Universities could face lectures and exams disruption as workers vote for action

Universities across the country are set to face widespread disruption after workers voted in favour of action, including walkouts, in an ongoing bitter row over pensions.

Lectures, classes and exams at around 61 universities could be affected if the University and College Union (UCU) pushes ahead with industrial action.

The union announced that its members had overwhelmingly backed action over proposed changes to pensions covered by the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS).

University employers said the prospect of industrial action was "disappointing" as talks over the pension scheme continue.

Hundreds of thousands of university workers are understood to be enrolled in the USS pensions scheme, mainly those working at older institutions that were established before 1992.

UCU has been balloting members that are enrolled in the scheme since November.

It has announced that 88% of members who voted backed strike action, while 93% backed action short of walkouts.

UCU's higher education committee is meeting now to discuss the results and plan a strategy for industrial action if talks about the USS fail.

The talks are due to finish on Tuesday.

The union's 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 UUK spokeswoman 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."

She added: "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."

The last time the UCU took industrial action over the USS was in November 2014 when it staged a boycott of assessment and marking.

This was called off after two weeks to allow for fresh talks, which resulted in the dispute being resolved.

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