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Four fights: 'we're at breaking point'

HE negotiations 2021-22

26 March 2021

Information on the UK-wide higher education negotiations for 2021-22 which take place within the Joint National Committee for Higher Education Staff (JNCHES).

Dispute timeline

UCU today confirmed it will move ahead with plans to ballot staff in disputes over pay & conditions and pensions. The higher education committee (HEC) met today and authorised a ballot of all higher education members over the 2022-23 offer in late summer with strikes to follow in the November, along with further ballots for industrial action in spring 2023.  

For the first time in the two disputes the ballot will be aggregated, meaning that if UCU achieves an overall turnout of 50% or above and a majority YES vote, all universities across the UK will be hit by strike action.

Delegates at the annual HE sector conference voted for a massive escalation of industrial action. All branches in the Four Fights and USS disputes will be balloted over taking industrial action that would impact both the induction weeks this autumn as well as spring 2023. Delegates also voted for the ballots to be conducted in an 'aggregated' format, meaning that the 50% turnout threshold, and consequently which branches would be called to take action, would encompass the entire voting membership.

UCU's higher education committee (HEC) will consider the conference resolutions on Friday 1 July, and this will be preceded by a branch delegate meeting where branches can feed in to the HEC's decisions. All HE members are asked to engage in branch meetings called to discuss the disputes.

Members at more than 20 universities will proceed to a marking boycott on 23 May despite threats of 100% pay deductions from some rogue bosses. The boycott means university staff will stop marking work, returning marks and setting or sitting exams and coursework. The graduations of well over 100,00 students are set to be disrupted: University marking boycott begins despite 'lock out' threats

UCU general secretary Jo Grady had earlier updated members on the latest decisions made by HEC and UCU's officers.

UCU general secretary Jo Grady today confirmed that a marking and assessment boycott will begin from Monday 23 May. You can see the institutions involved here.

UCU's special higher education sector conference has voted for a marking and assessment boycott at 41 universities across the UK, a move which could prevent students from receiving their grades.

As well as a marking and assessment boycott, delegates also voted to hit 39 universities with a further ten days of strike action.

UCU general secretary Jo Grady told members that the delegates who voted for the marking boycott 'did not do so lightly and the fact that we are threatening our first marking boycott in a UK-wide dispute in many years shows just how angry members are - and how intransigent employers have been'.

Members in thirty-six institutions have voted to continue strike action over the Four Fights pay and conditions disputes, with 38 meeting the threshold for taking action short of strike action.

UCU general secretary Jo Grady said, with 74% of members voting YES, 'there is no doubt whatsoever about members' commitment or how deeply you are impacted by the issues at the heart of this dispute':

The key decisions about what to do on the back of these results will be taken by delegates to the upcoming higher education sector conference.

UCU warned of a staff exodus from UK universities after two-thirds of university staff said they are considering leaving the sector within five years over cuts to pensions and deteriorating pay and working conditions. The finding comes from a new UCU report UK higher education - a workforce in crisis [217kb], based on a survey of almost 7,000 university staff at over 100 institutions. 

A third wave of strike action over the employers' failure to negotiate over deteriorating pay & conditions began today. In a  message to members on the eve of the action, UCU general secretary Jo Grady said the employers' treatment of their staff is causing material and reputational damage to the sector.

The new ballots over deteriorating pay and conditions opened today across the UK. UCU said the ballots, which close on Friday 8 April, will pave the way for action to continue throughout the remainder of 2022.

New industrial action ballots over deteriorating pay and conditions, and also the USS pensions dispute, will open on 16 March. The new ballots over strike action and action short of strike (ASOS) are taking place because the current mandates to take industrial action will end on 3 May at many universities. Successful reballots will allow staff to continue taking action through this calendar year.

UCU today announced a further five days of strike action beginning this month unless vice chancellors revoke pension cuts and meet staff demands over pay and working conditions.

The action will take place over two weeks, with members in 39 universities taking action from Monday 21 March to Friday 25 March, with members in a further 29 universities taking action from Monday 28 March to Friday 1 April.

As part of the ongoing disputes, all branches will also be reballoted soon in preparation for potential industrial action next term.

Read more:

In a message to members, UCU general secretary Jo Grady revealed there was now a 'nationally orchestrated move by employers to bully and intimidate UCU members' with threats to deduct up to 100% of the pay of members taking legal ASOS action.

