In Depth

Why university staff are going on strike - and how to claim compensation

Lecturers, librarians and other staff to walk out at 74 institutions from 20 February

Staff at 74 UK universities are going on strike for 14 days from Thursday, the latest action in a long-running dispute over pensions and other employment issues.

With strike days taking place on specific days over a four-week period, the industrial action will last into mid-March.

Staff believe they have no choice but to take industrial action to protect their livelihoods. But with students now paying £9,000 a year to earn their degrees, many feel the strike is unfair on them – and many will seek to claim compensation for lost teaching hours.

Who is striking?

Members of the University and College Union (UCU), which includes lecturers, librarians and technical staff at institutions the length and breadth of the UK.

A total of 74 institutions are taking part, from the University of Aberdeen in the north of Scotland to the University of Exeter in Devon. Socialist Worker gives a list of universities and dates.

Why are they striking?

This is the third strike in the current dispute: the first was in 2018 and the second took place last November and December.

The UCU cites five areas that have prompted industrial action but the main concern is the decision to shift pensions to a defined-contribution scheme, seen by the union as a cash-grab by investment fund managers and university management.

Some staff have accused the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) of fiddling its own valuation. Other issues prompting industrial action are pay rates, high workloads, casualisation of staff and equality.

What has industrial action achieved so far?

The 2018 strike was hailed as a victory for UCU members: the universities and the USS agreed to reconsider the valuation of the pensions and a Joint Expert Panel was set up by the UCU and Universities UK.

However, the UCU has since voiced fears that the process has been subverted and there are irregularities in the way it is being conducted.

Do all UCU members support the strike?

A large majority voted for industrial action last autumn but there is some dissent. An anonymous “lecturer at a Russell Group university” wrote in Times Higher Education that they and some colleagues were not supportive of the latest round of strikes, which they felt would create ill-will with students and management, and would not be walking out, despite backing industrial action overall.

How have the strikes affected students?

According to The Telegraph, around one million students were affected by last year’s strike. The paper claims there is evidence that that strike, taken in combination with the new walk-outs, means some students have missed so much tuition they will not be able to graduate this year and will have to repeat the year.

The Daily Mail claims some students have resorted to paying for private tuition.

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When is the strike?

Not all of the institutions are sticking to the national strike dates (Socialist Worker has more details), but the majority will see walk-outs on 20, 21, 24, 25 and 26 February – and on 2, 3, 4, 5, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13 March. Generally speaking, staff will not strike on Fridays.

Can students claim compensation?

Yes, says student money website Save The Student. The first step is to approach your institution directly and ask for payback. If it refuses, the next step depends on where in the UK you are studying. 

Complaints can be taken to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education (OIA) in England and Wales, the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman (SPSO) or the Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman (NIPSO).

“If the ombudsman thinks your complaint is justified, they will then advise your university on what they should do next (i.e. whether or not they should offer students compensation and how much),” says the site.

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