More than 70,000 staff are set to go on strike at UK universities over pay and conditions over three days this month, the University and College Union has announced.
The strikes, which are supported by the National Union of Students, will take place on Thursday 24, Friday 25 and Wednesday 30 November. They are thought to represent the largest wave of industrial action ever to occur in the sector in the UK.
Strike action can still be avoided, the University and College Union (UCU) said, if employers acted fast and made improved offers. If they don’t, strike action will escalate in the New Year alongside a marking and assessment boycott.
From Wednesday 23 November, there will also be industrial action short of strike action, including working to rule, refusing to make up work lost as a result of strike action, and refusing to cover for absent colleagues.
Last month, UCU members voted to take industrial action in two national ballots over attacks on pay and working conditions as well as pension cuts. Despite the result, said the union, vice-chancellors had not made any improved offers.
In the pay and conditions dispute, the union’s demands include a meaningful pay rise to deal with the cost-of-living crisis and action to end the use of insecure contracts.
Staff received a pay rise worth just 3% this year following over a decade of below-inflation pay awards. A third of academic staff are on some form of temporary contract.
In the pension dispute, UCU said it was demanding employers revoke the cuts and restore benefits. The package of cuts made earlier this year would see the average member lose 35% from their guaranteed future retirement income, the union projected.
The union pointed out that the UK university sector generated record income of £41.1bn in 2021 with vice chancellors collectively earning an estimated £45m, and so was able to meet staff demands.
For the employers, Universities UK stated as far as the pension issue was concerned, the volatile economic situation had affected the trustee’s ability to establish a long-term valuation. A spokesperson added: “It is important to remember that USS pensions remain among the most generous in the private sector. Employer payments have risen to 21.6% of salary, which is far higher than most other schemes.”
UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: “Campuses across the UK are about to experience strike action on a scale never seen before. 70,000 staff will walk out and make clear they refuse to accept falling pay, cuts to pensions and insecure employment.
“This is not a dispute about affordability – it is about choices. Vice-chancellors are choosing to pay themselves hundreds of thousands of pounds whilst forcing our members onto low paid and insecure contracts that leave some using foodbanks. They choose to hold billions in surpluses whilst slashing staff pensions.”
NUS vice president higher education Chloe Field said: ‘Students stand in solidarity with the 70,000 university staff across the UK who will strike later this month. Staff teaching conditions are students’ learning conditions, and we must fight together for a fairer, healthier education system for everyone who works and studies.”
The Universities UK statement said the body would continue to meet regularly with union and USS representatives and that universities would put in place measures “to protect students’ education, as well as other staff and the wider community”.
It said that it wanted to continue working with the UCU to resolve the pension issue once an accelerated valuation timeline was in place.
Universities and Colleges Employers’ Association (UCEA) chief executive Raj Jethwa said: “Any threats of industrial action will do nothing to support students, staff or the many higher education institutions working hard to avoid redundancies or maintain staffing levels, having delivered the August pay uplift.
“UCU needs to provide its members with a realistic and fair assessment of what is achievable before encouraging strike action directed at students once again. UCEA and its member HE institutions always seek to work with UCU and other trade unions to support staff and students and to avoid any unfair disruptive action.”