Academics walk out for two-hour stoppage

Thousands take part despite pay threat, UCU says

January 23, 2014

Thousands of university staff have taken part in the first of a series of two-hour strikes, despite threats from many institutions that they will be deducted a day’s pay for the action.

Staff at higher education institutions across the UK joined protests between 11am and 1pm today. Further temporary stoppages are scheduled for 28 January and 6 February.

The latest round of industrial action by University and College Union members follows two one-day strikes in October and December over this year’s 1 per cent pay offer, which unions have branded “miserly”, though the former stoppages took place in conjunction with Unison and Unite, who did not join the latest strike.

Jennifer Fraser, joint president of Birkbeck, University of London’s UCU branch, who was manning a picket line outside the college’s Bloomsbury campus, said she was pleased with the turnout and support from students.

“Different people have been out on strike this time and we’ve had lots of interesting conversations with students about why we’re doing this,” said Ms Fraser.

“Students are paying really high fees and they want to know why their university is building up really big surpluses and what they are doing with their money,” Ms Fraser added.

Staff also gathered outside the main entrance to Soas, University of London to mark the protest.

Union leaders indicated the protest was not as large as the last one-day strike, but was still substantial.

Asked if academic staff had the fight for a drawn-out series of strikes, Meera Sabaratnam, lecturer in international relations, said: “We hope so.”

“The turnout could be better. It’s more difficult [to stage a strike within] academia, but many support the principle,” she added.

However, other union branches reported higher turnouts than at last year’s walkouts.

There was much anger at threats by many institutions to withhold an entire day’s pay from anyone who took part in the two-hour strike as it constituted “partial performance” for the day.

The UCU has threatened to take legal action against institutions taking this stance – citing a ruling involving Westminster College over the illegality of such action – though employers claim that case does not apply to the ongoing situation owing to the specific circumstances of the case.

At least 40 universities – including Nottingham Trent University and the University of Central Lancashire – have threatened to withhold a full day’s pay, the Times Higher Education understands.

However, some institutions, including the universities of Essex and Chester, have withdrawn the threat after the UCU said it would escalate industrial action to a full day if this stance was adopted.

Other institutions have informed staff that they may deduct a full day’s pay in upcoming strikes once the impact of the 23 January strike is assessed.

UCU general secretary Sally Hunt has denounced the hard-line stance by some vice-chancellors as “macho games”.

“Punitive pay docking not only makes staff even angrier, but it also increases disruption for students,” Ms Hunt said.

“The baffling behaviour of some vice-chancellors to threaten to lock staff out and therefore increase disruption has more in common with 1930s Chicago than modern industrial relations,” she added.

The UCU has said it will make a decision on whether to escalate strike action following the completion of the three two-hour walkouts.

A spokesman for the Universities and Colleges Employers Association claimed the two-hour strikes had “passed with little or no disruption”.

“Higher education institutions are reporting that the vast majority of staff understand the reality of the current financial situation and have not supported UCU’s continuation of the dispute and move to action aimed at damaging student education,” he said.

About half of the institutions who had responded to a Ucea survey intended to withhold a full day’s pay for the action, he added.

Institutions would not accept “partial performance” and are therefore “deducting pay as they deem necessary”, he said.

“Higher education institutions hope that the lack of support shown by staff over what is now last year’s general pay uplift will lead them to reconsider their campaign,” he said.

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