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UK: University staff vote on strike action over pension, pay, and working conditions

published 8 December 2021 updated 4 April 2022

University and College Union (UCU) branches at 42 universities in the UK are holding reballots, asking members to back strike action regarding pay, pensions, casualisation, and increasing workloads.

The reballots opened on 6 December and will close on 14 January and come after a number of branches narrowly missed turnout thresholds, in some cases by only one or two votes.

Two key disputes

UCU has warned that up to 100 universities could face disruption in the New Year if disputes over pensions, pay, and conditions are not settled.

To resolve the pension dispute, UCU is demanding that employers revoke their 35 per cent cuts to the guaranteed pensions of staff.

Concerning the pay and working conditions dispute, the union is demanding a £2.5k pay increase for all higher education staff, as well as action to tackle unmanageable workloads, pay inequality, and insecure contracts in the sector.

UCU noted that higher education staff pay has fallen by 20 per cent after 12 years of below-inflation pay offers whilst almost 90,000 academic and academic-related staff are employed on insecure contracts.

Also, the gender pay gap in UK universities sits at 15 per cent, the disability pay gap is nine per cent, and the race pay gap is 17 per cent. In addition, staff are experiencing a crisis of work-related stress with over half showing probable signs of depression.

Recent three-day strike action

From 1-3 December, three days of strike action were undertaken at 58 universities after management and their representatives refused to withdraw pension cuts or address falling pay and worsening working conditions.

UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: “It is deeply regrettable that staff have been forced into taking industrial action again. But sadly, 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.

“The truth is that staff are asking for the bare minimum in a sector awash with money. But the only time vice chancellors seem to listen is when staff take action, and those leading our universities should not underestimate their determination to change this sector for the better.

“We are grateful to all the students who are supporting staff taking industrial action because they understand that staff working conditions are student learning conditions,” she added.

Grady said vice-chancellors need to ask themselves why strikes have become an annual occurrence. They must seek to resolve this dispute in order to “avoid more needless disruption to learning”, she insisted. If vice chancellors continue to ignore the modest demands of staff, UCU will be forced to take further “sustained and escalating industrial action”, and staff at 42 more universities could join them in the New Year.

“There is still time to avoid this disruption, but that is in the hands of vice chancellors who are still choosing to ignore the serious concerns of staff rather than address them.”

Government reforms to teacher training will 'narrow student choice’

On 1 December, UCU also called on the government to rethink its plans to reform teacher training, which it says could narrow student choice and place undue burdens on providers.

“We are disappointed that the government is pushing ahead with these disruptive proposals to reform teacher education, albeit on a slightly extended timescale,” said Grady. “Providers already have good systems of quality assurance in place and the proposed upheavals risk narrowing student choice and placing undue burdens on providers. The government should listen to voices in the sector and think again before it risks damaging the future supply of skilled teaching staff.”

“Reclaim our time” campaign

UCU has launched a “Reclaim our time” campaign, given that many academic staff have stipulations in their contracts that they can be ‘reasonably requested by their line manager to work beyond the nominal working week of 35-38 hours in most higher education contracts.

The purpose of the campaign is to expose how much of higher education personnel’s wellbeing and free time is regularly sacrificed to keep the system afloat by simply asking all members to work to contract.

UCU wishes to reaffirm that “managers need to be forced to confront the unsustainable and dangerous amounts of work created for us, by making our overwork their problem”.