Campuses will be hit by strikes at the start of next month and there is a threat of more next year after the University and College Union announced that its members will stop work in an attempt to halt pension cuts and improve pay and working conditions.
The union said three consecutive days of strikes would take place from 1 December at the 58 institutions that backed ballots for industrial action this month.
The 58 universities and colleges will be joined by a further six in undertaking other forms of industrial action, including strict working to contract and refusing additional duties. That will also begin on 1 December and the union said it was “indefinite”.
Jo Grady, the UCU’s general secretary, said: “While we set out pragmatic solutions that could halt widespread disruption to UK campuses, university bosses refuse to revoke unnecessary, swingeing pension cuts or even to negotiate on issues like casualisation and the unbearably high workloads that blight higher education.
“A resolution to this dispute is simple. But if employers remain intent on slashing pensions and exploiting staff who have kept this sector afloat during a pandemic then campuses will face strike action before Christmas, which will escalate into spring with reballots and further industrial action.”
The announcement sets up what could be a bitter dispute between the union and university leaders.
UCU said the initial three-day strike “will just be the start of sustained disruption” if employers refuse to continue negotiations. The union intends to escalate its disputes next term. If employers do not make improved offers, further industrial action is likely to continue into the spring, at which point branches that gain a mandate in their reballots will be able to join the action.”
The action is part of a long-running dispute between staff – including lecturers, researchers, librarians and administrators – and university employers. The strikes will follow more than 18 months of severe disruption and turmoil caused by the Covid pandemic, which led to campuses being closed to most students.
Central to the dispute is the operation of the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) and its management. UCU contends that the USS’s trustees have burdened the scheme with pessimistic forecasts, and have called for the fund to be revalued.
Others are going on strike after backing a separate ballot on issues including insecure contracts, low pay and inequality.
The Universities and Colleges Employers’ Association said: “UCU members need to understand that any industrial action aimed at harming students is an unrealistic attempt to try to force all 146 employers to reopen the concluded 2021-22 national pay round and improve on an outcome that is for most of these institutions already at the very limit of what is affordable.”
Although the strike will disrupt teaching at the affected institutions, the National Union of Students said its poll of 1,600 students this month found overwhelming support, with 73% of students backing the strike action and just 9% opposed.
Larissa Kennedy, the NUS president, said: “With vice-chancellors’ average total pay packets rising to £269,000 per year, it’s clear employers can afford to resolve their dispute with UCU over staff pay, which has fallen by an average of 20% in real terms since 2009.”