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Education

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.

Education

Top Y12 students get Yale opportunity

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Summer School Chance: At Yale University

THE SEREN Network has announced a major partnership with Yale University which will see 11 Seren students attend a fortnight-long summer school at Yale’s US or China campus this summer, at no cost.

The partnership is aiming to broaden the academic horizons of Welsh students by giving them a taste of university life in the States. The main cost of the summer school – usually $6000 dollars – will be covered jointly by Seren and Yale.

Year 12 Seren students have until Tuesday, February 13, to apply, and will be selected via a competitive application process.

A similar collaboration between Seren and Jesus College Oxford last summer, which resulted in 73% attendees subsequently applying to Oxford, was so successful that it will now treble in size, offering around 70 pupils the chance to sample life at the prestigious institution in August.

The news comes as an independent report on the success to date of Seren, published yesterday, has found that the programme is delivering clear value for Welsh pupils and raising their aspirations.

The report found that the Seren Network is boosting Welsh pupils’ confidence, and encouraging them to think more ambitiously about their university choices.

It found that Seren had been valuable in helping students make more informed choices and providing with the skills to make competitive applications.

Liam Rahman, a Yale graduate who now works as a representative for Yale in Wales, said: “Since returning to Wales last year, it’s been a real privilege to work with high potential Welsh students through the Seren Network and Yale’s Alumni Schools Committee. Over the past few months, I’ve worked to build the relationship between Yale and The Seren Network, which has culminated in this fantastic partnership and scholarship opportunity. This scholarship will deliver life-changing opportunities to some of Wales’s brightest sixth formers and gives Yale the opportunity to access some of Wales’s very best talent.”

Cabinet Secretary for Education, Kirsty Williams, said: “Since launching in 2015, Seren has quickly grown to become a recognised and valuable vehicle through which more than 2000 pupils in Wales are channelling their academic talents and ambitions.

“The report details the Network’s considerable early success, from plugging gaps in support across Wales, to forging new strategic partnerships between Wales and some of the most prestigious academic institutions in the world including most recently Yale.

“Of course, there are areas for improvement which the report outlines, including a number that we’re already working to address. Nonetheless, it’s very encouraging to see a positive overview so early in the process.”

Lowri Morgan is a sixth-form student from Abercynon who has recently received an offer to study at Oxford University. She is part of the RCT/Merthyr Seren hub. She said:

“The support I received through Seren was so helpful, my degree area is Physics and Philosophy which is quite niche – but through Seren I had the opportunity to take part in several workshops with Oxford and Cambridge Universities, which taught me what to expect in the interviews.

“One of them was an exam practice workshop with Oxford and, even though the exams I ended up sitting were slightly different, the essay writing and critical thinking elements were so important. Then, ahead of the interview itself, I was taken to Howell’s School in Cardiff for a prep session, and given practice with other pupils within our subject area.

“After that I had a mock interview with Stephen Parry Jones, my Seren hub co-ordinator, which was so helpful. Without these opportunities through Seren, and the help from my head of sixth-form, I would have been completely in the dark. I wouldn’t have had the confidence that I had going into that interview, and I’m truly grateful for that.”

Dr Matthew Williams, Access and Career Development Fellow, Jesus College, Oxford, said: “Seren is a fantastic network. It has been of enormous benefit to its participants, as well as being invaluable to academics like me who want to meet the brightest and best from across Wales.

“It is with the help of Seren that we in Oxford will be able to host our first ever all-Wales summer school in August 2017. Without the expertise and help of Seren, we would never have made as many meaningful connections with Welsh students.”

Stephen Parry Jones, RCT Seren Hub Co-ordinator and Steering Group Chair, said: “The report is a great boost. Only three years ago, I and my fellow coordinators had blank sheets of paper, and a brief to translate Lord Murphy’s report into some sort of reality. We were initially perhaps rather daunted, but the increased confidence and ambition among Welsh students highlighted in the report are really pleasing.

“I was delighted to be at the Jesus College summer school. As coordinators, we were so impressed by the intellectual ability of students from all over Wales. The Yale offer is another exciting development. Of course, there’s still work to be done, but we’re so glad to see that Seren is already proving its worth.”

Areas for improvement outlined in the report include:

  • Greater collaboration across the hubs to ensure activities benefit as many pupils as possible
  • More data is needed on the overall destinations of participants, though it was recognised that this data is not yet available due to the Network’s early stages
  • Though flexibility is important from hub to hub, there should be a minimum offer across hubs so participants know exactly what to expect over their 2-year programme when they join the Network
  • The report notes that a Seren-style model should be extended to pupils at Key Stages 3 and 4, to impact them earlier in their academic journey
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Education

Welsh water apprentice inspires at careers event

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Inspiring and educating young people and adults: SkillsCymru

AN APPRENTICE from Port Talbot is attending a careers event at Parc y Scarlets to promote vocational routes into work.

Joe Parkhouse, an apprentice mechanic, is attending with his employer, Welsh Water, along with several other apprentices and members of the not-for-profit company’s graduate scheme to speak to young people and job seekers.

In addition to Welsh Water, more than 90 other major Welsh employers will attend the event held at Llanelli’s Parc y Scarlets today (Friday, February 9), which is expected to attract 4,000 young people over two days.

Joe said: “I’m really looking forward to the event, hopefully I can speak to other young people who are in the same position I was a few years ago.

“When I left school, I didn’t know what I wanted to do and ended up in a job I didn’t really enjoy and one that didn’t make use of my skills.

“I soon realised an office environment wasn’t for me and I wanted a more hands-on career.

