This week has seen the start of 10 days of strikes at universities and colleges across the UK, as members of the Universities and Colleges Union (UCU) take industrial action to protest against pensions cuts, low wages and poor working conditions.
In East Anglia, the University of Cambridge and University of Essex branches of UCU are among the 44 branches striking this week over pensions, with an additional 24 starting action from next week over pay and working conditions.
This follows three days of strikes over the same issues before Christmas, which failed to produce UCU’s desired outcome.
Staff in Cambridge and Colchester fight for fairer pay conditions
In Cambridge, students and staff are joining together for protests, rallies and teach outs across the university. Many students have shown their support for the strikes, not only not going to lectures, but also attending rallies, standing on picket lines, and bringing round sustenance for those on strike, including hot Ribena and homemade cookies. One student even brought a didgeridoo. While some students did still attend classes, others who had turned up for a class were sympathetic once the situation was explained to them, and agreed not to cross the picket lines.
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One early career researcher said: “As academics, we love what we do, and this tends to obscure the fact that academic labour is labour. There are many parts of our job that are conventionally expected of us but not paid for (thus encroaching upon our free time). This should show that there is something wrong with the system.”
Vice-Chancellor Stephen Toope has called the strikes “unfair”, expressing deep concern at the likely impact “on our students’ education”.
The University of Essex is also seeing a series of strikes. The president of the university’s UCU branch, Dr Jak Peake, is concerned about the effects of low pay and casual contracts: “Real-terms wages have fallen steadily since 2009. New employees have to worry about whether they can afford a career in academia when they face up to six years on a casual contract.”
Cambridge University staff and students played music and sang songs at a ‘musical picket’
What are UCU’s demands?
UCU members are striking over a wide range of issues. The most immediate concern for many staff is a major proposed cut to the pension scheme used by many UK universities, the University Superannuation Scheme (USS).
Employers’ body Universities UK (UUK) calculates the proposed pensions cuts at between 10 percent and 18 percent, while UCU calls this valuation ‘flawed’, saying that its independently commissioned modelling shows that the cuts ‘would reduce the guaranteed retirement income of a typical member by 35 percent’.
In January, UCU submitted a compromise proposal, to which the trustee of the USS fund confirmed there was ‘no impediment to implementation’. However, with UUK not yet accepting the offer, strike action has gone ahead this week.
As well as the pension dispute, there are the ‘Four Fights’ relating to pay and conditions: pay, workload, equality and casualisation. The union’s key demands include:
- A pay rise of £2,500 for all employees
- A minimum of £10 per hour wage for all contract types
- For all universities to become Living Wage Foundation accredited employers
- A standard weekly full-time contract of 35 hours per week
- Action to tackle the ethnic, gender and disability pay gap
- A framework to eliminate precarious employment practices and casualised contracts, including zero hours contracts
- Ending the outsourcing of support services and bringing staff in-house
- Addressing excessive workloads and unpaid work.
Vice-Chancellors “have failed staff and students”
Speaking at the start of the strikes, UCU General Secretary Jo Grady said: “The action that begins today and will eventually hit 68 universities is down to vice-chancellors who have failed staff and students. They have pushed through brutal pension cuts and done nothing to address falling pay, pay inequality, the rampant use of insecure contracts and unmanageable workloads.”
“It is outrageous that when they should be trying to resolve this dispute, employer representatives have instead been finding new ways to deduct pay from university workers. Rather than punishing their workforce, these so-called leaders need to look in the mirror and ask why students support staff taking strike action and why their own workforce is so demoralised.”
Employers’ association critical of strikes
Raj Jethwa, UCEA’s Chief Executive of the University and Colleges Employers’ Association, said:
“It is disappointing for UCU to try to ask a minority of its members to take action again over the pay uplift from last August. It is important to remember that only a quarter of branches reached the legal threshold for industrial action in UCU’s most recent ballot.”
“Rather than continuing this disruption, UCU should engage constructively in this year’s (2022-23) multi-employer negotiating round which is planned to begin at the end of March.”