UK union members back strike action over pay and pensions

About 1 million students set to be affected by walkout

October 31, 2019
Strike placards

Union members on dozens of UK campuses are set to go on strike over pay and pensions after overwhelmingly backing the walkout in a ballot.

Overall, 79 per cent of University and College Union members who voted backed a strike over proposed changes to contributions to UK higher education’s biggest pension fund, the Universities Superannuation Scheme. Seventy-four per cent of voting members supported walking out over the 1.8 per cent minimum pay offer for 2019-20 made by the Universities and Colleges Employers Association.

By law, unions must pass a 50 per cent turnout threshold to take strike action. The overall turnout in the USS ballot was 53 per cent while, on pay, it was 49 per cent. However, UCU chose to count the ballots by branch: 41 branches out of 69 passed the threshold on the USS ballot, and 54 out of 147 beat the threshold on pay.

Since the threshold does not apply in Northern Ireland, members at Queen’s University Belfast and Ulster University will also walk out. Results from four English campuses were still being counted.

About 1 million students would be affected by the strike action, according to UCU, which said that its higher education committee would meet on 1 November to consider its next steps.

Jo Grady, UCU’s general secretary, said that the ballots “reflect just how unhappy and angry staff are about the state of higher education in the UK”.

“Universities only have themselves to blame after failing to address falling real-terms pay and for refusing to deal with casualisation, workloads and the rising cost of USS pensions,” Dr Grady said.

“Universities now have to come back to us prepared to work seriously to address these problems. If they choose to ignore this message from their staff then strike action looks inevitable.”

The results pave the way for a repeat of scenes on campuses last year, when staff at 65 institutions walked out for 14 days over the proposed closure of the part of the USS scheme that guarantees members a set level of income in retirement.

While that threat has now been seen off, UCU argues that the cost of increased contributions should be paid by employers alone, rather than being shared with staff. Staff contributions of 9.6 per cent of salary have now been imposed, up from 8 per cent in April.

A Universities UK spokesman said that employers “remain open to further talks with UCU” but highlighted that institutions were paying the bulk of the increase in contributions.

“In a challenging economic environment, this outcome is the best that could be achieved. Crucially, it is acceptable to both the USS trustee and the Pensions Regulator,” UUK said.

On pay, there remains a significant gap between Ucea and the unions, which wanted an increase equivalent to inflation as measured by the retail price index – currently 2.4 per cent – plus 3 per cent, or £3,349, whichever was greater. Unions also want action to be taken to address concerns about casualisation and rising workloads.

Members of two other unions, Unite and the Educational Institute of Scotland, also voted in favour of strike action but failed to hit the 50 per cent threshold in their aggregate ballots.

Ucea said that strike action would be “an unrealistic attempt to force…employers to reopen the concluded 2019-20 national pay round and improve on an outcome that is for most of these institutions already at the very limit of what is affordable”.

Ucea said that what it described as the “low turnouts” in the ballots was “a clear indication that the great majority of university union members as well as wider HE employees understand the financial realities for their institution”.

UCU members previously voted in favour of strike action over the 2018-19 pay offer of 2 per cent, but the turnout was shy of the 50 per cent threshold required.

chris.havergal@timeshighereducation.com

The 41 universities that passed the 50 per cent turnout threshold in the USS ballot:

Also eligible to take strike action:

The 54 universities that passed the 50 per cent turnout threshold in the pay and conditions ballot:

Also eligible to take strike action:

Ballots were still being counted at the following four institutions:

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Reader's comments (8)

Cynically, Ucea suggest that pay awards are at the financial limit for institutions and that is the reason for the limited success in the ballot. The reality is possibly somewhat different. Over the period since the introduction of higher fees the sector has overall seen significant growth in income whilst at the same time the value of salaries has plummeted, as has the proportion of income devoted to salaries. University grandees have chosen to divert increased income away from salaries. The message is clear - our employers increasingly seek to devalue employees, preferring instead to invest in executive pay and estate development at their expense.
We are seen as simply disposable cogs in the University sausage machine, to be used, abused and when worn out simply disposed of by management with the aid of (in)human resources 'professionals', why pay more when there are thousands of academically qualified potential staff available cheaply? For those of us who remember the time before Universities were used as a sink to absorb young people to keep them off the dole queue, and the accompanying lowering of standards, both for entry and graduation, we also remember personal personnel departments that cared about staff. The commercialisation effects, bringing 'professional' managers into Chief Operating Officer posts neutering VC's and dumping administration workloads onto Academics have all made the job harder, still the UCEA briefing notes make interesting reading https://www.ucea.ac.uk/library/stakeholder-briefings/. The RPI numbers using a 2008/9 baseline is ~-17%, let that sink in, we are considered to be worth ~-17% compared with 2008, which is on top of the ~-36% compared with equivalent industrial comparators we were at in 2008...
I'd happily take a pay cut if it meant universities removing the opt out on 48hr weeks and putting our lab demonstrators on 12 month contracts.
I'm hoping to see more inclusive messaging from the Union if strikes go ahead. As professional services staff, I voted to strike and will do so as I did previously. In the last strike, I felt underepresented, and even attacked at times by messaging and comments from the picket that compounded arbitrary divisions between professional services and academics. It's hard to feel like you're in solidarity when you're frequently told that you're on the outside or part of the problem.
I'm sorry you had to go through this. Solidarity with our comrades in professional services, who are often paid less than us academics, and have far less secure employment than permanent faculty.
I completely agree with the 2 comments above. Most reporting inferred that the issue was solely related to Academics and bandied about potential losses to benefits in the hundreds of thousands . Well it is a Professional Services staff issue too and we will be striking to preserve comparatively meagre sums and our contribution should not be forgotten or understated.
Students probably don't need to worry too much, as the Universities have, like many other sectors, globalised their workforce - which aligns with a more globalised student body. For every would-be striker, work-to-ruler, there are a dozen other candidates to take on their work. Yes, teaching may be disrupted short-term, but any impact on grades will be masked by the glow of grade inflation. So really,business as usual.
#4 Ditto. Our departmental P/S staff responsible for student support etc have seen UG numbers increase by 10% in the past 2 years but no increase in staff numbers, let alone wages. It's been steadily increasing for the past decade or so and we're having to do more and more pastoral support to ease the burden on academic staff but fit does feel as though we're left behind too. #7 Not for us. We don't have grade curves or grade inflation, in fact for the previous strike overall grades were seen to be significantly lower than the year before. For us, the proposed strikes are in the last 2 weeks of term and affecting core modules for each stage of our students.

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