University staff begin 14-day strike in long-running pay and pensions dispute

University College London students show support for striking staff in November
Image: WIktor Szymanowicz/NurPhoto/PA Images

Staff at 74 universities have begun 14 days of strikes, the latest wave of industrial action over changes to pensions and issues with pay, equality, workloads and worker casualisation.

The University and College Union (UCU) claimed the action is the longest wave of university strikes ever seen in the UK.

The strikes relate to two disputes: one on changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) which the UCU claimed will leave members £240,000 worse off; while the other dispute centres around universities’ failure to improve pay and pay equality, greater casualisation of work and increasing workloads.

The action follows a wave of strikes in November, where an estimated 40,000 academics at 60 higher education establishments staged an eight-day walk out.

UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: “It is incredibly frustrating that UCU members are being forced to walk out again to secure fair pay, conditions and pensions. This unprecedented level of action shows just how angry staff are at their universities’ refusal to negotiate properly with us.

“If universities want to avoid further disruption then they need to get their representatives back to the negotiating table with serious options to resolve these disputes.”

The strikes will take place on 20 to 21 February; 24 to 26 February; 2 to 5 March; and 9 to 13 March. Some university staff have opted to strike on other days to accommodate reading weeks.

Employer bodies Universities UK and the Universities and Colleges Employers Association said proposals to address concerns around employment issues and pensions had been made, but with 340 employers in the USS pension scheme and 147 higher education institutions in the 2019 collective pay negotiations, each with separate negotiating structures, finding a solution was challenging.

They said in an open letter to staff: “With a national bargaining framework with individual institutions differentially affected, the current situation makes it very difficult for representative membership organisations to find one national resolution. However, real progress has been made.

“We respect the rights of union members to take industrial action, and we understand that as long as the perception remains that their concerns are not met, individuals may well feel that their only course is to go on strike. However, it is disappointing that the real progress of discussions, the commitments made on both sides, and the positive trajectories offered in both disputes are not being acknowledged.”

A UCEA spokesperson said: “UCEA and its member universities always deeply regret any disruption, especially to students, caused by UCU’s strike action. These new 14 days of strike action called by UCU over its pay dispute is running at 69 of the UK universities which is in less than half of those universities that are party to the national pay negotiations.

“The 8 days of UCU strike action between 25 November and 4 December 2019 resulted in just 29% of UCU members taking strike action at the affected universities*, representing just 5% of all staff in these institutions.

“Early reports from universities suggest that turnout has fallen further in this strike period with limited disruption for most students.

“UCU’s demand for more than a 5% pay increase remains unaffordable with several universities reporting deficits in their latest accounts. UCEA has consulted all of its members in presenting new positive proposals addressing the important issues around employment in universities, focusing on casual employment, workload/mental health and gender pay gap/ethnicity pay. UCU is urged to consult all of its members, including the vast majority not taking strike action, and present these positive proposals to them.”
The UCU claimed that some universities had tried to “bribe” staff to prevent them from striking.

The University of Leicester told staff that it would spread the deductions of 14 days’ wages for the strikes over three months if staff did not protest on campus. It has been approached for comment.

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