The University and College Union (@UCU) has today (Wednesday) confirmed that strike ballots will open at UK universities on Monday 18 October in rows over USS pensions and pay, unsafe workloads, casualisation and equality failings.

The union’s higher education committee (HEC) met Monday (20 September) and confirmed the timetable for a ballot of 152 institutions in total, six will be balloted on USS only, 83 are to be balloted over pay and working conditions, with another 63 institutions in the UK facing two ballots over both USS and pay and working conditions [Note 1].

UCU says that it now expects employers to return to negotiations with better offers in both disputes or face action that will disrupt the end of term and continue into the next one.

National Union of Students (NUS) offered its support for staff planning to take action, saying ‘students will hold employers responsible’ if vice chancellors and employers do not come to ‘a negotiated settlement and address the fundamental issues repeatedly raised by staff.’

The ballots will run from Monday 18 October to Thursday 4 November unless employers resolve the dispute beforehand. UCU’s HEC will meet to consider the results of the ballot on 8 November with action expected to take place before the end of the year.

The ballot over pensions comes after employer body Universities UK (UUK) voted to cut thousands of pounds from the retirement benefits of university staff last month. The plans, based on a flawed valuation of the USS scheme conducted at the beginning of the pandemic as markets were crashing, represent an annual guaranteed pension cut of 35% for a typical member [Note 2].

These cuts come after series of changes between 2011 and 2019 have been shown to already leave a typical member around £240,000 worse off. 

UCU produced alternative proposals for reform of USS [Note 3], which were discussed at the Joint Negotiating Committee (JNC) with employers, represented by UUK. However, employers refused to match the level of covenant support for UCU’s proposals which they were willing to deliver for their own. Employers also refused a range of delay options to allow more time to negotiate.

The second ballot is over issues related to declining staff pay, the use of casualised contacts, unsafe workloads and equality failings.

Research by UCU found 42% of teaching staff employed on zero hours contracts, with 49% on insecure fixed-term contacts.

Pay for university staff fell by around 20% between 2009 and 2019. Since then employers have made a series of below inflation offers, this despite university income from tuition fees growing by a third in the last five years alone. The latest pay offer from University and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA) was just 1.5%.

The gender pay gap sits at 15.5% and the most recent Higher Education Statistics Agency figures reveal that, of 22,810 professors in the UK, under a third (27%) were women and only 155 (1%) were Black.

UCU is demanding a £2.5k pay increase; an end to race and gender pay injustice; a framework eliminate the use of precarious contracts, such as zero-hours employment; and meaningful action to tackle unmanageable workloads. 

The staff groups being balloted in both sets of action by UCU include academic and academic-related staff.

University staff previously took the largest strike action UK higher education has ever seen in 2020 over the same issues. The latest Higher Education Statistics Agency data, from 2019/20, shows total income across the sector was £41.9bn with reserves of £46.8bn.

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.

‘Our members across the UK know that working in a university does not have to be like this and are clear that they are ready to take action to stand up for their dignity, defend pensions and win long overdue improvements to their pay and working conditions. 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 said:

As students, we regularly witness how staff and student’s conditions are intertwined. University management forcing staff onto casualised contracts, cutting their pay, and now trying to cut thousands of pounds from their pensions cannot be divorced from the fact that one in 10 students has needed to access a foodbank to survive the pandemic - these aren’t the actions of a university leadership or an education system that have the interests of staff or students at heart.

‘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 Universities UK spokesperson 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 Trustee’s 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. Employers have asked UCU to put forward alternative proposals, but as yet, none have been forthcoming. By proceeding with ballots, the union appears unconcerned by higher contributions, pay cuts, job losses, damage to the student experience, and financial hardship for their members, that will all result if employers are forced to pay more into pensions.

“We have formally invited UCU to work with employers to develop lower-cost options for members, consider alternative scheme designs – including Conditional Indexation – and review the scheme’s governance – these are issues where employers and scheme members share a common desire for change.

“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.”

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