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In the news: 29 November 2019

29 November 2019

UCU members at 60 universities walked out on Monday for the first of eight days of strike action in disputes over pensions and pay & conditions. Ahead of the strikes, UCU general secretary Jo Grady told the Sunday Telegraph that staff wouldn't be lectured about pay, pensions or working conditions from "out of touch" vice-chancellors who had enjoyed huge salary hikes, lived in free accommodation, maxed out expense accounts, yet still saw fit to claim back £2 for biscuits on expenses.

The strikes led the news as members headed to picket lines in the dark on Monday morning. Jo Grady told BBC Radio 5Live that the action was going to be "huge" and universities needed to come up with a long-term plan to deal with the issues at the heart of the disputes. Speaking to the Today Programme, she said that universities needed to step up and work with UCU to resolve disputes.

By mid-morning on Monday, the Guardian, Times and Times Higher had all reported the solid support on picket lines across the UK. UCU vice-president Vicky Blake was on the BBC live from Leeds and Jo Grady was speaking to Sky News from a very soggy picket line in Sussex.

As news of the solid support for the strikes filtered through, so did the strong-arm tactics being employed by some universities. The Guardian reported on efforts by the University of Liverpool to scare students away from picket lines and efforts by Sheffield Hallam University to turn students into snitches.

Both the BBC and the Telegraph picked up on the Hallam snitchers story and how the university's efforts had backfired leading to ridicule on social media. Jo Grady said the students' response had ensured that the university's strong-arm tactics had backfired massively.

Silly attempts to threaten, intimidate or confuse staff and students continued throughout the week. The University of Birmingham told people that protests on campus amounted to trespass, which the Telegraph said provoked outrage.

The Guardian reported that international students supportive of strike action were worried about failing to comply with attendance requirements with potential consequences for their visas. The University of Liverpool was once again singled out for criticism as on top of warning students off picket lines, the university said international students who chose not to cross picket lines to attend teaching sessions risked jeopardising their visa. The paper said that as a result nine external examiners in the school of law resigned their roles in protest, accusing Liverpool of misrepresenting the law regarding support for official pickets and of "weaponising" the UK immigration system against visa-holding students.

Away from universities' efforts to deflect attention away from the issues at the heart of the disputes, the BBC reported staff saying they had reached breaking point over workloads, pay cuts, gender pay gaps and changes to pensions for staff in the Universities Superannuation Scheme.

Reporting from the picket lines, iNews said the complaint on most strikers' lips was the proliferation of insecure, short-term contracts. Times Higher Education had been to Goldsmiths where staff said they were fighting for the future of higher education. While Billy Bragg and Ai Weiwei gave their backing to striking staff in Cambridge.

Hugely welcome support came pouring in from students on campuses throughout the UK. Many were interviewed expressing their support for their staff. Writing in the Guardian one student said fellow students should join their striking staff.

Jo Grady warned employers that they underestimate the scale of anger at their peril. Writing in the Guardian, Sarah Darley, a striking research associate at the University of Manchester, said the strike action, and possible future strike action, was necessary in the fight for fair and secure working conditions for all staff.

A Guardian editorial said the marketisation of universities had seen a new breed of vice-chancellors emerge aping the language and salaries of a business CEO complete with an entourage of financial managers and marketing gurus. However staff had been left behind as their pay fell and an intellectual precariat was stumbling from year to year on temporary contracts wondering where the next teaching gig was coming from. While the Financial Times said that the industrial action carried wider significance than the fate of a disputed retirement plan, and had exposed the precariousness of Britain's higher education system as it has become more of a marketplace.

Looking beyond the current eight-day walkout, Times Higher Education reported that more universities will be balloted for strike action in polls that close at the end of January. It also considered tiered contributions where some members of USS could 'contribute less and get less benefit'. However, a UCU spokesman said: 'Any proposals about tiered contributions would need to be based on the recognition that USS can be funded with a much lower overall contribution rate than it is currently, as the first JEP report concluded. Now is not the time for employers to deflect from that fact.'

Last updated: 29 November 2019