Frequently Asked Questions
We’ve put together some questions and answers about the forthcoming strikes, with a special focus on the situation here in Cambridge. This page will be regularly updated over the next few weeks, but if you have a question that isn’t answered here, let us know at email@example.com.
- What does going on strike involve?
Basically, not doing any work at all for the entirety of the strike days. This time round, those days are staggered over four weeks, escalating from two days a week to the full five days by the end if employers don’t make us a reasonable offer:
Week 1: Thursday 20 – Friday 21 February
Week 2: Monday 24 – Wednesday 26 February
Week 3: Monday 2 – Thursday 5 March
Week 4: Monday 9 – Friday 13 March
During these days, we ask everyone not to enter University buildings or sites. Instead, we’d encourage everyone to join us at the picket lines on the mornings of strike days, and to take part in the programme of teach-outs, meetings and training sessions we’re organising during the afternoons.
- Why are we taking strike action?
Last October, UCU members here in Cambridge joined thousands of people around the country in voting for strike action on two separate but related issues: USS Pensions, and Pay and Equality.
Over the past ten years, we’ve seen pay in the higher education sector fall by almost 20% in real terms (measured by RPI). At the same time, workloads have been on the rise, as have the numbers of workers employed on precarious fixed-term contracts. These changes have been disproportionately hard on those at the bottom; and they’ve widened the already existing pay gaps for female, BME and disabled staff.
On top of that, staff at pre-1992 universities are being forced to make higher contributions each month into their USS pensions, resulting in yet another pay cut. Those changes are based on the same faulty methodology for valuing our pension scheme that brought about the 2018 strikes; it’s a methodology that’s been roundly discredited by the independent Joint Expert Panel (JEP) in not one but two reports — reports that have so far gone unheeded by the scheme’s trustees.
Together, falling pay and rising pension costs are making it hard for the lowest-paid workers in higher education to stay in USS, risking an exodus that may place the scheme itself in jeopardy in future years. Staff are being hammered on both counts, so it’s no wonder they’ve decided they can’t take it any more.
- What did members vote for?
On both issues – USS and Pay and Equality – members have voted for both strike action and action short of strike (ASOS). Turnout for both ballots stood at around 58% at Cambridge. Among those who voted, there was overwhelming support for strike action (80.9% for USS, 76.4% for Pay and Equality) and action short of strike (90.8% for USS, 88.9% for Pay and Equality). Voting to strike is never an easy decision, taken only as a last resort when other approaches have been exhausted. But these figures show the level of concern and frustration among university staff; and, sadly for us, it’s only when we go on strike that our employers start to pay attention. That’s why we encourage everyone to take part in the coming strikes. They’re the only way we’re going to see real and meaningful change, here and in universities across the country.
- What is UCU asking for?
On USS pensions, UCU is asking for a return to pre-strike levels of pension contribution: that’s 8%, as against 9.6% at the moment, or 11% in 2021. We’re also demanding that the recommendations of the Joint Expert Panel are implemented in full. Currently, USS are in denial about the panel’s independent but trenchant critique of its valuation position. We need them to accept the evidence on this, so that we can settle this issue once and for all.
On Pay and Equality, UCU wants:
- An above-inflation pay offer, at RPI +3%, to begin making up for the pay we’ve lost over the last ten years;
- A commitment from Universities to bringing down casualisation, with decent contracts for all;
- A detailed and binding plan from employers to reduce unsustainable workloads, to close the pay gaps for female and BME staff, and to make the university a more equal place to work.
Essentially, we want universities to sign up to sector-wide expectations on tackling precarity and inequality, a common code of practice for all employers in the sector. Universities would start by committing to reducing precarious employment, instating open-ended contracts as the norm in higher education, and eliminating the pay gaps for female and BME staff. But it doesn’t end there. Sorting out these issues will require the kind of serious local negotiation we’ve seen on casualisation here in Cambridge, and universities will have to do that hard work locally. But with the joint framework, they’ll have to do that hard work, and they’ll be held to account if they drag their heels.
