Staff at almost every university in the UK could strike, as a long-running dispute over pay, working conditions and cuts to pensions continues.
More than eight in 10 members of the University and College Union (UCU) voted in favour of industrial action in two national ballots, one on pay and working conditions and another on cuts to pensions, which the union said gave it a mandate to deliver a strike at “practically every university in the UK”.
The union is demanding that universities deliver a fair pay rise to help staff through the cost-of-livng crisis. It claimed that staff were offered just 3% this year while a third of academic staff are on some form of temporary contract.
It is also urging employers to reverse the 35% cut they made to the guaranteed retirement income the average pension scheme member receives.
Earlier this year, staff at 68 universities went on strike over pay, conditions and changes to their pensions.
The union’s higher education committee will meet on 3 November to decide next steps following the most recent ballots, and urged vice chancellors to enter negotiations immediately to improve their pay, employment and pensions offers.
UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: “Today history has been made by our members in universities, who in huge numbers have delivered an unprecedented mandate for strike action.
“The vice chancellors who run universities have repeatedly and in a coordinated fashion come after our members. Well, now it’s 150 bosses against 70,000 university workers who are ready and willing to bring the entire sector to a standstill, if serious negotiations don’t start very soon.
“University staff are crucial workers in communities up and down the UK. They are sending a clear message that they will not accept falling pay, insecure employment and attacks on pensions. They know their power and are ready to take back what is theirs from a sector raking in tens of billions of pounds.”
In the pay and working conditions ballot, 81.1% were in favour of a strike, on a turnout of 57.8%. In the pensions ballot, 84.9% voted in favour on a 60.2% turnout.
University staff are crucial workers in communities up and down the UK. They are sending a clear message that they will not accept falling pay, insecure employment and attacks on pensions” – Jo Grady, UCU
Representative bodies Universities UK and the Universities and Colleges Employers Association said they were disappointed with the result of the ballots.
Raj Jethwa, UCEA chief executive, said its members had done their best to support jobs and staff in difficult circumstances.
“All institutions face significant cost increases, with most enduring falling income in real terms,” he said.
“[Higher education] institutions want to do more for their valuable staff, but any increase in pay puts jobs at risk. UCU’s own research confirms that, in many parts of the country, HE institutions are important local employers. Those communities simply cannot afford to lose jobs.”
He said that employers were concerned for those on lower incomes. This had resulted in a 9% uplift for those on the lowest incomes in the 2022-23 pay award.
“We hope UCU will carefully consider how to react to this ballot outcome. If UCU is genuinely interested in discussing the challenges facing the sector, UCEA is willing to work with them, but attempts to try and take more industrial action may simply hurt some students and staff for no realistic outcome,” said Jethwa.
Universiities UK said employer contributions to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) pension, which rose to 21.6% of salary in April, were among the highest in the UK and at the “very limit” of affordability.
A spokesperson said the USS trustees will conduct a full valuation of the scheme in March 2023, at which point sustainable improvements could be considered. “However, at this time and in the current volatile economic climate, the USS Trustee insists that there is no solid evidence or basis to establish a long-term view of any substantive improvement in the scheme’s funding position,” the spokesperson added.