“I’ve never really been much of a classroom learner, so when I found out about the apprenticeship scheme for mechanics at Welsh Water I was really interested.

“Every day I’m out and about and learning on the job; whether its installing new infrastructure or working on emergency maintenance, it’s such a varied job.

“I managed to settle into my team really quickly, everyone has been so supportive throughout my course. The best part is that I can continue earning money while I’m getting my qualifications.

“Now, I’m in my third year of my course and I’m almost ready to qualify as a Welsh Water mechanic.

“I’d definitely recommend an apprenticeship to anyone who wants to get real hands-on experience, and make sure they have the skills and experience for a stable career afterwards.”

Organised by Careers Wales and Coleg Sir Gâr, and supported by the Welsh Government, SkillsCymru event is designed to inspire and educate young people and adults about the variety of different careers and vocational routes available to them.

Graham Bowd, Chief Executive at Careers Wales said: “We want to make sure young people are aware of all their options when they leave school, including vocational routes into work, just like Joe.

“Events like these are a rare opportunity for young people to speak to their peers about what an apprenticeship involves and can find out about the wide variety of jobs available after qualifying.

“It’s encouraging to see such a positive journey like Joe’s. I hope students attending the event this week will be inspired to consider alternative routes into work such as apprenticeships.”

Supporting the event, Minister for Welsh Language and Lifelong Learning, Eluned Morgan; said: “It’s encouraging to see so many major employers, like Welsh Water, investing in Wales’ future workforce at events such as these.

“SkillsCymru is a unique opportunity for many young people and jobseekers to interact face-to-face with companies and find out what it takes to forge a career in a variety of different industries.

“For young people leaving school, college or university, feeling supported by parents and guardians is a vital part of making the right choice.

“The dedicated information session is a great opportunity for parents to find out more about their child’s next steps and help them to make an informed choice about their future.”

For more information about SkillsCymru Carmarthenshire, visit: www.careerswales.com/skillscymruCarmarthenshire

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Education

Welsh students get ‘most generous’ finance

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Kirsty Williams: Living costs must not be a barrier for students

ALL ELIGIBLE Welsh undergraduate students starting university this year will be able to apply for a new financial support package that will help address living costs.

The first of its kind in the UK, it will support students when they most need it, recognising that costs such as accommodation are the main barrier for those making the choice about whether to go to university.

The new student finance package launched by the Welsh Government is the most generous in the UK and is designed to give more help towards living costs by providing the equivalent to the National Living Wage through a mix of non-repayable grants and loans. This means students can focus on their studies rather than worry about making ends meet.

With National Student Money Week approaching (12-16 February), the Welsh Government has launched an awareness campaign to promote the benefits of university with the help of more financial support available. The campaign features “Money Monster”- a personification of money. The character’s sole purpose is to stop students getting to university, and if they do, to disrupt their student life adding unnecessary pressure.

A key element of the new student finance package is that it offers a stronger package of support for students who want to study part-time, ensuring that undergraduate full-time and part-time students have the same opportunities. Wales will be the first county in Europe to provide equivalent living costs support – in grants and loans – to full-time and part-time undergraduates, as well as post-graduates.

This has been done to encourage students from all backgrounds to enter higher education, whether they’re in full-time work, raising a family or have caring responsibilities. Part-time students will receive equivalent support on a pro-rata basis.

The latest National Income and Expenditure Survey shows that more than one third of Welsh- domiciled students have overdrafts, nearly one fifth have commercial credit and one tenth are in arrears.

The new student finance package for 2018/19 undergraduate entrants addresses these issues by easing financial barriers for students, meaning that full-time and part-time students have enough money to meet their day to day living costs while studying.

Every eligible student can claim a minimum grant of £1,000 they will not have to pay back, regardless of their household income. This is part of an overall mix of grants and loans for living costs equivalent to receiving that National Living Wage, available to every eligible student while they study.

Grants will be means-tested to support those who need them most. Students from homes with lower household income will receive the highest grant – up to £10,124 in London and £8,100 in the rest of the UK. It is likely that around a third of full-time students will be eligible for the full grant. Students who receive a smaller grant can access a loan to top up the amount they receive equivalent to the National Living Wage level.

The average household income for a dependent student in the current system is around £25,000. Under the new system such a student will receive around £7,000 a year in a grant they won’t need to pay back.

The new financial support package for Welsh students was designed following recommendations of a higher education funding review led by Professor Sir Ian Diamond. Living costs were found to be the main barrier for those making the choice about whether to go to university.

The latest figures from Welsh Government show that students in Wales spent 46% of their student income on their course and 37% on living. Housing came in at 18%.

Wales’s Education Secretary, Kirsty Williams said: “Money is clearly a very important factor when deciding when to go to university, and for those who are already studying, money is found to be a major cause for stress.

“With this in mind, we have designed a new package of support to alleviate these concerns that both parents and students share. This will allow students to focus on their studies without having to worry about how they are going to afford their day to day living costs.

“The support that Welsh students, studying anywhere in the UK, can apply for is now equivalent to the National Living Wage. In addition, most students will have no upfront costs to pay as a tuition fee loan can be taken out to cover their course.

“It is important to remember that student loans are only repayable when borrowers’ earn more than £25,000 per year. Repayments can start from as little as £30 a month.

“Living costs must not be a barrier to going to university. I want everyone who has the talent, potential and ambition to have that opportunity. Whether it’s studying full-time or combining it with your career and studying part-time, university should be an option for everyone, no matter what your background or income.”

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