- When are the strikes this time?
This round of strikes will take place over four weeks, escalating as the weeks go by. The strike dates are as follows:
Week 1: Thursday 20 – Friday 21 February
Week 2: Monday 24 – Wednesday 26 February
Week 3: Monday 2 – Thursday 5 March
Week 4: Monday 9 – Friday 13 March
Although staff will be working on the non-strike days during this period, we ask members to take Action Short Of Strike during those days; you can find out more information about that from our ASOS FAQs here.
- Will we definitely be on strike for all fourteen days?
No: negotiations will continue throughout this period, and strikes can be called off at any time if employers make us a reasonable offer. That’s why it’s crucial to keep up the pressure on the University, and especially on the Vice Chancellor, so that they push their representatives into finding a deal.
- Why are we going on strike again?
The coming fourteen days of strikes follow close behind eight days of action taken in the same disputes in November/December last year. Those eight days brought our employers back to the negotiating table, and we started to press them on our demands. We’ve seen some movement from them, but not nearly enough. Unfortunately, it looks like they’d rather weather out another round of strikes, with adverse consequences for staff and students, than make serious efforts to address the systemic problems in higher education. We don’t want to be here again; going on strike isn’t why we went into working in universities. The fact that so many of us are once again turning out to strike, with all the hardship it incurs, is testament to how deep these issues run, and how desperate we are for change.
- Have we made any progress in negotiations so far?
From what we’ve heard from our negotiators, yes — some. On USS, our case has been boosted by the publication of the JEP’s second report, which questions the current governance of the scheme, and recommends greater input from members in deciding how the level of risk is assessed. Implementation of the report’s conclusions won’t go all the way to settling this dispute, but it will clear the way for more accurate valuations of the scheme in the future, and offers the prospect of a long-term solution to this long-running problem. Click here to read UCU’s response to the JEP’s second report.
On Pay and Equality, the employers’ representatives at UCEA were refusing to discuss setting sector-wide expectations by which their institutions could then be bound. That’s changed: so much so that, at the end of January, they made us a preliminary offer, which — unsatisfactory and unspecific though it was, and consequently unacceptable — accepted the principle of nation-wide standards for working conditions in HE. It’s no coincidence that this offer was made just before the decision to call another round of strikes, and just after staff at another fourteen institutions voted to join the action. It seems the threat of impending industrial action is necessary to make our employers get serious. The positive results from those other fourteen institutions makes our position stronger as we head into this round of strikes, and bolsters our leverage in ongoing negotiations.
- I am not a member of UCU, if I join can I take part in the action?
Yes, if you join UCU you will be able to participate in the action with the protection of the union as soon as you are signed up. While non-UCU members have the legal right to participate in strike action at their workplace, our strong recommendation is that you join UCU so you have the protection of a trade union before you join the action.
- What does action short of a strike entail?
Beginning on the first day of the action (February 20), and continuing until April, you should:
- Work to contract: stick to the terms of your employment contract (hours minus strike days, breaks, workload and so on). Check your offer letter, statement of terms and conditions or staff handbook;
- Not cover for colleagues unless required by your contract;
- Not reschedule teaching cancelled due to strike action;
- Not carry out voluntary or discretionary activities: if you have a choice, choose not to do it!
In all cases, tell your employers why you’re doing what you’re doing. And if challenged by management, suspend your particular action and let us know: we’ll get advice from our national office on your behalf. You can find a more detailed set of FAQs about working to contract here.
- Are supervisions affected by the strike?
Our dispute is with the university, not the colleges. Teaching and other duties organised within and between colleges — generally those arranged by a Director of Studies, or connected to a college office such as Tutor — are thus unaffected. Any work that is paid for directly to you by the College will not be covered by strike action regardless of whether the University is responsible for organising the sessions. If you are paid for the work by the University (either on top of or as part of your normal wage), regardless of whether the College refunds the cost to the University, then it is covered by the strike action.
