Getting to grips with . . .

Why university staff are striking across the country

Three-day walkout set to affect 1m students across England, Scotland and Northern Ireland

A three-day strike this week by thousands of staff at 58 universities is likely to affect around a million students across England, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

The industrial action, which kicked off on Wednesday, is over pensions, pay and working conditions. It was organised by the University and College Union (UCU) following the balloting of its members earlier this year.

UCU general secretary Jo Grady said the level of strike action seen this week “is just the beginning”. “University managers now need to wake up and address the very modest demands of staff,” she added. 

If this week’s industrial action is unsuccessful, the union has threatened “more widespread and escalating industrial action in the new year”.

Proposed pension cuts

The latest dispute was partly sparked by proposed changes to the university superannuation scheme (USS), which provides pensions for staff at older universities – thought to be around 200,000 people. 

The pension cuts were proposed by Universities UK (UUK), which represents more than 140 institutions, to deal with the USS’s estimated £14bn-£18bn funding shortfall. The proposals were voted through in August, much to the anger of the UCU.

“Employers have failed to support alternative compromise proposals put forward by UCU, drawn up under the constraints of a flawed 2020 valuation of the scheme,” said Grady in a statement.

According to the UCU, a typical member of the scheme (for example, a lecturer earning £42,000) will lose about a third (35%) of their guaranteed retirement benefits. 

Employers have disputed this number, said The Times, claiming the actual cuts will be between 10-18%. “But there is no doubt contribution rates would have to rise substantially if existing benefits are to be maintained,” added the paper. 

The UCU has also said that the benefits cuts would likely persuade increasing numbers of staff members to leave the scheme, which would threaten its viability. As a result, they are demanding that employers revoke their pensions cuts.

Low pay and job insecurity

As well as striking over pensions, this week’s industrial action concerns low pay and job insecurity, “highlighting the widespread use of short term and zero hour contracts in recent years”, said the Financial Times (FT). 

The UCU has said that staff pay has fallen by 20% after 12 years of below-inflation pay offers, while almost 90,000 academic and academic-related staff are employed on insecure contracts.

The UCU has noted that the gender pay gap in UK universities sits at 15%, while the disability pay gap is 9% and the race pay gap is 17%. “Staff are also experiencing a crisis of work-related stress with over half showing probable signs of depression,” the union has said

To resolve the dispute over pay and working conditions, the UCU is demanding a £2,500 pay increase for all staff, “as well as action to tackle unmanageable workloads, pay inequality and insecure contracts that blight the sector”.

UUK has described this week’s industrial action as “deeply frustrating”. 

“Despite a great deal of constructive work between employers, the USS Trustee and UCU, a small minority of staff seem determined to strike in protest at economic conditions they do not like, and a regulatory regime that universities are powerless to change,” the organisation said in a statement published by The Independent

‘Overwhelming’ levels of support 

Research carried out by the National Union of Students (NUS), via their monthly student opinion tracker survey, revealed “overwhelming levels of support” for the strike action. Almost three-quarters (73%) of students said they supported striking staff, while just 9% opposed the industrial action. 

Over two-thirds (69%) said they would be willing to take part in some sort of action (for example, a walkout, a demonstration or a teach-in) to campaign for funded, accessible, lifelong and democratised education, said the NUS. 

Speaking to the FT, Mireia Font, an LSE master’s student in political theory, said that a few days of disrupted teaching was a “small price to pay”. She added: “After the efforts staff have made to support us during Covid it’s only fair we support them now.”

Concerns over further disruption

After almost two years of Covid restrictions, some students – who pay £9,250 a year in tuition fees – have expressed concern about the further disruption to their education. 

“[Many students] just don’t think it’s fair that after having a year of strikes followed by a year-and-a-half of online learning… things are just about starting to get back into the swing and then we’re facing the possibility of months of strikes again,” Tom Horn, a 19-year-old history student in Leeds, told the BBC.

But, writing for the i news site, freelance journalist Kimi Chaddah said that although it might not feel like it to everyone, the university strikes are in the students’ best interests: “Attempts at undermining solidarity that should exist between students and staff are unhelpful at best and ignore overlapping issues.” 

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