Ten more universities face strikes after UCU reballots

Further walkouts expected in disputes over pay, pensions and working conditions

January 18, 2022
Strike at Goldsmiths
Source: Eleanor Bentall

A further 10 UK universities could face strike action in disputes over pay and pensions after a fresh round of ballots conducted by the University and College Union.

The results mean that 68 institutions are expected to face walkouts this term, after staff at 58 campuses spent three days on the picket lines last month.

In total, the UCU conducted fresh ballots at 42 branches that got more than 40 per cent turnout in votes over pensions, pay and conditions, but fell short of the 50 per cent minimum that is required by law for industrial action to go ahead.

Twelve of these ballots resulted in “yes” votes that passed the 50 per cent threshold, although two of these were votes for action on pensions in addition to existing mandates on pay and working conditions.

Branches now joining the industrial action include Newcastle and Swansea universities, plus Queen Mary University of London and City, University of London.

But a number of other major campuses still fell short of the 50 per cent threshold in their ballots, including the universities of Exeter, Oxford, Southampton and Warwick.

The vote for action on pensions also fell short of the threshold at two of the union’s biggest branches, at the University of Manchester and UCL, but both already had mandates for actions on pay.

While the votes may be seen as strengthening UCU’s hand in its disputes with employers, the fact that so many branches still fell short of the required turnout might also be interpreted as a sign of continuing fatigue among members from the pandemic and years of industrial disputes, and concern over the impact on undergraduates who have seen their on-campus learning significantly interrupted.

“We truly hope that further disruption can be avoided – that is what staff and students alike all want. But this is entirely in the gift of employers who simply need to revoke their devastating pension cuts and take long-overdue action over deteriorating pay and working conditions,” said Jo Grady, the UCU general secretary.

In the first round of ballots, union members overwhelmingly backed industrial action, but less than half of the 152 branches polled passed the 50 per cent turnout threshold: 21 on pay and conditions, 33 over pay and pensions, and four over pensions only.

The latest round of the pensions dispute focuses on Universities UK’s plan to reduce the benefits provided by the Universities Superannuation Scheme in a bid to stave off increases in contributions that it describes as unaffordable.

The UCU has estimated that the reforms could cut employees’ guaranteed benefits by as much as 35 per cent, costing members thousands of pounds annually in retirement, but UUK’s figures suggest that the reduction is between 10 per cent and 18 per cent.

At the heart of the pay dispute was employers’ offer of a 1.5 per cent minimum rise for 2021-22, with unions demanding a £2,500 uplift instead, as well as action on inequality, casualisation and workload issues.

Raj Jethwa, chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Employers Association, said that “while the results will be disappointing for UCU’s campaign leaders, there will be further widespread dismay at all at those HE institutions where strike action will now be considered”.

“The great majority of HE staff understand the financial realities for their institutions and have moved on from last year’s balanced outcome. We trust that the UCU will now engage constructively in this year’s multi-employer negotiating round, which is planned to begin at the end of March,” Mr Jethwa said.

A spokeswoman for USS employers said that students would be “dismayed that the union is considering more strike action yet still not proposing any solution to this dispute”.

“We remain prepared to consult employers on any reasonable, affordable and implementable proposal from UCU, including on the level of covenant support they could afford to offer it,” she said.

“Meanwhile, we continue to progress work on possible alternative scheme design, a lower-cost option and shaping an independent review of scheme governance. We’re calling on UCU to take part in all these discussions on the scheme’s future because it is important that the views of scheme members are represented.”

chris.havergal@timeshighereducation.com

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