Having voted overwhelmingly for industrial action, staff at 74 universities across the UK will go on strike to defend their pay and pensions for fourteen days, escalating over the period 20 February through to 13 March. The days currently scheduled for strike action are:
20 – 21 February
24 – 26 February
2 – 5 March
9 – 13 March
Escalating our action over four weeks gives universities plenty of time to make us a reasonable offer on our demands. Ideally, we don’t want to get to the fourteenth day of strike; if we get that far, it’s because our employers have refused to negotiate in good faith.
Strikes are an action of last resort when negotiating with employers, and they are not something that anyone treats lightly. Unions have to meet stringent requirements to declare a strike; meanwhile, striking workers lose their pay, often suffering significant hardship as a result. However, strikes are a tried and tested way of protecting and improving working conditions. Sometimes, it is only after this collective withdrawal of work that employers agree to bargain with workers and to improve working conditions.
What are these strikes about?
These strikes are about pay, equality, pensions and the future of higher education in the UK.Members of the University and College Union – UCU – have voted to strike on two distinct but related issues:
- Staff have been told their pension fund, USS, is in trouble, and requires them to pay higher monthly contributions into it. From October 2019, contribution rates jumped up by 20% compared with last year; and in 2021 they’re set to rise again, ending up at 37% higher than they were in 2018.
- These rises are unnecessary. As an independent expert panel concluded – twice – in 2019, the USS pension scheme is in good health, and doesn’t need higher contributions.
- In addition, these are rises that many university staff simply can’t afford. The pension scheme is in good health now, but it will be jeopardised in future if its contributions are too high for casualised and early career staff. We can’t allow an exodus from the scheme through staff being priced out: that’d leave many people without pensions, and many more with reduced benefits.
- Which brings us on to…
Pay and Equality:
- Over the past ten years, staff have seen their pay fall by almost 20% in real terms. This year, the university are offering another below-inflation pay offer: in other words, another pay cut. Together with the increased pension contributions, workers are facing a 4% dent in their pay this year alone.
- At the same time, they’re working longer and harder than before. On average, people at universities perform two days’ unpaid work every week. Current workloads are dangerous and unsustainable.
- Adding to the strain is the increasing casualisation in higher education. More and more people are employed on precarious, fixed-term contracts, with limited rights, and little hope of a more secure future. Others – including graduate students – don’t have a contract at all.
- These deteriorating conditions can be felt across the board, but they hit staff at the bottom the hardest. They exacerbate the existing inequalities in higher education, especially for female, BME and disabled staff. The gender pay gap in Cambridge is 19.6%– that’s even worse than the higher education average of 12%. Lower pay means higher inequality.
How will I be affected?
During the strikes, lectures, seminars, classes and demonstrations organised by your faculties may be cancelled. (Any college teaching you have will continue as normal: this dispute is between the union and the university, not the colleges.) This will cause disruption for students, and the university will blame it on striking staff.
So why should I support the strikes?
Because the worsening conditions in higher education affect us all. Staff don’t want to go on strike: they’d much rather be teaching, researching, doing the work they love. In fact, strikes are a way of making sure they can continue doing what they do. Insecure employment, intolerable workloads, unequal pay, and uncertain futures prevent staff from doing their best work, and ultimately, these working conditions are students’ learning conditions.
The marketisation of the sector doesn’t just encourage overwork and insecure contracts for staff; it also drives up fees and increases class sizes for students. Where do tuition fees go? Over the past ten years, the proportion of revenues spent on staff has fallen, while spending on flashy buildings has soared. That’s where tuition fees are going – to university vanity projects, not to the people who teach and support students. These interconnected developments threaten the future of higher education as we know it. The union is fighting back on behalf of students and staff alike, to build a better and fairer university for everyone.
How can I show my support?
There are plenty of ways to show your support for university staff:
- Respect the strike: don’t cross the picket-lines, or come and join them!
- Come along to daily rallies (12:30 at King’s Parade) and teach-outs: just because they’re on strike, doesn’t mean your teachers don’t want to see you! There’ll be a programme of free public lectures and events, where staff and students will address themes raised by the strike in a less formal setting, beyond the limits of the curriculum. Come along to learn more about the modern university, and how we can improve it, as well as a range of other pressing topics.
- Write to the Vice-Chancellor: tell Stephen Toope that you back your lecturers and teachers, and ask him to exert pressure on Universities UK and UCEA to engage in meaningful negotiations. For a template email, see below.
- Stay informed: for regular updates on the strikes as they progress, keep an eye on our website; or check out the CUSU and GU pages for more information on what’s going on and how to get involved.
When staff and students unite, we can make real change happen. Only by coming together can we resist the cuts that threaten our university, and make it a fairer place for the future.
Template e-mail to Vice-Chancellor:
Dear Prof Stephen Toope,
I am writing to complain about the impact of the strike action by Cambridge UCU upon my education.
The world-class teaching and support of the staff at Cambridge was a large part of the reason I applied to study here. They are the university’s greatest asset. Yet over the past ten years, their pay has fallen in real terms by almost 20%. The effects of this have been felt most keenly by those who can least afford it, especially the increasing number of casualised staff. On top of that, they are being asked to pay more into their pensions for no additional benefit, based on a discredited valuation of the USS pension scheme.
My understanding is that these strikes would be called off if representatives of UK universities would come back to the negotiating table. I also understand that, while the issues of these strikes are national, more concrete action could be taken at a local level – for instance, to close the gender pay gap, which in Cambridge is significantly higher than the sector average.
As things stand, this university – my university – is failing its staff and its students. I therefore urge you to use your influence in calling for negotiations with UCU to resume with immediate effect, to bring this dispute to a successful end. Please speak up for staff on strike, and do everything in your power, locally and nationally, to address their concerns.