UCU plans ballots for pre-Christmas strikes over pay and pensions

Union members at 152 UK institutions asked to walk out for fourth time in little over three years

September 22, 2021
UCU strike at Goldsmiths, University of London
Source: Eleanor Bentall

The UK’s biggest higher education union has threatened strike action at more than 150 institutions in the run-up to Christmas, as long-running disputes over pensions and pay reach a climax.

The University and College Union said that ballots on walkouts would open on 18 October and run until 4 November, with employers facing “action that will disrupt the end of term and continue into the next one” if they do not return to negotiations with better offers.

UCU will ballot members at 152 institutions in total: 83 over the latest pay offer from employers, for a rise of 1.5 per cent in 2021-22; six over cuts to pensions provided by the Universities Superannuation Scheme; and 63 on both issues.

The National Union of Students has backed industrial action, stating that “students will hold employers responsible” if they do not “come to a negotiated settlement and address the fundamental issues repeatedly raised by staff”.

The strikes, if approved by members, would be the fourth widespread walkout in the sector in little over three years, and would add to the disruption caused by restrictions on face-to-face teaching caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Jo Grady, UCU’s general secretary, said that university staff had “propped up the entire sector during the pandemic, but they are now being thanked with huge cuts to their pensions, unbearably high workloads, and another below-inflation pay offer – all while universities continue to generate a handsome income from tuition fees”.

“Our members across the UK know that working in a university does not have to be like this and are clear that they are ready to take action to stand up for their dignity, defend pensions and win long-overdue improvements to their pay and working conditions,” Dr Grady said.

“There is still time for university chiefs to resolve a situation that is entirely of their own making, but they must return to negotiations and make credible offers.”

The cuts to USS pension benefits, now approved by the fund’s board but subject to a consultation, will avert a massive hike in employer and employee contributions, but UCU modelling suggests that they could could reduce employees’ guaranteed benefits by as much as 35 per cent, costing members thousands of pounds annually in retirement.

Employers have insisted that their pay offer – which includes additional rises for the lowest-paid staff was “fair and meaningful”. It was implemented on 1 August. But it falls short of UCU’s demand for a £2,500 pay increase.

The union is also calling for renewed action on a range of employment-related issues including workload, casualisation, and equality issues.

Larissa Kennedy, the NUS’ national president, said that students “stand shoulder to shoulder with our educators in fighting for a more just education system”. “Staff working conditions are student learning conditions,” she said.

Employer representatives said that they were “disappointed” by the move for industrial action.

Raj Jethwa, chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Employers Association, said that the pay offer was “fair and meaningful in the context of the sector’s ongoing delicate financial situation” caused by Covid-19.

“HE institutions have relayed to us that the great majority of the 325,000 sector colleagues covered by the collective negotiations understand the financial realities facing their institutions,” Mr Jethwa said.

Universities UK said that the pension reforms would “prevent harmful and unaffordable rises in contributions”.

“Universities are regrettably well prepared to mitigate the impact of any industrial action on students’ learning, and minimise disruption for those staff choosing not to take part,” a spokesman said.

anna.mckie@timeshighereducation.com


UCU strike ballots – who’s voting on what?

USS pension reforms

Pay, casualisation, workload and equalities

Both ballots

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