Students should be compensated for strikes, says minister

Universities should compensate students affected by ongoing strikes by union members in a bitter row over pensions, Sam Gyimah has said.

The universities minister said the Department for Education (DfE) is "looking closely" at the issue, warning institutions that they must "step up to the plate".

He also urged the University and College Union to call off the industrial action, saying it is in the interests of students, who are paying striking workers' wages.

Mr Gyimah's comments came as walkouts entered their fifth day.

UCU members are staging 14 days of action over four weeks in protest at changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS).

Tens of thousands of students have signed petitions calling for compensation for loss of lectures and classes.

Asked by reporters if universities should look at compensating students if the strikes continue, Mr Gyimah said: "Absolutely, I'm very serious about that.

"I think there are a number of ways for universities to deal with it.

"The team at the DfE is looking at this quite closely with universities.

"One is making sure that, where lectures are missed, they should make them up. They should find ways of making it up for students on non-strike days - that would be a form of compensation.

"Secondly, I know some universities are looking at putting the money that they save from not paying striking staff into student support funds."

Mr Gyimah said he thought this was a "good idea", adding that he knew of one university that was looking at direct compensation for affected students.

He added: "I absolutely think that this is essential and we are going to pursue it because, if this had happened in freshers' week, nobody would be worried, but this is at a vital time of the academic year, people are preparing for exams, and I want universities to step up to the plate.

"But it's not just universities. I also think, on the other side, given that talks are under way, Acas is involved, there's a mediator involved, that I expect that UCU will suspend the strikes in the interests of students because ultimately it is those students that are paying the salaries of the striking staff and I don't want them to suffer any more than they need to in terms of their education."

The dispute centres on proposals put forward by UUK in January which would see the USS move from a "defined benefit" scheme, which gives workers a guaranteed income in their retirement, to become a "defined contribution" scheme, in which pensions are subject to fluctuations in the stock market.

UUK maintains that the pension scheme has a deficit of more than £6 billion which cannot be ignored, while UCU argues that the current proposals would leave a typical lecturer almost £10,000 a year worse off in retirement.

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