Cambridge vice-chancellor, Stephen Toope, has responded to staff strikesLouis Ashworth

Stephen Toope, vice-chancellor of the University of Cambridge, has joined the leaders of at least 17 other universities in calling for renewed talks between Universities UK (UUK) and and the University and Colleges Union (UCU) in the wake of mass walkout by academic staff.

The move has been welcomed by UCU, Cambridge Defend Education, and CUSU.

The breakdown of talks over pension reforms has lead to 14 planned days of industrial strike action across 64 British universities, which began yesterday morning.

Around one thousand students in Cambridge rallied in support of striking lecturers yesterday calling for a halt to the planned USS pension reforms, which the UCU claims will damage the security and size of staff pensions.

Academics are striking to pressure their universities to reject UUK’s proposal to replace defined benefit pension schemes for university staff incomes under £55,000 with defined contribution pension schemes, and change which UCU has branded “the biggest pay cut in higher education history.”

Cambridge and its colleges have come under fire for being some of the most supportive backers of the lower-risk reforms, although the Bursars’ Committee has contested accusations that it played an oversized role in UUK’s support for the proposed reforms.

In a statement released by the University this afternoon, Toope said: “The industrial action that we saw yesterday here and at universities across the country is deeply regrettable. We have a duty to students to ensure they receive the best possible education but equally I understand the deep concerns of academics.

Students and staff rallied against the proposed pension reforms yesterdayVarsity

“It is imperative that this situation is resolved for everyone’s sake. I would like to add my voice to those calling for an immediate resumption of talks between UUK and the University and College Union.”

Shortly after the tweet was posted, Cambridge UCU branch secretary Waseem Yaqoob addressed a rally outside Senate House, saying: “Our vice-chancellor has joined the dissenters,” and was met with loud cheers by the crowd.

“That doesn’t mean we know exactly what he’s going to propose, that doesn’t mean staff are going to get a decent guaranteed pension out of this, that certainly doesn’t mean that all the [others] … are going to cave,” Yaqoob said.

Cambridge UCU branch secretary Waseem Yaqoob addressed a crowd shortly after Toope's announcementJamie Hancock

“What it does mean is that we can see that the cracks, the splits, within the employers are growing wider. We need to keep the pressure up so that the whole of UUK are unanimous in returning to the negotiating table and getting our decent pensions back on the menu.

“And we need to make sure that the pressure we put on the employers is so great that they’re not going to try anything like this again. So this is not a call to demobilise, this is a call to keep the pressure up, with the promise of winning the dispute.

“We should be confident going into next week that we can win and we can pressure senior management and tell them to piss off, basically.”

CUSU education officer, Martha Krish, also welcomed the announcement, writing in a Facebook post: “The Vice-Chancellor’s statement shows that the pressure from the strikes is working. As far as I can see there are now at least 18 VCs who have come out calling for negotiations to be resumed. Apparently it *is* in the university’s power to do something about the strikes after all!

“This isn’t a reason to sit back and imagine all has now been won, we must continue to increase strike action so that we can get UCU back to the negotiation table and staff and students back in their classrooms as soon as possible.”

Cambridge Defend Education (CDE) also welcomed the news, but called on Toope do “do more”, saying: “That this call comes now is proof that the strike is working. The actions of staff and students who have supported them are disrupting the university. We have made it clear that there cannot be business as usual, because the biggest wage grab ever in UK higher education is not business as usual.

“Negotiations will only recommence when UUK nationally are prepared to engage with them. Toope must fight for UCU’s demands within UUK, joining the numerous other university vice-chancellors who have admitted publicly that universities have been unreasonable.

“He must push for UUK to abandon its project of relentlessly marketising universities, which is the driving force behind attempts to cut staff costs as well as rising fees and excessive salaries for senior management. Campaigning from students and staff in Cambridge has been clear that this is not an isolated issue, and organising around all forms of marketisation will continue beyond this strike for pensions.

“Students and staff have made an impact in the first two days of the strike. Think what we can do in 12.”

Universities whose chiefs have already called for the two bodies to attempt to resolve the dispute include Aberdeen, Strathclyde, Kent, Birkbeck, Goldsmiths, Bangor, Warwick, Loughborough, Newcastle, Glasgow, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, Sheffield, Essex, Lancaster, Durham, Keele and Surrey.

The UCU has been contacted for comment.

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