THE higher education sector held its breath today for the results of eight separate trade union ballots which could force the first ever shutdown of United Kingdom universities and colleges.
Early indications gathered shortly after the polls closed on Wednesday showed strong support for industrial action both short of and including strike action. The results were due to be announced at noon today.
If approved, the first one-day strike is planned for November 19. The unions have also been considering follow-up action and have refused to rule out further one-day strikes and exam boycotts.
A spokeswoman for the Association of University Teachers said: "The overwhelming indication from our branches is that the ballot went well. It would appear from this unofficial response that we are on course for a vote in favour of strike action."
By coordinating their action against this year's "paltry" pay offers, the eight unions would ensure a near complete shutdown with everyone from porters to professors withdrawing their labour. The prospect has raised questions regarding the legal position of institutions in areas such as security and health and safety.
The unions have issued reassurances pointing out that by law they must allow exemptions to any strike action. This would include vital maintenance of dangerous equipment and feeding and caring for laboratory animals. Libraries are not exempted.
The National Union of Students, which is committed to supporting any one-day strike following a poll of individual campus unions, is concerned about student access to libraries and halls of residence. The NUS is still in negotiation with the other unions and agreements may be reached on an institution by institution basis.
The eight unions are: the AUT, Natfhe, the AUCL, the Manufacturing Science and Finance union, Unison, the Transport and General Workers Union, the Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union, and the General and Municipal Boilermakers Union. The Electoral Reform Society has carried out the ballots.
* Natfhe staff at University of Wales Institute Cardiff held a one-day strike yesterday in protest at 15 compulsory redundancies. Twelve of these were made in the School of Production Engineering and Design, amounting to more than half the full-time lecturing complement.
Natfhe members at University of Wales College Newport have also voted to hold disruptive industrial action short of a strike in protest at the decision to make 11 compulsory redundancies on top of voluntary redundancies achieved already. The union says that the combined total amounts to more than a fifth of all full-time staff.