Staff at 74 universities walk out on first of unprecedented 14 days of strike action over pay and pensions

Staff at 74 universities walked out on Thursday on the first of 14 days of unprecedented industrial action over a long-running dispute over pay, pensions and working conditions.

Members of the University and College Union (UCU) said support was "solid" as they took to the picket line on the first day of the biggest ever wave of strikes.

UCU general secretary Jo Grady said the support sent a "clear message to universities" that the should be working together to "work things out".

"We have been clear that we are always ready to seriously discuss all the issues at the heart of the disputes," she said.

A Universities and Colleges Employers' Association spokesman said universities were "deeply disappointed" that the strikes were going ahead.

The strike centres around changes to the pension scheme. Credit: ITV News

"Students are understandably unimpressed at the intransigence of their university leaders and have made clear demands today that vice-chancellors and principals work harder to try and resolve the disputes."

The disputes centre on changes to the universities' pension scheme, the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), that the UCU report mean members will pay more for their pension but will ultimately lose tens of thousands of pounds in retirement.

Staff are also angry at universities' failure to make significant improvements on pay, equality, casualisation and workloads.

Strikers in Sheffield. Credit: ITV News

Professor Alistair Fitt, Vice Chancellor of Oxford Brookes University, and a member of the Employers Pensions Forum for Higher Education, said some progress had been made in talks.

"The strikes are a source of regret - no-one wants this to happen."

Employers are committed to maintaining a good pension scheme, he added, pointing out that their contribution is more than 21%.

"UCEA has offered UCU further informal talks and urges the union's leaders to reconsider pursuing damaging strike action at less than half of universities, damaging students, staff and their own members - who are yet to be consulted over the new positive proposals that are on the table."

Disruption in the universities affected will vary and efforts will be made to minimise the impact, he said.

But one third year student at Sheffield University, unhappy at the disruption to his studies, is suing the institution over missing teaching during the last wave of strikes in 2019.

Joseph Ford told ITV News: "We're consumers and the university is a service provider. If your electricity provider for two weeks every month said, 'oh well our workers are on strike, but you're still paying full because what can we do about it,' you'd ask for a refund."

But other students joined university staff on the picket line. One student in Manchester said was standing "shoulder-to-shoulder" with lecturers because the "conditions that affect them affect my learning conditions too."

I'm here because of the increasing commodification, marketisation of my education in this country," he told ITV News.

The strikes will largely take place between this Thursday and Friday, Monday and Wednesday next week as well as on March 2, 5, 9 and 13.

It is the second wave of strikes in the disputes after UCU members took part in eight days of action before Christmas.