Debate has waged over the scale of industrial action as strikes got underway at 60 UK universities today.
The University and College Union (UCU), which called the eight-day strike, described staff turnout as “solid”, but the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA) said there had been “very mixed support and impact”.
Staff at 60 universities are on strike until Wednesday 4 December after they were balloted by UCU at the end of October.
The union ran two concurrent ballots at 147 universities on the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) pensions dispute and on pay, working conditions, casualisation and equalities. Turnout at a number of universities failed to pass the minimum 50% turnout required to legally declare a strike.
Helen Fairfoul, chief executive of UCEA, said the association – which is representing the 57 universities affected by the strike on pay and conditions – said universities were “focused on managing this period of disruption as best they can for their students” but said early reports were of “low and some medium levels of disruption to teaching”.
The association added that it would take time for universities to know the full scale of the impact.
That support sends a clear message to universities that staff will not settle for pay cuts, increased pension costs or deteriorating conditions
– Jo Grady, UCU
Jo Grady, general secretary of UCU, said 3,500 people had joined the union since industrial action was announced.
“We have been receiving news of solid support for the strikes across the UK. That support sends a clear message to universities that staff will not settle for pay cuts, increased pension costs or deteriorating conditions,” Ms Grady said.
Angela Rayner, Labour’s shadow education secretary, spoke in support of the strikes at a UCU rally in Manchester and blamed the strikes on the “marketised system that the Tories have created”.
“Labour will end the failed free market experiment in education and instead put staff and students first,” Ms Rayner said, adding: “It is time for the employers to put their students first and avoid any further disruption by bringing a reasonable offer back to the negotiating table.”
The scheme has to remain affordable in order for institutions to balance their investment in people with the wider university environment
– Chris Sayers, Committee of University Chairs
Chairman of the Committee of University Chairs (CUC) Chris Sayers said: “University staff are at the heart of the sector’s teaching and research success and CUC fully supports this being recognised and reflected through their employment packages.
“Pensions in USS are excellent, but the scheme has to remain affordable in order for institutions to balance their investment in people with the wider university environment.”
Mr Sayers said the university chiefs were struggling “against a backdrop of unprecedented uncertainty and financial pressure” to make long-term financial decisions, but hoped a sustainable solution could be found. He added that universities were paying 65% of the increased cost of the pensions scheme and warned many institutions “are already having to divert significant sums of money from other budgets to meet the rapidly increasing demands of USS”.
If financial uncertainty continued, Mr Sayers added, there was real concern over the consequences “for jobs, teaching, and student support”.
Header image credit: Flickr, Magnus Hagdorn