Although college teaching does not fall under the remit of the strike, we do ask, in these cases, that — as far as possible — you:
- Reschedule supervisions to non-strike days, explaining the reason to your student;
- Relocate supervisions away from university premises – for instance, by using teaching rooms in colleges. Entry into University buildings would count as crossing the UCU pickets.
These measures will increase the impact of the strike without undermining the performance of college duties.
The University is claiming that all supervisions are exempt from the strike, but UCU is acting on its own legal advice. Members should not bow to pressure to break the strike. We realise, though, that these distinctions are complex and often unclear. So if you’re unsure about a particular case, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org, and we’ll do our best to answer.
- I’m a PhD student – can I strike?
Yes! You can cancel any paid work you do under contract for the University on the basis of the strike. Supervisions organised by colleges will not be affected, but for more information, see the advice immediately above.
- I’m on an hourly paid contract – what should I do?
The predicament of hourly-paid workers and other casualised staff are at the centre of these strikes. We encourage you not to work on strike days, and to join our campaign to Raise the Bar for casualised staff. We’ll be holding meetings and events to highlight the effects of casualisation throughout the strike, so keep an eye on our website for more details. If striking has the potential to leave you in financial difficulties, you can claim some money from our national and local strike funds – see the information below for how to claim.
- Are college duties affected by the industrial action?
No. Because colleges are not part of the dispute, duties relating solely to your college employment, or the terms of your college fellowship, do not fall under the remit of the industrial action.
- Do I have to tell my employer that I’m going on strike?
No. Contrary to what some administrators and managers are saying, you have no legal or contractual requirement to let your department know you’ll be taking strike action. UCU recommends that you ignore all requests to notify your department in advance, or to return any paperwork declaring your intention to strike. However, if your manager asks you after the strike whether you took action, you should answer truthfully.
- My employer is telling me I am required to reschedule my teaching if I take strike action – is that true?
No! Whatever your managers tell you, you are not required to notify them in advance as to whether you’ll be taking strike action or not, and therefore cannot reschedule your teaching in advance. Once the strike action is underway, rescheduling teaching comes under the purview of Action Short of Strike (ASOS), and therefore should not be done
- What can I say to students?
We know that no one likes disrupting students’ education. We’d all much rather be teaching, lecturing, doing the work we enjoy. But this strike is in the interests of staff and students alike. We’re going on strike in order to continue doing what we do, and to defend the values of higher education against devastating cuts. Undermining the strike will only accelerate these cuts, to the detriment of all those who teach and learn in higher education.
For these reasons, the National Union of Students supports our strike, as does the Cambridge University Students Union, who are calling on students not to cross picket lines. Throughout the strike, we’ll also be running a series of teach-outs to engage students in broader conversations about the modern university: you can direct students to our varied programme of events, or put one on yourself, to show them we still want to
It’s the management’s responsibility to tell students if lectures and classes will be cancelled on strike days, not yours. By all means indicate to students that they should check on the day to see whether their lectures/supervisions are still on; but avoid telling them for certain that you won’t be teaching.
- Am I breaking my contract by taking strike action?
All effective industrial action may constitute a breach of your employment contract. But because UCU has acted throughout in accordance with trade union law, workers are entitled to certain legal protections. The law protects employees from dismissal whilst taking part in lawful industrial action, or at any time within twelve weeks of the start of the action; and, depending on the circumstances, dismissal may also be unfair if it takes place after the strikes have ended. These sorts of reprisals have never happened in higher education.
- How much money will I lose?
Cambridge will deduct 1/365th of your annual salary for each day you take part in strike action. The university has confirmed that deductions will be phased over three months, to minimise the financial hardship on striking members. During action short of strike (ASOS), provided you stay within the limits of your contractual obligations, the university will have no legal basis for docking your pay.
- Is there a strike fund?
Yes. The strike fund is there to make sure that all members can exercise their right to strike, including those who may face financial hardship as a result. For details of how to claim, see here.
