UCU (University and College Union) has announced that a further 14 days of strike action will hit 74 UK universities over February and March. The strikes will begin tomorrow and on Friday, escalating with each week as staff walk out for three days, four days and finally five days on the week beginning March 9th.
This wave of strikes began in November of last year, when around 1 million students were affected by 8 days worth of strikes across 60 universities. This time the scale of the strikes has increased significantly, spreading to 74 universities and affecting 1.2 million students. Not only will university staff undertake a full strike on scheduled days, for the rest of the academic year they will be taking “action short of a strike”: refusing to reschedule lectures lost to strike days, rigorously following the set hours of their contracts and not compensating for absent staff.
The strikes initially arose for two main reasons: the first of which was to do with significant losses that would be incurred due to changes in the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS). This scheme allows university employees to pay a certain amount into a fund towards a future pension. Staff are striking as under the current terms of the programme they will be paying £40,000 more into the scheme but end up with £200,000 less at the time of retirement, resulting in an overall loss of £240,000. Part of the reason why staff are losing out so much is because they are now expected to pay 9.6% of their annual salary into this pension programme, compared to 8.8% at present. UCU is striking to demand that members pay no more than 8% of their salary, as anymore is considered unsustainable for staff struggling to make their livelihood. These changes will affect staff of all income levels: those who earn more will lose more, but also increased costs will have detrimental effects on lower paid members of the USS who may be left with no option other than to leave the scheme.
The second main reason why staff are striking is due to a major downward trend in their income levels over the last decade. According to findings by the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA) staff pay has dropped by 17% over this period when compared against inflation levels over the same timeframe. What has caused the most controversy is that UCU contend this UCEA figure, saying UCEA did not take into account the cumulative effect of pay compared to inflation, only analysing certain spine points. According to UCU, pay levels have dropped by a minimum of 17% and could be as high as 20%.
Looking to the future, UCU general secretary Jo Grady has said ‘We have been clear from the outset that we would take serious and sustained industrial action if that was what was needed. As well as the strikes next month, we are going to ballot members to ensure that we have a fresh mandate for further action to cover the rest of the academic year if these disputes are not resolved.’ It is clear that this new wave of strikes is but the beginning of university employees standing up for their rights, and the impact on students across Oxford will simply increase if their demands are ignored again.
Oxford staff in particular are striking on both counts: declining pay and the losses incurred from USS, showing how seriously staff are taking the matter across the university. At some other institutions staff are only striking as regards one of these two issues.
According to a statement released by UCU yesterday, blame for these strikes should be fully apportioned to the vice chancellors of universities. Employers, in conversation with UCU over the past week, have refused to budge from the initial offer of a minimum pay rise of 1.8%. However, as always there are two sides to this story. Alistair Fitt, vice chancellor of Oxford Brookes University and a member of the Employers Pension Forum For Higher Education, has commented that “Whilst it is true that some employers could pay more, most cannot. They would be facing a significant impact on the wider university environment, with funding potentially being diverted from teaching and research projects alike. It would also have a big impact on the student experience, such as support facilities and class sizes, and there could even be a future impact on jobs”.
There is indeed a case to be made for students, some of whom are actually demanding compensation for the lost teaching hours. An example of such a student is Tom Barton, at Sheffield Hallam University who says he lost two weeks worth of one-on-one feedback for his dissertation, resulting in him needing to rush the work at the last minute and ending up with a lower result he would have hoped for. He has started a petition which has gained over 6000 signatures calling for students to be given £860 in compensation. Claire Sosienski Smith, vice president for higher education at the NUS (National Union of Students) has commented that “Students have a right to be angry about the lack of progress on the discussions between UK institutions and the staff who teach and support them, day in and day out. We know that the student experience will always be better with satisfied staff who are able to teach and support students to their fullest ability. Unfortunately, this isn’t able to happen, which is why we stand together with UCU as they seek to negotiate a solution. We support students seeking to complain to their institutions and vice-chancellors about missed teaching, and encourage them to contact their students’ union’s advice service, who’ll be able to help them with this. We stand in full solidarity with staff who are taking strike action.”
This will be a pivotal moment in the discourse between staff and students on the rights of those involved in our education: the outcome will set the tone and atmosphere for all of us at the university.