Staff at Northumbria and Newcastle Universities start five-day strike over pay and conditions

Credit: PA

Student learning at two universities in Newcastle will be disrupted this week as staff begin a five-day strike over pay and conditions.

University College Union (UCU) members at Northumbria University are walking out over pay and working conditions while fellow union members at Newcastle University are also taking action over pension cuts.

The dispute is part of a national campaign across 67 universities over the next fortnight, affecting an estimated one million students.

Both universities in Newcastle said they were committed to minimising the disruption to student learning.

UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: "Vice chancellors across the UK have the power to end these disputes.

"The money is there to pay staff properly, tackle punishing working conditions and reverse pension cuts that will devastate retirement incomes.

"Instead, university bosses are choosing to sit on reserves worth tens of billions of pounds and make their own staff suffer. That's why we are out on picket lines yet again."

Staff at Newcastle and Northumbria Universities recently took up to ten days of strike action over three weeks, from mid-February.

Industrial ballots also opened at 149 universities last week, including Newcastle and Northumbria, and will run until Friday, April 8.

Successful ballots will pave the way for additional action to be called throughout 2022.

What's the dispute?

The UCU said last month university employers forced through USS pension cuts, which will see 35% slashed from a typical member's guaranteed retirement income.

In the pension dispute, UCU is demanding that employers revoke their cuts and re-enter negotiations.   

The union also estimated staff pay is down by more than a quarter in real terms since 2009 as a result of inflation.

More than 70,000 academics are employed on insecure contracts, according to the union, which said the gender pay gap in UK universities sat at 16%, while the disability pay gap is 9% and the race pay gap is up to 17%.

In the pay and working conditions dispute UCU is demanding an end to race, gender and disability pay injustice, a framework to eliminate zero-hours and other insecure contracts, and action to tackle unmanageable workloads, as well as a £2,500 pay rise for all university employees.

Ms Grady added: "By continuing to ignore the longstanding and serious concerns of staff, vice chancellors are not only pushing their own workforce to breaking point, but also doing serious harm to the future of higher education and preventing it from being the best it can be."

The union said universities can more than afford to meet the demands of staff.

University finance figures show total income across the sector is around £41.9bn with reserves of £46.8bn.

Students have been supporting the striking staff and the National Union of Students joined the previous round of action with a student strike on Wednesday, March 2.

What the universities say

A spokesperson for Northumbria University called the action "deeply regrettable" and raised concerns over the impact it would have on student learning.

They added: "Our students have suffered enough over the period of the pandemic and do not deserve further disruption.

"Northumbria University is determined to minimise the impact on our hard-working students and will continue to deliver the education that they deserve."

Meanwhile, a Newcastle University spokesperson echoed the concern the industrial action would have on students, though said it was understood the decision to strike was "not taken lightly".

"Coming on the back of two years of disruption created by Covid-19, the impact of any industrial action will be significant for both students and colleagues who are not part of the action and we are making every effort to minimise the disruption," they added.