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University lecturers to strike

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Strike: Lecturers to walk out over enforced pension changes

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 Monda​y, ​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.

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Education

Swansea Uni to deliver advanced therapies

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A significant opportunity: University a centre for cell and gene therapies

SWANSEA U​NIVERSITY’S​ Medical School, through its partnership with Abertawe Bro Morgannwg University Health Board, is to be one of the centres to deliver advanced medical therapies to Wales, which is part of a major investment announced by Welsh Blood Services.

A recently formed health consortium, jointly led by the Welsh Blood Service (on behalf of NHS Wales) and the National Institute for Health Research Birmingham Biomedical Research Centre, has been awarded £7.3M of UK Government funding to ensure more patients benefit from a new generation of breakthrough therapies.

£1.5M will come directly to NHS Wales and £550K to Trakcel, a Welsh software company developing scheduling/tracking software for advanced therapies which is based upon technology developed at Swansea University.

The funding will support the Welsh Government’s commitment to developing an Advanced Therapies Strategy which will enable these therapies to be brought to Welsh patients and Advanced Therapy Medicinal Product (ATMP) companies to reach the clinical market, whilst building expertise, capability and capacity across NHS Wales to benefit patient outcomes.

Speaking of the award, Frank Atherton, Chief Medical Officer for Wales, said: “We welcome the announcement of the successful partnership between Birmingham, Nottingham and Wales NHS centres in bidding for Innovate UK monies. The project is aligned with our ambition to support the development, availability and adoption of new innovative therapies for patients in Wales. Cell- and gene-based advanced therapies offer exciting opportunities, not only for the way we treat people with previously incurable conditions, but also how we work together with industry and NHS Wales in bringing these treatments from bench to bedside.”

The NHS Wales role in the MW-ATTC consortium was led by the Welsh Blood Service, with support from Abertawe Bro Morgannwg and Cardiff & Vale University Health Boards along with the Life Sciences Hub Wales Special Interest Group on Cell and Gene Therapy, which brings together expertise from the Welsh NHS, Universities and industry in the Life Science sector.

As part of the contract award, one of the first advanced therapy treatment sites in Wales will be established within Abertawe Bro Morgannwg at the Joint Clinical Research Facility (JCRF) at Swansea University’s Medical School. The focus of the centre will be to develop the infrastructure, processes and skilled workforce required to enable patients to be cared for, from diagnosis through to post-treatment follow up.

Cath O’Brien, Director of the Welsh Blood Service and MW-ATTC Co-Director, said: “A significant opportunity exists to position Wales as a leader in clinical trial and routine delivery of cell and gene therapies to maximise Welsh patient benefit and opportunities for the national economy. The Welsh Government is committed to exploring these revolutionary developments in healthcare and we are excited to have worked alongside our consortium partners to secure funding through what was a highly competitive tendering process.”

One of the first products that will pass through the Welsh centres is that being developed by one of the consortium partners, Rexgenero and is intended to prevent the need for diabetes-related lower limb amputations for some no option patients. The incidence of diabetes is continuing to increase in Wales and already accounts for ~10% of the NHS Wales budget (£500M) with 200, 000 sufferers today rising to an estimated 500,000 by 2025. Currently around 2000 patients in Wales have non-healing lower limb ulcers that result in approximately 330 amputations per year.

The Midlands & Wales Advanced Therapy Treatment Centre (MW-ATTC) will identify barriers, challenges and solutions to facilitate future deployment and adoption of these transformative therapies within the UK healthcare system.

Advanced treatments, such as cell and gene therapies, show great promise for patients with chronic and terminal conditions that currently cannot be cured. Unlike conventional medicines, these new approaches often aim to selectively remove, repair, replace, regenerate and re-engineer a patient’s own genes, cells and tissues to restore normal function. The project will include potential treatments for arthritis, liver disease, several types of cancer, and diabetic ulcers.

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Education

Welsh Bacc review recommends improvements

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Findings 'a sound foundation' for evolving qualification: Philip Blaker, Qualifications Wales

THE QUALIFICATION at the heart of the Welsh Baccalaureate offers a valuable learning experience and gives students the skills they need for their future, according to a research report published ​this week​.

The report was produced for Qualifications Wales by Wavehill Social and Economic Research in partnership with University College London’s Institute of Education. The research looked at the design of the Skills Challenge Certificate and gathered views from teachers, lecturers and students to see how it’s working on the ground.

“This report found that the Skills Challenge Certificate is a valuable qualification that helps learners to develop crucial skills. The skills that employers consistently say young people need to succeed in the workplace,” said Philip Blaker, Chief Executive of Qualifications Wales.

“It is positive that many teachers say the Skills Challenge Certificate is rewarding to teach and that students say they enjoy gaining new skills and the chance to focus on what they’re interested in.”

