Strikes loom as UCU members vote for industrial action

University and College Union (UCU) members have backed strikes concerning pensions and pay and working conditions. UCU is a representative for lecturers and staff from across the UK. The strikes may affect over a million students. In a poll, 79% of UCU members voted and 74% of members backed strike action in the ballot over changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS). 

According to an analysis by First Actuarial, a pension scheme provider, university staff are paying far more for their pension but will lose tens of thousands of pounds in retirement owing to changes made to USS. The analysis looked at how recent changes to the scheme, including increasing contribution levels, the closure of the final salary element and a restriction on defined benefits have affected members’ costs and retirement package.

According to modelling done by First Actuarial, the changes to USS mean a typical member would pay around £40,000 more into their pension, but receive £200,000 less in retirement.  UCU said the mandate for strikes was an indictment of the state of higher education and that universities needed to address the problems.  After university campuses were disrupted last year by unprecedented levels of strike, UCU said it was frustrating that members had to be balloted again.

UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: “The results can only be interpreted as clear support for strike action over pensions, pay and working conditions. The ballots reflect just how unhappy and angry staff are at the state of higher education in the UK.  

“It is incredibly frustrating that we had to ballot members again, but universities only have themselves to blame after failing to address falling real-terms pay and for refusing to deal with casualisation, workloads and the rising cost of USS pensions. 

“Universities now have to come back to us prepared to work seriously to address these problems. If they choose to ignore this message from their staff then strike action looks inevitable.”

UEA was one of the universities in the UK that managed to reach the turnout threshold of 50% required for strike action. 

In a statement, a university spokesperson said: “UEA is focused on its mission to support students’ educational attainment and deliver continued research success in a challenging higher education environment and to do that we want to ensure our people are supported in their work. 

“The pay award UEA made in August represents a £3 million investment in the University’s staff. The increased pension contributions that UEA is making also cost an additional £3 million a year and means UEA’s expenditure on staff pay and pensions has increased by £6 million a year. 

“USS pension benefits to scheme members remain unchanged. UEA supports Universities UK’s openness to talks with UCU and Unison to explore how the dispute can be resolved without industrial action, which we believe will be damaging for both university staff and students.”

Lecturers last striked in 2018 in what The Times called “the worst industrial action at universities in modern times”. 

Lizzie Tomlin is an English literature graduate. She was in her second year at UEA during the 2018 higher education walkouts. “Because they happened around the same time as bad snow I ended up missing a month of seminars and lectures – especially as it was just before Easter I essentially ended up not having uni for about two months”. She added when she then submitted her summates she “felt they were all really incomplete, and not the best I could have done”. 

Jessica Cappi was also in her second at UEA during the 2018 strikes. She graduated this year in English literature. The strikes affected two out of three of Ms Cappi’s modules, leaving her with only one commitment a week. “It meant it was mostly independent learning,” she said. She added: “I was meant to be starting work on [a] summative when I hadn’t even had my first formative back.”

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Bryan Mfhaladi Chris Matthews and Paige Allen

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October 2021
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