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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 coordinated several waves of industrial action in two separate disputes over pensions and pay and working conditions.

Why have staff been striking?


The first dispute concerned changes to the pension scheme for many university staff, the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS). Employees and employers who are part of the USS make contributions to a fund, which is invested and used to pay pensions in retirement. The scheme is required to conduct regular valuations to assess the value of its assets, the cost of the pensions it has already promised, and to inform the contributions required to pay future pensions.

Following a valuation of the scheme’s financial health in March 2020, a significant shortfall was estimated between the scheme’s income and commitments. This led to a reduction in pension benefits for employees from April 2022 and an increase in employer contributions. The UCU objected to these reductions and the way in which they had been calculated, taking strike action in an attempt to force a new valuation and a restoration of benefits.

Through the 2023 valuation of the scheme, it became clear the scheme’s financial health had improved. In October 2023, it was revealed a £7.4 billion surplus would allow both the reductions to members’ pensions benefits and the increase to contributions made by employers to be reversed. As a result, the UCU announced its members had voted to end their pensions dispute with university employers.

Pay and conditions

A parallel – and unsettled – dispute concerned several issues related to pay and working conditions, including pay levels, gender and minority ethnic pay gaps, staff workload, and insecure contracts. The UCU demanded:

  • 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.

An attempt to renew the mandate for industrial action in this dispute into 2024 was unsuccessful. On 6 November 2023, the UCU revealed that while 68.3% of members who had voted backed taking strike action, the turnout for the ballot was only 42.6%, meaning further industrial action could not take place. This is because the Trade Union Act 2016 requires a 50% minimum turnout for a ballot to be valid.

2023 marking and assessment boycott

On 17 April 2023, the UCU announced members had 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.

In response, the Universities and Colleges Employers’ Association (UCEA) said universities were 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.

End of the boycott and attempt to renew mandate for industrial action

On 6 September 2023, the 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.

However, the UCU later announced members at only 42 universities would take strike action for the full five days in the last week of September, while members at a further 10 universities would strike on at least one day. 89 branches informed the national UCU leadership they did not want to take part in the industrial action. This followed a number of deals agreed between branches and employers at a local level.

On 11 September 2023, the UCU said it would re-ballot members at 143 universities between 19 September and 3 November. It hoped this would allow the union to take further action in 2023 and into 2024 in the dispute over pay and conditions. However, the ballot did not meet the legally require turnout threshold of 50% and so, despite a majority voting for further action, it was not valid. The unsuccessful ballot followed reports of “divisions and disillusionment” among UCU members and disagreements over strategy.

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.

Government consultation on minimum service levels

On 28 November 2023, the UK Government launched a consultation on minimum service levels in education that would apply during strike action.

While the consultation document included detailed proposals for schools and further education settings, it was primarily interested in gathering evidence around the impact of strikes in higher education. The consultation said if the Government pursued plans to lay regulations for higher education, it would consider whether to undertake further consultation on detailed minimum service levels proposals for the sector.

Education Committee inquiry on the impact of industrial action

On 24 November 2023, the House of Commons Education Committee launched an inquiry to investigate the impact that year’s industrial action – particularly the marking and assessment boycott – had on students in England.

Education Committee Chair Robin Walker MP said the purpose of the inquiry was to examine ways in which the damage could be limited through effective planning, so any similar scenario in future could be better managed and disruption to students minimised.

Further information

An overview of the university pension scheme and its recent issues is provided by the Commons Library briefing Universities Superannuation Scheme

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