As UK industrial disputes drag on, should union rethink tactics?

UCU pushes on with shrinking rounds of strike action despite calls to regroup and rethink

May 4, 2022
UCU-organised protest in London, 2021
Source: Getty

Summer came early the last time members of the UK’s main higher education union were on strike, with picket lines blessed with a rare bout of sunshine in mid-March.

The announcement that further action is coming – including 10 days of strikes and a marking boycott – takes the long-running disputes over pay, pensions and working conditions into the summer itself, with campuses bracing for disruption during the all-important exam season.

But while University and College Union members preparing to down tools again will now probably be without their ubiquitous pink woolly hats, they can be forgiven for wondering whether much else has changed, despite 13 days of strikes this academic year.

Blaming vice-chancellors for not engaging, most in the union admit that little progress has been made on the “four fights” – pay, working conditions, casualisation and equality – while cuts to pensions provided by the Universities Superannuation Scheme have already been implemented.

Perhaps the only thing that has changed is union members’ appetite to strike, with only 40 branches holding mandates for walking out, down from 68 earlier this year. In the most recent ballots, only one in four branches passed the 50 per cent turnout threshold that is legally required for action in most of the UK, seen as a sign of fatigue from years of conflict with managers.

UCU member Jenny Pickerill, head of geography at the University of Sheffield, said that she felt a change in tactics was needed, probably to more targeted action aimed at handing more security to those in precarious positions – a focus on improving salaries for the lowest-paid, or demanding 12-month contracts as a minimum, for example.

“It does feel, from discussions I have at a university level, that there’s too much,” she said. “They say: ‘We can’t meet all of this.’ I think we did have some aims once but I lost track of what they were, even though I was participating in the action.”

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, argued that UCU lacked an effective strategy, “other than perpetual industrial disputes, which have falling support”.

“The union asks for everything without any clear prioritisation and, as it cannot get all it wants in the current environment, managers and observers are left struggling to understand what it wants most of all,” he said.

The result, Mr Hillman said, was deadlock, rather than progress on important issues such as casualisation.

But UCU president Vicky Blake argued that the issues the union was fighting on were “inextricably linked”.

“It is an indictment of the management that we are dealing with across the sector that we do have to put in such comprehensive claims. But I don’t think it would make any sense to ditch any part of them,” she said.

Even though fewer branches will head to the picket lines in the coming round of action, Ms Blake argued that there was an awareness that those who are walking out will do so on behalf of the whole sector.

But Glen O’Hara, professor of modern and contemporary history at Oxford Brookes University, said he feared that the universities where strikes are taking place would feel the brunt of the frustration and division that is building on all sides.

“The fact that most other higher education institutions aren’t taking this action will make that situation feel even worse,” he said.

The issues led some to advocate pausing the campaign, providing a chance to rethink and plan action that could be more effective.

Professor Pickerill said she felt “it was obvious a while ago that the current tactics weren’t having the impact that we hoped they would have” and, rather than just trying the same thing again, the union should take the time to build support and think about taking “more creative action”.

While some advocated a break, others called for action to be ramped up to an indefinite strike, something the Sheffield branch’s vice-president, Sam Marsh, said was a matter of “when, not if” because of the problems in the sector.

Instead, branch delegates voted at a special conference to plough on with further strikes and a marking boycott, albeit on a timetable that now makes significant action before late May unlikely.

Emma Rees, secretary of the University of Chester’s UCU branch, said members were “committed to continuing with the four fights”, with local disputes having “strengthened our resolve”.

“In the face of absolute intransigence from the employers nationally, however, we are consulting with our members locally to see how and when it is best to engage in the industrial action for which we have a clear mandate,” she said.

Ms Blake argued there was still every chance of resolving the disputes and suggested universities were worried about the impact of the action, as shown by the pressure they are putting on members not to take part.

But for Professor O’Hara, the union’s next stand was unlikely to be effective. “The management side appear to have set out their stall to win a big victory, and they look to be within easy striking distance of that goal,” he said.


Print headline: As UK industrial disputes drag on, should UCU rethink its strategy?

