Sussex University offers students compensation for strike action

The university is the first to offer an ex gratia scheme for students who experienced ‘distress and inconvenience’ as a result of industrial action

The University of Sussex is offering students compensation for “distress and inconvenience” caused by strikes last year, becoming the first UK university to offer reparations for industrial action.

The university has set up a webpage for students to submit claims, which will range from £40 for ‘minor’ distress and inconvenience to £100 for ‘significant’ distress and inconvenience.

The claims form asks students to detail the module sessions affected, the alternative teaching and support provided by their department, their attendance record before and after the strike, and provide details of the distress and inconvenience faced.

According to the latest HESA statistics for 2018/19, there are 19,155 students enrolled at the University of Sussex. A spokesperson for the university confirmed to University Business “we have emailed all students about the scheme”.

If each student received the smallest payout available through the compensation scheme, the university would incur a bill of £766,200. If each student qualified for the maximum compensation, the university would in theory need to pay nearly £2m.

On the ex gratia scheme webpage, the university said it has considered guidance from the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education (OIA), the independent body set up to review student complaints, on the amount of compensation it should offer.

Last year, the OIA released a report following strike action in 2018, which said loss of teaching time to strikes justifies partial tuition fee refunds. The report published real complaints submitted to the OIA, and the guidance the body offered to universities in resolving the complaints. In some cases, the OIA said universities had not made enough effort to protect students’ learning during industrial action.

“While very few of the 60 universities that experienced industrial action have launched ex gratia schemes, the University of Sussex believes this is important to offer its students,” the webpage reads.

Sussex was one of 60 universities affected by strike action, after the University and College Union (UCU) balloted members on two separate disputes – the first on changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), and the second on pay, casualisation, working conditions and equalities. Staff at Sussex voted to back strike action on both ballots.

Strike action lasted eight days, from Monday 25 November to Wednesday 4 December.

Responding to the news of the ex gratia scheme, UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: “This move by Sussex shows that the strikes have had a real impact, and exposes the fact that employers are divided when it comes to dealing with the fall out. Bunging a few quid back to students who were affected by strikes is a sticking plaster, not a solution.

“Students and staff both want to see these disputes resolved as quickly as possible, and that’s where institutions like Sussex should be focussing their energies if they want to avoid any further disruption.”

Ms Grady added that the move “to mollify students” came “as little surprise”, and added: “students have told us that they are right behind us”.

The university’s vice-chancellor, Prof Adam Tickell, is the Universities UK (UUK) spokesperson on pensions and the chair of the Employers Pensions Forum. Following an interview with the Financial Times in July last year, in which Prof Tickell warned increased pensions could lead to job losses, UCU published an open letter to USS members, criticising Prof Tickell for taking a “cavalier attitude”.

“The higher education sector desperately needs leaders who can lead without resorting to the expedient of threatening their staff. We call on the university to publicly rebuke Adam Tickell and Universities UK for this threat and to commit to a policy of no job cuts in response to the outcome of the USS dispute,” the UCU letter read.

UCU has reopened strike ballots at a further 37 universities, which may see more universities affected in spring of this year.

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