On the national strike fund:
- those of you earning £30,000 or more will be able to claim up to £50 from the third day onwards
- those of you earning below £30,000 will be able to claim up to £75 per day from the second day onwards.
In their advice about pay deductions, the University advises people to file a ‘participation form’ before they go on strike. Remember, you do not have to notify your employer before taking strike action, though you should tell them once it’s over. When asked, though, make sure you fill in the UCU participation form, which corrects some of the problematic features of the University’s version.
- Will striking affect my pension?
No. Like most university employers, Cambridge will not withhold pension contributions from workers on strike. Full employer’s and employee’s contributions will be paid to USS as usual. This is worth remembering when you’re reckoning up the cost of striking.
- What does the university do with the money withheld from striking staff?
Cambridge’s policy is that all deducted pay will go into a range of student support funds. This is a point worth emphasising to students.
- I am on leave during strike days – can I still take part?
Yes you can. You might want to tell your employers after the action has ended, and claim back your leave if pay is deducted; or you might want to cancel your leave and take strike action instead. But you are under no obligation to notify the employer in advance, and we recommend that you don’t.
- Do I answer work emails from home?
No, not on strike days. We suggest that you use something like the following automated reply for the entirety of the day:
I will not be responding to work-related emails on the fourteen days of strike action scheduled between Thursday 20 February and Friday 13 March (20, 21, 24, 25, 26 February; 2, 3, 4, 5, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13 March). The University and College Union is taking industrial action to defend pay and pensions for university staff, and to push back against the widening inequalities across higher education. You can find out more about the dispute at ucu.cam.ac.uk.
- Can I go and do my own work in university buildings?
No — that also constitutes breaking the strike.
- What if I’m giving a talk, or have other external commitments, on a strike day?
As you are on strike you should not be giving talks or seminars at the University. We would also ask you to remember that if you are engaged separately to give talks at other universities during the strike period, and if members at those universities are also on strike, then you should not be crossing union picket lines and so should cancel any engagements. A full list of participating universities can be found here.
- If I work part-time, will I have a full 1/365th deducted from my pay per day of strike?
No – Cambridge calculates deductions on a pro-rata basis for part-time staff.
- I am on a Tier 2/4/5 Visa, can I go on strike?
The law on this question is complicated, and constantly being updated. In November 2019, UCU issued this advice for international staff on taking strike action. If that doesn’t answer your questions, or if you’re still unsure about the particulars of your situation, please get in touch with us at email@example.com, and we’ll get back to you with an answer as soon as we can.
- I’m a researcher fully funded by external bodies – should I go on strike?
You are an employee of Cambridge University, wherever your funding comes from. We are asking all colleagues, members or not, to take part in the strike. Anyone can join the union at any point before or during the strikes: just visit www.ucu.org.uk/join.
- What can I do if I am:
- A college employee? Because our dispute is with the university, not the colleges, college business continues as usual. This doesn’t mean that college employees aren’t affected by the issues at stake in these strikes. College employees are usually part of the same USS pension scheme, and have likewise seen their contributions go up in the past month; meanwhile, college pay is tied to the national pay scale, so an increase in national pay means an increase in college pay too. We therefore encourage college employees to reschedule supervisions for non-strike days, to avoid teaching in university buildings, and to come along to our pickets.
- A graduate student? Grad students are on the front line of the increasing casualisation in higher education – overworked, underpaid, and often working without contracts altogether. That’s why we’re encouraging all grad students to join the union and become part of our campaign. UCU membership is free for graduate students: click here to join. And to hear more about our campaign against casualisation, during the strikes and beyond, sign up to the Raise the Bar mailing list on our website.
- An undergraduate student? There are many ways for undergraduates to support their staff during the strikes. You can come along to the pickets and talk to your lecturers; you can take part in the teach-outs we’ll be holding in collaboration with students. And you can tell Vice Chancellor Stephen Toope he needs to get back to negotiations with UCU on behalf of his staff and students alike: his email address is VCO.firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can find a template email here.