Funding ring-fenced to help students affected by strikes beginning today at Norwich university
It could be a day of disruption at the University of East Anglia.
UEA is one of 65 institutions around the country affected by University and College Union (UCU) strikes over pensions, which will span 14 days over a four-week period.
The strikes could involve as many as 596 people - the UCU’s total membership at UEA - but, with no obligation on staff to share their plans, the potential impact is not yet known.
For vice-chancellor (VC) professor David Richardson, it is not an easy issue to manage.
While he “absolutely respects” the right of staff to take action, his responsibility is to protect students’ education.
“I’m passionate about this community, I’ve been a part of it for 27 years,” he said, adding that those taking action were friends and colleagues, who he said did so with a “heavy heart”.
Contingency plans were in place, he said, with the majority of staff not taking action and the campus as a whole still open.
The UCU estimates that one million students will be affected nationally, with hundreds of thousands of teaching hours lost.
“Those people who are taking strike action know that they will be foregoing a day’s pay,” he said. “We’re not going to just take that day’s pay, we’re going to put it into a separate pot of money, ring-fenced, to support students affected by this action.”
Prof Richardson said UEA had upped its contributions to staff pensions, now at 18pc, by 4pc over the last eight years, equating to roughly £4m, but more increases would not be feasible without cuts elsewhere.
Arguably the most central part of the row is the plan to remove the defined benefit element - giving staff a guaranteed income - to one dependent on the strength of the market.
The union says it could see a lecturer lose out on £200,000 over their career, with the change said to be to tackle a £6.1bn deficit in the pension scheme.
But Prof Richardson said: “My view is that we should seek a proposal in which there is retention of a component of defined benefit and that’s a view I expressed in consultation.”
The steep salaries of VCs have hit headlines of late, even sparking new rules forcing universities to justify the pay.
In a national newspaper article, prof Richardson was ranked in the top 10 best value VCs, based on salary and league table spot.
And when asked to justify his £291,000 pay package, he said: “I am running a charitable business with a mission around education and research, but nevertheless a business that is turning over £300m a year. I am responsible for 4,000 staff, 16,000 students, I’m responsible for an organisation that’s putting £850m a year into the local economy.”
He said, with 4,000 to 5,000 bedrooms on campus, he oversaw what would be the biggest hotel in the region, the largest sports park, one of the biggest museums, as well as cafés and faith centres.
“On top of all of that we have a mission to deliver world class education and research,” he said. “If you bench mark that by any criteria against the private sector, you would be paying a lot more.”
With tuition fees at a high of £9,250, the prime minister has launched a review into the system.
Prof Richardson said he welcomed it, and in particular would call for the return of maintenance grants, which were scrapped in 2016.
He said they helped “social inclusion” and meant students did not have to work to make ends meet during their studies.
But he said the idea of variable fees - charging more for certain courses - was an “overly simplistic” idea, suggesting some subjects had less value than others.
“The fee a student pays to come to university is just that, it’s a fee they pay to come to university, to experience the entirety of what UEA has to offer, and that’s more than lectures,” he said.
Rather than lowering fees, which could risk “dire” consequences for universities, he said the debate should focus on splitting the cost between the state and student.
“At the moment, the pendulum has swung almost entirely to the student,” he said. “My personal view is that it’s gone too far towards the student and that it should swing back towards the state.”
An ambitious vision is set to see the university continue its growth over the coming years.
Prof Richardson said student numbers had grown by about 300 in each year of its 53 years, with plans to grow its total student body by 3,000 in the next decade.
He said he hoped to grow in partnership with the region, to which the university contributes £850m every year.
He said it was key to celebrate UEA’s strengths as both an international and regional university, and that it was a two-way relationship.
“We have 125,000 alumni, but also 125,000 ambassadors, not just for this university but for the region, so we in turn can also help the region,” he said.
“As we grow, we seek to grow in partnership with our regional community, businesses, local authorities.
“This of course means as we grow in student numbers, we need to work with the city to ensure the city is able to accommodate that.”