UCU has warned hardline university bosses that they could be hit with additional strike action if they go ahead with 100% deductions in pay for staff taking action short of a strike (ASOS): Staff warn rogue university bosses to prepare for more strike action over pay deductions

UCU's national disputes committee (NDC) gave its support to UCU's continuing strike action. In a statement published today [142kb] they say that 'members have already suffered from years of stagnant pay, entrenched inequalities, rampant casualisation and increased workload pressures and are rightly angry at employers' unwillingness to stand with us, despite recognising the truth in our claims'. They added that 'we continue to endorse the mutual reinforcement of the Four Fights and USS disputes as the two sets of objectives are intrinsically interlinked and coupling greatly increases our leverage on the employers'. The NDC also stated their gratitude to 'students, our communities and members across our union and the trade union movement for their solidarity'.

UCU responded to the latest HESA report on higher education staff by stating that it shows why university staff are taking strike action, especially as 'women, black staff and disabled staff continue to face shocking pay gaps with women more likely to be on zero hours contracts than men, and black women even more likely still': Official statistics show why university staff are taking strike action

New strike dates have been announced in the dispute over pay and conditions. Members in striking branches are being asked to walk out on 21 & 22 February, and from 28 February to 2 March in the following week. Rolling strike action across UCU regions is then being planned from 7 March if no agreement has been reached with the employers. An escalation of action short of strike is also planned.

Universities will see further strike action in February unless employers meet UCU's demands over pay & conditions. UCU's higher education committee (HEC), authorised sustained industrial action at a meeting on 19 January, which will include coordinated UK wide and regional rolling strikes. Specific strike dates are to be confirmed shortly. HEC also agreed to begin preparations for a UK wide marking and assessment boycott, which would see staff refusing to undertake marking and assessment duties:

Members at another 12 universities have voted in favour of joining industrial action over attacks on pay, pensions & working conditions. Thus bring the total number of instutitons affected to 68.

General secretary Jo Grady told members the results are another powerful signal of members' commitment to address the issues of low pay, inequality, workload intensification and precarious employment.

UCU's higher education committee (HEC) meets on 19 January to decide the next steps, following a branch delegates' meeting to feed in members' views.

UCU's higher education committee (HEC) decided to escalate action short of a strike (ASOS) over the Four Fights and USS disputes. Notice has been served on higher education employers where there is a live ASOS mandate and, with immediate effect, ASOS will consist of: 

  • working to contract
  • not covering for absent colleagues
  • removing uploaded materials related to, and/or not sharing materials related to, lectures or classes that will be or have been cancelled as a result of strike action
  • not rescheduling classes and lectures cancelled due to strike action
  • not undertaking any voluntary activities. 

The HE disputes FAQ has been updated to include the union's latest advice on ASOS.

Three consecutive days of strike action began today after university bosses and their representatives refused to address falling pay and worsening working conditions.

After notifying vice chancellors that staff would take strike action unless they saw movement, but the employers, represented by University and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA) still won't meet without preconditions, and refuse to engage in agreeing action plans that would address widespread casualisation, excessive workloads and pay inequalities. UCEA has also refused to move on another below inflation pay offer for staff.

Read more:

UCU has warned that up to 100 universities could face disruption in the new year if the dispute over pay & conditions is not resolved after it was announced that members at 42 universities will be asked to back strike action in fresh ballots that open on Monday 6 December and close on Friday 14 January. The reballots come after a number of branches narrowly missed the Conservative's anti-trade union turnout threshold, in some cases by only one or two votes: it was announced today

Industrial action over the pay and working conditions claim will begin on 1 December, it was announced today. Strike action will run for three days from Wednesday 1 December to Friday 3 December, and the higher education committee has decided to call action short of a strike (ASOS) from 1 December, starting with working to contract only.

In a message to members, UCU general secretary Jo Grady said 'Employers are doubling down on their completely unacceptable positions: another below-inflation pay offer, doing nothing on casualisation, workloads and inequality, and cutting USS members' guaranteed future pension benefits by 35% or more. We are at an impasse and nothing will change for the better unless UCU members put on a massive show of strength in those three days of strike action and accompanying ASOS': Industrial action starts on 1 December

UCU has called vice-chancellor pay packets 'immoral' and 'unsustainable' after the revelations in a report from the Office for Students into senior staff pay in English universities: Vice-chancellor pay exposes 'cavernous' gap between staff & management

UCU has written to university employer representatives outlining what university vice chancellors have to do to avoid industrial action in the next few weeks, escalating into spring and beyond: UCU writes to university bosses setting out how to avoid pre-Christmas campus strikes

Read also the latest from the general secretary on next steps.

