From education to employment

Strike action escalates with staff at 24 more universities joining UK-wide walkout

Jo Grady, general secretary, UCU

Strike action at UK universities spread to 68 institutions today (Monday 21 February) as staff blamed bosses for failing to make improved offers on pensions and pay & working conditions. More than 50,000 staff have a mandate to strike and well over a million students are being impacted.

Staff at 24 additional universities downed tools today over pay and working conditions. Their demands include a £2.5k pay rise for all university employees. UCU now estimates staff pay has fallen by more than a quarter (25.5%) in real terms since 2009. University employer representative, the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA) has refused to budge on its offer of a paltry 1.5% increase on existing salaries for 2021/22.

Staff from the 24 institutions hit with strike action today join those at 44 universities who walked out last week over a 35% cut to their guaranteed pension income. In total 68 universities are being hit with strike action lasting up to 10 days.

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

Last week (USS pension dispute only, 44 institutions): 5 days; Monday 14 to Friday 18 February

This week (both the pension and the pay & working conditions dispute, 68 institutions): 2 days; Monday 21 and Tuesday 22 February

Next week (pay & working conditions dispute only, 63 institutions): 3 days; Monday 28 February, Tuesday 1 and Wednesday 2 March

New retail price index figures of 7.8% mean UCU estimates staff pay is now down by 25.5% in real terms since 2009. Over 70,000 academics are employed on insecure contracts. The gender pay gap in UK universities sits at 16%, whilst the disability pay gap is 9% and the race pay gap is up to 17% [NOTE 4]. Staff are also experiencing a crisis of work-related stress with over half showing probable signs of depression.

Staff striking over pay and working conditions are demanding an end to race, gender and disability pay injustice; a framework to eliminate zero-hours and other insecure contracts; and meaningful action to tackle unmanageable workloads; as well as a £2.5k pay rise for all university employees.

Staff are also engaged in action short of a strike (ASOS) which involves working strictly to contract, not covering for absent colleagues, not rescheduling lectures or classes cancelled due to strike action, or undertaking any voluntary activities. UCEA has authorised bosses to withhold the pay of staff taking ASOS. Six universities have claimed they will deduct 100%.

In the pension dispute, UCU is due to meet employer representatives Universities UK (UUK) at the Joint Negotiating Committee (JNC) tomorrow (Tuesday). The JNC has until Monday 28 February to determine what changes to make to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) pension. UCU has submitted compromise proposals that were confirmed as implementable by the USS trustee which runs the scheme. UUK must decide whether to push ahead with cuts of 35% to university staff’s guaranteed retirement income or whether it is willing to work with UCU and resolve the pension dispute.

The union said universities can more than afford to meet the demands of staff. University finance figures show total income across the sector is around £41.9bn with reserves of £46.8bn. On average, vice-chancellors enjoy full pay packages of £269k per year. Students supporting the strikes have occupied university buildings and the National Union of Students (NUS) is supporting staff taking action. It has organised a student strike on Wednesday 2 March.

UCU general secretary Jo Grady said:

‘While the university sector continues to bring in tens of billions of pounds each year, the staff who make it work have been forced to endure 13 years of real-term pay cuts and the indignity of trying to make ends meet on exploitative and insecure contracts. Vice-chancellors on eye-watering salaries have serious questions to answer as to why they have allowed staff pay to fall by over 25% since 2009, further exposing them to the cost of living crisis.

‘Staff aren’t asking for the world, they want secure contracts, decent pay, manageable workloads and for employers to end their vindictive attacks on pensions. But instead of listening to the longstanding concerns of their own workforce, employers have pushed them to breaking point and now half are reporting signs of depression.

‘During these strikes the support of students has been overwhelming. In their thousands they have lobbied their vice-chancellors, occupied university buildings and we are proud that on Wednesday 2 March they will be taking UK-wide strike action alongside us. It’s high-time this world-leading sector stopped dining off the good will and dedication of its staff and started treating them with dignity.’

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