Documents to download

Since February 2018, the University and College Union (UCU), which represents over 130,000 staff at further and higher education providers across the UK, has been coordinating industrial action in two disputes over pensions and pay and working conditions.

Why have staff been 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 would 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%.
  • 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.

2023 marking and assessment boycott

Having renewed its mandate for industrial action, the UCU launched a consultation with its members in April 2023 on proposals put forward by employers in both the pensions and pay and working conditions disputes.

The results of the consultation were announced on 17 April 2023. Members voted in favour of pension proposals agreed with employers, including a commitment from employers to prioritise the restoration of retirement benefits. However, members rejected proposals on pay and working conditions. These included a – now imposed – 5-8% pay award, as well as talks with Acas-facilitated terms of reference on non-pay issues such as casualisation, equality pay gaps, and workloads.

On 20 April 2023, the UCU began a marking and assessment boycott in the pay and working conditions dispute (but not the pensions dispute). It has published a list of the institutions affected.

In response, the Universities and Colleges Employers’ Association (UCEA) said universities are legally entitled to withhold full pay for partial performance of employee duties. More than 60 employers said they would deduct between 50% and 100% of wages from those taking part in the marking and assessment boycott.

More information on the boycott and its impact on students is available in the full briefing.

End of the boycott and new strike dates announced

On 6 September 2023, the University and College Union (UCU) announced it was ending its five-month-long marking and assessment boycott. It also said members would strike for five days from Monday 25 to Friday 29 September in the pay and working conditions dispute.

Announcing the new strike dates, UCU general secretary Jo Grady said:

It is shameful that vice-chancellors still refuse to settle the dispute despite a year of unprecedented disruption, and have instead imposed a pay award that staff overwhelmingly rejected.

Universities are richer than ever, generating tens of billions of pounds in income and hoarding billions more in cash deposits. But they won’t give staff their fair share, a pay award of 5% is a huge real-terms pay cut and is substantially lower than school teachers received.  

On 11 September 2023, the UCU said it would re-ballot members at 143 universities between 19 September and 3 November. This would allow the union to take further action this year and into 2024 in the dispute over pay and conditions.

The Universities and Colleges Employer Association (UCEA) said it was disappointed more strike action had been called for the end of September, but it welcomed UCU’s acceptance of proposals for independently facilitated talks on a review of sector finances and pay-related matters, including reform of the pay spine, action to reduce pay gaps, and discussions on workload and contracts.

What happens if teaching and assessment is disrupted?

Universities must have in place measures to avoid or limit disruption caused to students by industrial action. This should include ensuring students are not disadvantaged if changes must be made to assessment. Many universities publish information for students on their websites explaining how they respond to industrial action.

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 can 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. 

Over 100,000 students from across the UK have launched a group legal action seeking compensation from UK universities over disruption caused to their studies by the Covid-19 pandemic and industrial action. On 17 July 2023, the High Court ruled a claim against University College London could proceed.

Documents to download

Related posts