University lecturers threaten ‘enormous disruption’ with strikes that could last until new year

Lecturers at more than 150 universities are planning “enormous disruption” by launching strike action over workload, pensions and pay.

Members of the University and College Union (UCU) are to vote on whether to launch a campaign of industrial action, which could stretch into the new year. 

Thousands of lecturers, researchers and other academic staff are being balloted on strikes over pay, pensions and working conditions, threatening disruption at universities across the nation. The vote is set to take place in the coming weeks.

Jo Grady, the UCU general secretary, said pay and working conditions had worsened over the past decade, with staff now at “breaking point”.

She has written to Alistair Jarvis, the chief executive of Universities UK (UUK), and Raj Jethwa, chief executive of the employers association, urging them to meet staff demands and avoid strikes that would cause “enormous disruption” this term.

She said: “University staff are the backbone of the sector, but for a decade they have been thanked with massive cuts to their pensions, collapsing pay and the rampant use of insecure contracts.

“The university sector is worth tens of billions of pounds, but the uncomfortable truth is that this success is built on exploitation, with staff denied dignity in work and in retirement by vice-chancellors on eye watering salaries.”

The UCU says it is fighting cuts to Universities Superannuation Scheme pensions, declining pay, the use of insecure contracts, unsafe workloads and “serious” equality failings.

The union expects a vote in favour of action, which would lead to strikes before the end of the current term, as well as other forms of industrial action in the new year.

The UCU added that employer body Universities UK had voted to cut thousands of pounds from the retirement benefits of university staff, based on a “flawed valuation” of the scheme. This represented a cut of 35 per cent to a typical member’s annual guaranteed pension and guaranteed lump sum, it said.

Pay for university staff fell by 17.6 per cent relative to inflation between 2009 and 2019, and since then employers had made below-inflation offers, with the latest worth 1.5 per cent despite the “monumental” efforts of staff during the pandemic, said the union. 

The union also claimed there was a 16 per cent gender pay gap in universities, rising to 19 per cent in some. The pay gap between black and white staff stood at 17 per cent and the disability pay gap was nine per cent, said the UCU.

Students ‘do not deserve further disruption’

The UCU is calling for a £2,500 pay increase, an end to race, gender and disability pay differences, a framework to eliminate zero-hours and other precarious contracts, and action to tackle unmanageable workloads.

A UUK spokesperson said it was “disappointed” that the union was pressing ahead with an industrial action ballot, especially because “after a difficult 18 months, students do not deserve any further disruption”.

The proposed reforms meant lecturer would benefit from “one of the most attractive pension schemes in the country, and eliminate the need for massive contribution rises that would severely reduce pay and force employers to make cutbacks in other budgets.

“Discussions over the valuation are still ongoing. Employers met with UCU representatives last Tuesday and further meetings are planned for the coming weeks.

“However, it is hard to see how UCU’s demands can be reconciled without an alternative solution, which we have consistently asked them for and are willing to consult employers on.

“After a difficult 18 months, students do not deserve any further disruption. It is unclear why UCU thinks it’s appropriate for students to suffer due to the scheme’s increased costs and the regulatory constraints under which pensions operate in the UK.”

Mr Jethwa also criticised a ballot and strike action which will have “clearly targeted the autumn term and our students, just when we are finally back on campus”.

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