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Background

Between February 2018 and March 2020, the University and College Union (UCU), which represents over 130,000 staff at further and higher education providers across the UK, coordinated 36 days of strikes over two separate disputes. The first dispute concerned a longstanding disagreement over reforms to pensions and the second covered several issues related to pay and working conditions.

Further industrial action was curtailed by the COVID-19 pandemic, but it resumed with three waves of strikes in December 2021 and between February and April 2022. Once again, the issues were pensions, pay, and working conditions.

When and where are staff striking?

In July 2022, the UCU confirmed it would ballot all higher education members for potential strike action in November 2022, with further votes planned for industrial action that would potentially take place in spring 2023.

For the first time in these disputes, the ballots were aggregated, which meant if the nationwide turnout exceeded 50%, and there was majority support for a “yes” vote, staff at all universities across the UK could take strike action, regardless of the results of their local branches. The results were announced on 24 October 2022.

  • In the pension ballot, the yes vote for strike action was 84.9% and the turnout was 60.2%.
  • In the pay and working conditions ballot, the yes vote for strike action was 81.1% and the turnout was 57.8%.
  • Staff also voted to take action short of a strike in both ballots.

Strike action will take place on Thursday 24 November, Friday 25 November, and Wednesday 30 November. Staff will also begin industrial action short of a strike from Wednesday 23 November.

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. These include 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.

In March 2022, a report published by the UCU (PDF), based on a survey of almost 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.

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.

See the full briefing for more information. 

Further reading

More information on the pensions dispute is available in the Library briefing Universities Superannuation Scheme.


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