Industrial Action Ballot — Frequently Asked Questions


Industrial Action Ballot September  October 2022

We’ve put together a set of FAQs and handy links all in one place, so that you can easily get the information you need when talking to other members and colleagues. If you can’t find the answer to your questions below or the linked resources, please contact us at

Questions on pay and working conditions dispute (formerly 4 Fights)

  • Why are we taking action on pay when the employers have offered a 3% pay rise? 

The final offer made by Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA) is well below inflation (which stands at RPI 12.3% as of July 2022). This means yet another real-terms pay cut for staff during the cost of living crisis in the United Kingdom.

The value of pay in higher education fell by 17.6% relative to inflation between 2009 and 2019. Based on the employers’ offer and the most recent inflation data, that figure is now approximately 25%. With inflation forecast to keep increasing in the short to medium term, salaries will continue to fall further and further short of the cost of living. Among other things, UCU is demanding a pay uplift that is, at least, RPI plus 2% on all pay points, to keep up with the cost of living and to catch up with pay lost over previous years.

Meanwhile, employers are failing to take effective action to tackle the persistent gender and ethnicity pay gaps that exist in the higher education sector. We need to send a strong signal that we will not tolerate continued pay erosion or pay inequality.

  • Why is tackling casualisation a priority in the pay dispute?  

According to UCU’s report, ‘Precarious work in higher education’, around one-third of all academic staff are employed on fixed-term contracts; this figure rises to almost half for teaching-only academics (44%) and over two-thirds (68%) for research-only staff. Despite the negative press and widespread campaigning, 18% of all higher education institutions still use zero-hours contracts for employing academic staff (equating to 29 institutions employing 3,545 academic staff on these discredited contracts). Despite the employers’ claim of progress in this areaand important victories achieved by UCU members at Open University and Royal College of Art—precarity and casualisation continue to be rife within higher education.

The use of casual contracts erodes the rights, protections, and security that should be afforded to all employees. Casualisation also makes it much more difficult for staff to challenge employers about key workplace issues, because staff are often reluctant to ‘rock the boat’ and risk their employment being terminated. In fact, according to a February 2022 report from the Joint Committee of Experts of UNESCO and the International Labour Organization, the growth in casualised contracts in higher education has undermined academic freedom itself. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, employers have chosen not to renew casualised contracts and made thousands of staff redundant, while many UCU members who have found work have felt pressured to work in-person or take other risks to keep themselves in employment. 

Finally, casualisation has other serious consequences for staff—UCU’s previous research showed that 42% of staff on casual contracts struggled to pay household bills, while many others struggle to make long-term financial commitments like buying a house. In our 2019 survey of 3,802 casualised staff in higher education, 71% of the respondents said their mental health had been damaged by working on insecure contracts and 43% said it had impacted on their physical well-being.

  • Why are we linking pay, equality, workload and casualisation in one dispute? 

The UCU rising campaign is about demanding fair treatment for staff across the higher education sector and a comprehensive remedy for the way in which your working conditions have been undermined over the past decade.

The combination of pay erosion, unmanageable workloads, and the widespread use of insecure contracts has undermined professionalism and made the working environment more stressful for staff.

UCU’s 2021 workload survey (published June 2022) showed that academic staff are working on average 51.3 FTE hours per week (i.e. more than 2 unpaid days each week), academic-related professional services (ARPS) staff are working an average of 44.4 FTE hours per week (i.e. equivalent of one additional unpaid day every week), and staff on fractional contracts can be working 2-3 times the hours that they are paid for each week. Workload has been exacerbated too by ever-increasing administrative burden, reduction in staff members, and the COVID-related changes to teaching and learning: 33% of higher education respondents said their workload was unmanageable most of the time or entirely unmanageable.

The pay gap between Black and white staff stands at 17% and the disability pay gap is 9%. The mean gender pay gap is 16% and at the current rate of change it will not be closed for another 22 years.

Finally, workload, pay inequality and casualisation are all directly interrelated and compound one another. Women, Black and staff with disabilities were all disproportionately likely to report that their workload had increased, and the same groups are also disproportionately likely to be on casualised rather than permanent contracts. 

  • How can the pay and working conditions dispute be resolved? 

UCU set out its demands in detail in the annual claim which it presented to employers in March 2022, along with the other unions that represent university staff (UNISON, Unite, GMB, and EIS in Scotland). You can  read the full claim here [399kb], and this sets out the issues in extensive detail and discusses the action which the unions want employers to take. You can also  read the employers’ confirmed final offer for 2022-23 here [295kb].

Please note that, for the pay and working conditions dispute, the union negotiates with Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA), which is separate from Universities UK (UUK).

  • Why aren’t Cambridge University Press & Assessment (CUPA) staff being balloted on pay? 

CUPA sets its own pay and awards outside of the rest of the university and so this department is not part of the dispute with UUK and UCEA. 

CUPA Gateshead staff on TUPE contracts are still linked to the UCEA/Durham University pay scales but are paid by Cambridge University via CUPA. Whilst not being able to vote on action on these issues, CEM staff would benefit from a positive outcome and so we would encourage members to support the campaign in other ways. 

At the same time, the pay offer and subsequent paltry one-off payments made by CUPA are equally unacceptable, and we support the action being taken by our sister union, Unite, at what was formerly CUP. 

 Questions on the USS pensions dispute

  • What is the USS dispute about? 

The Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) conducted a valuation in March 2020, as markets were crashing during the COVID-19 pandemic, and claimed that contribution rates needed to increase very significantly from the rate of 30.7% of salary (9.6% for members, 21.1% for employers) that was established under the 2018 valuation.

Both UCU and the employer representative, Universities UK (UUK), argued that these increases were not necessary and had not been properly justified. However, instead of continuing to challenge the increases, UUK pushed through major cuts to the guaranteed, defined benefit (DB) element of the scheme to prevent employers from having to pay higher contributions.

The UUK cuts, which were formally voted through in February 2022 and came into force in April 2022, drastically reduced the level of guaranteed retirement income provided to members of USS for their future service (benefits already built up will not change). The cuts affected every active USS member but especially those nearer the start of their careers.

These cuts came in the context of a decade of detrimental changes to USS contributions and benefits. As UCU previously showed, the changes that had already taken effect between 2011 and 2019 would make a typical member of staff £240,000 worse off over the course of their career and retirement. The 2022 cuts from UUK have made things even worse: new research shows that global loss across current USS scheme members is £16-18bn, with those under the age of 40 losing between £100k-£200k each in retirement. It also shows that 196,000 staff will lose between 30%-35% from their guaranteed future retirement income.

UCU is demanding that vice-chancellors order their employer body UUK to revoke these brutal cuts and put pressure on USS to restore benefits to 2021 levels, especially after a drastic improvement to USS finances was revealed by the trustee in March 2022: USS reported assets increasing to over £88bn, and the trustee said that growth outstripped liabilities and that the level of contributions required to service the deficit fell to 0%.

  • What exactly happened to my retirement benefits when Universities UK’s cuts were implemented from April 2022? 

UCU’s actuarial advisers, First Actuarial, developed a modeller that would allow you to compare the retirement benefits you would build up as a result of UUK’s cuts versus the benefits you would build up had the scheme stayed as it was. You can access the modeller here.

The modeller indicates that a typical USS member at point 37 of the current higher education pay spine (the starting salary for lecturers in many institutions) would suffer a 35% cut to the guaranteed retirement benefits which they would build up between the date for implementation of the cuts and their retirement (assuming that the typical USS member retired on their 66th birthday).

These cuts could be partially offset by an increase in the one-off defined contribution lump sum received by the same member, but the overall cut would still be 20-25% and unlike defined benefits, the defined contribution lump sum would not be guaranteed—its size would depend on how USS’s investments perform.

Universities UK/USS Employers provided an official modeller that took into account the benefits already accrued, revealed a similar—if not deeper—level of cuts compared to UCU’s modeller (this official modeller was taken offline).

  • How can the USS pensions dispute be resolved? 

UCU members want employers to revoke the massive cuts which they imposed on members of the USS pension scheme, and put pressure on USS to restore benefits to 2021 levels as soon as possible.

UCU also want UUK to put strong pressure on USS to ensure that the next and all subsequent valuations are moderately prudent and evidence-based. Prudence should be defined in terms of the likelihood of all pensions being paid from investment returns and contributions going forward. Future valuations should be realistic reflections of the underlying strength of the scheme and the UK higher education sector.

  • Could employers afford to pay more to protect members’ benefits?

Yes. Employers currently contribute 21.4% of salary, but USS itself has determined that employers can afford to pay a 24.9% contribution rate on a long-term basis. USS’s view was informed by research by their external professional advisers into institutional finances.

The higher education sector’s income has comfortably outstripped every measure of inflation over the past five years, while the proportion of money spent on staff has decreased. The pre-92 universities that are the main sponsors of USS are in a particularly strong position and have no excuse not to pay more to protect staff retirement benefits.

  • We took industrial action over USS before and it did not work. Why would it work this time? 

If UCU members had not taken industrial action in the past, we would not today have any guaranteed pension to defend. No union in the UK has got as far as UCU in defending a good, defined benefit pension through multiple industrial disputes. By voting and taking action in large numbers from 2018, UCU members stopped employers from closing the defined benefit element of the scheme, forced them to pay more to preserve defined benefits, and forced them to work with us more than ever to achieve a good outcome.

Questions Relevant to Both Disputes

  • Why is this an aggregated ballot, and why is this different from before?

This ballot is aggregated, that is all the votes from every participating institution will be added together. Because of the anti-union laws, for any vote to be considered valid it must exceed 50% of the balloted members. In the past, in disaggregated ballots, we had to meet this condition in every single branch, which meant that some branches could take action, whilst others – even if their members had voted overwhelming for action – could not participate. In this aggregated ballot, we will have to meet the threshold nationally – which means every institution will be able to participate, whether they met the threshold locally or not. We have the opportunity to close the entire sector, which greatly strengthens our bargaining stance. Nevertheless, it is vital that in big branches like Cambridge, we smash the threshold in the ballot and in so doing can support other branches. 

  •  What is the balloting timetable? 
    • Tuesday 6 September 2022: ballot packs are dispatched to members’ preferred mailing address by the independent scrutineer Civica Election Services
    • Wednesday 7 September 2022: ballot packs start arriving at members’ preferred mailing address
    • Wednesday 14 September 2022 (09:00): replacement ballot request form opens here
    • Wednesday 12 October (00:00 midnight): cut-off date for new members to join and be automatically included in the industrial action ballot
    • Wednesday 12 October (12:00 noon): replacement ballot request form closes
    • Monday 17 October (12:00 noon): cut-off date for branches to submit ballot exclusions
    • Tuesday 18 October: last ‘safe’ posting date
    • Friday 21 October 2022 (17:00): ballot closes
  • As a UCU member, how can I help to ‘get the vote out’ (GTVO)?

Contact us. We have a plan to GTVO at a local/institutional level, so please volunteer to support us in activities such as emailing colleagues, door-knocking, and disseminating leaflets/posters. ThruText (peer-to-peer text messaging for GTVO) will be handled by the UCU campaigns team.

There are also resources specific to the UCU rising campaign (which is continually updated) and more general GTVO guidance. There will be a series of national online and in-person events. Please pay attention to communications from UCU’s campaigns team and attend these events. 

You can also become a UCU rising ‘campaign ambassador’: as an ambassador you will be asked to champion the campaign locally and on social media. You do not have to have had any experience in an elected position within the union to sign up.  You can sign up as a campaign ambassador by completing this form.

One of the simplest and most helpful things you can do is email or WhatsApp/Telegram/Signal 5-10 UK-based colleagues in your professional network, asking them if they are aware of UCU’s industrial action ballots, and urging them to vote. You can also use social media—Twitter, Facebook, Instagram—to spread the word, but one-to-one personal contacts are the most effective means of increasing participation.

  •  How many ballot papers will I be receiving? 

UCU will be conducting two industrial action ballots of our higher education members. One ballot relates to the pay and working conditions dispute (pay, workload, casualisation, and equality), and the other relates to the dispute over the Universities Superannuation Scheme (i.e. USS pensions).

Members in 145 institutions will be able to vote in the pay and working conditions ballot, and members who work in 68 USS institutions (for the most part, these are the so-called ‘pre-92 universities’) will have a ballot paper on USS. Not every Cambridge UCU member is eligible to vote in either ballot. (See below for information about eligibility). 

Cambridge University is one of 62 institutions in both disputes, and members there will receive two ballot papers. CUPA members will get one – for the USS dispute. It’s important that if you receive a ballot for both disputes, you complete and return both. 

It is a reflection of the scale of employers’ ongoing attacks on staff in higher education that the union is holding ballots in two disputes at the same time—a decision democratically made by UCU Congress, higher education sector conference (HESC), and elected members of the higher education committee (HEC).

We are legally required to run two separate ballots as they are two different disputes.

  • What will the ballot pack look like? 

This image shows what the ballot pack/envelope will look like. It will have distinctive branding for Civica Election Services (CES) and the University and College Union (UCU).

The ballot pack will contain either one or two ballot papers (see explanation above). The ballot pack will contain a pre-paid envelope. Put all ballot papers in that envelope.

If you have misplaced the pre-paid envelope or the pre-paid envelope is missing from the ballot pack, you can put the ballot paper(s) into a blank envelope, write this address on the envelope—Civica Election Services, 33 Clarendon Road, London N8 0NW—then affix a stamp and post it back.

  • Where is the ballot pack being sent? 

The ballot pack is being sent to the preferred address that you have indicated—this is either the home address or your workplace. To check your preferred address, please log into MyUCU.

  • I cannot find or have misplaced the ballot pack. What do I do? 

If you cannot find your ballot pack, you can request a replacement ballot here.

  • I am out of the country and am not at my usual address. What do I do? 

You can request a replacement ballot to be sent to your temporary address using the replacement ballot form.

  • Will UCU know if I have voted or which way I have voted? 

Industrial action ballots are confidential and UCU will not know if an individual member has voted or which way that a member has voted. UCU branches do not get notified if a member has voted or which way that a member has voted.

As part of a UCU branch’s ‘get the vote out’ (GTVO) activities, your branch officers may ask you—via email or door-knocking for instance—whether you have voted, so that the branch can target their GTVO with precision. It will be an enormous help to your branch and your union if you choose to volunteer this information.

  • Who will be eligible to vote? 

The industrial action ballot electorate by default includes:

      • full members (standard membership or standard free membership)
      • joint union members.

The industrial action ballot by default excludes:

      • student members
      • attached/unemployed members
      • fully retired members
      • other members who will not hold a contract of employment with the University for the whole period of the ballot mandate (November 2022-April 2023)
      • members who will be on research leave abroad for the entire period of the strike mandate 
      • members who will be otherwise working abroad for the entire the period of the strike mandate
      • members who will be on maternity leave, parental leave or sick leave for the entire period of the strike mandate
      • members whose membership has lapsed (please note that standard free membership will expire after a period of time—members will be warned well in advance if this is happening—and those standard free members should upgrade their membership via MyUCU)
      • members who have cancelled their membership or resigned from the union.

Remember that you can check your membership category by logging into MyUCU. If you are not yet a UCU member, and wish to participate in the industrial action ballot, you can join UCU online right away.

  • I’ve received a ballot paper, but I think I am ineligible to vote on the corresponding question, what should I do? 

It is important that we know which members are eligible to vote so we can remove ineligible names from the register of electors, to improve our chance of reaching the 50% ballot participation threshold. Please email us at, we can advise on your eligibility to vote and if you are ineligible remove your name from the relevant register.  

  • I’m employed by a college, but not the University – can I vote? 

Unfortunately, as in the past, we will not be balloting college staff in either dispute. Our pay claim is with the University, not the colleges, which are separate employers. College staff may be members of  the USS Pension scheme, but they are nevertheless ineligible to vote on USS. We know that this is disappointing and members may feel disenfranchised as a result. 

According to advice we’ve received from the national union, allowing college-only employed staff to vote would open the results to legal challenge, because our information about which members work for which colleges just isn’t accurate enough at the moment. Self-employed staff – who constitute many of the people working for the colleges – cannot be balloted for industrial action.

This is a disappointing situation, and rest assured we’re trying to remedy it. Earlier this year, in conjunction with the Oxford University branch, we requested specific help in this area from the national office. Unfortunately the solution is still forthcoming and so was not in time for colleges to be included in this round of ballots. 

Our priority has to be building our membership numbers and improving our mapping of members in colleges, so that we’ve got the strength and the data to win a ballot campaign. If you’re a college employee, you can get involved by acting as a college rep or contact, or by joining the campaign for college supervisors in an effort to get the colleges to listen to us. 

  • What if I am employed at multiple institutions/college and University?

Members employed in more than one institution are only be able to vote once. You can vote and go on strike providing you have a contract of employment with the University for part of the period of the strike mandate (November 2022-April 2023).

  • What if I am on parental leave or long-term absence? 

If you are on parental leave or long-term absence during the entire period of potential industrial action (November 2022-April 2023), you should inform both your UCU branch/department rep and update your details on MyUCU as you may be excluded from the ballot.

  •  What questions will appear on the ballot paper(s)? 

The ballot paper will have two questions:

      1. do you support strike action?
      2. do you support action short of a strike (ASOS)?

UCU urges everyone to vote YES and YES to both questions.

If you receive two ballot papers because your institution is in both the USS pension dispute and the pay and working conditions dispute, then remember to use both ballot papers, and vote YES and YES in the USS ballot, and vote YES and YES in the pay and working conditions ballot.

  • What does ‘action short of a strike’ (ASOS) mean? 

While a strike is a concerted stoppage of work, ‘action short of a strike’ (ASOS) is normally action which affects only certain aspects of your work. Under the Trade Union Act 2016 the union must indicate in advance and ballot members on the types of ASOS we are likely to call upon members to take.

UCU branches involved in the pay and working conditions and/or the USS pensions disputes will be balloted on the following forms of ASOS:

      • working to contract
      • not covering for absent colleagues
      • removing uploaded materials related to, and/or not sharing materials related to, lectures or classes that will be or have been cancelled as a result of strike action
      • not rescheduling lectures or classes cancelled due to strike action
      • not undertaking any voluntary activities; and
      • marking and assessment boycott.

Members should be clear that, if they are taking part in any of the action short of strike described above, they should continue with their other normal duties.

Decisions over when different forms of ASOS are called are made through the democratic mechanisms of the union, including the elected members of the higher education committee (HEC).

  • Can I vote electronically/online? 

The law mandates that a ballot for industrial action must be conducted by post. It is therefore not possible to participate in the industrial action ballot electronically/online.

The law also states that a ballot for industrial action must be supervised by a qualified independent scrutineer, in this case Civica Election Services. Civica Election Services is responsible for the production, posting, and processing of ballot papers. UCU cannot by law produce, post or process ballot papers. It is not possible for UCU or Civica Election Services to send out a ballot paper electronically for you to print out at home or at work.

For further information please see ‘Taking part in industrial action and strikes’ from the UK government website, as well as the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992 c. 52 s. 230.

  • What happens if the vote is for action, and when will action take place? 

If the vote in either ballot (USS pension or pay and working conditions) is for action, the democratic bodies of the union will decide on what forms of action to take, when to take it, for how long, and whether action for both disputes will take place concurrently or separately.

By law, fourteen days’ notice must be provided to all relevant employers before industrial action can begin. Note that a successful ballot will only provide a mandate for industrial action for a period of six months, starting from the date when the ballot closes. 

  • If we decide to take industrial action, what am I expected to do?

It is a very serious sanction and that is why we ask that every member observes the strike. Every member who does not observe the strike is directly undermining the union’s bargaining power and making it harder for the union to protect all its members. 

If/when we call a strike, we ask that members do not do any work for all the days specified by the union. This includes, for instance, time before 9am and after 5pm, and includes any activity which is part of your work such as teaching, administration, meetings, emails related to work, marking, research or conferences where you are directly or indirectly representing your employer. It also means not doing any preparation for work that you are due to do when you return to work after you strike. In a nutshell, if you are employed at one of the institutions on strike, do not do any work at all on strike days.

On strike days, the best possible thing you can do is contact your UCU branch and volunteer to help at the picket lines—and ask colleagues in your department to join you. Picketing is a vital opportunity to demonstrate to the employer the scale of the disruption that the union is able to cause, and get support for your action from students and other colleagues.

  • I am a university staff member but not a member of UCU; if I join now can I then take part in the ballot and action?

Yes you can! Join the union prior to 16 October you will be automatically added to the ballot. If you have any questions about joining, please email the branch and we’ll be happy to help

  •  How long will the disputes go on for? 

The USS pensions and pay and working conditions disputes are distinct and involve UCU negotiating with two different bodies— Universities UK (UUK) and Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA) respectively. Both disputes are kept under constant review by UCU’s democratic structures, specifically the elected members of the higher education committee (HEC) as well as the higher education sector conferences (HESC), who determine UCU’s next steps.

If either dispute is suspended or resolved for any reason but the other dispute is not, the action in the unresolved dispute will still take place. A positive outcome in the pay and working conditions dispute does not mean that UCU abandons the USS dispute, or vice versa. Neither dispute will be concluded without a democratic consultation of the members involved in it.

  •  What do I do if I have a question that is not covered in this FAQ?

This FAQ will be continually updated. If you have a pressing question that is not covered here, or you require more detail, please check the FAQ on the national website. If your question isn’t answered there please and we will do our best to answer it.