University strikes have been paused for two weeks after employers and unions said they were nearing agreement in a long-running dispute on pensions, pay and working conditions.
Members of the University and College Union, which represents higher education staff, this week held the sixth of 18 strike days planned for February and March, with seven due over the next fortnight.
However, on Friday evening the union announced that it had jointly agreed a “two-week period of calm” with employers, after making “significant progress in negotiations”.
The suspension of walkouts hints at a conclusion to an industrial dispute that long predates a wave of strike action over pay across sectors in the UK.
UCU members are demanding an inflation-linked pay rise, an end to casualised contracts, and for a reversal of cuts to retirement benefits made last April to plug a deficit in the sector’s pension pot.
In a video posted on social media UCU general secretary Jo Grady said the union and employers were nearing an agreement to restore pension benefits, with universities taking steps to outlaw zero-hour contracts.
While the offer on pay, currently an increase of between 5 and 8 per cent, had not significantly increased it had been “remodelled” to help lower-paid workers, she added.
Grady said the next two weeks would be a period of “intensive negotiation”, and strike action would be “stood down” to create “the most positive environment possible” for talks.
However, members will next week be balloted on whether to extend a mandate for strikes, which could mean six more months of walkouts if demands are not satisfied.
The union was boosted on Friday by a monitoring report from USS, the sector’s pension fund, showing that economic conditions had made improving pension benefits more affordable than thought.
The improved picture will need to be corroborated by a formal valuation in March. In a joint statement on Friday, UCU and Universities UK, which represents the sector, said if confirmed it would allow future benefits to return to a “comparable level” as before they were cut.
A joint statement on Friday between unions and the University and College Employers Association, which represents employers on pay, said pay talks had reached an “impasse, rather than an agreement”.
The final pay offer remained between 5 and 8 per cent, with next year’s pay rise rolled forward to March. Talks would focus on reviewing pay scales and on contract types, the statement added.
Raj Jethwa, UCEA chief executive, said: “Despite strike action and further threats of disruption . . . this is about a final attempt from employers and trade unions to achieve an outcome upon which both parties can consult their members.”
The pause to strikes was welcomed by many university staff. However, others suggested that sufficient progress had not yet been made.
Sol Gamsu, UCU branch president at Durham university, tweeted that it was “not acceptable” for strikes to be called off without consulting members. “If we are actually serious about winning big, the pressure needs to be kept on,” he added.
However, Grady insisted that the union was on course to win the dispute. “This progress is for real,” she said. “Employers know that we will not walk away from this dispute until it is won.”