Union plans 10-day strike over pay and pensions

The University and College Union says that a million students may be affected by the strikes that could involve as many as 50,000 union members at 68 universities

The University and College Union has announced it will ask its members at 68 universities to take up to 10 days of strike action in February and March in disputes over pay, conditions and pensions. 

The news follows an announcement from the union general secretary that UCU wants to secure a new valuation of the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS). 

Despite appeals from both sides to resolve the situation, the issue of pay and pensions appear intractable in the present climate. The union estimates that 50,000 staff could walk out, impacting over a million students. The UCU general secretary last year said, as the union began balloting members, that staff had no choice but to strike

The pension proposals published yesterday by UCU – described as a “route out” of the current strife – received short shrift from Universities UK, arguing the plan “does not appear to be a serious attempt to reach agreement” with the 340 USS employers. 

The union last year rejected the pay offer from employers – represented by the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA) – for a rise of 1.5%, increasing to 3.6% for the lowest paid. In January 2022, UCEA said: “We respect employees’ right to take lawful industrial action, but it is misleading to their members for UCU to ask them to lose more pay in pursuit of an unrealistic 7% pay demand.” 

UCU has labelled the strikes a “fight for the future of higher education” with staff at “breaking point after a decade of cuts to pensions, falling pay and worsening working conditions”. Around 90,000 academics are employers on what the union calls insecure contracts – such as fixed-term, zero-hours or hourly-paid contracts. 

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 – and Ucas figures showing record numbers of students in higher education – as proof of unfairness. 

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. 

The full strike dates in full, with numbers of institutions involved:

Week 1 (USS pension dispute only, 44 institutions)

5 days; Monday 14 to Friday 18 February

Week 2 (both the pension and the pay & working conditions dispute, 68 institutions)

2 days; Monday 21 and Tuesday 22 February

Week 3 (pay & working conditions dispute only, 39 institutions)

3 days; Monday 28 February, Tuesday 1 and Wednesday 2 March

UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: “For a sector that is worth tens of billions of pounds and enjoys record levels of student growth it is beyond disgraceful that in return staff get vicious pension cuts, falling pay and are pushed to breaking point under deteriorating working conditions.

“Time is quickly running out for vice-chancellors to avert strike action, but it can be done. Staff need a proper pay rise, action to tackle insecure contracts, unsafe workloads and pay inequality, and for devastating pension cuts to be revoked. Any disruption that occurs will be the clearest indication yet that university bosses don’t value their staff.

This wave of strike action is a fight for the future of higher education and staff are proud to stand alongside students in the fight for an education system that treats students and staff with respect.”

The final day of the 10-day strike falls on the same day as a student strike for free higher education, organised by the National Union of Students. NUS national president Larissa Kennedy said: “As students, we are acutely aware that staff working conditions are our learning conditions. The same education system that forces students into food banks exploits staff on insecure contracts, with some even having to sleep in tents while they mark our essays. The same system that produces awarding gaps that impact students of colour produces pay gaps that impact staff of colour.” 

Employers claim that recent UCU strike action has been less widespread and disruptive than those walkouts staged in 2018, 2019 and 2020. According to figures compiled by university leaders, just a third of eligible UCU members joined strikes last December. 

“Students will struggle to understand why they should bear the brunt of UCU’s refusal to confront the financial challenges facing all pension schemes,” said UUK. “Instead of pursuing strike action and attempting to disrupt students’ education, the union should focus on working with employers to find a viable and affordable solution to the 2020 valuation which avoids the unaffordably high costs members and employers are facing from April.

“Universities will minimise the impact of any further industrial action on students by ensuring they can continue to learn and receive support.”

Image via Flickr.

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