2019 Strike FAQ

The following are some questions and answers about the forthcoming strikes, with a special focus on the situation here in Cambridge. We’ll be keeping this page regularly updated over the next few weeks, so if you have a question that isn’t answered here, let us know at admin@ucu.cam.ac.uk.


You can also read the FAQ from national UCU for migrant staff taking industrial action here. And another one on what it means to work to contract here.


  • What does striking involve?

Basically, not doing any work at all for the entirety of the strike days (25 November to 4 December 2019). We ask everyone not to enter university premises – unless they’re joining or visiting a picket line. We’d encourage everyone to join the picket lines in the mornings of strike days, and to take part in the programme of teach-outs and training sessions organised for the afternoons.


  • Why are we taking strike action?

UCU members have voted 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 has the number of workers employed on precarious or zero-hour contracts. The effects of these changes are unevenly distributed across university staff, hitting those at the bottom the hardest, and exacerbating the already existing pay gaps for female, BME and disabled staff. On top of all this, pre-92 university staff are being forced to make higher contributions into their USS pensions, amounting to another pay-cut. This is based on the same spurious methodology that invented a fictional deficit in the pension scheme last year round. Together, falling pay and rising pension costs are unsustainable and unfair.


  • What have members voted 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. That’s why we are asking our members to observe the strike and ASOS. Not doing so undermines the union’s bargaining power, both locally and nationally, and makes it harder to improve things for us all.


  • Why are we striking over pensions again?

Last year, academic staff went on strike to protect the benefits guaranteed by their pensions. Those benefits were under threat of being removed, based on a valuation of the USS scheme that claimed it was in deficit. At the time, UCU argued that this valuation was flagrantly inaccurate; and since then, its argument has been validated by the Joint Expert Panel (JEP) set up in the wake of the strikes to examine the competing claims. But the panel’s recommendations were systematically disregarded by USS; and now, they’ve simply reused the same discredited methodology to calculate this year’s valuation. It’s on the basis of this valuation that we’re being pushed into higher contributions. The rises in contributions are unfair, and risk destabilising the scheme they are notionally intended to shore up.


  • Why now?

Because time is running out to secure the concessions we won last time round. The Joint Expert Panel has run its course, but its recommendations have been wholly disregarded; instead, USS is reverting to the same disproven claims it made last year, this time in more subtle ways. If we don’t contest USS’s faulty logic now, we leave ourselves open to further, increasingly unaffordable hikes in contributions in future years


  • 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.

On Pay and Equality, UCU is asking for:

  • An above-inflation pay offer, at RPI +3%, to begin making up for the pay we’ve lost over the last ten years;
  • An end to casualisation in higher education, with decent contracts for all university staff;
  • 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.


  • I am not a member of UCU, if I join can I then 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 (November 25th), 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.


  • 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 admin@ucu.cam.ac.uk, 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.


  • 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 events to engage students in broader conversations about the modern university: you can direct students to our varied programme of teach-outs, and encourage them to take part.

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.

There is also a local Cambridge UCU strike fund, to further help members facing financial hardship.


  • 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 the following automated reply for the entirety of the day:


I will not be responding to work-related emails between Monday 25th November and Wednesday 4th December, because I will be on strike. 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. As of November 2019, UCU have 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 admin@ucu.cam.ac.uk, 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 undergraduate students to support their lecturers during the strikes. Keep an eye on the CUSU website for more details, and look out for the various teach-outs we’re holding in collaboration with students. These strikes are meant to make things better for students and staff alike, and to secure a better and fairer university for us all.