Three-day strikes hit 58 universities

The leader of employer body UCEA, which represents universities in collective pay negotiations, said the University and College Union strikes had a “legitimacy” problem

Three-day strikes started at 58 universities today (1 December), as thousands of higher education staff take action over the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), pay and working conditions. 

University and College Union (UCU) branches at 37 institutions have voted to strike over the USS pension scheme. Yesterday, Universities UK (UUK), which represents employers in pension negotiations, and the union traded repudiations over the USS dilemma.

Fifty-four UCU branches have backed strikes over pay and conditions, in what the union described as a rejection of a “below inflation” pay offer and insufficient guarantees from universities to end precarious employment contracts.

Exact picket line figures have not been confirmed, but of those institutions where strikes can legally take place, nearly 19,000 UCU members voted to back strikes.

UCU general secretary Jo Grady described strikes as “deeply regrettable”, but said a poll by the National Union of Students suggested over seven in 10 students support striking lecturers. In recent years, several high-profile student petitions calling for tuition fee refunds because of lost teaching time, in part due to industrial action, have attracted hundreds of thousands of signatures. 

“University bosses have shown little interest in negotiating in good faith and addressing the serious concerns of staff over falling pay, massive pension cuts, equality pay gaps and the rampant use of insecure contracts,” said Grady. 

“The truth is, staff are asking for the bare minimum in a sector awash with money”, the union leader continued. UUK has warned previously that every extra per cent of USS contributions collectively costs the 340 member employers an estimated £90 million. 

UCU only represent a third of academic staff in the sector, which does give them a legitimacy problem in terms of discussions
– Raj Jethwa, Universities and Colleges Employers Association

The Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA), which represents institutions in collective pay bargaining, offered all staff pay rises of 1.5%, rising to 3.6% for those on the lowest salaries. It said the offer is “at the very limit of what is affordable”.

Strikes on these same issues have hit universities every year since 2018. Said Grady: “Vice-chancellors now need to concentrate on asking themselves why strikes have become an annual occurrence and seek to resolve this dispute in order to avoid more needless disruption to learning.”

The union has announced that 42 universities are to be re-balloted, as it seeks to launch a bigger wave of strike action in the new year. “If they continue to ignore the modest demands of staff then we will be forced to take further industrial action in the new year, which even more branches will join,” said Grady.

Mr Jethwa told University Business: “It’s not about the scale of industrial action, it is about the representativeness of the action. Only a tenth of academic staff voted in favour of strike action.”

He continued: “UCU only represent a third of academic staff in the sector, which does give them a legitimacy problem in terms of discussions. We engage in good faith but it isn’t about strength of action, it’s about understanding the realities facing the sector, and demonstrating that they are a constructive part of those discussions.”

The UCEA chief executive said early reports from institutions was “of low levels of disruption to teaching”. He said employers “respect employees’ right to take lawful industrial action but it is unrealistic and misleading to their members for UCU to ask them to lose three days’ pay in pursuit of an unrealistic 7% pay demand”.

UUK issued a statement describing the situation as “deeply frustrating”.

Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of the Office for Students (OfS), said: “Universities are subject to consumer protection law, and they should consider how they will make up for any disruption caused by industrial action.

“This might include rescheduling any teaching which is missed, delivering course topics in a different way or considering whether partial refunds of tuition fees are appropriate. Students should not be disadvantaged academically because of any disruption.” 

For more background on the current strikes, read our coverage from earlier this autumn.

Image credit: UCU Twitter.

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