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HE pay and equalities - explained!

2 October 2019

Frequently asked questions (and answers!) about the HE pay and equalities dispute

My branch voted yes. What sort of action am I being asked to take?

In November and December 2019 thousands of members took eight days of strike action in furtherance of this dispute and have since been asked to undertake action short of a strike (work to contract). Although the employers made an improved offer, UCU's Higher Education Committee (HEC) considered the offer and while some limited progress had been made, agreed it fell far short of settling the dispute.

The HEC therefore decided to call for 14 more days of strike action beginning on 20 February 2020.

If the employers still aren't willing to bring forward an acceptable offer after sustained strike action, we also have the option of deploying a marking and assessment boycott.

Why are we taking action on pay when the employers have offered a 1.8% pay rise?

The employers' offer is below inflation, meaning yet another real terms pay cut for staff. The value of pay in higher education has fallen by around 20% since 2009; meanwhile employers are failing to commit to taking effective action to tackle the persistent gender and race pay gaps that exist in our sector. We need to send a strong signal that we won't tolerate continued pay erosion or pay inequality.

Why are we linking pay, workload and casualisation in one dispute?

The pay and equality action is about demanding fair treatment for staff across the sector. The combination of pay erosion, unmanageable workloads and the widespread use of insecure contracts has undermined professionalism and made the working environment more stressful for staff. The average working week in higher education is now above 50 hours, with 29% of academics averaging more than 55 hours. Meanwhile more than 100,000 teaching staff on casual contracts report that they are only paid for 55% of the work they do.

We need to ensure that careers in higher education remain attractive for the future - that means taking a coordinated approach to tackling these problems that affect staff across the sector.

Why is tackling casualisation a priority in the pay dispute?

Casualisation is rife within higher education: 70% of researchers in HE are employed on fixed-term contracts, while many more have contracts which are dependent on funding. A whopping 37,000 teaching staff are employed on fixed-term contracts, and a further 71,000 teachers are employed as 'atypical academics'.

The use of casual contracts erodes the rights, protections and security that should be afforded to all employees. Casualisation also makes it much more difficult for staff to challenge employers about key workplace issues, because staff are often reluctant to 'rock the boat' and risk their employment being terminated.

Finally, casualisation has real material consequences for staff - UCU's research showed that 42% of staff on casual contracts have struggled to pay household bills, while many others struggle to make long-term financial commitments like buying a house.

Won't industrial action cause unnecessary disruption to my students?

The decision to take industrial action is never taken lightly, but the stakes in this dispute are high. We're fighting to keep higher education careers sustainable, not just for now but for the future when many of those students may be working in HE themselves; decent pay and conditions are central to that aim.

We are pleased that NUS has also issued a joint statement with us, offering support and solidarity from students in both the USS and HE pay disputes.

Can members who are on Tier 2 migrant visas take part in strikes?

Yes. Thanks to campaigning from UCU and others during the dispute in 2018, the government confirmed in July 2018 that it was changing the immigration rules and Tier 2 sponsor guidance to make it clear that Tier 2 migrants could participate in legal strike action without it threatening their leave to remain. Strike action has been added to the list of exceptions to the rule on absences from employment without pay.

Read our full FAQs for migrant workers here.

Last updated: 5 February 2020