THEY are causing a lot of disruption, those striking lecturers.

Alright so the snow this week means that many Scottish universities have been closed or that students have been unable to get to them, but as of last week hundreds of lecturers have downed tools in a bid to block their employers from overhauling their pensions.

No catch-up teaching sessions have been planned, with Sam Gyimah, the minister for higher education in England, last week suggesting that pay withheld from striking lecturers should be paid out in compensation.

In Scotland, staff at Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Heriot-Watt, St Andrews, Stirling and Strathclyde Universities as well as those at the Open University Scotland and the Scottish Association for Marine Science are taking part in the industrial action, which is due to continue until the middle of the month.

They are striking in a bid to protect the benefits they will receive from the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), which staff working at the UK’s 350 older institutions - those that had university status prior to 1992 - are part of.

For those earning £55,500 or less the USS will pay a retirement income equivalent to one 75th of the average salary they earned over their working life, meaning someone who earned an average of £40,000 over a 40-year career could expect an annual pension of around £21,000. In order for the scheme to be able to pay those benefits, each university pays in the equivalent of 18 per cent of every lecturer’s salary while the lecturers contribute eight per cent.

The problem is that a scheme valuation at the end of last year said this was not likely to be enough to cover all the pensions USS is expecting to pay out, with the funding gap reckoned to be in the region of £7.5 billion. Closing that would require combined contribution levels to increase from 26 per cent to just over 37 per cent.

As a result, Universities UK (UUK), which represents the interests of the universities paying into the scheme, wants to close it to future accruals and move all lecturers into an existing money purchase - or defined contribution (DC) - alternative.

The DC scheme is already available to lecturers who earn over £55,500, with their employer paying in 12 per cent of any earnings over that threshold while they contribute eight per cent. Alastair Meeks, a solicitor at law firm Pinsent Masons, said these contribution levels are “generous by most standards”.

However, as DC pensions require the employee rather than the employer to take responsibility not only for choosing their own investments but making sure they last a lifetime too, it has been estimated that the change could see lecturers’ retirement income fall by around £10,000 a year.

Hence the strikes, which are being co-ordinated by the University & College Union (UCU).

But do the lecturers have a point - are the changes being proposed to their pensions really so bad and why would anyone other than a lecturer care?

Mr Meeks, who said that “there is nothing inherently bad about money purchase”, does not believe so. Others beg to differ.

Michael Otsuka, a philosophy professor at the London School of Economics, contends that the UUK has jumped straight to cutting the benefits offered to USS members rather than considering ways of maximising USS’s assets first.

Indeed, as part of the consultation that accompanied the scheme’s most recent valuation a large number of universities - Heriot-Watt and St Andrews among them - indicated that they wanted the scheme to take on less investment risk than it does now, dampening its ability to make higher returns in the process.

As this altered the assumptions made about how the scheme might perform in the long term, what was at first thought to be a deficit of £5.1bn ballooned to one of £7.5bn, leading UUK to propose its changes in the process.

Yet for Mr Otsuka this cautious stance makes no sense, particularly as it highlights that low risk is “intolerable when shared by 350 institutions” while “high risk is fine when borne by workers individually”.

It is a stance that has been reflected many times in the corporate world, with numerous businesses arguing that paying more for their employees’ retirements is not worth the risk to their profits.

At a time when great swathes of the population are languishing on minimum auto-enrolment contributions it may be difficult to get exercised about lecturers being shifted into what is comparatively a very generous DC scheme.

The problem is, if yet another pension scheme is allowed to be watered down, it strengthens the argument for weakening retirement benefits more generally. Surely the focus should be on moving all UK workers towards the best possible provision rather than inching some closer to the worst?

It may be the lecturers on the picket line right now, but really this fight is for everyone.