FOUR Welsh universities are among 61 institutions across the UK that will be hit with 14 days of strike action, the University and College Union (UCU) announced on Monday (Jan 29).
Aberystwyth University, Bangor University, Cardiff University and the University of Wales will all be affected by the action that begins on Thursday, February 22. UCU members at Swansea University are being balloted to see if they will also take action.
The union confirmed an escalating wave of strikes over an initial four week period that will begin with a five-day walkout either side of a weekend. The universities will then be hit with four days of strikes from March 5-8 and a full five-day walkout the following week (Mar 12-16).
The strike dates are:
Week one – Thursday 22 and Friday 23 February (two days)
Week two – Monday 26, Tuesday 27 and Wednesday 28 February (three days)
Week three – Monday 5, Tuesday 6, Wednesday 7 and Friday 8 March (four days)
Week four – Monday 12, Tuesday 13, Wednesday 14, Thursday 15 and Friday 16 March (five days)
Last week talks between UCU and the employers’ representative Universities UK (UUK) ended without agreement and UUK’s plans to transform the scheme were forced through by the chair’s casting vote.
The dispute centres on UUK’s proposals to end the defined benefit element of the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) pension scheme. UCU says this would leave a typical lecturer almost £10,000 a year worse off in retirement than under the current set-up.
In the recent strike ballot UCU members overwhelmingly backed industrial action. Overall, 88% of members who voted backed strike action and 93% backed action short of a strike. The turnout was 58%.
UCU general secretary Sally Hunt said: “Staff who have delivered the international excellence vice-chancellors use to justify their own lavish pay and perks are understandably angry at efforts to slash their pensions. They feel let down by leaders who seem to care more about defending their own perks than the rights of their staff.
“Strike action on this scale has not been seen before on UK campuses, but universities need to know the full scale of the disruption they will be hit with if they refuse to sort this mess out.”
Swansea University was one of seven universities’ that failed to meet the government’s new 50% turnout threshold that must be met. Although 88.5% of members who voted backed strike action, the 49.7% turnout figure was not high enough.
A fresh ballot will close on Friday, February 16. If UCU members at the Swansea University back strikes again, and at least 50% participate in the vote, they would be able to join the action from Monday, March 5.
Commenting on the results of the UCU ballot on possible strike action, a Universities UK (UUK) spokesperson 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.”
One of the key issues for the pension scheme is the size of its deficit. Against just over £60bn in assets, are accrued pension benefits of over £72bn.
That £12bn deficit represents an increase of around £7bn since the last formal valuation of the fund. Among the factors blamed in the actuaries’ report are undefined ‘economic changes’ that were not foreseen in 2014 and are claimed by Universities UK to be have been unforeseeable.
Universities UK claims that in order to address the pension fund deficit, it will have to reform the pension scheme. A reduction in pension benefits scheduled to be paid to members will have the mechanical effect of reducing the deficit – unless, of course, further unforeseeable economic circumstances arise.
Against that, the Union claims that the current deficit is over-stated and that the scheme’s potential liabilities are significantly lower than claimed. With Universities’ future income from tuition fees likely to remain static – if not fall – in the short to medium term, resolving the issue before the deadline of June this year, is likely to be difficult – if not impossible.
Local students shine at skills competition
KATIE WAITE and Ben Thomas, from Pembrokeshire and Llanelli, have won a gold medal in the photography and coaching final of a national skills competition.
Backed by the Welsh Government through the European Social Fund, Skills Competition Wales is a series of events held in colleges across the country, designed to celebrate vocational skills and create highly skilled, talented employees for the Welsh workforce.
Katie, 18, who is studying foundation art, competed against 18 other students from across Wales in a photography challenge. The competitors were tasked with creating photography that focused on the theme discovering Wales.
Katie said: “I am over the moon to have won the photography competition.
“’Discovering Wales’ was the theme of the competition and we had to base our photography around the great outdoors, adventure and culture.
“I focused on the cultural aspect of the brief by looking at how the landscape of Wales reflects its culture.
