University staff all over the country will take strike action later this month, with further strikes likely unless higher education bosses enter negotiations and put forward improved offers.
The University and College Union (UCU) has become the third union to secure a mandate for national strike action this year, following on from the RMT and CWU.
It is the first time an education union has passed the 50% legal turnout threshold needed to secure a national mandate for strike action.
The UCU’s general secretary has called for the body in charge of universities to negotiate, but warned strike action will take place if not, and that workers “know their power and are ready to take back what is theirs”.
‘History has been made’
More than 70,000 university staff at 150 universities across the UK will strike over pay, working conditions and changes to pensions later this month.
UCU said the strikes – on November 24, 25 and 30 – will be the biggest ever to hit UK universities and could impact 2.5 million students. The union said disruption can be avoided if employers make improved offers, but warned that strike action will escalate in the new year alongside a marking and assessment boycott if the dispute is not resolved.
Union members will also begin industrial action short of strike action from November 23, which includes working to rule, refusing to make up work lost as a result of strike action and refusing to cover for absent colleagues.
The strikes come after UCU members overwhelmingly voted in favour of industrial action last month in two national ballots over pay and working conditions as well as pensions.
UCU balloted its members on two issues and secured a mandate for strike action on both. On pay and working conditions the turnout was 57.8%, with 81.8% of those who voted backing industrial action.
The Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UKEA), which represents university employers across the UK, has offered a 3% pay increase for the majority of staff, but 9% for those on the lowest pay grades.
UCU is asking for a 12% pay rise, equal to inflation plus 2%, and wants the sector to address the prevalence of zero-hours contracts, with around a third of university staff on some form of temporary contract. The union has previously warned that many university staff struggle make ends meet, with some forced to skip meals as a result of the rising cost of living.
In the ballot on pensions, turnout and support were slightly higher, at 60.2% and 84.9% respectively. The union is calling on university employers to reverse changes made to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), which it says has been cut by 35%.
The union has called on university bosses to come to the negotiating table, but strike action looks likely and could lead to widespread disruption across the higher education sector.
The head of the UKEA has claimed that most institutions cannot afford to offer the pay rises being called for due to rising costs and a drop in real-term income, but the UCU has pointed to figures which show income of more than £40 billion across the sector last year. UCU has also claimed that university vice chancellors earned around £45 million collectively in the same period.
UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: “Campuses across the UK are about to experience strike action on a scale never seen before. 70,000 staff will walk out and make clear they refuse to accept falling pay, cuts to pensions and insecure employment.
“This is not a dispute about affordability – it is about choices. Vice-chancellors are choosing to pay themselves hundreds of thousands of pounds whilst forcing our members onto low paid and insecure contracts that leave some using foodbanks. They choose to hold billions in surpluses whilst slashing staff pensions.
‘UCU members do not want to strike but are doing so to save the sector and win dignity at work. This dispute has the mass support of students because they know their learning conditions are our members’ working conditions.
‘If university vice-chancellors don’t get serious, our message is simple – this bout of strike action will be just the beginning.”
University leaders warn strikes ‘wont create new money’
Speaking last month when UCU announced the ballot result, Raj Jethwa, UCEA’s Chief Executive described the vote in favour of strike action as “disappointing,” and said that industrial action “will not create new money for the sector”.
He said: “All institutions face significant cost increases, with most enduring falling income in real terms. UCEA’s consultations of HE institutions over the pay element of the final offer have consistently confirmed that there was no sector affordability to change the 5 May pay offer for the August uplift.
“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.”