Lectures and classes at dozens of UK universities will be disrupted this week after teaching staff walked out in the latest wave of industrial action over pensions, pay and working conditions.
Members of the University and College Union at 58 universities began three consecutive days of strike action on Wednesday, with some students joining them on picket lines to show solidarity.
The walkouts are the third by lecturers since 2018 over proposed changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) that could leave 200,000 members with less generous retirement benefits. Staff are also striking over low pay and job insecurity, highlighting the widespread use of short term and zero hour contracts in recent years.
Jo Grady, the general secretary of the UCU, said staff were asking for the “bare minimum” and had been “forced” to resort to strike action.
“Sadly university bosses have little interest in negotiating in good faith and addressing the serious concerns of staff over falling pay, massive pension cuts, equality pay gaps and the rampant use of insecure contracts,” she said.
The union warned walkouts could signal the start of a “period of sustained and escalating industrial action”. This month staff at 42 other universities that narrowly missed the 50 per cent turnout threshold in the previous vote required to mandate a strike are reballoting for possible action in the new year.
In a statement released on Tuesday, Universities UK, which represents employers, called the strikes “deeply frustrating” and said universities were “well prepared” to mitigate disruption.
“A small minority of staff seem determined to strike in protest at economic conditions they do not like, and a regulatory regime that universities are powerless to change,” it said in a statement.
But students, despite suffering two years of severe disruption to their education during the pandemic, were supportive of the action with three quarters of those surveyed last month by the National Union of Students saying they backed the UCU.
At the central London campuses of the London School of Economics and Goldsmiths some classes were still going ahead, with students echoing the UCU’s campaign slogan that staff working conditions reflected “students’ learning conditions”.
Mireia Font, an LSE masters student in political theory, said it was a “small price to pay”, adding: “After the efforts staff have made to support us during Covid it’s only fair we support them now.”
Pat McGovern, as sociology professor and UCU branch vice chair at LSE, said lecturers were reluctant to strike but said members were “really angry” about insecure contacts, eroded pay and an expected hit to pensions. “We shouldn’t have to enter into these disputes as often as we are,” he said.
The union said staff pay has been effectively cut by nearly 20 per cent in real terms since 2009, with thousands of staff on zero-hours contracts and two-thirds of research employees on short-term contracts.
It said proposed changes to the USS that are aimed at addressing an estimated £14bn to £18bn funding shortfall would result in a one-third cut to guaranteed retirement benefits.
The union argued that the way the shortfall was calculated was “flawed” because it was carried out at the beginning of the pandemic, when financial markets were hit hard.
However UUK said it has reached the “limit of affordability” in its pensions offer, and disputed UCU’s estimate of the impact. It said the final hit to the average retirement income would be between 10 and 18 per cent.