Members have backed strike action in a ballot over pay and working conditions. Overall, more than seven in 10 members who voted (70.1%) backed strike action with 84.9% voting for action short of strike, which could include a marking boycott: Big mandate for strike action at UK universities over pay & working conditions

See the full results here

A new report released today by the Education Support charity has exposed the reality of work-related stress in universities. UCU general secretary Jo Grady said this report should cause every vice chancellor in the sector to hang their heads in shame. Workload is a big part of our 'four fights' dispute, and our annual claim which calls for a sector-wide 35-hour week backed up by genuinely realistic workload models.

UCU's report mapping the extent of precarious employment in HE has been updated, revealing just how persistent the problem is, institution by institution. The report also reminds us that casualisation is an equality issue, with women and BAME staff disproportionately likely to be on various forms of insecure contract. UCU general secretary Jo Grady wrote to members on our demands for sector-wide change as part of our 'four fights' dispute arising from the repeated failure of employers to address this aspect of our annual claim.

New figures today show the scale of pay cuts faced by university staff has been laid bare as new data showed 12 years of below inflation pay offers have left staff thousands of pounds worse off. The employers' latest pay offer for 2021/22 is just 1.5% but inflation is at 4.5%. Employers have described this real terms pay cut as 'fair, but UCU's new modeller shows the offer means pay has fallen 20% in real terms since 2009. The modeller also shows the effect unpaid work has had on hourly pay, as staff try to keep up with growing workloads: University staff pay cut by 20%, new figures show

The national dispute ballots open today. Ballot papers will be sent via first class post. Please return them quickly. For more information and for resources to help get the vote out, please go to our HE disputes.

On the eve of the national dispute ballots opening, UCU general secretary Jo Grady has emailed HE members: Your ballot papers arrive this week: vote YES to industrial action

Jo also spoke with student newspaper The Tab about why UCU members are taking action, asking why 'university managers, year after year, are happy to let chaos reign in the sector'.

Intense preparations for the 'four fights' ballot is under way. The key dates are as follows:

  • Monday 18 October: ballot packs will be dispatched by Civica Election Services to UCU HE members via 1st class post, with 1st class prepaid envelope enclosed
  • Friday 22 October-Thursday 28 October (5pm): online replacement ballot request form opens
  • Thursday 4 November (12 noon): ballot closes.

Further details on ballot timetable and activities have been sent out to all branch officers; please contact your branch and volunteer to 'get the vote out' (GTVO). We will be in touch again very soon with updates, resources, FAQs, and campaign events.

We are also planning to produce a series of videos which capture the lives of members in higher education, and how they are affected by degraded pay, casualisation, equality failings and more. Please get in touch with the UCU press team if you would like to be involved!

UCU general secretary Jo Grady has announced the timetable for action on both the pay and USS disputes, saying 'we have tried to negotiate and compromise with employers, but they haven't even met us half way. So, we have no option but to escalate and try to win change through collective action.'  Ballots will open on Monday 18 October. Members are urged to check their membership information and postal address is up-to-date by logging in to  My UCU.

A special higher education sector conference (HESC) held on 9 September 2021 has called for an industrial action ballot over the employers' 2021-22 pay offer, to run alongside a ballot over the changes imposed to USS pensions.

To summarise, the special HESC agreed to:

  • instruct HEC to declare a dispute with UUK over USS
  • ballot all USS members for industrial action to defend a defined benefit USS scheme
  • take industrial action (including strike and action short of strike action) in the autumn term
  • initiate exploration of the feasibility of conditional benefits and conditional indexation
  • continue the Four Fights campaign (pay, workload, casualisation, equality)
  • ballot all HE members for industrial action in support of Four Fights
  • coordinate the USS and Four Fights ballots
  • take industrial action in pursuit of the Four Fights beginning in November
  • coordinate the campaign with sister unions
  • prepare a 'Get The Vote Out' operation.

There will be a special meeting of the higher education committee on Monday 20 September to discuss the outcomes of the conference and agree the next steps. Following that meeting of HEC we will communicate further with members including details on a clear timetable for the ballots and any resulting industrial action, as well as how they can get involved in the campaign.

