Tens of thousands of university staff began industrial action today (24 November) in what has been called the largest strike in the history of UK higher education.
About 70,000 academic staff will take part in the first of three days of strike action over pay, working conditions and pensions, with pickets expected at 150 universities.
Unison members among university administrators, cleaners, catering and security staff are also taking industrial action over pay at 19 universities.
Meanwhile, Scotland’s first national schools strike since the 1980s is now under way with a one-day walkout by teaching staff.
Nearly all primary and secondary schools and many council nurseries in Scotland have closed today as a result of the industrial action over pay. A revised pay offer on Tuesday was rejected as insulting by unions.
Jo Grady, general secretary of the University and College Union and herself a lecturer in employment relations at the University of Sheffield, warned of even great action at universities in the new year unless there was an improved offer from employers.
She said: “Vice-chancellors only have themselves to blame. Their woeful leadership has led to the biggest vote for strike action ever in our sector. Students are standing with staff because they know this can’t go on.”
She added: “University staff have had enough of falling pay, pension cuts and gig economy working conditions – all while vice-chancellors enjoy lottery win salaries and live it up in their grace and favour mansions.
“Staff are burnt out, but they are fighting back and they will bring the whole sector to a standstill.”
UCU wants to see a pay rise that recognises the cost of living crisis, after this year’s 3% increase. It also wants an end to insecure contracts and employers to reverse pension cuts imposed this year. These, it says, could lead to the average member losing about 35% of their future retirement income.
The National Union of Students offered support to academic staff with vice-president for higher education Chloe Field adding that “staff working conditions are students’ learning conditions, and for more than a decade both have come under attack from a sector that puts profits above education.”
But employers accused the unions of not being realistic in their demands. Raj Jethwa, the chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Employers’ Association, said: “Union leaders must provide their members with a realistic and fair assessment of what is achievable because strike action does not create new money for the sector.”
Prof Steve West, the Universities UK president and vice-chancellor of UWE Bristol, said: “Universities are well prepared to mitigate the impact of any industrial action on students’ learning, and we are all working hard to put in place a series of measures to ensure this.”
Industrial action by members of the Educational Institute of Scotland is demanding a 10% pay increase for members with a revised pay offer on Tuesday being rejected as “insulting” by unions. Education secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville, however, said their demands for a 10% pay rise were unaffordable.
She added that a new pay offer from employer Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (Cosla) – which would have seen rises of up to 6.85% for the lowest paid – was fair.
Only a handful of primary schools in Orkney and Shetland will remain open.