Four Fights FAQ

What are the Four Fights?

The Four Fights are four related campaigns we’ve been waging for years now: pay, casualisation, equality, and workload. Together they make up the substance of the annual pay claim we submit, along with our fellow HE unions, to the employers’ representatives UCEA. Annual claims used to deal with pay alone; but we’ve been clear that low pay is only part of the problem, and that all four issues need to be tackled together.

What links them all together?

Since 2009, pay for university staff has fallen by 17.6% in real terms (RPI index). As the cost of living has soared, we’ve had more than a decade of pay offers below inflation. For 2020/21, the pay offer was 0% – which means that our salaries have been frozen throughout the academic year. That’s at the same time as total incomes for HE institutions have gone up by 25% in the last five years. While universities are building up their reserves and splashing out on lavish new building projects, they’ve been spending less and less of their total budgets on wages – except for Vice Chancellors and other senior managers.

We all know that’s not because we’re doing less work. Five years ago, according to a UCU survey, the average staff member at Cambridge reported working 53 hours a week – which amounts to more than two days’ worth of unpaid labour. Since then, and especially during the pandemic, it’s only got worse. In a follow-up survey from December 2020, to be released shortly, 78% of staff reported increased workloads thanks to Covid-19; 85% said that their stress levels had risen as a result of pandemic-related pressures.

Adding to the stress is the fact that an extremely high ratio of HE staff works on casual contracts. The most recent data shows that, overall, a third of academic staff are on fixed-term contracts. This figure rises to almost half for teaching-only academics (49%), and over two thirds (67%) for research-only staff. 30% of Higher Education institutions still use zero-hours contracts, and many others avoid giving staff any employment benefits by hiring them as individual contractors – as is the case for many hourly-paid lecturers or supervisors in Cambridge. Casualisation places enormous stress on casualised and permanent staff alike. Casualised staff are often debilitated by the stress and uncertainty of moving between short-term jobs and living from paycheck to paycheck, while permanent colleagues are saddled with unsustainable workloads due to chronic staff shortages, all the time trying to convince the University to allocate extra funding to make sure their departments have enough staff to keep running.

It won’t come as a surprise that casualised members of staff are disproportionately female and/or BME. That’s partly why lower pay and higher casualisation leads to higher levels of inequality in universities. In 2019, across the sector, men earned 16% more than women, while white staff earned 17% more than their Black colleagues. Progress on closing these gaps has been glacial; in fact, in some universities – Cambridge included – pay gaps have widened over the past year. Meanwhile, casualised staff are often ineligible for standard employment rights like maternity leave.

All in all, the pay cuts we’ve seen over the past decade have resulted in higher precarity, higher workloads, and higher inequality. We need action on all four fronts together if we’re going to build a fairer university for everyone.

Are these issues a problem in Cambridge too?

Yes! Despite being the wealthiest university in the country, Cambridge has massive problems with casualisation, workloads, and inequality. A 2019 CUCU report found that more than half of undergraduate supervisions were provided by staff without long-term contracts, or without any contracts at all. On equality, Cambridge’s gender pay gap has been way above the sector average for years; the mean pay gap actually went up last year, from 19.9% in 2019 to 20.3% in 2020. Added to that, Cambridge is peculiarly stingy in its policy on maternity leave – offering just eighteen weeks at full pay, a long way short of the twenty-six weeks on offer at Oxford, Exeter, Manchester, and many other Russell Group universities.

On casualisation, the central university has been working with Cambridge UCU, but movement is slow. Meanwhile, the colleges are still firmly opposed to moving hourly-paid supervisors onto fractional contracts, increasing their pay, or paying them for compulsory training. And while admitting that its efforts to close the gender pay gap are making only ‘slow progress’ – read: regress – the University refuses to negotiate with us on a plan that might actually work. It even refuses to give us a seat on the Equality and Diversity Committee to speak up for staff.

How has Covid-19 affected these issues?

As you might expect, Covid-19 has exacerbated all the sector’s pre-existing problems, and added some extra for good measure. Workloads have spiked; mental health has deteriorated; moves towards equality have been stalled or reversed; and across the country, staff have been made redundant, with their work either being shunted onto their already overwhelmed colleagues, or farmed out to people on short-term contracts. Here in Cambridge, the freeze on hiring and promotions meant the hard work of some staff went unrewarded, while others were left reliant on the most precarious contracts in the midst of a universal job freeze across Higher Education. After keeping universities going for the past two years, staff are fed up and burnt out. With the latest below-inflation pay offer, employers are pushing them to the edge.

