Further strikes threatened at universities this term


By Hannah Richardson Published18 October
BBC News education reporter

Students could face more strike action at universities this term after the academics’ union opened a ballot over pay, pensions and conditions.

University and College Union (UCU) general secretary Jo Grady said the UK’s flagship university sector was built on the “exploitation of staff”.

They had experienced a decade of pension cuts, collapsing pay and insecure contracts, she said.

University employers said the prospect of disruption was “disappointing”.

  • University staff strike over pensions and pay
  • ‘We want our lecturers to be there and be happy’
  • University workers vote for eight-day strike
  • 2018: Strike action suspended in pension truce

The union is demanding:

  • a £2,500 pay increase across all pay points
  • an end to race, gender and disability pay injustice
  • a framework to eliminate zero-hours and other precarious contracts
  • meaningful action to tackle unmanageable workloads
  • withdrawal of pension cuts

The ballot represents a ramping up of the long-running dispute between UCU members and university employers, with staff at 152 institutions being balloted.

A total of 78 of these are being consulted during the next three weeks over pay and working conditions, with another 68 facing two ballots – over pay and conditions, plus the USS pensions scheme.

The dispute over pensions has been rumbling on for nearly a decade, and has been kicked into action again after what the UCU describes as a “flawed valuation of the USS pension fund” wiped “an estimated 35% off the value of a typical pension”.

Ms Grady said: “There is a sense that we are at a breaking point and a sense that this is a sector that needs saving. I don’t think I can over-articulate that enough.

“The idea that staff would want to go out on strike again could not be further from the truth.”

She accused institutions of spending their increased fee and research income on extravagant building projects, advertising and advice from consultants, rather than the staff who are teaching young people.

And she added that “exploitative contracts” were the “dirty secret” of a higher education sector which requires students to pay £9,000-plus fees a year for tuition.

The union estimates that there are some 74,000 staff working on such temporary contracts.

The UCU says pay for university staff fell by 17.6% relative to inflation between 2009 and 2019.

Since then employers made further below-inflation offers, despite university income from tuition fees growing by a third in the last five years, it said.

‘Fair and meaningful’

The University and Colleges Employers Association has offered guaranteed increases of at least 1.5% to the pay spine.

Higher percentage rises were pledged for lower-paid staff, up to a maximum of 3.6%.

Chief executive Raj Jethwa said: “We are disappointed that UCU is encouraging its members to ballot for action which is specifically designed to disrupt teaching and learning for students who have endured so many recent upheavals.”

Mr Jethwa continued: “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 [higher education] institutions. The financial impact of Covid-19 continues to affect these HE institutions, alongside declines in other income sources.”

He added that most staff understood the “financial realities facing their institutions”.