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UCU Official Dispute

Strike ballots open at UK universities

18 October 2021

The University and College Union (UCU) has told employers they have 'three weeks to save term' as it begins balloting members today for strike action at over 150 universities.

The union is balloting its members over cuts to Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) pensions, declining pay, the use of insecure contracts in the sector, unsafe workloads and serious equality failings.

152 institutions will be balloted in total, 146 of which are being balloted over pay and working conditions, and 68 over cuts to USS pensions. The ballots will run until 4 November.

The ballot over pensions comes after employer body Universities UK (UUK) voted to cut thousands of pounds from the retirement benefits of university staff in August. The plans, based on a flawed valuation of the USS scheme conducted at the beginning of the pandemic as markets were crashing, represent a cut of 35% to a typical member's annual guaranteed pension and guaranteed lump sum.

These cuts come on top of a series of changes between 2011 and 2019 that have already been shown to leave a typical member around £240,000 worse off.

UCU produced alternative proposals for reform of USS, which were discussed at the Joint Negotiating Committee with employers, represented by UUK. However, employers refused to underwrite UCU's proposals to the same level as their own. Employers also refused a range of delay options to allow more time to negotiate.

Pay for university staff fell by 17.6% relative to inflation between 2009 and 2019. Since then employers have made further below-inflation offers, despite university income from tuition fees growing by a third in the last five years. The latest pay offer from University and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA) was just 1.5%, despite the monumental efforts of staff during the pandemic.

The gender pay gap sits at 16% and the most recent Higher Education Statistics Agency figures reveal that, of 22,810 professors in the UK, under a third (27%) were women and only 155 (1%) were Black. The pay gap between black and white staff stands at 17% and the disability pay gap is 9%.

UCU is demanding a £2.5k pay increase; an end to race, gender and disability pay injustice; a framework to eliminate zero-hours and other precarious contracts; and meaningful action to tackle unmanageable workloads.

The National Union of Students (NUS) offered its support for staff planning to take action, saying 'students will hold employers responsible' if vice chancellors and employers do not come to 'a negotiated settlement and address the fundamental issues repeatedly raised by staff.'

UCU general secretary Jo Grady, said:

'University staff are the backbone of the sector, but for a decade they have been thanked with massive cuts to their pensions, collapsing pay and the rampant use of insecure contracts.

'The university sector is worth tens of billions of pounds, but the uncomfortable truth is that this success is built on exploitation, with staff denied dignity in work and in retirement by vice chancellors on eye watering salaries.

'Industrial action can easily be avoided if employers withdraw their disgraceful pension cuts and make credible offers on pay and working conditions. These are not radical demands, but the bare minimum staff deserve and in the best interests of the sector as a whole.

'Employers have three weeks to sort this out. If they don't, the blame for any disruption will fall squarely at their feet.'

Last updated: 26 October 2021