UK university strikes 2023: a guide to what the dispute is about

Another 18 days of strikes to hit universities across the country in February and March, with UCU promising ‘most disruptive action ever’

一月 31, 2023
UCU rally
Source: Tom Williams

The University and College Union (UCU) is holding what it has called its “most disruptive strikes ever” over the coming months as it seeks to ramp up pressure on university employers to move on its demands over pay, pensions and precarity.

Strikes have affected UK campuses for the past five years, but the latest are set to be the biggest yet, with tens of thousands of lecturers and other academic staff taking part.

The UCU and the other higher education trade unions – Unison, Unite, GMB and the University Lecturers’ Association (EIS-ULA) – are locked in a pay dispute with the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (Ucea), with seemingly little prospect of resolution. Long-running rows over pensions, precarity and working conditions have also fuelled the levels of discontent among university staff.

What are the university strike dates in February and March?

There are 18 days of strike action planned, stretching from 1 February through to 22 March. Here is the full list:

  • Wednesday 1 February
  • Thursday 9 and Friday 10 February
  • Tuesday 14, Wednesday 15 and Thursday 16 February
  • Tuesday 21, Wednesday 22 and Thursday 23 February
  • Monday 27 and Tuesday 28 February and Wednesday 1 and Thursday 2 March
  • Thursday 16 and Friday 17 March
  • Monday 20, Tuesday 21 and Wednesday 22 March

When will the strikes end?

The strikes will end if a deal is agreed on pay and the other elements of the unions’ claims. Otherwise, the UCU’s mandate for taking action expires in April, which would mean that the union legally cannot strike until it has reballoted its members. This process is already under way, with the UCU hopeful of securing another “yes” vote.

Which universities are affected?

The UCU previously achieved a historic “yes” vote in what is known as an aggregated ballot, meaning that all of its branches are able to take part in the action. At most, this allows 70,000 staff who work in 150 higher education institutions to strike. This includes all of the country’s biggest universities: UCL, the universities of Manchester, Leeds, Birmingham, Edinburgh and Nottingham as well as Manchester Metropolitan University and Cardiff University, to name but a few.

In reality, not everyone will strike for a variety of reasons, and disruption may be minimal at some sites. However, institutions are preparing to have to cancel classes and, in some cases, scheduled exams. UCU members are not required to tell their institution beforehand that they are taking part, and indeed the union encourages them not to. So knowing in advance which lectures will be cancelled is always difficult. Institutions have pledged to keep students updated throughout the period of disruption.

What is the strike about?

Pay is a key reason why staff are striking, as it is in other disputes involving nurses, paramedics and railway workers. Trade unions argue that wages have failed to keep up with inflation for years, resulting in a real-terms pay cut for most staff. Now that inflation has hit double digits, things have been made substantially worse, and the unions are calling for a pay rise for all staff of 2 per cent above the retail price index, which stood at 13.4 per cent in December 2022.

Ucea has offered pay rises on a sliding scale, depending on how much staff earn currently. The latest offer, which was improved at the most recent negotiating meeting, was as follows:

  • Pay bands 3 to 5 (staff earning up to and including £19,333): 8 per cent
  • Pay bands 6 to 14 (staff earning up to and including £22,622): 7 per cent
  • Pay bands 15 to 25 (staff earning up to and including £30,502): 6 per cent
  • Pay bands 26 to 51 (staff earning between £31,411 and £65,578): 5 per cent.

Unions were still considering the offer, but the UCU has signalled that its members intend to reject it, and so the strikes are likely to go ahead. Employers have stressed that the proposed wage rises are as far as they can go, meaning that both sides are at something of a stand-off.

Staff are also on strike over several issues endemic to higher education, which they want to see addressed. The demands include ending the use of insecure contracts, addressing gender, race and disability pay gaps and making efforts to reduce workloads. The UCU has accused Ucea of offering no concessions in these areas. The employers’ body has said in the past that these areas are out of its control and should be dealt with on an institution-by-institution basis. But Ucea has signalled its willingness to discuss the so-called non-pay elements of the unions’ claim when the issue of wages has been resolved.

Why are university staff striking over pensions?

Sixty-seven branches are also striking because of changes to their pensions provided by the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS). This dispute stretches back to March 2020, when a valuation identified a £14 billion deficit and a package of reforms was brought in to ensure the long-term sustainability of the scheme.

The UCU has said that this wiped 35 per cent off members’ benefits in retirement – equivalent to hundreds of thousands of pounds for the worst affected. The union has also pointed to recent monitoring reports – which showed the deficit narrowing and then becoming a surplus – to claim that the changes were not necessary.

Universities UK – which represents employers in the pensions scheme – has said the 21.6 per cent contributions paid by employers “are among the highest in the country and at the very limit of affordability”. The USS has also said the improving financial picture would not have happened without the changes, but it will be conducting a new valuation in 2023, which could lead to better benefits.



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