The second of the two dispute resolution meetings ended last Friday. The employers have refused to move from the final offer they made in May of 1.5% for 2021-22.

This follows a 0% offer for 2020-21, when inflation was 1.5% using RPI (the unions' preferred measure) or around 0.5% using CPIH (the measure preferred by the employers). Inflation has been rising rapidly since the start of this year. The Office for National Statistics reported CPIH in June at 2.4%, CPI at 2.5% and RPI at 3.9%. A 1.5% increase over 2 years is in reality a steep real-terms pay cut, on top of over a decade of pay cuts.

When we challenged employers to meet CPIH in August, they refused, saying that 'they did not have a mandate' to meet even their own preferred inflation rate.

Our NHS colleagues have been offered 3%. Our members, and the members of our sister unions, have kept universities running during the pandemic, performed essential life-changing research including to combat the virus, and taught 4% more students than last year.

The money is there. After adjusting for inflation, the sector has seen its total income rise by around 15% over the last six years. Tuition fee income, in particular, increased by 40% between 2014/2015 and 2019/2020. Yet, over the same period, staff salaries have fallen in real terms. And this is before the 2020-21 increase in student numbers of 4% are taken into account, never mind projected increases in student numbers this autumn.

No progress was made on other elements of the joint union claim including the 35 hour week, or Scottish JNCHES. Employers would not go beyond their usual offer of working groups to collect data on workload, casualisation and pay inequality. These groups have not delivered real change for members in the past and we have no reason to believe the situation will be any different this year. The joint union claim also included a demand for a UK-wide agreement on Graduate Teaching Assistants (GTAs). We are awaiting clarification from the employers as to what their offer of 'joint work' might entail.

Next steps in our national pay and conditions campaign will be made at the Higher Education Sector Conference on 9 September. Branches are strongly encouraged to meet to debate motions and elect delegates. The dispute resolution process has not resulted in an improved offer but the fight is far from over.

On 15 July HE negotiators from UCU, Unite, and Unison met UCEA in the first of two dispute resolution meetings over the current bargaining round. We were disappointed that UCEA did not bring an improved offer, despite our consistent communications on areas which are lacking.

UCEA did not demonstrate willingness to improve their previous pay offer, despite the rise in inflation that means that 1.5% would now constitute a real terms pay cut, under both RPI and CPIH. UCEA was also unwilling to engage with the pay-related elements of our claim, including workload, job security, and pay equality. These conditions directly impact our rate of pay and working conditions, and should form a crucial part of our yearly bargaining round.

We have the expectation that our employers will show respect for the contributions made by staff by offering rates of pay which are competitive internationally, rather than deprioritising staff in favour of other types of expenditure. The next dispute resolution meeting is on Friday 23 July. We expect UCEA, as a representative of our employers, to demonstrate a commitment to staff in HE by improving their offer.

Special conference called

The higher education committee has called a special sector conference on 9 September 2021 to discuss the current disputes in higher education, including those resulting from the JNCHES negotiating rounds. Members are asked to please keep engaged with branch meetings which will feed into the conference.

Strong university finances reported

There is no excuse not to restore pay to acceptable levels and provide secure pensions for university staff, UCU said today.

The call came as new analysis by the Office for Students shows that university finances are in good health. The latest recruitment figures also show unprecedented numbers of people applying to university.

EGMs called over campaigning

UCU branches have been asked to call emergency general meetings before 30 June after key decisions over the major issues facing the sector were taken at the recent higher education sector conference. Member participation in this process is critical in order to inform the next higher education committee meeting on 2 July, where they will decide how we proceed with our campaigns over pay and pensions.

Employers' offer not good enough

UCU general secretary Jo Grady tells members the employers' 1.5% pay offer is not god enough, and provides an update on what happens next.

Final 2021/22 pay negotiations update

The final JNCHES meeting of the 2021/22 negotiating round took place yesterday, Thursday 6 May. The HE trade unions pressed UCEA to improve their opening offer of 1.1% on pay and in regards to the pay related and equality elements of the claim, for a meaningful offer that focuses on action and sector wide frameworks to address pay inequality, precarious employment and workloads. 

On pay, the employers opening offer failed to meet any of the union's key demands; keep up and catch-up, RPI inflation, a pay rise for all and progress on poverty pay. More broadly these negotiations have been shaped by the ongoing response to the pandemic and the huge collective effort staff have made to ensure HE remains successful and attractive. Also employers were reminded that staff had not had a pay rise since August 2019 and employers offered 'zero' uplift last year.

