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Lecturers' two-front battle

Election-season strike action looms as Natfhe fights pay-deal and final-pension disputes. Steve Hook reports

The build-up to the forthcoming general election is expected to see a level of industrial strife in further education which is unprecedented in recent years, as a second front opens up over the issue of pensions.

With speculation rife that the next election will be called for May 5, Natfhe, the lecturers' union, will join others in their campaign against the Government's plans for public-sector pensions.

College and university lecturers will be balloted for strike action - which is likely to start on April 14 - during what is widely expected to be the middle of the election campaign.

With more than 75 per cent of lecturers already having voted for action over pay, Natfhe says it will now ballot them for further strike action in protest against plans to increase their retirement age from 60 to 65. This is the age at which lecturers would be entitled to their full pension.

Early retirement means they will receive a smaller percentage of that amount.

The changes would take effect from 2006 for new entrants to the profession and from 2013 for those already in the teachers' pension scheme. The Government has suggested that it will be higher-paid public servants who will have most to lose from the changes, but Natfhe says ordinary lecturers will be significantly worse off than under the current system.

The union estimates that lecturers now aged 35 would lose 23 per cent of their total pension benefits, although most lecturers over the age of 50 would not be affected.

Natfhe and the Trades Union Conference claim the government consultation over the changes was "very brief" and there have been few changes to the plans despite the unions' concerns.

They have called on Ruth Kelly, the Education Secretary, to withdraw the proposals.

Taking a stand on pensions now will force Natfhe to simultaneously organise on two fronts: against the colleges over non-implimentation of the latest pay deal, and against the Government over pensions. There is a feeling among Natfhe's tacticians that, if it fails to take up the pension issue now, it will face the prospect of even more unpopular changes to come.

Like all public-sector unions, Natfhe fears members may eventually be forced to accept average-salary rather than final-salary schemes, bringing them closer to less-generous pension entitlements typical of private-sector workers.

Paul Mackney, the general secretary of Natfhe, said: "Pensions are deferred pay. A 12 per cent cut in pensions is a 12 per cent cut in pay owed to the employee, set aside until retirement.

"Lecturers now at the start of their careers, who signed up for a deal including a pension at 60, stand to lose tens of thousands of pounds unless they work until 65.

"Lecturers' take-home pay is poor enough without having to also suffer loss of their deferred pay. Not everyone has the energy and health to work beyond 60."

Natfhe wants lecturers and others to have choices about when to retire, not financial pressure to work until they drop, says Mr Mackney.

"The pensions proposals also do not tackle the needs of women, who already experience pensions much worse than most men (because many are part-time).

"The whole plan should be re-thought and national priorities reassessed."

The Education Secretary will be in no doubt as to lecturers' concerns, although her views on public-sector pensions are already clear. Ms Kelly was a proponent of public-sector pensions reform in her previous incarnation as cabinet office minister.

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