University staff begin three-day strike over pensions, pay and conditions

University staff hold pensions row rally outside the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh in 2018. Credit: PA

More than a million students are set to be affected by three days of strikes when university staff take industrial action over pay, working conditions and pensions.

Across England, Scotland and Northern Ireland, 58 universities will be affected as around 50,000 members of the University and College Union (UCU) backed a ballot on strike action.

Between December 1 and 3, picket lines will be mounted at campuses and other forms of industrial action will be launched – including staff strictly working to contract and refusing to carry out any additional duties.

It means that in the run-up to the Christmas holidays students will face more disruption after 18 months of remote learning during the pandemic.

The universities of Cambridge, Glasgow, Leeds , Nottingham, Sheffield and Ulster are among the affected institutions.

The UCU has warned that more than a million students will be affected by the action – and the union has said more strikes could take place in the new year if the disputes with employers remain unresolved.

The union claims that cuts to the Universities Superannuation Scheme pensions scheme would reduce the guaranteed retirement income of a typical member by 35%.

It has also suggested that pay for university staff has fallen by around a fifth after 12 years of below inflation pay offers, while thousands of academic staff are employed on “insecure” contracts.

The union is demanding that cuts to the pensions scheme are revoked and members are offered a £2,500 pay increase, as well as action to tackle “unmanageable workloads” and “insecure contracts”.

Staff who are not UCU members or do not support the strike may choose to keep working.

People outside the University of Glasgow after UCU members begin an eight-day strike in rows over pay, conditions and pensions in 2019. Credit: PA

UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: “The truth is that staff are asking for the bare minimum in a sector awash with money."

“But sadly, the only time vice-chancellors seem to listen is when staff take action, and those leading our universities should not underestimate their determination to change this sector for the better.”

She added: “Vice-chancellors now need to concentrate on asking themselves why strikes have become an annual occurrence and seek to resolve this dispute in order to avoid more needless disruption to learning.

“If they continue to ignore the modest demands of staff then we will be forced to take further industrial action in the new year, which even more branches will join.”

But Universities UK (UUK), which represents employers in the pensions dispute, has said students will “continue to suffer” until the union acknowledges that it will be “impossible” to resolve the dispute.

The UCU held a series of walkouts in 2019 and early 2020 over pensions, pay and conditions, which affected universities across the UK.

Staff are now walking out for three days after UCU members backed strike action in two separate disputes, one on pensions and one on pay and working conditions.

Universities cannot say yet which classes will go ahead, but leaders say they are well prepared to mitigate the impact of strikes on students’ learning.

A number of universities will aim to replace teaching and resources, as well as re-time assessments, for anyone affected.

UUK, on behalf of employers in the pensions dispute, suggested only a “small minority of staff” were determined to strike and that changes to the pensions scheme are “necessary” .

A statement from UUK said: “It is unrealistic to expect that strike action against 37 employers will somehow lead to fundamental reform of the way pensions are regulated in the UK.

“It is never an easy decision to change people’s pensions – no-one wants to do this – but ignoring the problem and hoping it will go away is not the answer.”