UK strike action disruption limited, employers claim

Union announces new ballot as disputes over pay and pensions remain unresolved

March 10, 2022
Source: Simon Baker

Strike action on UK campuses over the past month had a mostly limited impact on university activities, managers have claimed.

The Universities and Colleges Employers Association said 79 per cent of institutions reported a “low” turnout in support of strike action called by the University and College Union, defined as no more than a quarter of branch members participating. This was based on feedback from 43 of the 68 institutions affected.

Fourteen per cent of institutions said turnout was “medium”, defined as up to half of union members, while 7 per cent reported no impact or said it was too early to say.

UCU members walked out for 10 days in total spread across three weeks in disputes over cuts to pensions provided by the Universities Superannuation Scheme, last year’s pay offer, and working conditions.

The union had expected 50,000 members to join the action, and it reported that “huge numbers of staff and supportive students” had joined picket lines. It disputes the Ucea figures, having advised members that they were under no obligation to tell their employer that they were striking.

Ucea said 47 per cent of institutions reported that less than 10 per cent of their teaching had been cancelled during the strike, while a third said between 10 per cent and 25 per cent of their teaching had been called off.

Even if UCU disputes the Ucea data, the union faces a number of further tests of members’ resolve to continue the disputes, having announced a further five days of strike action later this month.

The union has also announced fresh ballots for industrial action at 149 universities, opening on 16 March and running until 8 April. These seek to extend the existing mandate, which expires on 3 May, for the rest of the calendar year.

Alongside further strike action, “yes” votes could also allow the union to launch marking boycotts coinciding with end-of-year assessments.

Observers will be watching closely to see how turnout compares with the last round of ballots, where only 68 of 152 institutions polled passed the 50 per cent threshold required by law for action to proceed.

This has been seen by many as a sign of fatigue among members from the pandemic and years of industrial disputes, as well as concern about the impact on undergraduates whose on-campus learning has been significantly interrupted.

Members will also be worried about the prospect of universities continuing to dock their pay even after they return to work, if they refuse to reschedule cancelled lectures. Queen Mary University of London is continuing to dock 100 per cent of striking staff’s pay on these grounds, triggering a fresh strike ballot of local UCU members.

However, anger among rank-and-file staff about the pension cuts – which could cost members thousands of pounds annually in retirement – remains strong, and it has arguably been strengthened by vice-chancellors’ refusal to shift their position.

Ucea said its figures on participation in the strike would be “very disappointing” for the UCU.

“We trust UCU’s [higher education committee] will now reconsider their plans for further strike action and more reballoting in a bid to convince its members to penalise students who have endured so many recent disruptions,” said Raj Jethwa, Ucea’s chief executive.

But Jo Grady, UCU’s general secretary, claimed that vice-chancellors’ “intransigence” had left the union with “no choice” but to reopen strike ballots.

“Students and staff alike know universities can well afford to meet the modest demands of staff, but vice-chancellors continue to plead poverty while taking home eye-watering salaries and hoarding tens of billions of pounds in reserves,” Dr Grady said.

“The ball remains in the court of employers to resolve these disputes.”

A UCU spokesman added: “Claims of low turnout during strikes are an age-old trick to try and undermine staff confidence in taking industrial action. Vice-chancellors and their employer body would be better advised spending time addressing massive cuts in pay, attacks on pension, endemic workload crises, rampant casualisation and grotesque pay inequality rather than engaging in these frankly bizarre PR tricks.”

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Reader's comments (6)

It’s all going to be ‘academic’ really. Rampant inflation and devastating energy prices are going to take some institutions to the brink and wipe out the financial stability of the rest. Bleak times ahead where sustaining jobs will be a challenge. Even after some stabilisation energy will be 4-500% higher in price than it was, draining reserves and draining any current surplus. I’d batten down the hatches now and focus on survival !
Is it time for UCU to change tactics ? Constant strike action isn't achieving the support it needs to make any significant change. The pension benefits erosion has gone ahead and who can remember the last time we received a cost of living rise even approaching reality ? Would a more moderate approach engage more members or even expand the membership base given that most staff, members and none-members alike believe in the principles of the fights ?
Not the experience I have from my institution, based around the number of missed classes and the increasingly problematic situation of being able to meet learning outcomes as gaps increase in number. Looks a bit too desperate from the employers, taking space in a national news source to say ‘nothing to see here’ when clearly there is a lot to see. Might more and more pre-92 sector VCs be realising that they will be remembered for seriously undermining the status of the institutions they lead once more and more staff leave for the post-92 sector and the now much more attractive Teachers’ Pension Scheme, while VCs try to persuade students that the vast amounts of money contributed in fees hasn’t been wasted (as it clearly has) on vanity projects, often themselves poorly managed and way over budget at the expense of the one thing that makes a university worth anything – its staff?
Post 92 has a lot to give. Many are going from strength to stength. As opposed to the mediocre wannabes in the other league.
No idea what the true impact is but having come from a sector where similar pension schemes went about 20 years ago and all pay rises were performance related in terms of rates I think some people don't know when they are well off. Not saying there is no issue to sort but the UCU constantly calling for strike action is not helpful and certainly not working. A more moderate and constructive approach that supports the long term sustainability of the sector so people actually have jobs in future may be more beneficial and receive more support.
Reduce the union membership fees. The ones that most need the support in all likelihood are the people below professorial positions. Membership fees put them off joining. Reps need to be more visible.