Staff at dozens of UK universities will start 10 days of strike action next month as a fight over pensions, pay and working conditions continues to cause serious disruption to higher education.
The University and College Union, which represents all university staff, on Thursday announced more than 1m students at 68 institutions would be hit by walkouts in February, with potential further action including rolling regional strikes and a national marking boycott to come.
The strike, starting on February 14, is the latest flare-up in a years-long dispute over insecure working conditions, poor pay and deteriorating pensions in higher education, characterised as a “fight for the future of higher education” by the union.
But Universities UK, which represents vice-chancellors, said industrial action was “not having the desired effect, with diminishing levels of disruption” since the series of walkouts began in 2018.
“Instead of pursuing strike action and attempting to disrupt students’ education, the union should focus on working with employers,” it said. “Universities will minimise the impact of any further industrial action on students by ensuring they can continue to learn and receive support.”
Jo Grady, general secretary of the UCU, said the sector could “avert” further disruption by giving staff a pay rise and tackling insecure contracts, heavy workloads and inequality, while revoking pension cuts.
“For a sector that is worth tens of billions of pounds and enjoys record levels of student growth it is beyond disgraceful that in return staff get vicious pension cuts, falling pay and are pushed to breaking point under deteriorating working conditions,” she added.
Universities have been hit by walkouts from teaching staff over pensions or pay every year since 2018, including three days of action in December.
There have been escalating tensions over poor working conditions that have prompted local strikes at several universities in recent years. The UCU said staff had suffered a 20 per cent cut in real terms pay over the past 12 years, alongside unmanageable workloads and insecure contracts.
Union members also hope to overturn proposed cuts to pension benefits, mooted by UUK after a March 2020 valuation of the Universities Superannuation Scheme, the pension fund for the sector, identified a shortfall of up to £18bn.
UCU has called for a revaluation of the superannuation scheme, and on Wednesday proposed a small rise in member and employer pension contributions could protect benefits while a valuation was carried out.
USS, the pension fund, said it would work with UCU and UUK to “clarify the proposal”. But it added that volatility in costs and asset values meant it was “not clear on how the funding requirements . . . would be met”.
The National Union of Students expressed support for the industrial action, which will coincide with a walkout by students on March 2 in solidarity with teaching staff.
Larissa Kennedy, the national president of the NUS, said students were opposed to a “broken” higher education system that exploited staff. “As students, we are acutely aware that staff working conditions are our learning conditions,” she added.
The 10 days of university staff walkouts will be staggered over three weeks.
Additional reporting by Josephine Cumbo