What is UCU asking for?

Our key demands for each of the Four Fights are:


  • A pay uplift of £2,500 on all pay points;
  • A maximum ratio of 10:1 between highest and lowest earners across the sector.
  • All universities to pay the Living Wage to all staff;


  • Proper contracts with guaranteed hours for all staff, including hourly-paid supervisors;
  • A better deal for postgraduate supervisors: proper pay, paid training, the same rights and entitlements as all permanent staff;
  • A sector-wide plan of action to eliminate casualisation.


  • National plan of action to close the gender, BME, and disability pay gaps, with concrete, binding, and time-specific commitments from employers;
  • Local negotiations with UCU branches on how to implement that plan at every university in the country.


  • A return to 35-hour weeks as standard for everyone;
  • Detailed workload models at every institution, negotiated in partnership with local UCU branches, and taking into account the changes in post-pandemic working conditions.

How does the Four Fights dispute relate to USS?

Our Four Fights dispute is being balloted in tandem with our dispute on USS, and in many ways, they’re addressing the same issues. After all, pensions are another form of pay, and by cutting our pensions, employers are just cutting our pay from a different direction. Employers have pushed through their plans for massive reductions to our pension benefits – up to 25% of their value – with measures that include:

  • Cutting the guaranteed defined benefit (DB) element of the scheme;
  • Creating a new defined contribution (DC) scheme aimed at lower-paid staff;
  • Removing the current protection against inflation, which means, whenever inflation exceeds 2.5%, our pensions decline in value.
  • And in return for all that, staff are being forced to pay higher rates of contribution. That means we’re taking home less pay every month we work, and receiving lower benefits every year after we retire.

Employers have justified their plans by pointing to the 2020 valuation of USS, a valuation they agree is deeply flawed. But they haven’t gone nearly far enough in looking for alternative solutions. While UCU has been bending over backwards to work with employers, employers are happy to see staff take the hit. Worse still, their new defined contribution scheme has been unveiled with crocodile tears about how unaffordable the current contribution rates have become for lower-paid staff, especially casualised and early career staff. So they’re happy to acknowledge the impact of low pay and casualisation when it suits them. But instead of tackling those problems at the root, they’re forcing those staff to accept a vastly inferior set of benefits. And by starting up a Defined Contribution scheme alongside the current Defined Benefit one, they’re paving the way for what we saw back in 2018: a full-scale attack on our DB pensions.

Is now the right time to be asking for a pay rise?

It’s high time we speak up for the pay rise we deserve, now more than ever. All of us have been working flat-out over the past two years to mitigate the impact of the pandemic. Covid-19 has increased workloads for the majority of staff, and especially for those with care responsibilities. Yet employers refused to concede anything beyond a flat 0% pay offer last year, which they justified by apocalyptic predictions of the income hit they expected to take. Well, that hit never arrived, and finances across the sector are generally in good shape. In fact, universities have seen their total income rise by 38% since 2008. Instead of passing that money onto staff, though, they’ve squirreled it away in ever increasing reserves. By 2018, the amount hoarded in reserves had reached £49.22 billion, a threefold increase on ten years before. Universities can pay their staff properly; they’re just choosing not to.

Taken on its own, the employers’ final offer of 1.5% increase on pay may not look so bad. But after a decade of falling wages, it represents another advance in the erosion of our working conditions in HE. If your salary is £35,000 or so, you’re about £8,000 a year worse off in real terms than you would have been in 2009. We need to act now to halt the steady decline in our pay; more than that, we need to act now to reclaim what’s been taken from us over the past ten years.

Why should I vote for strike action?

Because after a decade of falling pay and deteriorating conditions, and on top of a heavy two years dealing with the pandemic, we just can’t take any more. Every year without a real-terms pay rise means another year of being asked to do more for less, another year of hardship for the staff on the lowest pay and the most precarious contracts. Together, the demands we’re making spell out a better future for universities – one that’s fairer, more secure, and more equal, for staff and students alike. Employers know what the problems are, but they’re unwilling to work with us on the solutions. A ‘yes’ vote to strike action – and action short of strike – might just focus their minds. We’re ready to work with them to build a better, fairer university.