Universities should consider offering partial tuition fee refunds to students if their learning has been affected by the latest wave of strikes, England’s higher education watchdog has said.
Students and universities around the UK are experiencing disruption after staff began a three-day strike in disputes over pensions, pay and conditions.
Around 50,000 members of the University and College Union (UCU) at 58 UK institutions are taking part in action that the union has said will affect more than a million students in the run-up to Christmas.
The UCU has warned that more strikes could take place in the new year if the row remains unresolved.
Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of the Office for Students, said universities are subject to “consumer protection laws” and they should consider how they will “make up” for any disruption caused by industrial action.
She said: “This might include rescheduling any teaching which is missed, delivering course topics in a different way, or considering whether partial refunds of tuition fees are appropriate.
“Students should not be disadvantaged academically because of any disruption.”
The UCU held a series of walkouts in 2019 and early 2020 over pensions, pay and conditions, which affected universities across the UK. There was also strike action in 2018 amid a row over pensions.
Staff are now walking out for three days, from December 1 to December 3, after UCU members backed strike action in two separate disputes, one over pensions and one over pay and working conditions.
Ms Dandridge added: “We are extremely concerned about the potential impact of these strikes on students. Students have endured an exceptionally difficult time.
“It cannot be right that they face further disruption, and we would urge the employers and trade unions to work quickly so that any industrial dispute does not materially affect students.”
University leaders have said they are prepared to mitigate the impact of strikes on students’ learning – and a number of institutions will aim to replace teaching, as well as re-time assessments, for those affected.
Picket lines are being mounted at campuses, protests held and other forms of industrial action launched – including staff working strictly to contract and refusing to carry out any additional duties.
Universities minister Michelle Donelan tweeted: “Further disruption from industrial action is the last thing students want or deserve – which is why today’s industrial action is so disappointing.
“Universities have a responsibility to minimise disruption to students from industrial action, and I’d encourage any students concerned about the impact on their education to get in touch with their provider.”
University staff on the ground have reported huge numbers of workers and students joining picket lines on Wednesday, the union said.
UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: “If university managers doubted the determination of staff to change the higher education sector for the better, the numbers of staff on strike today prove they are very sadly mistaken.
“Thousands of dedicated university staff and students are on picket lines, attending demos and marching to demand fair pay, decent pensions and improved working conditions.
“The level of action seen today is just the beginning and university managers now need to wake up and address the very modest demands of staff.
“Otherwise, the potential for more widespread and escalating industrial action in the new year becomes very real.”
The UCU claims that cuts to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) pensions scheme would reduce the guaranteed retirement income of a typical member by 35%.
It has also suggested that pay for university staff has fallen by around a fifth after 12 years of below inflation pay offers, while thousands of academic staff are employed on “insecure” contracts.
The union is demanding that cuts to the pensions scheme are revoked and members are offered a £2,500 pay increase, as well as action to tackle “unmanageable workloads” and “insecure contracts”.
But the UCEA, which represents employers in the pay dispute, says early reports from universities suggest “low levels of disruption” to lessons.
UCEA chief executive Raj Jethwa said: “We are disappointed that UCU is encouraging its members to take action which will impact on students who have endured so many recent disruptions
“While early reports from HE institutions are of low levels of disruption to teaching, it does of course take time for these large organisations to find out exactly how many scheduled classes have not taken place on a given day.
“While some HE institutions cannot provide details at this time, others do not have any teaching scheduled.
“Each HE institution is of course fully focused on managing this period of disruption as best they can for their students.”
He added that any further strike action in the new year “will cause damage” to students in an “unrealistic attempt” to force all employers to reopen the concluded 2021-22 national pay round.
A number of students’ unions across the UK have come out to back the action, according to the UCU.
The National Union of Students (NUS) encouraged students to support staff on the eve of the strikes.
A tweet from the organisation on Tuesday suggested that students could back staff by refusing to cross the picket line during the strikes, as well as avoiding entering university or college buildings.
An NUS spokesman said: “Students have a rich history of standing shoulder to shoulder with university staff, who have seen their pensions, pay and conditions slashed in recent years.”
He added: “Staff teaching conditions are student learning conditions, and moreover many postgraduate students on casualised teaching contracts will be striking.
“The onus for minimising disruption for students lies with university bosses: they must come back to the table to address the clear issues in how higher education is currently run.”