University staff to vote on strike action over pensions and pay

Students during a protest in Cambridge, as university workers begin a month of walkouts in the latest stage of a bitter dispute over pensions.  Joe Giddens/PA  Date taken: 22-Feb-2018
Students during a protest in Cambridge in the dispute over university staff pensions. Credit: Joe Giddens/PA

University staff are set to vote on strike action before Christmas in a dispute over pensions, pay and working conditions.

The University and College Union (UCU) said its members will be balloted in October on whether or not to strike this academic term.

The dispute over pensions comes after a joint negotiating committee supported proposals by Universities UK (UUK) to deal with an estimated £15 billion funding shortfall in the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS).

The union said changes to the USS pension scheme will mean a typical lecturer on a £42,000 a year salary will lose 35% of their guaranteed retirement benefits.

Strike ballots will open at 152 universities across the UK on October 18, UCU’s higher education committee said.

The ballot will close on November 4 and the union will consider the results on November 8. Strikes could take place before Christmas.

Six institutions will be balloted on the USS pension scheme only, 83 will be balloted over pay and working conditions, and 63 institutions face two ballots over the USS and pay and working conditions.

The union warned that there could be disruption towards the end of term and into the next term unless employers return with better offers.

University staff held strikes across the UK in February and March in 2020, and in November and December in 2019.

There was also a wave of strikes at universities in the spring of 2018 amid a dispute over pension reforms.

UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: “University staff propped up the entire sector during the pandemic, but they are now being thanked with huge cuts to their pensions, unbearably high workloads, and another below-inflation pay offer – all whilst universities continue to generate a handsome income from tuition fees.

“The truth is that very well paid university leadership, who manage institutions with bigger turnovers than top football clubs, are choosing to exploit the goodwill of staff, repeatedly refusing to address the rampant use of casualised contracts, unsafe workloads or the shocking gender and ethnicity pay gap in the sector.”

She added: “There is still time for university chiefs to resolve a situation which is entirely of their own making, but they must return to negotiations and make credible offers.”

NUS national president Larissa Kennedy added: “Staff working conditions are student learning conditions and we stand shoulder to shoulder with our educators in fighting for a more just education system.

“We demand fully funded, accessible, lifelong education where our spaces of teaching and learning belong to the students, staff and communities they exist to serve.

“Until then, it is entirely in the gift of vice chancellors and employers to come to a negotiated settlement and address the fundamental issues repeatedly raised by staff.

“If they don’t, students will hold employers responsible.”

A UUK spokesman on behalf of USS employers said: “We are disappointed UCU is campaigning for industrial action over reforms to USS, as they have not proposed a viable solution of their own.

“The USS Trustees’ assessment of the scheme’s costs means reforms are needed; no change is not an option. The employers’ reform proposal will prevent harmful and unaffordable rises in contributions.

“UCU may not like the legal and regulatory constraints pensions operate under, but it is irresponsible to make students and staff suffer as a result.

“The reforms voted for by the Joint Negotiating Committee ensure good benefits can be provided for affordable contributions, but employers will still consider alternative solutions.”

He added: “Universities are regrettably well prepared to mitigate the impact of any industrial action on students’ learning, and minimise disruption for those staff choosing not to take part.”

Raj Jethwa, chief executive of Universities and Colleges Employers’ Association (UCEA), said: “It is very disappointing that UCU seeks to kick-start another campaign to encourage its members to cause disruption for students through potentially damaging industrial action.”

He added: “The final offer from employers was fair and meaningful in the context of the sector’s ongoing delicate financial situation.

“We very much hope the trade union members understand the considerable pressures which continue to face their higher education institutions.”