Ballots on this year’s Higher Education pay claim have produced mixed results amid disillusion over the handling of the pensions dispute.
Following three years of increases well below inflation, employers were offering a pay rise of just 1% — a real-terms pay cut of 12% over four years. The unions asked for 7%, guarantees that no staff would get less than the Living Wage (£8.20 per hour in London; £7.30 elsewhere), and action on the gender pay gap (still 15%) and casualisation.
University and College Union (UCU) members — lecturers, researchers and academic-related staff — voted against strike action (44% for, 56% against) but in favour of action short (70 to 30%). Unison members voted by the narrowest of margins for a strike (50.3 to 49.7%).
Votes for strike action were stronger in Unite (63%) and Scottish teachers’ union EIS (54% for strike, and 72% for action short).
Many union members feel let down by the failure of one-day strikes in the long-running pensions dispute.
In post-92 universities, where academic staff are in the same pensions scheme as teachers, morale has also been dented by the decision of the National Union of Teachers leadership to effectively call off its pension dispute.
One-day strikes are particularly ineffective in universities due to the ease of rescheduling work for another day. Rolling strikes that closed services like IT, libraries or finance sections for longer periods could have more effect, but require a high degree of local confidence and organisation, currently lacking in many branches. In contrast, action short of a strike, like the assessment boycott used in 2006 when lecturers withheld exam and coursework marks, has proven strength as a tactic.
That may explain why many UCU members felt action short made more sense than strikes.