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UCU strikes: ‘We can’t afford to go on holiday’

Image: Fiona McIntyre for Research Professional News

Staff join picket lines at universities in strike action set to last eight days

Strike action has begun in 60 universities across the UK as members of the University and College Union take to the picket lines.

Industrial action will take place for the next eight working days despite employers asking to staff to “reconsider” the action. Strike action covers two disputes: the row over increased contributions to the Universities Superannuation Scheme and the disagreement over staff pay and conditions, including casualisation and the gender pay gap.

As the strikes began Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn pledged his support for staff on Twitter. “Staff at universities are striking over the next eight days, and I stand with them,” he wrote. “University staff deserve fair pay, secure contracts, reasonable workloads and decent pensions. Labour will end the marketisation of education, and we’ll put staff and students first.”

Angela Rayner, Labour’s shadow education secretary, said fair pay, secure contracts and affordable pensions “should come as standard” for those working in education, but staff were on strike because “that simply isn’t the case in the increasingly marketised system”.

USS employers called on the UCU to “focus its efforts on continuing talks to reach a joint and fair solution”. It also highlighted that union members who voted for strikes account for a small proportion of the overall membership.

“Universities are doing everything they can to ensure that students do not lose out,” a spokesman said. “It is in the best of interest of students and all our staff that this dispute is resolved as soon as possible.”

Helen Fairfoul, chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Employers’ Association, which works on the pay dispute, said early reports of strike action at universities showed “very mixed support” for industrial action and “some low and some medium levels of disruption to teaching”.

“We all regret any disruption, especially to students, that is caused by UCU’s strike action that started today,” she said.

The pensions row is over who should pay for contribution rises to the University Superannuation Scheme, and whether there should be increases at all. Contributions to the USS are set for the next two years at 9.6 per cent of salary for members and 21.1 per cent for employers.

The second dispute is over pay and conditions, and it relates to salary rises and conditions in universities such as casual contracts, high workloads and the gender pay gap. A total of 43 universities will see strike action over both disputes, while UCU members at 14 universities will strike only over pay and conditions and at three universities only over pensions.

At Goldsmiths, University of London, UCU members were out in force despite the cold November weather. Susan Kelly, a senior lecturer in fine art and critical studies, told Research Professional News that casual and nine-month contracts had led younger staff members to live on her sofa while they rented out their own homes to make up their income.

“We are losing everyone who needs to be in the sector, from the sector,” she said. “I’m striking partly for myself, but I’m mostly striking for younger people”.

She added that the marketisation of higher education had a “corrosive” effect on students, who were finding it harder to cope with the pressures of university life. “We owe it to them to stop this,” she said. “We should be 100 per cent middle class, but we can’t [afford to] go on holiday,” she added, referring to herself and her partner, who works for another university. 

At City, University of London, staff were dotted round several entrances to the university’s sprawling campus. Martin Chivers, UCU branch secretary and a course officer in the arts and social sciences department, said he was on strike because staff were “fed up of hollow words on casualisation and closing the gender pay gap”.

On pensions, he said it was employers’ “own bad behaviour that is continuing to threaten the pension again” and denied the USS scheme has a deficit. Both the USS trustee and the Pensions Regulator believe the scheme has a deficit of roughly £6.6 billion as of July.

When striking staff return to work they will carry out action short of a strike, such as working to their contracted hours and refusing to cover for absent colleagues.

Commenting on the strikes, a spokesman for Goldsmiths said: “The university’s management believe current USS pension scheme arrangements, in which Goldsmiths pays more than £8 million per year into USS, are appropriate to ensure the scheme can maintain existing benefits.

“We believe we pay our staff fairly: last year the average pay-rise for Goldsmiths staff was £920, with lower-paid staff receiving more, and most staff also receiving a £469 rise in London Weighting.

“We have a duty to ensure that the university’s financial position is sustainable and our employees’ pensions are protected for decades to come. We urge all parties to return to national negotiations to resolve the disputes.” 

Research Professional News has asked City University for a comment.