hybrid scheme, that would retain elements of the defined contribution along with stock-market linked investments.
It is unclear if strikes will continue for the full fourteen days. Both Huttly and Boustead noted the UCU meeting taking place between Lancaster week 7 and Lancaster week 8 as a potential time for compromise. If the strikes are called off then, only five days of industrial action will have taken place.