UCU strikes could hit sector just as ‘return to normal’ gets underway

The University and College Union could yet inflict huge disruption to universities, just as they restart the academic year promising students an end to Covid disruption

The University and College Union (UCU) hopes strike action will force universities to rethink support for the Universities Superannuation Scheme and commit to resolving a catalogue of pay and workplace grievances – or risk widespread disruption to students across December and January. 

The last national UCU ballot on industrial action over pensions and salaries led to 14 days of stoppages at 74 universities over four weeks of February and March 2020. This strike followed an eight-day walkout at 60 universities in November and December 2019, a sequel to a 2018 pension strike at 64 universities over USS. 

The most recent two strikes relate to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) and what the union terms its “four fights”. It wants sector-wide pay rises, more manageable workloads, an end to racial and gender pay “injustice” and no more zero-hour or casualised contracts. Ballots for both campaigns will go out to members at 153 higher education providers from Monday 18 October to Thursday 4 November – with results announced on Monday 8 November. A vote of support from a branch would make strike action legal there for the next six months. 

UCU will hope its 130,000 members will express emphatic support for its plans to bring teaching at universities to a halt. It would encourage the union to pursue a lengthy campaign, triggering second ballots at universities where member turnout was close to the legal 50% threshold required.

If momentum for the UCU causes appears to have waned since the spring of 2020, university chiefs could argue the campaign is a busted flush. Universities UK (UUK) has already issued a statement warning its members are “regrettably well-prepared” to weather industrial acton. 

Universities and the union argued about the impact of winter 2019 strikes – but what is incontrovertible is the likely press attention industrial action will attract. After months of ‘back to normal’ assurances to students weary of Covid disruption, vice-chancellors will not want to face more bruising headlines, fee refund pleas and questions of competence. But UUK – which represents universities in USS pensions negotiations – and the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA) – which represents HE in pay and conditions – have repeatedly said universities are unable to spend anymore on staff or pensions

UCU has been discussing the plans for strike action for weeks – and will assume it has the support it needs. Local UCU branches have organised several localised strikes in universities since spring 2020, including the University of East LondonLeicester University and Liverpool University. Union members of Sheffield, Northumbria and Central Lancashire universities have all voted to support strike action during the Covid pandemic. These votes imply appetite persists. Grady believes her members “are clear that they are ready to take action to stand up for their dignity, defend pensions and win long-overdue improvements to their pay and working conditions”.

“University staff propped up the entire sector during the pandemic, but they are now being thanked with huge cuts to their pensions, unbearably high workloads, and another below-inflation pay offer – all whilst universities continue to generate a handsome income from tuition fees,” said Grady. “The truth is that very well paid university leadership, who manage institutions with bigger turnovers than top football clubs, are choosing to exploit the goodwill of staff, repeatedly refusing to address the rampant use of casualised contracts, unsafe workloads or the shocking gender and ethnicity pay gap in the sector.”

She added: “There is still time for university chiefs to resolve a situation which is entirely of their own making, but they must return to negotiations and make credible offers.”

The truth is that very well paid university leadership, who manage institutions with bigger turnovers than top football clubs, are choosing to exploit the goodwill of staff
– Jo Grady, UCU

In February 2021, Grady said UCU must become a “majority union” in further and higher education to become consequential in industrial disputes. The union has 9,000 more members than before the pandemic, a boost Grady described as “impressive” but not enough to “achieve real change”.

What has led the union to strike action over Universities Superannuation Scheme? 

For months now, UCU has signalled it will strike over the plans put forward by UUK to resolve the 2020 valuation. At the end of May, UCU accused university leaders of “trying to hoodwink staff” by “failing to come clean” over the true impact of proposed pension reforms. It says the proposed changes would mean a typical lecturer could suffer a 35% cut to their guaranteed retirement benefits. UUK said the figures “only tell[s] part of the story” and warned that doing nothing to reform USS would hit the sector and employees with crippling annual contributions, which would lead to job losses and the destabilisation of universities.

UUK repeated the warning on 1 September, when the USS joint negotiating committee (JNC) – established to resolve disputes between UUK and UCU – voted in support of UUK after a tie-breaking intervention from the independent chair, Judith Fish. As the dust settled, UCU emailed 50,000 of its members that belong to USS to apprise them of its plans to ballot them this autumn. It said then the only realistic way to avoid strike action at this late stage was for employers to carry out a rapid consultation on the UCU proposals. 

