UK university strikes to continue despite offer of fresh talks

Union’s key decision-making committee decides against another strikes pause and putting agreement to members

March 17, 2023
UCU picket banner placard
Source: Tom Williams

Strike action at UK universities will go ahead as planned despite both sides claiming progress in talks on key issues facing the sector.

The University and College Union’s Higher Education Committee (HEC) has decided the walkouts on 20, 21 and 22 March should continue amid intense discussion among members around the next steps.

An emergency meeting of the committee was called on 17 March after reviews of pay, contracts and workloads were agreed with the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (Ucea), as well as a commitment to prioritise improving pensions benefits with Universities UK.

Critics argued that the “offer” did not amount to anything substantial other than a promise to hold fresh negotiations, and they appear to have won the argument in the committee.

In a brief update, general secretary Jo Grady told members: “Today the HEC has voted to continue action and also not to put the proposals out for members to vote on.

“This means the strike next week continues. We will now relay this position to the employers.”

Earlier in the week members had been asked to vote in an indicative online ballot on whether the proposals should be put out for full consultation, with the strikes paused in the meantime.

Two thirds of 36,000 members backed this position, the UCU said, although many complained that the wording of the question did not allow them to express a view on consultation and a pause separately.

This vote fed into a meeting of the union’s branch delegates before the HEC. They were given a say on each issue. More than half (52 per cent) voted in favour of consultation, but 70 per cent were opposed to suspending the strikes.

Reacting to the news, the chief executive of Ucea, Raj Jethwa, said he was “deeply disappointed” by the decision.

“Every indication is that UCU members are tired of strike action,” he claimed. “That is why students and staff across the UK’s higher education sector will be deeply disappointed that the UCU’s Higher Education Committee has decided to proceed with next week’s attempted strike action.

“The agreement reached earlier this week reflected the employers’ genuine desire to positively reset industrial relations in our sector. There is a tangible offer on the table from employers to negotiate on the issues at the heart of this dispute. It is disappointing that the HEC has refused to put this to members.

“The HEC decisions, therefore, are even more disappointing because employers have been clear that these important talks cannot begin while strike action continues or strike dates are set. We urge the UCU to think again.”

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Reader's comments (9)

Buggleskelly train station was better run than the UCU.
Isn't this just the crypto-SWP clowns from UCU Left, who along with their allies are in a majority on the HEC, trying to undermine Grady and force everyone back to their 'indefinite striiiike!' position from November? That was what the HEC wanted then, and she blocked it. My prediction now is that the picket lines will just seep away, with only the 'Smash the Neoliberal University!" Wolfie Smith-wannabes sticking at it. Jethwa draws the obvious conclusion from the online ballot that lots of the staff are fed up with striking.
Couldn't agree more. To anyone who has witnessed UCU and its precursor over 30 years, everything that has happened here was entirely predictable. Would be great to be a member of a union - y'know, one acting in its member's shared professional interests - rather than a student union that is
And the precursor to the UCU, the AUT, was just as bad - in the late-70s the slogan we had to chant outside Parliament was ‘What do we want? - Rectify the Anomaly!’. Which, of course, we wanted ‘Now’ and naturally never have got in terms of academic pay keeping pace with other public sector professionals.
Given that next week is not term time in many universities, including my own, the action seems to just hit staff members and their research!
My experience (Russell Group science department) is that it is pretty rare for anyone with a primarily research 'job plan' to strike at all. The standard argument is "Well, no-one would notice but me. What's the point, apart from me getting even further behind?" The people striking in my science department are a sub-group of the 'Teaching and Scholarship' (i.e. not research) staff, and occasional Teaching-and-Research staff on those days when they're doing a 'mass teaching' event like a lecture or lab class.
To those who are recommending a pause can you please tell me what is the offer for colleagues from post 92 institutions who have been continuously on the picket lines?
"Talks is cheap" - and they get even cheaper when the union stands down its action. The "deal" was a lot of lukewarm words that the casuists and equivocators promoting it on both sides could sell as a win to sections of their membership. Until there are meaningful, real numbers in any proposals from the employers, there will always be scepticism within the union.
Of course Raj Jethwa is disappointed - UCEA had offered virtually nothing and thought they were going to get away with it. The pension restoration was the equivalent of having a stolen bike returned to you - hardly a victory. 5% pay rise when the FT reported grocery inflation was 17.1 % in February - hip hip for another massive real terms pay cut. Outside of the current dispute, how will the sector retain and attract staff by offering pay at levels significantly below market rates ? He is correct that both staff and students are tired of strike action, but it is within UCEA's power to end them by offering a reasonable settlement. Each day of striking costs union members a day's salary which we can ill afford to lose in the current economic climate, nobody is taking this action lightly or just to be a lefty.Any gains realised benefit all University staff equally not just union members and the salary sacrifice made is often overlooked. Maybe Raj thought the pause in strike action was a sign of weakness rather than the ill conceived bargaining tactic it actually was, but at least sense has prevailed and hopefully the UCU leadership will now take on board that these issues can't just keep going round in circles and we need an equitable solution to resolve the disputes once and for all so we are not here having the same conversation next year. The mandate for further action will inform the next steps but whatever happens, national UCU need to significantly improve the professionalism of their communications and stop treating the members like children.