UCU leader: strikes coming as staff are ‘burnt out and leaving sector’

V-c warns pension and pay strikes will damage whole sector but union members believe experience shows industrial action will force change

November 5, 2019
USS strike
Source: Alamy

Strikes over pensions and pay are coming to UK universities because staff are “burnt out and leaving the sector”, according to the University and College Union’s leader, while a vice-chancellor has warned that the action will damage the whole of higher education.

The fact that UCU members still overwhelmingly backed strike action, despite the personal and professional cost to them, shows how badly “the sector has lost its way in how it treats its staff”, branch leaders told Times Higher Education

Jo Grady, UCU’s general secretary, said: “The message is really clear, staff have spoken with a powerful collective voice that they are deeply unhappy and that the offerings that are on the table are wholly inadequate to the type of workplace they want to work within.”

On 31 October, UCU announced that 79 per cent of the members who voted backed action over proposed changes to contributions to UK higher education’s biggest pension fund, the Universities Superannuation Scheme for pre-92 universities, while 74 per cent backed strike action in the ballot on pay, casualisation, equality and workloads.

UCU counts ballots by branch: 41 branches out of 69 passed the 50 per cent turnout threshold needed to take action on the USS ballot, and 54 out of 147 exceeded the threshold on pay. Only those branches where the threshold was passed can join the strikes.

It presents universities with another winter of walkouts, after 65 universities saw staff on strike for 14 days in 2018.

Adam Tickell, vice-chancellor of the University of Sussex, warned that more confrontation would be damaging to everyone in higher education, “not least as we head towards Brexit and an election period, with election manifestos from the main parties that will likely contain policies that will make things difficult for universities in the future”.  

However, Dr Grady told THE that for universities not to listen to the union’s demands would be “disrespectful” to staff, who are “burnt out and leaving the sector”, as well as to the students who have said that they stand with staff.

“It’s a warning but there have been multiple warnings before this,” she said. “They [employers] can’t treat this as if it’s the first time they have heard that staff are this unhappy.”

Dr Grady said that the difference this time was that the ballots covered wider ground. “This was about identifying that the issues we face are intersectional, that they impact on black and minority ethnic staff, disabled staff and female staff in a more extreme way than they do [on] others, it’s really about making that message clear.”

“Look across the board on post-92s, the pay and equality ballot was a significant issue,” she added.

Sam Marsh, branch president of the University of Sheffield’s UCU, said that although there had been a “fairly jubilant response” to the results among many members, “the reality is that we’re staring at strike action that we don’t want to be doing”.

“It will have a big impact on our students, our personal lives, but we are prepared to do it because we know what is at stake,” he added.

For Dr Marsh, both issues “come down to the same thing, which is that the sector has lost its way in how it treats its staff. Over the past decade our priorities have been put lower than any other financial ones, particularly when it comes to buildings.”

Sean Wallis, president of the UCU branch at UCL, said that members “simply don’t trust USS or UUK” and at UCL, the imposed pay deal – the final 2019-20 pay offer made by the Universities and Colleges Employers Association was a 1.8 per cent minimum rise – had particularly sparked “a lot of anger”.

What “members learned in the strike last time was that they could take serious strike action and that it was effective,” he added.

James Sumner, a lecturer in the history of technology at the University of Manchester, said that he voted in favour of a strike mandate “because the employers have a track record of ignoring reality until strikes are in prospect”.

“A strike may not be the ideal path for dialogue, but it seems to be the only one we’ve got,” he said. “Members this time are more prepared for the practicalities of running a strike.”

For Dr Sumner an important aspect is the anti-casualisation message that the strikes will send. “I’m in a secure well-paid position myself, but I’m affected directly by precarity: people I know, whose work I value or depend on, are struggling and falling apart,” he added. “Senior managers in many institutions are showing an alarming level of disconnection from what’s going on the ground, and this really can’t continue.”

A Universities UK spokeswoman said that “employers remain open to further talks with UCU to discuss how the dispute can be resolved without industrial action, which would be damaging for staff and students”.

She added: “We are committed to ensuring USS remains one of the very best pension schemes in the country, and hope that UCU will now join us to consider alternative options for future valuations, that are clearly understood by stakeholders, and which deliver both a shared set of principles and a sustainable scheme.”

Dates for the strikes had yet to be announced by UCU as THE went to press.

anna.mckie@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Winter of walkouts ahead

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Reader's comments (5)

Oh please. Since students hardly ever see their lecturers and instead are given fofo one wonders at the quality of teaching at any university unless and until they are assessed by external inspectors. That means that the university does not have tame in house people doing a back slapping job. That has been seen before and it reeks of self congratulation. To receive better pay and or pensions they need to be assessed.
As most lecturing academics have NO formal pedagogical training or qualifications this could be a hiding to nothing situation. I have technicians with the requisite qualifications, yet they may only 'demonstrate' and must not put 'teaching' on their TCR timesheets, no matter that the academic lecturers and course leaders may only 'teach' a few times in the limited part-time hours they are actually on campus per year, leaving the bulk of actual teaching to the technical staff. Zero hours, and to a degree zero responsibility, contracts are the norm in many Universities now. And when non-scientist academics want to spend time campaigning on such things as climate one has to question if the courses they 'teach' are academically rigorous or are simply indoctrination?
And yet there are some that do have such qualifications and in my experience they are the worst of the lot. There's an old saying, 'those who can do, those who can't teach' I don't agree with that, but I think there is some truth in this addition: 'and those who can't teach, get a teaching qualification and carry on regardless'
What a lot of non-sense. Our students get 24 hours of contact time a week. I am teaching 10 hours of classes in 4 different modules this week. Even if I only did the university estimate of 2 hours prep work for each (and I do more like 4), that still nearly a full time job in it self. But its only supposed to be 40% of my time. On top of that I am expected to manage a research team of 7 people and a turn-over of nearly £0.5M. And I have several admin jobs to do. This week I am also submitting a grant in a vain attempt to find the money needed to stop one of my PhD students from being deported.
Ian, I know what you mean but there is little chance is persuading the sort of people who think that because the students get the summer off, then so do the academics. It's as if all the grant applications and papers we are expected to produce come by magic. Not to mention the safety committees, student progress meetings, resit exams, module review meetings personal tutor and adviser of studies work, that apparently take up no time.

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