While noting the importance and value of the Skills Challenge Certificate for young people in Wales, the report finds that:

  • Some aspects of its design and assessment are more complex than they need to be;
  • There is some duplicated content and assessment across its components;
  • There are inconsistent levels of understanding amongst teachers and students about it and how it links to the Welsh Bacc.
  • Teachers and students find it difficult to describe the Skills Challenge Certificate and the Welsh Bacc to others.

“Any critical review of this kind will always find areas for improvement, especially when looking at a qualification as innovative and as new as the Skills Challenge Certificate,” said Mr Blaker.

The report makes eight recommendations for addressing the issues it identifies. Some of the recommendations focus on the current delivery of the Skills Challenge Certificate, for instance by doing more to explain what it is, how it fits in the Welsh Bacc, and its benefits. Other recommendations suggest how, in the future, the design and assessment of the Skills Challenge Certificate could be simplified.

In considering any future changes, the report cautions against making any rapid changes and advocates involving others to consider whether and when any proposed changes should be introduced.

Responding to the recommendations, Mr Blaker said: “Qualifications Wales supports the findings from the research. We are setting up a working group to look in detail at how to put the recommendations into practice. We will also convene a panel of teachers, learners, employers and universities to test and refine any proposals for change. We’ll report on our progress by the end of the year.“

“The Skills Challenge Certificate is a new and exciting way of developing and assessing important life skills. We always expected that further refinements would be needed after a period of bedding-in. The findings from this review give us a sound foundation for gradually evolving the qualification so that it continues to go from strength to strength.” said, Mr Blaker.

Responding, Shadow Education Secretary, Darren Millar, said: “The Welsh Baccalaureate is certainly a valuable qualification, but we need to see action to reduce the pressure on teachers and students engaged in it.

“Clearly there needs to be some kind of streamlining, because the qualification is almost universally seen as too complex.

“We believe that the Welsh Baccalaureate should continue to be offered to all students in Wales but it should not be a compulsory subject.”

Rebecca Williams, UCAC’s Policy Officer said: “UCAC welcomes Qualifications Wales’s report, which acknowledges the conflict between the value of the Skills Challenge Certificate on the one hand, and the confusion and misunderstandings surrounding it on the other.

“The report’s recommendations resonate with what UCAC members have been reporting for some time, which is that elements of the design and assessment are unwieldy and unmanageable – both for learners and teachers. The emphasis on clearer communication and on better training opportunities for teachers – including in initial teacher training courses – is very much to be welcomed.

“UCAC urges all relevant partners to take action on the report’s recommendations in order to ensure that the Skills Challenge Certificate element of the Welsh Baccalaureate is made as appealing and beneficial to as many learners across Wales as possible.”

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Education

Gold and silver for Aber Uni

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ABERYSTWYTH U​NIVERSITY has won the Postgraduate category in the What Uni Student Choice Awards 2018.

For the second year running, Aberystwyth also picked up a silver award in the International category at the What Uni awards ceremony held in London on Thursday 19 April 2018.

As well as the Postgraduate and International categories, Aberystwyth University had been shortlisted for a further five awards including University of the Year, Accommodation, Clubs and Societies, Course and Lecturers, and Giving Back.

Aberystwyth University also featured in the top 10 in the UK in all the categories for which it was shortlisted, including 5th overall for University of the Year.

More than 36,000 student reviews were collected and more than a hundred universities were visited in order to compile the shortlist.

For the 2018 awards, 43 higher education institutions were nominated across fifteen categories, recognised by their students for offering an incredible university experience.

The What Uni awards are based on averages taken from tens of thousands of reviews submitted by students and published on What Uni.com.

The annual survey also showed that Wales hosts the happiest students across the United Kingdom.

Now in their fifth year, the awards provide prospective students with an unbiased, student-led alternative to traditional university ranking systems.

Professor John Grattan, Pro Vice-Chancellor for Student Experience at Aberystwyth University said: “We are absolutely delighted to have won the top place in the Postgraduate category, the Silver award for International and to have been shortlisted in a further five categories. We know that Aberystwyth offers an exceptional student experience and what’s significant about the What Uni awards is that they are based on real feedback from students. These latest awards reinforce our outstanding results in the 2017 National Student Survey, which placed Aberystwyth students amongst the most satisfied in the UK for overall satisfaction. The quality of the education and wider student experience offered at Aberystwyth is also borne out by our accolade as the UK’s University of the Year for Teaching Quality in The Times and Sunday Times Good University Guide 2018.”

Professor Elizabeth Treasure, Vice-Chancellor of Aberystwyth said: “This is wonderful news and richly deserved by everyone here at Aberystwyth University. We take great pride in the wonderful student experience we offer at Aberystwyth, and for this to be recognised by our students speaks volumes for the dedication of colleagues right across the institution who contribute so much to making Aberystwyth such a wonderful place to live and learn.”

Speaking ahead of the awards, Eleni Cashell, Editor of What Uni, said: “Being nominated for an award is a huge achievement, because the only judges at the WUSCAs are the students themselves. It showcases to both prospective students and the higher education sector that your institution offers value for money, provides a good student experience and has a highly satisfied and supported student community.”

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