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Reader's comments (8)

UCU is finished (for the near future at least) - it might win some local disputes but you cannot lose five battles at the same time and expect to have any credibility. Once Proceed kicks in properly and courses start closing, they will be too busy fire-fighting locally for any national action - even if they managed to get a mandate from tired members.
The UCU needs to focus on a clear objective instead of pursuing a whole raft of things - all desirable but detracting one from another. No wonder they are not getting anywhere at the moment. Even die-hard union members are wondering just what they are striking FOR right now. So, what to focus on? Pay? - everyone is feeling the pinch at the moment, but whilst it would be nice to have more academics are more comfortably off than many. Working conditions? - there isn't any clear indication of what the problem is or what the UCU actually wants to change. Casualisation? - job security is nice, but who is truly secure? Equality? - again woolly, and something that is in everybody's hands. We all get asked to participate in recruitment panels, in promotion reviews, and so can ensure that we act according to our beliefs and support worthy candidates irrespective of their gender or ethnicity. It's not something that CAN be achieved by strike action. And the one they've conveniently forgotten about - pensions? That is something that shouldn't be a scrap between union & university - we all should be demanding better from USS who have let both 'sides' down through mismanagement and incompetence.
Just a note to say that it is not just academics in the union ... researchers, technicians, professional services staff, librarians ... More needs to done to highlight this, as otherwise UCU will lose members as they will feel that UCU is not the union for them. Across the sector ARPS [academic related professional staff] staff are either losing their jobs or being downgraded, so not everyone is more comfortably off. There is also a big rise in casualisation across sector not just in professional services and on the academic side too.
“If You Always Do What You’ve Always Done, You’ll Always Get What You’ve Always Got.” ~ Henry Ford Which has been very little unfortunately.
Reduce membership fees, many new to the profession are put off by the high fees. It may be useful to have range of membership options with different rates, with a low base membership fee. This will encourage more junior staff to join and bring their energy, enthusiasm and optimism to bear on issues. There issues that need to be tackled but needs more careful selection and targeted action.
There is no point in striking unless Unis are paying compensation to students pro rata - that would radically change the calculations for VCs, and is precisely why no tory govt will actually support student compensation for striking. When we strike, Unis just make a profit from unpaid salaries - and they clearly don't seem to care about their students. Despite the best intentions I think the UCU strategy has been deeply naive. In contrast, the recent boycott of external examining positions has shown that academics can easily make the entire system grind to a halt without even having to strike - they just have to turn down under- or un-paid voluntary work in an organised manner. Unions aren't required for this as it can be self-organising on eg Twitter. This action can be targeted at the HE sector but also at publishers, funding agencies etc etc.... This type of action is also less directly disruptive to students. Academics hold a lot of cards they haven't played yet.
I agree with the comments about not understanding why we are taking action, when there are so many issues in the pot. We need a better focus. The gradual reduction in pay is inevitable given the move from an elitist university sector to the one we have now. Casual contracts can be very handy for some people. I found it useful when doing my PhD. Equality? It seems universities are doing much more than necessary at the moment, with positive discrimination the norm in many ways. We end up back to pensions. The changes have been dramatic and negative, but I am not sure strike action is the best way to deal with them. Talking would be more effective. The union has lost its way. It is stuck in a time warp. It only represents a relatively small proportion of staff, and many of those are disillusioned with its strategy - or couldn't care less given the low turnouts. Yet the union leaders still claim a mandate. It is a mandate that is about as real as the mandate for Brexit.
The squeeze on academic job conditions has been slow but relentless over many years now, concomitant with the shift from student grants (remember THOSE) to student loans. This monetarisation creep also included a shift from paper to online journals, , facilitating outrageous costs being imposed by the journal houses (for what exactly, they get the writing and reviewing for free) to access this research, or even to publish there in some cases. Also academia has like private industry grown and internationalised with academic jobs both outsourced, automated, and now available to a global pool of applicants. As in all private industtrial sectors, these developments contributed to a squeeze on salaries and conditions. The UCU could have tried to keep the tide high for everyone, campaigning against the UK Govt for more ,money into HE for example, more uncoindtional research monies, less artificial standards e.g. push to indulge more in a zero sum game and low success chance of grant chasing. Instead the UCU simply enthusiastically adopted the internationalisation agenda, chasing various causes around the world that although laudable actually had little to do with UK HE work conditions. Good on them for highlighting international issues, but wasn't their actual job to to focus on domestic HE work issues?


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