Towards the end of the meeting UCEA made a final offer on pay; the headline pay offer is 1.5%. It is to be distributed throughout the pay spine in a tapered way with a proportionately higher amount for those at the bottom relative to those at the middle and top. This is similar to the way pay outcomes has been distributed in recent years. For UCU represented grades its worth 1.5%. This falls some way short of the headline demands on pay. UCEA will provide written details of the offer and how it relates to each point on the pay spine next week. 

On the pay related and equality matters the situation is more nuanced than pay. It's important to note that UCEA have not set out their position in a written offer at this time. During the talks, negotiators sought to find imaginative ways in which the demands on pay inequality and intersectionality, exploitative casual contracts including a demand specific to GTAs and workload can be progressed. UCEA's position is that they cannot direct autonomous employers on these matters but are prepared to actively consider what is possible. The UCU negotiators stressed the need for action planning, monitoring, publishing data and the need to progress issues that aren't dependent on working groups. These discussions were involved and left little time at the end of the scheduled meeting for a detailed offer to be made by UCEA.

A full written offer is expected early next week. It's too early to say whether UCEA will make an offer that represents a meaningful attempt to address these vitally important matters. UCEA was left in no doubt about how strongly members feel and the need for real change to be made. 

Branches will be updated on the written offer as soon as possible.

JNCHES pay negotiations update

On 14 April 2021 the second of this year's JNCHES higher education pay negotiations took place.

UCEA, the HE employers' organisation, made an opening pay increase offer for the 2021-22 JNCHES negotiating round. The offer is for an increase of 1.1% on the total paybill. The employers indicated that it could support either a percentage uplift or a flat rate increase on all pay points, or a combination of these approaches. UCEA also made some limited proposals in regards to the pay related and equality elements of the claim.

The actual pay uplift, and how it relates to individual pay points, will be subject to further negotiation in the final JNCHES meeting on 6 May 2021. The joint unions will be looking at the implications of the offer in relation to both the claim and the structure of the pay uplift. The joint union are also committed to progressing all other elements of the claim.

The joint unions have indicated that the opening offer is insufficient and that more needs to be brought to the final JNCHES negotiation meeting on 6 May 2021.

Branches will be kept informed of the outcome of the final meeting.

Joint claim submitted to employers

The higher education joint trade union claim 2021/22 has been agreed by the five HE trade unions; UNISON, Unite, EIS, GMB and UCU, and has been submitted to UCEA in advance of the first New JNCHES negotiating meeting on 31 March.

The claim, which among other demands covers UCU's core Four Fight demands; a pay rise for all that is progressive, tackling intersectional pay inequality, dealing with excessive workloads, stress and mental health linked to Covid-19, and addressing wide spread precarious contracts and a specific claim for GTA's. You can read the full claim here. [412kb]

The outcome of last year's New JNCHES negotiations was an unprecedented 'zero' % pay offer by UCEA. This offer was also marked by the lack of ambition in UCEA's proposals to tackle the other UCU core demands relating to inequality, workloads and casualisation. That offer was rejected by members. There is real pressure on new JNCHES to deliver for and reward staff in 2021/22.  

The New JNCHES negotiating timetable for 2021/22:

  • meeting 1 - Wednesday 31 March 2021  
  • meeting 2 - Wednesday 14 April 2021
  • meeting 3 - Thursday 6 May 2021.

Branches will be updated with developments during the negotiations.

Joint trade union claim 2021/22

At the HE sector conferences in September and December 2020, a number of motions resolved specific demands to be included in any joint trade union claim. Reports of both conferences can be found here and here.

The process of developing the JNCHES claim and campaign for 2021/22 has begun with the joint trade union side meeting last month. The HE trade unions are Unison, Unite, GMB, EIS and UCU.

The higher education committee (HEC) considered the early developments with the claim, the key UCU policy and principles that should be in a joint union claim.

The HE trade unions will continue to develop the claim with the aim of submitting it to UCEA, the employers' representatives, in advance of the first negotiating meeting on 31 March. Given the timetable HEC agreed to delegate the further development of the claim and its final sign off to the HEC officers and national negotiators.  

Branches have been asked to look out for further communication on the joint trade union claim.

Last updated: 26 July 2022