The University and Colleges Union (UCU) has announced a further 14 days of strike action which will hit 74 universities across the country including Oxford.
Members of the Union have raised two disputes with universities and the university pension provider which remain unresolved. The first concerns the sustainability of the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), while the second concerns pay, casualisation, workloads, and equality.
Action will begin on Thursday 20th February with a two-day walkout, during which striking lecturers, researchers and service staff will not carry out their university duties. Strikes will escalate over the proceeding four weeks, culminating in a week-long strike between the 9th and 13th March.
UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: “We have seen more members back strikes since the winter walkouts and this next wave of action will affect even more universities and students. If universities want to avoid further disruption they need to deal with rising pension costs, and address the problems over pay and conditions.
“We have been clear from the outset that we would take serious and sustained industrial action if that was what was needed. As well as the strikes starting later this month, we are going to ballot members to ensure that we have a fresh mandate for further action to cover the rest of the academic year if these disputes are not resolved.”
A spokesperson for Oxford University told Cherwell: “The University is disappointed with the outcome of the Oxford UCU ballot in favour of industrial action over USS pensions. We understand the concerns many staff have on pensions, as well as on pay. We also have a duty to ensure our education and research activities continue as far as possible and will therefore have contingency plans in place to minimise the impact of any industrial action on staff, students and visitors.”
While academics at Oxford will strike over both disputes, 27 universities will only be taking action over one of the two disputes, since union members must be balloted for industrial action regarding each dispute individually.
The action follows earlier strikes which were carried out between the 25th November and the 4th December, during which striking UCU members picketed outside many university buildings. At the time Oxford’s branch of the UCU could only strike over pay and working conditions after its ballot over the USS narrowly missed the required turnout of 50%. Following a re-balloting of members in January which met the 50% threshold, the strikes in February will now also concern the USS dispute.
A spokesperson for Oxford’s UCU branch said: “UCU has just announced 14 days of strike action, starting on the 20th of February, for both the USS pensions and the pay & equality disputes. Oxford will now also be joining the USS action after a successful re-ballot, in addition to the pay & equality dispute which we took part in last term. While we have seen important steps in engagement, with employers being prepared to discuss issues that were previously off the table as a result of the first round of strike action, they have failed to make serious commitments in either dispute so far. We have 17 days between now and then, and very much hope that UUK and UCEA will at last come to us with a serious offers on the two disputes. UCUs HEC will meet on the 14th of February to consider any offers that may be on the table between now and then, and we will of course be following developments closely. We do not want to resort to strike action but we are prepared and determined to do so if necessary”
The UCU is also encouraging its members to carry out “action short of a strike,” which involves working strictly to contract, not covering for striking colleagues, and not catching up on work missed due to industrial action.
Renewed action follows months of negotiations between the UCU, Universities UK, who are representing universities in dispute negotiations, the USS, and the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA). While the UCU and UCEA say that progress has been made on working conditions, the organisations have been unable to make headway with pay negotiations.
If progress is not made, the UCU has threatened to continue strike action until the end of the academic year, although members will need to be re-balloted in this case, since mandates for industrial action expire every six months.
A statement released by the UCEA expressed dismay at the strike action: “We are dismayed, and many HE institutions will be so too, to see UCU’s HEC decide to ask the union’s members to once again use damaging strike action over last year’s national pay demands. Strike action should always be a last resort and we believe that UCU’s 70,000 members in the 147 institutions should now be given a say. There are new ways forward being offered by HE employers – UCEA has made available significant positive proposals on key issues in UCU’s dispute – contractual arrangements, workload / mental health and gender pay gaps / ethnicity pay – developed following two months of talks with UCU. Strikes in less than half the universities in the multi-employer negotiations are not the answer and are in real danger of undermining the national collective pay bargaining arrangements.
“UCEA has proactively and formally consulted its members in developing our significant new proposals as we can only move with the consensus of our members. UCU members deserve a chance to have their voices heard as to how they feel about the progress that has been made and whether they want to choose an alternative to further disruptive action.”
A USS spokesperson said: “We recognise the difficulties in levying higher contributions but USS, along with all similar pension schemes, faces a challenging environment in which the costs of funding high-quality defined benefits have increased.
“We will be revisiting these issues over the coming months under the 2020 valuation and are committed to working with Higher Education employers to build a secure financial future for our members and their families.”
Responding to the news a spokesperson for Universities UK, representing USS employers, said:
“We regret that UCU are planning further strike action at a time when positive talks on the future of the scheme are making significant progress and are ongoing. Despite this, UCU continue to request that employers pay still higher contributions at unaffordable levels.
“By law, pension costs had to rise to maintain current benefits. Employers have agreed to cover 65% of these increased costs, taking their contribution to 21.1% of salaries from October 2019 – together committing £250m more a year. Members have been asked to make a fair contribution too.
“The best way forward is to work collectively to secure a pension scheme that is highly valued and affordable for all. The current tripartite talks between UCU, USS, and UUK, which are set to continue at least until March, are building a shared understanding on the future of the scheme, jointly developing governance reforms and considering alternative pathways for the 2020 valuation.
“Universities will put in place a series of measures to minimise the impact of industrial action on students, other staff and the wider community.”