‘Stand-off’ as both sides dig in for UK sector strikes

Union and employers refuse to make further concessions as 14 days of industrial action continue at 74 universities

February 24, 2020
Source: Getty

Employers and union members were becoming increasingly entrenched in their positions in the disputes over pensions, pay and conditions in UK higher education, as a second round of strikes this academic year ramped up.

University and College Union members at 74 universities were due to strike from 24 to 26 February after walking out on 20 and 21 February, with further action planned for 2-5 March and 9-13 March.

While UCU said that there had been “solid support” for the “biggest ever wave of strikes” in the sector, the Universities and Colleges Employers Association claimed that participation had fallen since the first round of strikes at 60 institutions before Christmas.

And although both sides had previously acknowledged progress in discussions on pensions and conditions, the union’s reluctance to shift far from its core demands and vice-chancellors’ unwillingness to move significantly towards them have created an impasse.

“We have got to a bit of a stand-off,” said Vicky Blake, UCU’s president-elect. “We’re not asking for the world; we’re asking for fair and decent working conditions.”

Ucea has highlighted its offer of sector-wide “expectations” around the use of casual contracts, efforts to address workload problems and attempts to close gender and ethnicity pay gaps.

But it has refused to budge from its offer of a 1.8 per cent minimum pay rise for 2019-20 and the union says there is no guarantee for staff that any of the proposed “expectations” would be met.

On pensions, talks on the future governance and valuation of the Universities Superannuation Scheme have been described as positive, but employers have said that increasing their contributions further would be “unaffordable”. A consultation of UUK members conducted ahead of the strike found that 84 per cent of institutions did not want to make a new offer to UCU.

Ms Blake said that if employers had offered “more than warm words”, they could have “ended this months ago”.

“The refusal to acknowledge the humanity of those in the sector is their biggest mistake,” she said. “Strike action is always a last resort – we would rather be doing our jobs – but we are at breaking point.”

Some union members told Times Higher Education that employers’ apparent intransigence had boosted support for industrial action.

Michael Carley, president of the University of Bath’s UCU branch, said that UUK’s refusal to make a fresh offer on pensions was a “shock” to members.

“At Bath, it’s hardened resolve. We would have expected some token concession,” he said. “They realise the only way to get [employers] to budge is to go on strike.”

However, THE understands that many university leaders felt they had gone as far as they could and “got nothing back” from the union. Instead of wavering, vice-chancellors have resolved to hold the line on both pay and pensions.

At some institutions, there were signs of a crackdown on striking staff. At the University of Leicester, staff were told they could have their strike pay deductions spread across a number of months, as in 2019, but this time only if the union promised not to demonstrate on campus. 

At the University of Winchester, staff received an email telling them that anyone who used university channels of communication to encourage students to not cross the picket line would face a disciplinary investigation.


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