Union clashes with managers on turnout as USS strikes resume

UCU claims ‘huge’ support but employers’ association reports ‘low levels’ of disruption

February 14, 2022
Source: Simon Baker

A union has claimed “huge” support for the first day of renewed strike action at UK universities, but managers have reported “low levels” of turnout.

Members of the University and College Union at 44 campuses downed tools on 14 February in the first of five days of walkouts in a long-running dispute over cuts to pensions provided by the Universities Superannuation Scheme.

UCU claimed that “huge numbers of staff and supportive students” had joined picket lines. But the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (Ucea) said that “early reports are of low levels of industrial action and disruption to teaching”.

Sixty-eight universities are set to be hit by strikes over the next three weeks, with branches holding separate mandates for action in a long-running dispute over pay and working conditions set to join on 21 February. UCU has said that it expects 50,000 staff to walk out across 10 days, with more than 1 million students affected in total.

“Thousands of university staff began a new wave of industrial action as they try to prevent a devastating 35 per cent cut to their guaranteed retirement income. The response from students has been overwhelming and I want to thank every single one of them for standing with us,” said Jo Grady, UCU’s general secretary.

Dr Grady said that further strikes could be called off, but only if universities accepted the union’s own proposals for reforming the USS. “Vice-chancellors should not doubt the resolve of our members who are determined to stick this out and win what they deserve,” she said.

The latest action follows a three-day walkout covering both disputes in December. Managers have claimed that just a third of UCU members eligible for industrial action then actually went on strike – equivalent to 9 per cent of total staff.

Ucea said that the low level of industrial action on 14 February had resulted in “little impact” on students.

“Despite the low levels of disruption, it is disappointing that UCU continues to encourage what is, albeit a small minority of its members, to take strike action once again. There will be regret of any disruption, no matter how insignificant, to students,” said Ucea’s chief executive, Raj Jethwa.

“While these early reports are of low levels of industrial action and disruption to teaching it does, of course, take time for these large organisations to find out exactly how many scheduled classes have not taken place on a given day. Furthermore, some HE institutions cannot provide details at this time, others do not have any teaching scheduled, with many facing half-term holidays and reading weeks too.

“Each HE institution is of course fully focused on managing this period of disruption as best they can for their students.”

Last week UCU and Ucea clashed over pay deductions for staff taking part in industrial action, focusing on a number of institutions’ proposals to dock 100 per cent of salary for instances in which staff refuse to reschedule cancelled lectures or classes, in addition to deductions for strike days themselves.

UCU said this was “a deeply unfair and unprofessional response”, but Ucea said that its members had “duty to their students”.


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Reader's comments (1)

It is a real shame that many university managers seem incapable of living up to the academic evidence- driven standards that the universities they supposedly lead take pride in. A head teacher in a medium sized school would quickly know which classes are running and which not by walking the corridors. Most senior university managers don’t do this in normal times (and, to be balanced, would have difficulties given the size of many university estates) so the likelihood of them having much idea of the strength of the strike within a few hours of it starting is nonsense. I would disagree with their stance but respect their credibility as leaders if they actually acted like leaders and remained quiet until they had evidence from which to comment. Unfortunately, we seem to have a generation of senior managers in the pre-92 universities who think in such a short term and partially informed manner in all sorts of respects. I have heard nothing from management about the medium-long term impact of academic recruitment to pre-1992 universities when the post-1992 universities (which still have the Teachers Pension Scheme) begin to attract in much greater numbers the best talent going forwards by being able to offer a pension which is head and shoulders above the USS on final salary guarantees. Good luck to the post-92s, but incredibly short sighted of current pre-92 leaders who seem oblivious (or even worse, don’t care as long as their short-term bonuses keep rolling in) that they are presiding over and supporting the future diminution of the institutions they were employed to lead and safeguard.