Leader comment: Students right to demand money back over university strike disruption

A demand from fee-paying students at Edinburgh University that they should be refunded a proportion of their fees to compensate for days when lecturers go on strike seems to us both reasonable and inevitable.
University of Edinburgh. Picture: Ian GeorgesonUniversity of Edinburgh. Picture: Ian Georgeson
University of Edinburgh. Picture: Ian Georgeson

While Scottish students are effectively exempt from tuition fees at home universities, thousands studying in Scotland both from south of the Border and outside the EU of course have to pay fees which in some cases amount to more than £16,000-a-year. That means they have a lot to lose when teaching staff lock up their lecture theatres.

We won’t be surprised if students at other establishments make similar, justifiable, claims.

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Lecturers at universities across the UK plan to strike over proposed changes to their pension schemes. It’s evident that feelings among lecturing staff are now running high but we believe they are likely to find public support for their cause to be rather limited.

It is not just university staff for whom defined benefit pension schemes are in trouble. There are funding gap issues across the board when it comes to these pensions.

There is a rather cruel caricature
 of academics that says they’re out of touch with the real world, cosseted by a comfortable lifestyle that requires minimum contact with the lives of ordinary people. We don’t subscribe to that view, but on this issue we believe lecturers are out of step with the majority of the public.

Staff at 68 universities – including Glasgow and Edinburgh – are members of the pension scheme at the centre of the current dispute. Last year, it was reported to have a £17.5billion deficit. We wonder where exactly lecturing staff think that money can be found? There must be – just as there has been in other professions – reform of university pensions. The alternative is either that money will have to be diverted from teaching and research in order to make up the shortfall or that tuition fees will have to be raised, pricing the poorest even further out of higher education.

It seems clear that it is now too late to avert at least some of the strike action planned by lecturers. This will, we fear, create tensions on campus that teaching staff and students, alike, could do without.

But perhaps some way may be found of bringing this conflict to a speedy resolution. This will require pragmatism on the part of lecturers who, so far as we can see, have few cards to play.