Universities have dismissed union claims that next week’s one-day strike will bring them to a “standstill”, saying that they expect a “low-level impact on students”.
Members of higher education’s three largest trade unions – the University and College Union, Unison and Unite – will take part in a national walkout on 31 October over employers’ “measly” 1 per cent pay offer.
This will represent the first time that the three unions have taken strike action together and will also be the first countrywide walkout over pay in the academy since March 2006, when lecturers also began an assessment boycott.
With widespread anger over the latest pay offer, which follows a 1 per cent deal last year and three successive sub-1 per cent settlements post-2008, unions say they expect all their members to strike.
That would mean the absence of 59,000 UCU higher education staff and 20,000 Unite members, including technicians, laboratory assistants and facilities management workers, raising the prospect of key campus services shutting down for the day.
Unison has about 40,000 higher education members, but only a fraction were balloted as many are subcontracted workers such as cleaners and thus fall outside national pay bargaining.
However, the Universities and Colleges Employers Association has downplayed the strike’s potential impact, pointing to declining trade union membership and low turn-outs in the ballots that backed the industrial action.
Only 29,538 of 378,250 higher education workers (7.8 per cent) voted in the summer ballots, with 17,800 (4.7 per cent) approving strike action, the employers claim.
“It is for trade unions to predict their support but given that less than 5 per cent of staff chose to vote in favour of strike action, our higher education institutions anticipate low-level impact on students,” a Ucea spokesman said.
Veryan Johnston, chair of Universities Human Resources and executive director of human resources at Newcastle University, also said that the strike “might not have much impact” in some areas.
“Losing a secretary or programme coordinator…is the sort of absence that students will notice, so we will try to ensure these services are maintained,” Ms Johnston said.
Employers have also highlighted the low impact of the 2011 one-day strike over pension cuts, which resulted in minimal disruptions and the closure of just one university.
But Jo McNeill, UCU branch president at the University of Liverpool, believed that many services would shut down given the “huge support” among staff for action over pay.
“Members might have been concerned about asking for more money in the past given the uncertain financial climate, but this has now gone on for too long,” Ms McNeill said. “Our members are not buying into the idea that there is no money for a pay rise.”
She added that many universities had built up substantial surpluses.
Martin Levy, UCU branch chair at Northumbria University, also rejected claims that student services would not be affected next week, citing the fact that two-thirds of Northumbria academics were members of the union.
“I have every confidence that we will have a solid turnout as we have had in the past,” Dr Levy added.