“It was fascinating to see other people’s work at the competition and see how different people can interpret a brief and show their creativity in other aspects.
“I love photography as it can capture a moment in a unique way and shows another way of seeing things.”
Ben, 21, who is studying level two fitness instructing, competed against 17 other students from across Wales in a series of coaching challenges in within one hour. The competitors were tasked with coaching a one on one strength training session, warm up and circuit session.
Ben said: “Competing in the coach competition was a big success for me that has brought me closer to achieving my goal in making a real difference to people.
“Last year I was struggling with both my physical and mental health and turned to fitness. I got a personal trainer, Zak Hearne, who helped me lose three stone in three months which had a hugely positive impact on my mental health.
“Being able to make the same difference with other people is something I want to achieve in the future through personal training.
“For me, it’s all about pushing people to achieve great things and showing people that they can do anything if they put their mind to it and aim high.”
More than 40 competitions are taking place this year, across a wide range of different vocations from forensic science and fashion technology to 3D game and food preparation.
Those who are successful may then go on to be shortlisted for the UK Squad, competing against the world’s most talented young people at the WorldSkills international final in Shanghai, China in 2021.
Minister for Economy and Transport, Ken Skates said: “Skills Competition Wales is such an important event, allowing multi-talented young people the length and breadth of Wales to put their skills to the test, building on their excellence and experiences across various fields with the opportunity to then progress and compete at UK national and international level.
“It’s also an opportunity to show the breadth of talent we have here in Wales and to celebrate the Welsh companies who are nurturing and reaping the rewards of such highly skilled, talented employees. Ensuring Wales has the skills needed for economic success has long been a priority for me personally and for the Welsh Government more broadly and it’s fantastic to see skills acknowledged in this way.
“I would like to say well done to everyone who has competed this year and add my congratulations to Katie and Ben on their brilliant achievement. Best of luck to them in the next stage of the competition and I look forward to seeing them prosper in their future careers.”
Vocational qualifications importance emphasised
THE IMPORTANCE of vocational qualifications to the Welsh economy was emphasised at the launch of this year’s VQ Awards in Wales at the Senedd in Cardiff.
Speakers called for vocational qualifications to have parity of esteem with academic qualifications and for the Welsh Government to continue prioritising investment in the sector.
Iestyn Davies, chief executive of ColegauCymru/CollegesWales, said Wales was one of the remaining parts of the world where there had been a reluctance to recognise the value of vocational qualifications.
Academic qualifications had hogged the limelight when young people were considering a career path. However, he believed a significant change was underway with politicians now accepting the key importance of vocational qualifications to the economy of Wales.
He called on the people assembled at the launch event to spread the word about the success of vocational qualifications and lifelong learning in Wales to ensure that the Welsh Government continued to prioritise investment in the sector.
Vikki Howells, AM for Cynon Valley, who sponsored the launch event, said during her 16-year teaching career she had wished that there was a greater vocational offer for her students.
There remained a challenge to make young people and their parents, who played a crucial role in directing their children, embrace everything that vocational qualifications had to offer.
She praised the Welsh Government for the work it had already done and continued to do to promote vocational qualifications.
The VQ Awards are jointly organised by the Welsh Government, the National Training Federation for Wales (NTfW), ColegauCymru/CollegesWales, Qualifications Wales and the Education Workforce Council. The Welsh Government’s funding has support from the European Social Fund.
The Education Workforce Council’s chair Angela Jardine said it was exciting to be a new partner in the high-profile awards which celebrated the success and high standards achieved in vocational education to create the Wales of the future.
By maintaining a Register of Education Practitioners, the council aimed to contribute to improving the standards of teaching and the quality of learning in Wales. The register would provide the professional evidence to achieve parity of esteem between vocational and academic qualifications, she added.
Sarah John, chair of the NTfW, said: “The VQ Awards provide a great opportunity for learners, employers and their trainers to celebrate and publicise the positive impact that vocational qualifications have on the lives of individuals and the productivity of businesses in Wales. Upskilling in the changing vocational skills needed by businesses to be competitive is critical as they continue to evolve.”
