More than 70,000 staff at 150 universities could strike amid row over pay and working conditions

University and College Union (UCU) workers and supporters on a picket line at Queens University Belfast in March 2022. Credit: PA

More than 70,000 university staff at 150 universities could strike after University and College Union (UCU) members voted in favour of strike action in a row over pay and working conditions.

Staff voted on two different ballots: pay and working conditions, and cuts to pensions.

More than eight in ten (81.1%) voted in favour of strike action in the pay and working conditions ballot, while 84.9% voted for strike action in the pension ballot.

UCU said the result is a clear indication of the anger felt by university staff.

"The union now has a mandate to deliver strike action at practically every university in the UK and has called on vice chancellors to enter negotiations immediately and make improved offers in order to avoid disruption," the union said in a statement.

UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: "Today history has been made by our members in universities, who in huge numbers have delivered an unprecedented mandate for strike action. "The vice chancellors who run universities have repeatedly and in a coordinated fashion come after our members. Well, now it's 150 bosses against 70,000 university workers who are ready and willing to bring the entire sector to a standstill, if serious negotiations don't start very soon. "University staff are crucial workers in communities up and down the UK. They are sending a clear message that they will not accept falling pay, insecure employment and attacks on pensions.

"They know their power and are ready to take back what is theirs from a sector raking in tens of billions of pounds."

The union is calling for a "meaningful pay rise to deal with the cost-of-living crisis", stating that staff were offered just a 3% pay rise this year while a third of academic staff are on some form of temporary contract.

In the pension ballot, the union is demanding employers "revoke the 35% cut they made earlier this year" to the guaranteed retirement income of the average member.

UCU's higher education committee meets on Thursday, November 3 to decide the next steps the union will take.

Want a quick and expert briefing on the biggest news stories? Listen to our latest podcasts to find out What You Need To Know.

In response to UCU's ballot outcome, Raj Jethwa, the chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA) said it is "disappointing" that UCU's higher education members voted in favour of industrial action.

"While threatening industrial action will not create new money for the sector, UCEA and its member HE (higher education) institutions want to work with UCU and other trade unions to support staff and students and to avoid disruptive industrial action. However, there needs to be a realistic assessment of what is possible.

“The 145 HE institutions at the 2022-23 New JNCHES bargaining table have done their best to support jobs and staff in very difficult circumstances.

"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."

He added that higher education institutions want to do more for their staff, but "any increase in pay puts jobs at risk"

“We are all concerned for those on lower incomes, who are disproportionately impacted by inflation and cost of living pressures," he said. "That is why the 2022-23 New JNCHES (New Joint Negotiating Committee for Higher Education Staff) pay award included an uplift of up to 9% for those on the lowest points of the pay spine, and why UCEA worked with employers to implement the uplift at the earliest opportunity following the conclusion of the New JNCHES processes." He continued: “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.”