UCU may not like the legal and regulatory constraints pensions operate under, but it is irresponsible to make students and staff suffer as a result
– Universities UK

UCU has drawn up different proposals, and a source at the union indicated that the USS Trustee had deemed them viable – but these were not formally published or tabled at the JNC.

The UCU alternative plans were unlikely to attract enthusiastic support from members – as the plans, much like the UUK’s, require compromises. Employer contributions would rise to 24.9% – 3.8% more than at present – and employee contributions would decrease to 8.1%, a drop of 1.5%. All benefits would receive the same protection against inflation under the USS plan, and members could choose to pay contributions of 4% or below if they could not afford to join the main scheme. But the proposals would also entail lowering the defined benefits threshold to £40,000, much like the UUK plan, and reducing the accrual rate from 1/75 to 1/80. Both would, in effect, weaken the defined benefit element of the scheme. 

A spokesperson for UUK said the organisation was “disappointed” by today’s announcement, especially as UCU “has not proposed a viable solution of their own”. UUK defended its plan and said employers would consider alternatives, but “none have been forthcoming”. 

“The USS Trustee’s assessment of the scheme’s costs means reforms are needed; no change is not an option. The employers’ reform proposal will prevent harmful and unaffordable rises in contributions. UCU may not like the legal and regulatory constraints pensions operate under, but it is irresponsible to make students and staff suffer as a result,” UUK said. 

Strikes could cause “higher contributions, pay cuts, job losses, damage to the student experience, and financial hardship” for staff and universities, UUK warned. 

The spokesperson continued: “We have formally invited UCU to work with employers to develop lower-cost options for members, consider alternative scheme designs – including Conditional Indexation – and review the scheme’s governance – these are issues where employers and scheme members share a common desire for change. 

“Universities are regrettably well prepared to mitigate the impact of any industrial action on students’ learning, and minimise disruption for those staff choosing not to take part.”

What has led the union to strike action over pay, working conditions, inequalities and casualised staff? 

The union points to UCEA figures showing that pay measured against the retail price index dropped by between 11% and 17% from 2009/20 to 2019/20. It rejects the current 1.5% pay increase on the table from UCEA. Following the announcement of Ucas data that shows a record number will start university this year, UCU called for pay rises for university staff who, they say, will face extra work as a result.

We very much hope the trade union members understand the considerable pressures which continue to face their HE institutions. The financial impact of Covid-19 continues to affect these HE institutions, alongside declines in other income sources
– Raj Jethwa, UCEA

The union says women and black, Asian and ethnic minority backgrounds face pay and promotion injustices, illustrated by the low numbers in senior positions. Debate rages between universities and the union about the scale of casualisation. UCU says 49% of academics on teaching-only contracts and 67% of academics on research-only contracts are employed on a fixed-term basis – equivalent to roughly 60,000 staff or 33% of all academics. Figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (Hesa) show that 30% of universities engage academic staff on zero-hour contracts – the total number of staff on these contracts account for around 3% of all university-employed academics. The worst offenders tend to be post-1992 universities – 100% of teaching-only staff at Sheffield Hallam and 90% at Northampton are on zero-hour contracts, Hesa data shows. Former Conservative education secretary Gavin Williamson even mentioned the issue of casualised staff in his final address to vice-chancellors at the UUK conference. He cited an “increasingly casualised workforce” by way of an example of a “genuine injustice” he wanted sector leaders to address. 

Raj Jethwa, chief executive of UCEA, said: “It is very disappointing that UCU seeks to kick-start another campaign to encourage its members to cause disruption for students through potentially damaging industrial action.

“UCEA, representing 146 participating HE employers, concluded the dispute resolution meetings with UCU and other trade unions following the 2021-22 pay round of three negotiating meetings which ended on 7 May. UCEA’s final pay offer guaranteed increases of at least 1.5% and has been implemented by HE institutions as it was due from 1 August. Also, UCEA included in its offer details of proposals for concrete action and further joint work to reduce the gender, ethnicity and disability pay gaps.

“The final offer from employers was fair and meaningful in the context of the sector’s ongoing delicate financial situation. We very much hope the trade union members understand the considerable pressures which continue to face their HE institutions. The financial impact of Covid-19 continues to affect these HE institutions, alongside declines in other income sources. These pressures sit alongside the future changes to sector funding and HE institutions have relayed to us that the great majority of the 325,000 sector colleagues covered by the collective negotiations understand the financial realities facing their institutions.”

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