Cassy Taylor, Associate Director for Vocational Qualifications with Qualifications Wales, said: “Vocational qualifications are the gateway to a rewarding career and we are delighted to be sponsoring the VQ Awards again this year.
“The awards are a perfect way to showcase the talent of learners and the commitment of tutors and employers to develop the skills in our workforce that are the bedrock of the economy.”
Stacey Davies, Human Resources Manager at Gestamp Tallent Ltd, an automotive manufacturer from Llanelli, spoke about the company winning the VQ Employer of the Year Award last year.
“Winning this prestigious award was an immensely proud moment for the plant,” she said. “To be recognised for the early accomplishments of an ambitious but exciting learning and development strategy continues to be very encouraging for all the stakeholders.”
Vocational qualifications play a key role in the Gestamp Tallent Growth Programme, which aims to upskill the entire workforce by creating tailor-made, individual development plans, revamping an apprenticeship programme and introducing leadership and management solutions and a programme for high potential employees.
The VQ Awards are designed to recognise and celebrate star learners, trainers and employers in every part of Wales who have used technical, practical and vocational qualifications to achieve success.
Nominations are now sought in four categories: VQ Intermediate Learner of the Year, VQ Higher Learner of the Year, VQ Trainer of the Year and VQ Employer of the Year. It’s easy to enter the awards. Just download a nomination form at https://www.vqday.wales which has full details about the awards. The closing date is noon on March 8.
From the entries, a panel of judges will select the category finalists for a high-profile awards ceremony to be held at the National Museum of Wales, Cardiff on May 15 to coincide with VQ Day.
Big leap in part-time students
THERE has been a massive 35% increase in part-time undergraduates from Wales, thanks to the Welsh Government’s radical new student support package.
The statistics report on the new student support system for the first time, also showing a 58% increase in the number of postgraduates supported. Welsh post-grads were eligible for dedicated bursaries and support from Welsh universities this year, thanks to Welsh Government funding. Means-tested grants and loans will be introduced from September.
There is no Government-backed living costs grant funding for part-time undergraduates or post-graduate students elsewhere in the UK. Last year, the Education Minister set a goal of a 10% increase in the number of Welsh post-graduate students by the end of this Government’s term.
The Education Minister, Kirsty Williams, said: “This is fantastic news and a real vote of confidence in our student support package, the first of its kind in the UK or Europe.
“We have always said that high living costs are the main barrier for students when thinking about university. Our package of support was specifically designed to address these concerns, making it easier for people to study part-time, especially if they have work or family commitments.
“Our radical approach to supporting part-time study is essential to improving social mobility, employment outcomes, access to the professions and delivering on our commitment to lifelong learning.”
Louise Casella, Director of The Open University in Wales, said: “The OU in Wales saw a 49% increase in our October student recruitment last year. This represents hundreds of more people embarking on learning that will transform the lives of their families and communities. We’ve had a 67% increase in students from Wales’ most economically disadvantaged areas, a 57% increase in disabled students and a 30% increase in BME learners.
“I am pleased the Welsh Government is highlighting the impact the new funding system is having on part-time study in Wales. With maintenance grants now available for part-time distance learners as well, flexible study has never been more affordable. This is helping The OU in Wales make studying for a degree a reality for those who may not have considered it in the past.”
Julie Lydon, Chair of Universities Wales, said: “We are delighted to see this increase in the number of students choosing to study part-time in Wales, clearly demonstrating that the new student support and higher education funding package in Wales is working.
“In the coming decade, Wales will face many challenges from the changing workplace and advancements in technology. These changes will mean that Wales will need a more highly skilled workforce.
Flexible learning, such as part-time study, will play a key role in preparing the people, places and businesses of Wales for the future.
“This increase in part-time and postgraduate study shows that, with the new student support and higher education funding package in Wales, we are on the right path to providing people of all ages and backgrounds with opportunities to benefit from higher education.”
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