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The National University and College Union has voted in favour of strike action and action short of a strike. This comes after a long-running dispute with the Universities and Colleges Employers Association over pay and working conditions, as well as Universities UK over pensions.
For the ballot on action over pensions, UCU branches across the country voted by a wide margin of 76.41% in favour of strike action and also voted 87.71% in favour of action short of a strike. By a slightly lower margin, the ballot on action over pay and working conditions saw 70% vote in favour of strike action and 85% vote in favour of action short of a strike.
The UCU’s higher education committee is due to meet on the 12th of November to decide on what action to take. If strike action is agreed upon, participating branches are required to give fourteen days’ notice to their respective university before industrial action can begin.
For the pensions ballot, the Lancaster UCU voted in line with the majority, voting 75.2% in favour of strike action and 84.4% in favour of action short of a strike. Turnout among eligible Lancaster UCU members was 52.6%, barely crossing the 50% turnout threshold required to go through with strike action.
Whereas for the ballot on pay and working conditions, the Lancaster UCU voted by lower but still substantial margins of 70.4% in favour of strike action and 82.3% in favour of action short of a strike.
These current disputes have been a long time coming and are of a similar nature to the most recent strikes of 2019-20. These disputes can be divided into two areas of contention: one over pensions and one over what the UCU has termed its ‘Four Fights’. According to the UCU, these four fights call to:
- address the scandal of the gender, ethnic, and disability pay gap
- end contract casualisation and rising job insecurity
- tackle the rising workloads driving members to breaking point
- increase to all spine points on the national pay scale of £2,500.
The UCU claims there is a 9% disability pay gap, a 16% gender pay gap, and a 17% race pay gap – all figures for concern.
Higher Education Unions met with the UCEA in May and failed to reach an agreement over pay – staff represented by the unions hadn’t had a pay rise since August 2019 – and the UCEA insisted that as far as working conditions were concerned it could not interfere with autonomous employers on this matter.
After continued talks, the UCEA refused to raise its initial offer of a 1.5% pay rise, which due to inflation would actually be a pay cut in real terms. The UCU argue that Universities have the available funds to meet their demands, pointing out that the university sector has seen its total income rise by 15% in the last six years and that the 4% increase in student numbers in 2020-21 will see a rise in income from tuition fees. The UCEA implemented their initial offer in August and regarded the negotiations as concluded.
The second dispute is over the university pension scheme, known as the Universities Superannuation Scheme. This dispute escalated in April when UUK proposed what the UCU described as unnecessary and damaging cuts to the USS, which later went ahead. In dispute, UCU wants UUK to:
- stop the cuts to USS and work [with them] to avoid future changes to benefits and increases in member contributions
- call on USS to issue a new evidence-based valuation of the scheme
A special higher education sector conference in September resulted in calls for ballots for strike action over the Four Fights and the USS changes. Due to some branches failing to meet the 50% turnout threshold, only 37 out of 68 branches can currently take strike action over pensions and only 54 out of 146 branches can currently take action over the Four Fights. Dr Jo Grady, the UCU general secretary and a Lancaster alumnus, has called the results, “a strong, unequivocal YES vote to take action against the massive cuts which employers are imposing on pensions.”
However, despite this, “strong, unequivocal YES vote to take action” not everyone is happy. How will this strike further disrupt an academic cohort already massively affected by previous strikes and the Pandemic?
‘Lancaster Students Against Disruption’ are asking the Students’ Union to put themselves in the shoes of the students and consider the disruptions this strike will have, “emotionally, academically and financially.”
‘Lancaster Students Against Disruptions’ have proposed a manifesto against the Students’ Union, “blindly supporting UCU in this strike.” The manifesto highlights the Students’ Union’s mandate to stand in “solidarity” with all UCU strikes but urges the SU to not “blindly support” strike action that will heavily affect student welfare and education.
‘Lancaster Students Against Disruption’ make it clear that, “this campaign is not one to question the motive to strike” only that strikes shouldn’t take place this academic year. Undergraduates pay a minimum of £9250 a year on tuition fees alone; additional fees for accommodation and maintenance makes university some of the most expensive years of our lives. For students to be disrupted by strike action for the fourth time since 2019, “could be fatal.”
The manifesto goes on to express that, “if industrial action goes ahead, the uni would be pocketing that money whilst not paying striking staff and still underfunding so many services.” ‘Lancaster Students Against Disruption’ acknowledge the Students’ Union as a, “union for all students” and hence, raises concern for the representation of PhD students which ‘Lancaster Students Against Disruptions’ note, “anecdotally…many PGR GTAs simply can’t afford to strike.”
During an interview with ‘Lancaster Students Against Disruptions’ they placed emphasis on the fact that UCU isn’t to blame but to have strikes during this academic year would, “be wrong.” With third years having had only 12 weeks of the ‘normal’ university experience, second years spending their first year, “held captive in their halls” and freshers coming off the back of non-existent A Levels, why stand in, “empty solidarity for the sake of solidarity?”
The Students’ Union have released the following statement in response to the above concerns for the impact of further disruptions to student welfare and education: