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Since February 2018, members of the University and College Union (UCU), which represents over 130,000 staff at further and higher education providers across the UK, have been striking in universities over two separate disputes. The first concerns a longstanding disagreement over reforms to pensions and the second concerns several issues related to pay and working conditions.

Following 36 days of strike action between 2018 and 2020, further industrial action was curtailed by the COVID-19 pandemic. It resumed with more strikes in December 2021 and throughout 2022.

In March 2022, a report published by the UCU (PDF), based on a survey of nearly 7,000 university staff at over 100 institutions, said two-thirds of respondents were likely or very likely to leave the university sector in the next five years over pension cuts, and pay and working conditions.

When and where are staff striking?

In 2022, ballots for industrial action were aggregated for the first time in these disputes. This meant because the nationwide turnout exceeded 50%, and there was majority support to strike over both disputes, staff at all universities across the UK could take action, regardless of the results of their local branches.

Following three days of strike action in November 2022, the UCU announced more than 70,000 staff at 150 universities across the UK would strike again for 19 days between February and March 2023. The full dates are: 

  • Week 1: 1 February  
  • Week 2: 9 and 10 February 
  • Week 3: 14, 15, and 16 February 
  • Week 4: 21, 22, and 23 February (suspended) 
  • Week 5: 27 and 28 February, 1 and 2 March (suspended)
  • Week 6: 15, 16, and 17 March 
  • Week 7: 20, 21, and 22 March

Why are staff striking?

The disputes between university employers and staff that have prompted industrial action are longstanding.

The first concerns changes to the pension scheme for many university staff – the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) – which will mean increased contributions and reduced benefits. A parallel dispute concerns several issues related to pay and working conditions, including pay levels, gender and minority ethnic pay gaps, staff workload, and insecure contracts.

The UCU is demanding:

  • A reverse to a reduction in pension benefits.
  • A pay increase of at least inflation (RPI) plus 2%, or 12%, whichever is higher.
  • Nationally agreed action to close gender, ethnic, and disability pay gaps.
  • An agreed framework to eliminate the use of precarious contracts, such as zero-hours employment.
  • Nationally agreed action to address excessive workloads and unpaid work, including addressing the impact that excessive workloads are having on workforce stress and ill-health.

More information, including on recent negotiations over these disputes, is available in the full briefing.

Pause in strike action

On 17 February 2023, the UCU announced it would pause strike action due to take place between 21 February and 2 March to “create a period of calm” and allow negotiations “to continue in a constructive environment”.

In the pensions dispute, a joint statement published by UCU and Universities UK (PDF) said “the forthcoming 2023 valuation [of the scheme] is likely to reveal a high probability of being able to improve benefits and reduce contributions.”

The UCU also said there had been progress in the pay and working conditions negotiations, with new “time limited negotiations” established to seek agreements on:

  • tackling casualisation
  • improving work life balance and reducing workloads
  • addressing equality pay gaps.

On pay, however, the Universities and Colleges Employers Association said a “pay impasse, rather than an agreement” had been reached, with the final offer of between 5% and 8% unlikely to go any higher.

The UCU has said a ballot to renew the mandate for strike action is still going ahead and will run until 31 March 2023.

What happens if teaching is disrupted?

Universities are expected to take steps to avoid or limit disruption to students. This might include making up for any lost teaching or learning time and ensuring students are not disadvantaged if changes must be made to assessments. 

Whether students are entitled to tuition fee refunds following industrial action depends on what other actions a university has taken to minimise lost learning opportunities. 

Students should make any complaints to their university in the first instance. If students are not content with the outcome of a complaint, or if they believe it has been poorly handled, they can contact the relevant higher education ombuds service for their country. 

Further reading

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