On the morning University and College Union (UCU) strike ballots are sent to 140,000 members, the general secretary has said staff “have been left with no choice” but to take action to try to stem a decade-long decline in employment and pension standards.
In a briefing with journalists, Jo Grady said staff “don’t want” to strike but argued the threat was necessary because “we don’t get anywhere with our employers: that is the nature of vice-chancellors in higher education”. Senior leaders should expect strike days “before the year is out”, she predicted.
The union is posting strike ballots to members at 152 universities: some on pay and conditions; some over changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme; and most over both issues.
Grady defended balloting members on so many issues at such a sensitive time for universities. Students are returning to campus after two heavily interrupted academic years. Numerous petitions for tuition fee refunds linked the problems of Covid-19 with the disruption of industrial action. Pay, casualisation, workloads, and inequalities are interlinked, she said, “and the idea that we just wait isn’t an option with USS. This is a battle that has picked us”.
Background reading: UCU strikes could hit sector just as ‘return to normal’ gets underway
The union is returning to pursue its so-called ‘four fights’ campaign, which triggered strikes at dozens of universities in 2019/20. Grady pointed to the examples of the Open University, which negotiated with UCU to extend permanent contracts to 4,000 staff, and the University of Bristol, which agreed with UCU a wide-ranging gender pay equity policy. “If they can do it, everybody can do it. We want action from employers across the sector,” Grady said.
Grady called the use of fixed-term, zero-hour contracts the “dirty, shameful secret of the university business model”. She said it was impossible to overstate a sector at “breaking point, the sense of a sector that desperately needs saving”. Staff were struggling, which affected students and their learning, she explained. Staff numbers increased by 5.8% between 2015/16 and 2019/20 – while student numbers increased by 8.5%, according to figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (Hesa).
Staff pay has fallen by 17.6% relative to inflation in the decade to 2019, UCU says. The union wants universities to offer staff a £2,500 pay increase, but strikes are about more, according to Grady: “We still have UK-wide collective bargaining; most of the unions in other sectors lost this decades ago. We are really concerned that employers are seeking to remove that type of bargaining from us. So we believe that if we aren’t willing to take strong industrial action, we will lose it. This is a crucial moment to show that we are willing to act.”
Hesa figures show that the gender pay gap in the sector is 16%. Twenty-seven per cent of professors are women and just 1% is black. The ethnicity pay gap between black and white staff is 17% and the disability pay gap is 9%. The union has criticised what it has labelled the “glacial” pace of progress on these issues. “If institutions like universities want to really live the mission statements that they have about themselves, these should be things that they’re wanting to address immediately,” Grady said.
— Dr. Bettina Friedrich (@betty_friedrich) October 18, 2021
UCU wants universities to temporarily cover the cost of the USS pension fund after the planned valuation in spring 2020 concluded it needed significant sums to balance the books. The union argues the timing of the valuation is the problem: as the Covid-19 pandemic spread, markets were in shock, but the underlying strength of the scheme remains intact following the pandemic, summarised Grady for reporters. Universities should allow the Trustee to re-run the valuation and give the joint negotiating committee (JNC) time to find an equitable solution, she said.
The union has proposed its only solution to the valuation – but accuses Universities UK (UUK), representing 340 USS employers, of “spiking” its plan by refusing to underwrite it with the same cash they had secured from employers in support of its program.
Grady said this morning from a protest outside UUK headquarters: “Employers have three weeks to sort this out. If they don’t, the blame for any disruption will fall squarely at their feet.”
A UUK spokesperson said its proposals “secure USS’ status as one of the most attractive pension schemes in the country, and eliminate the need for massive contribution rises that would severely reduce pay and force employers to make cutbacks in other budgets”.
They continued: “Discussions over the valuation are still ongoing. Employers met with UCU representatives last Tuesday (12 October), and further meetings are planned for the coming weeks. However, it is hard to see how UCU’s demands can be reconciled without an alternative solution, which we have consistently asked them for and are willing to consult employers on.”
UUK rejects UCU’s “misleading” claim its plan reduces pensions by 35%. It has produced a contributions calculator to demonstrate that members stand to lose out if it does not curb the rise. It has invited the union to join a governance review of the scheme.
The Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA), representing universities on collective pay and conditions negotiations, said: “It is disheartening that UCU did not allow their members, representing a minority of employees, the chance to accept or refuse the offer on pay, equality, contracts and workload, at any stage in recent months. Instead, the lengthy delay for a UCU’s ballot and strike action over the past months has clearly targeted the autumn term and our students, just when we are finally back on campus.”
University finances are “delicate”, UCEA said – and its 1.5% pay offer this year was “fair and meaningful”.