Students back university staff in strike over pensions dispute
Students have joined university staff in Northern Ireland for the first day of strike action in a pensions dispute.
Dozens of people gathered near Queen's University Belfast (QUB) on Thursday as a five-day walkout began, also involving Ulster University (UU) staff.
A rally saw a crowd demonstrate in front of Queen's student union as strikers clutched placards demanding Hands Off Our Pensions while some motorists travelling along University Road honked their horns, indicating support.
The University and College Union (UCU) Northern Ireland has said staff face an impoverished retirement after a lifetime of dedicated service, and claimed the universities had "refused" to exercise their influence to help find a negotiated solution.
The union has predicted changes to the current pensions set-up would leave a typical lecturer almost £10,000 a year worse off in retirement.
Anthea Irwin, a communications lecturer at University of Ulster and UCU member, addressed the rally and said she was pleased with the turnout.
Speaking afterwards the 45-year-old from Belfast said she felt many students, who face disruption to lectures, were supportive of the strike.
She said: "Students in general, a great number, are fully supportive and are choosing even if they have lectures, to not go."
She added: "I would say to the students 'put the pressure on the management, put the pressure on the vice chancellors because we need them to come back to the table'. We're sitting here ready to talk to them and we want to get back to work."
History masters student Jayne Donnelly turned out to lend her support, saying that she understood the staff's position despite the disruption.
The 21-year-old Queen's student, from Newry, said: "I think there's a lot of disruption but I don't think it's due to the lecturers' fault, I think it's the universities' fault. They should keep in mind the students' welfare as well as the lecturers'. And I don't blame the lecturers for what they're doing because their pension is being attacked. So I totally see why they would strike."
She added that she knew students who were attending lectures because their lecturers were not taking part in the strike.
She said: "I'm paying £5,500 for one year. And the classes I'm missing in the next four weeks, that's a substantial amount of money. So I understand where they (those students) are coming from, education comes first."
Universities UK, which represents vice-chancellors, has said it is working to make the scheme sustainable while offering the very best pensions that can be afforded.
The Northern Ireland universities are joining industrial action being taken by 61 UK universities on Thursday February 22 and continuing over a four-week period.
There will also be four days of strikes from Monday March 5 to Thursday March 8 and from March 12-15.
The union said the strike was the biggest to hit the higher education sector with 88% of members voting in favour.
It said the dispute centres on Universities UK's proposals to end the defined benefit element of the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) pension scheme, replacing it with a defined contribution scheme based upon stock market investment performance.
Universities UK said it would cost close to £1 billion extra each year to maintain current benefits, which would have had to be split 35:65 between members and employers if reforms are not agreed.
Queen's said it was disappointed by the industrial action and hoped to take steps to minimise impact on services during the strike period.
An Ulster University statement said the reform process was challenging and pension provision was important for employees.
A spokesman said: "However we are committed to find a solution which is equitable for both the university and its employees."