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Strike action at 27 universities begins as survey shows most UK university staff considering leaving the sector

28 March 2022

University staff at 27 universities begin a five day walkout today over cuts to pensions and deteriorating pay and conditions.

The UK-wide action started last week when staff at 40 universities downed tools for five days. This is the third round of strike action this academic year. Staff recently took up to 10 days of strike action over three weeks, from Monday 14 February to Wednesday 2 March, and previously went on strike for three days in December 2021.

UCU also warned of a staff exodus from UK universities after two thirds of university staff said they are considering leaving the sector. The finding comes from a new UCU report 'UK Higher Education - a workforce in crisis' based on a survey of almost 7,000 university staff at over 100 institutions. 

The survey found:

  • two-thirds of respondents said they are likely or very likely to leave the university sector in the next five years over pension cuts, pay and working conditions
  • almost nine in 10 (88%) respondents said they are not optimistic or not at all optimistic about the future of higher education in the UK
  • a majority (57%) of respondents said they are unhappy or very unhappy about spending the remainder of their career in higher education.

Industrial ballots also opened at 149 universities this month, including at most of the 67 universities facing strike action. They will run until Friday 8 April. Successful ballots would pave the way for action to continue to be called throughout the remainder of 2022, including action short of strike, such as a marking and assessment boycott. This could stop hundreds of thousands of students from graduating.

Last month university employers forced through USS pension cuts, which will see 35% slashed from a typical member's guaranteed retirement income. In the pension dispute, UCU is demanding that employers revoke their cuts and re-enter negotiations. 

New inflation figures mean UCU estimates staff pay is now down by more than a quarter in real terms since 2009. Over 70k academics are employed on insecure contracts. The gender pay gap in UK universities sits at 16%, whilst the disability pay gap is 9% and the race pay gap is up to 17%.

In the pay and working conditions dispute the union is demanding an end to race, gender and disability pay injustice; a framework to eliminate zero-hours and other insecure contracts; and meaningful action to tackle unmanageable workloads; as well as a £2.5k pay rise for all university employees.

The union said universities can more than afford to meet the demands of staff. University finance figures show total income across the sector is around £41.9bn with reserves of £46.8bn. Students have been supporting striking staff and the National Union of Students joined the previous round of action with a student strike on Wednesday 2 March.

UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: 'University staff are striking over devastating pension cuts, falling pay and brutal working conditions. They have been pushed to breaking point again and again by vice chancellors and are now saying that they are ready to leave the sector entirely. This is a damning indictment of the way staff have been treated.

'If vice chancellors continue to ignore the longstanding concerns of staff, they will threaten the future of higher education in the UK. Universities generate income worth tens of billions and sit on huge reserves. They can afford to treat their staff better and would benefit their institutions by doing so.

'The toxic working culture that has been created by vice chancellors cannot be allowed to continue, which is why university staff are on picket lines yet again.'

Last updated: 29 March 2022