Words by Cameron Trencher, News Sub-Editor and Ritika Srivatsan, News Editor

The University and College Union (UCU), a British higher-education trade union representing academics and support staff, voted ‘yes’ to industrial action. In the largest wave of strikes yet, 70,000 staff working in various universities across the UK will walk out over low pay, pension cuts and uncertain employment.

There will be ‘strike action on a scale never seen before,’ warned UCU General Secretary Jo Grady.

Predicted to have impacted 2.5 million students, including those at the University of Sussex, the strikes occurred on November 24th, 25th and 30th. Strike action asked that UCU-affiliated staff not work over these days, meaning that students faced canceled lectures or seminars and no access to staff who are on strike. 

From 23rd November, staff will also begin industrial action short of strike action (ASOS) at institutions across England, Wales and Scotland. UCU members undertaking ASOS are asked to work to contract but to do no more than that. ASOS involves staff members not covering for absent colleagues, removing lecture or reading materials and not rescheduling classes canceled due to strike action. 

The call for industrial action was a consequence of two national ballots held in October, the first of which focused on pay and working conditions. Voter turnout was 57.8% and 81.1% voted in favor of strike action. The second ballot regarding pensions had a slightly higher voter turnout of 60.2%, with an astounding 84.9% of members voting ‘yes’ in support of industrial action. 

The vote reflected widespread discontent amongst UCU members and the ballots provided them the chance to air their grievances. Despite employers introducing a pay rise of 3%, UCU members state that it does not match soaring inflation rates – the current inflation rate in the UK is 10.1% while food inflation is at 14.7%. Therefore, the union demands an earnest pay rise to aid members with the cost of living and energy crisis which are heightening uncertainty over financial security. Additionally, a third of academic staff are on a temporary contract and asking for a more secure one. 

Concerning pension cuts, the UCU insists on restoring revoked benefits. Package cuts announced this year means that the average member loses 35% of their retirement income which translates to thousands of pounds of losses for those at the start of their careers. 

Grady added, ‘This is not a dispute about affordability – it is about choices. Vice-chancellors are choosing to pay themselves hundreds of thousands of pounds whilst forcing our members onto low-paid and insecure contracts that leave some using food banks. They choose to hold billions in surpluses while slashing staff pensions. If university vice-chancellors don’t get serious, our message is simple – this bout of strike action will be just the beginning.’

The UCU contends that universities can easily afford to meet demands, given that the British university sector generated a record-breaking £41.1 billion in 2021. Vice-chancellors collectively earned around £45 million.

The National Union of Students (NUS), a confederation of student unions representing around 600 British universities have supported the industrial action. NUS vice president Chloe Field stated,Students stand in solidarity with the 70,000 university staff across the UK who will strike later this month. Staff teaching conditions are students’ learning conditions, and we must fight together for a fairer, healthier education system for everyone who works and studies’. 

The strikes are ‘disappointing’ said Education minister Robert Halfon who asked for both sides to come to an understanding so that ‘students do not suffer with further learning loss’ after the COVID-19 pandemic and major strike action seen last year. 

Chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA), Raj Jethwa, says, ‘the UCU needs to give its members a realistic and fair assessment of what is achievable’. Governed by a Board drawn from Vice-Chancellors, Principals and Chairs of governing councils of universities, the UCEA represents universities and higher education colleges in national negotiations with trade unions, government bodies and funding councils. ‘All higher education institutions want to do more for their valuable staff but any increase in pay puts jobs at risk’, Jethwa added.

Universities UK (UUK), an advocacy organization representing 140 universities said, ‘Universities are well-prepared for industrial action and will put in place a series of measures to protect students’ education, as well as other staff and the wider community’. 

The strikes come during a period of increased industrial action across the UK. The cost of living crisis has pushed many public sector organizations to strike, as wage growth trails noticeably behind that of private businesses. Brighton will see strikes affect the Royal Mail and Communication Workers Union on the same dates.

Strike action can be avoided if universities meet the UCU’s demands. If not, industrial action could continue into next year, with the UCU threatening a marking and assessment boycott.

Featured Image Courtesy of Pixabay

Categories: Campus News News

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