The University and Colleges Union will begin strikes again this Thursday, Cherwell is here to tell you everything you need to know.

When are strikes taking place?

The UCU has announced 14 weekdays of strikes, but action will be spread out over the course of 23 days. Striking days will be grouped into three clusters and escalate in length during the 23 days. 

Cluster 1: Thursday of 5th week – Wednesday of 6th week (4 working days)

Cluster 2: Monday of 7th week – Thursday of 7th week (4 working days)

Cluster 3: Monday of 8th week – Friday of 8th week (5 working days)

Who is striking?

The University and Colleges Union is organising and participating in the strikes. The UCU is a trade union which represents those employed in higher education. This means that union represents casualised researchers and teaching staff, “permanent” lecturers and academic-related professional services staff. Any employee of the university who falls under one of these categories and is a member of the UCU is eligible to participate in the upcoming strikes.

It is unclear how wide-ranging strikes will be this year, and exactly how many lecturers intend to strike. Although all UCU members have the right to strike, whether to strike or not is left to the discretion of the individual. Cherwell understands that approximately 50% of the Oxford UCU branch turned out to vote in the strike ballot. Of those, around 75% voted in favour of action, meaning that around 38% of Oxford UCU members have returned a vote to strike.

As of October 2019, Oxford’s branch of the UCU had 1,225 members.

Information distributed by the University has made it clear that they expect the majority of teaching to go unaffected.

How will it affect me?

The most tangible effects for students will be the cancellation of some lectures, labs, and other teaching organised by the central University and its faculties. Students will be notified beforehand if any events are cancelled. Oxford has also said that it will attempt to reschedule any teaching which is affected by the action.

Further, the UCU has encouraged its members to take action short of a strike. This involves working strictly to contract, not catching up on work missed due to work, not covering for absent colleagues, not undertaking any voluntary activities, and a marking and assessment boycott. Action short of a strike is unlikely to drastically impact the quality of teaching but may mean academics becoming stricter with the work they will carry out for the university. The marking and assessment boycott means that academics may elect not to participate in the marking or moderation of university-level examinations.

Teaching in college will go unaffected. Tutorials and classes should go on, and collections and internal examinations will be undertaken as normal.

Why are academics striking?

Members of the UCU are striking this term over two separate disputes. One relates to the University, and the other to the higher education pensions’ provider: the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS).

Dispute with Universities

The UCU’s dispute with universities covers pay, equality, casualisation, and workloads.

The Union has alleged that higher education employees’ retail price index (RPI) inflation-adjusted pay has fallen by around 20% since 2009. This figure stands at odds with calculations made by the University and Colleges Employers’ Association which puts the pay reduction since 2009 between 1.5% (CPIH inflation-adjusted pay for junior university staff) and 17% (RPI inflation-adjusted pay for senior university staff).

Negotiations with the UCEA, which represents universities in negotiations, on the current dispute began in March 2019. 

Most recently, the UCEA submitted an offer to the UCU in January which details the concessions universities are currently willing to make. The offer includes a 1.8% pay increase for staff, which the UCU says “fails to keep up with the cost of living.” The offer also includes measures to address the gender pay gap, expecting universities to work with trade unions to address disparities. It also encourages universities to move staff currently employed on casual or fixed-term contracts onto indefinite contracts, and encourages institutions to investigate ways to ensure that demands placed on university staff are achievable.

Currently, UCU negotiators have made it clear that they do not believe that this latest offer represents the best deal which could be achieved for members, although both parties agree that significant progress has been made on the dispute.

Dispute with the USS

Union members have also raised a dispute concerning the sustainability of the universities’ pensions scheme.

The dispute has been slower to negotiate, as the UCU argues that the current pensions pot has been undervalued, and members are currently being asked to increase contributions to the scheme while receiving less in their retirement.

According to the UCU, changes which have been made to the USS have meant that an average member will pay £40,000 extra into their pension but receive £200,000 less in their retirement.

The USS argues that the scheme “faces a challenging environment in which the costs of funding high-quality defined benefits have increased.”

This dispute also involves Universities UK, representing universities in the pensions dispute. According to UUK, employers have agreed to cover 65% of the increased costs to the USS. The body has expressed dismay at the decision taken by the UCU committing to further strike action.

Where will the strikes take place?

Strikes will take place outside six locations in Oxford:

  • Clarendon Building, Broad Street
  • Examinations Schools, High Street
  • Science Area South, South Parks Road
  • Science Area North, Parks Road
  • Radcliffe Observatory Quarter, Woodstock Road
  • The Old Road Campus Research Building, Roosevelt Drive

Picket lines will form at around 8:30 am.

There will also be a rally outside the Clarendon Building on Broad Street at 12 pm on Thursday 20th February (Thursday of 5th). Speakers at the event will include the president of Oxford Students’ Union.

Should I cross a picket line?

Striking members cannot stop students from crossing picket lines, and decisions to attend lectures must be made by an individual. However, Oxford Students’ Union encouraged students not to cross picket lines during the strikes in November 2019, citing that “we have a responsibility to support this upcoming strike.”

It also encouraged Oxford students to participate in “solidarity action.”

Can I seek financial compensation for lost teaching time?

Oxford has made it clear that they intend to put alternative arrangements in place to minimise disruption during the strikes. They will not be issuing compensation to students.

However, if alternative arrangements have been inadequate, students may complain to the University.

Will the strikes end after this term?

If the UCU is able to find resolution with universities and the USS, strikes will cease. However, the Union has made it clear that they are willing to take further industrial action until the end of the academic year if sufficient progress is not made. For many universities, this will require a re-balloting of members, since strike ballots are only valid for 6 months. At Oxford, the current strike mandate lasts until July, since the most recent ballot was returned in January this year.

What have the relevant parties said about the strikes?

Cherwell asked the UCU, Oxford University, the Universities Superannuation Scheme, Universities UK and the Universities and Colleges Employers Association for comment regarding the most recent round of strikes. Their responses are as follows.

Oxford UCU

“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”

Jo Grady (UCU General Secretary)

“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.”

Oxford University

“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.”

USS

“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.”

UUK

“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.”

UCEA

“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.”