Seventy-four universities are bracing for a month of industrial action after the University and College Union (UCU) announced widespread strikes expected to hit 1.2m students.
Weeks of fraught talks with two sector bodies may have reached a dead end as the union announced a new wave of walkouts.
Staff at 74 universities will take part in 14 days of industrial action spread over four weeks, from Thursday 20 February until Friday 13 March. The month-long disruption will culminate in a week-long strike, which is expected to bring teaching and research to a grinding halt.
The strikes have been called over two separate disputes which centre on the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) and issues of pay, inequality, casualisation and workloads.
UCU’s decision was condemned by the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA), which represents institutions in the pay and conditions dispute.
“We are dismayed,” a spokesperson for UCEA said, adding: “Strike action should always be a last resort.”
Universities UK, which represents employers involved in the pensions dispute, said: “We regret that UCU are planning further strike action at a time when positive talks on the future of the scheme are making significant progress and are ongoing.”
UUK urged the union not to walk away from talks over the future of scheme, describing them as “the best way forward”.
“The current tripartite talks between UCU, USS, and UUK, which are set to continue at least until March, are building a shared understanding on the future of the scheme, jointly developing governance reforms and considering alternative pathways for the 2020 valuation,” the UUK spokesperson said.
We regret that UCU are planning further strike action at a time when positive talks on the future of the scheme are making significant progress
– Universities UK
UCU members at 60 universities went on strike for an eight-day period in November and December last year. After deciding to reballot branches that failed to cross the 50% turnout threshold the first time, the union has now found legal backing for strikes at a further 14 universities.
Strike ballots remain valid for six months, meaning UCU members in nearly half of UK universities can now take to the picket line. The union issued a warning to the higher education sector, saying it would ballot members in the summer to secure a fresh six-month mandate if solutions to its disputes are not forthcoming.
The union estimates that around 1.2m students will be affected by the strikes.
We have been clear from the outset that we would take serious and sustained industrial action if that was what was needed
– Jo Grady, UCU
UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: “We have seen more members back strikes since the winter walkouts and this next wave of action will affect even more universities and students. If universities want to avoid further disruption, they need to deal with rising pension costs, and address the problems of pay and conditions.
“We have been clear from the outset that we would take serious and sustained industrial action if that was what was needed. As well as the strikes starting later this month, we are going to ballot members to ensure that we have a fresh mandate for further action to cover the rest of the academic year if these disputes are not resolved.”
Dates of the stoppages:
Week one – Thursday 20 and Friday 21 February
Week two – Monday 24, Tuesday 25 and Thursday 26 February
Week three – Monday 2, Tuesday 3, Wednesday 4 and Thursday 5 March
Week four – Monday 9, Tuesday 10, Wednesday 11, Thursday 12 and Friday 13 March
UCEA presented the union with a ‘Without Prejudice’ modified offer on Monday 27 January, designed to address the union’s concerns over inequalities and workloads, but it says national pay negotiations for 147 institutions cannot be influenced by localised strikes in 74 universities. According to its figures, only 29% of UCU members took part in strike action during winter 2019.
A spokesperson for the association said: “There are new ways forward being offered by HE employers. UCEA has made significant positive proposals on key issues such as contractual arrangements, workloads and mental health, and gender and ethnicity pay gaps – developed following two months of talks with UCU. Strikes in less than half the universities in the multi-employer negotiations are not the answer and are in real danger of undermining the national collective pay bargaining arrangements.
“UCEA has proactively and formally consulted its members in developing our significant new proposals as we can only move with the consensus of our members. UCU members deserve a chance to have their voices heard as to how they feel about the progress that has been made and whether they want to choose an alternative to further disruptive action.”
USS is the UK’s largest pension scheme, with more than 400,000 members working in higher education. Contributions to the scheme have been increasing for both employees and employers, but the union argues staff have seen their retirement benefits fall while costs have risen.
A spokesperson for Universities UK, representing USS employers, said: “We regret that UCU are planning further strike action at a time when positive talks on the future of the scheme are making significant progress and are ongoing. Despite this, UCU continue to request that employers pay still higher contributions at unaffordable levels.
“By law, pension costs had to rise to maintain current benefits. Employers have agreed to cover 65% of these increased costs, taking their contribution to 21.1% of salaries from October 2019 – together committing £250m more a year. Members have been asked to make a fair contribution too.”