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Sandra Booth, Director of Policy and External Relations for the Council for Higher Education in Art & Design (CHEAD), reviews a week of higher education news in which concerns emerged over universities’ financial stability due to Covid-19 and the impact of the crisis on students.
A growing number of higher education conferences and events are being postponed or moved online in response to the Coronavirus restrictions.
Amid predictions that higher education will be changed forever by the current pandemic, Professor James Miller, Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Glasgow Caledonian University, suggests the innovative ways the sector is responding to the crisis will make it even more valued in the future.
The current crisis has underlined the critical role played by the UK’s experts and researchers and the institutions supporting them, as well as the need for collaboration between them, says Dr Joe Marshall, Chief Executive of the National Centre for Universities and Business.
As a growing number of universities move teaching and assessment online in response to the coronavirus pandemic, the University of Derby is holding a virtual conference which aims to support staff in making the transition.
The Office for Students is leaving it up to universities to decide on particular approaches to the Coronavirus pandemic rather than issuing specific guidance, and has promised to minimises its regulatory demands on the sector in response to the crisis.
A study has found substantial differences in degree attainment by students' religion or belief.
Sixty one universities could face "widespread disruption" next month, the University and College Union has warned, after its members overwhelmingly backed industrial action in a row over potential changes to their pensions in the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS).
Overall, 88 per cent of UCU members who voted backed strike action and 93 per cent backed action short of a strike. The turnout was 58 per cent.
Responding to the news, Universities UK said it was "disappointed" by the result of the ballot, and warned of the potential negative impact of industrial action on students.
The union’s higher education committee is meeting to discuss the results and plan an industrial action strategy should talks about the future of the scheme, scheduled to finish on Tuesday January 23, fail to deliver a solution.
UUK wants to transform the scheme from a defined benefit scheme that gives a guaranteed retirement income to a defined contribution scheme where pension income is subject to changes in the stock market.
Independent modeling of the proposals commissioned by UCU shows that a typical lecturer would lose £200,000 in retirement if the UUK plans were imposed.
The union said it hoped that the overwhelming mandate for strike action would focus universities’ minds and that more vice-chancellors would publicly pressure UUK to agree a deal. UCU said it was happy for talks to be extended in an attempt to resolve the issue without strike action. It added that two rounds of cuts in USS benefits since 2011 have already left USS members with pensions worth less than those of school teachers and academics in the sector’s other pension scheme, the Teachers’ Pension Scheme.
UCU general secretary Sally Hunt said: "UCU members have made it quite clear that they are prepared to take sustained strike action to defend their pensions. USS already offers worse benefits than other schemes available in universities, and UUK’s proposals would make matters worse. I hope more vice-chancellors will pressure their negotiators to work with us to resolve the matter without strike action."
A spokesperson for UUK said: “The prospect of industrial action at 61 out of the 68 higher education institutions balloted by UCU is disappointing as talks between employers and the union on USS pension reform continue. A solution to the significant funding challenges facing USS needs to be found. UUK’s priority is to put USS on a secure and sustainable footing while offering attractive, market-leading pensions – the very best that can be afforded by both employers and employees.
“We should be under no illusion, this is not a problem that will go away if ignored. To retain the status quo would only serve interests in the short term. Without reform now, universities will likely be forced to divert funding allocated from research and teaching to fill a pensions funding gap. The option of no reform is a dangerous gamble. It is a risk that employers cannot take.
“If industrial action takes place it could cause disruption to students at some universities. We hope that this can be avoided through further talks with UCU and that union members carefully consider the possible impact on students of taking industrial action.”
Universities where UCU members have backed industrial action:
Birkbeck College, University of London
City, University of London
Courtauld Institute of Art
East Anglia University
Goldsmiths, University of London
Imperial College London
Institute of Education
King's College London
Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine
London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine
Oxford, University of
Queen Mary, University of London
Queen’s University Belfast
Royal Holloway, University of London
Royal Veterinary College, University of London
Senate House, University of London
SOAS, University of London
St Andrews University
University College London
University of the Highlands and Islands
University of Wales
University of Warwick
University of York
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