Members of the University and Colleges Union (UCU) will strike at 60 universities between 25 November and 4 December, over pay and conditions, pensions, and both.
The dispute over the USS pension scheme that shut down many pre-92 universities in 2018 remains unresolved. While employers have backed away from entirely closing the defined benefit scheme, employee contributions have risen to 9.6% from 6.35% ten years ago and 8% when the current Career Average scheme was introduced. Jane Hutton, a statistics professor who raised concerns about the governance of USS, has been sacked from its board of trustees. USS has a serious lack of transparency and employers have refused to implement the recommendations of the Joint Expert Panel established when the 2018 action was called off.
Across the entire higher education sector there is a separate but parallel dispute on workload, casualisation, pay and equality issues. Pay has dropped by 17% in real terms since 2009. UCU estimates that in many universities 25-30% of teaching is done by staff without permanent contracts, and around 70% of the 49,000 researchers in UK universities are in fixed-term posts.
Employers often claim these contracts allow flexibility, but UCU found 97% of fixed-term staff would prefer permanent contracts and 80% of hourly-paid staff would prefer guaranteed hours to “flexibility”. Black academic staff are paid 14% less than white staff, on average, and the gender pay gap in universities is 13.7%, well above the national average.
Overcoming the 50% threshold for action at 54 institutions is a huge achievement for the union under the leadership of Jo Grady, a grass-roots candidate who beat the long-standing leadership faction, the “Independent Broad Left”, to become General Secretary earlier this year.
Unsurprisingly the pre-92 institutions that struck in 2018 were more likely to achieve positive results this time, with many post-92 universities missing the threshold. These are the institutions most vulnerable in the current marketisation of HE, with many facing redundancies and course closures. That may explain the greater nervousness about striking.
Still, there were some notable successes, including Sheffield Hallam, which also won a local ballot against workload intensification.