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Oxford University staff to open strike ballots over pay and pensions

Estelle Atkinson reports on plans for University staff to hold ballots to decide whether to go on strikes over pensions, and pay and working conditions.

Estelle Atkinson
Estelle Atkinson
Former Editor-in-Chief (TT22)

The University and College Union (UCU) has announced that following cuts to University Superannuation Scheme (USS) members’ pensions, the UCU is due to hold a strike ballot this October. Oxford University is among the institutions whose staff will hold will hold strike ballots over both cuts to USS members’ pensions, and pay and working conditions.

University employers are being accused of cutting the USS members’ guaranteed annual pension by 35%. This move was decided by Universities UK (UUK) in a vote to cut thousands of pounds from the retirement benefits of university staff. The plans were based on a valuation of the USS scheme conducted at the beginning of the pandemic, during which the economy was experiencing market crashes. The UCU refers to this valuation of the USS scheme as “flawed”.

Alternate proposals for reform of the USS scheme were put forth by the UCU at the Joint Negotiating Committee, with employers present as represented by UUK. These proposals were not accepted and options to delay the move were also rejected. 

University staff are also said to be in dispute over “declining staff pay, the use of casualised contracts, unsafe workloads and equality failings.” The UCU produced research findings showing that 42% of teaching staff are employed on zero hours contracts, while 49% are employed on insecure, fixed-term contracts. 

Furthermore, the UCU cites that pay for university staff has fallen by around 20% between 2009 and 2019, with employers making below inflation offers while tuition fees grow. Equality failings relating to staff pay are also to be on the second strike ballot. The UCU highlighted the gender pay gap of 15.5% and the figures provided by the Higher Education Statistics Agency revealing that of 22,810 professors in the UK, 27% are women and 1% are black. Consequently, the UCU is calling for “a £2.5k pay increase; an end to race and gender pay injustice; a framework eliminating the use of precarious contracts, such as zero-hours employment; and meaningful action to tackle unmanageable workloads.”

The University and College Union confirmed on Wednesday that strike ballots will open at UK universities on Monday 18 October unless employers meet its demands. 

The UCU’s higher education committee confirmed that 152 institutions will be balloted in total, with six being balloted on USS only, 83 are to be balloted over pay and working conditions, and 63 balloting over both USS and pay and working conditions. The University of Oxford will be balloting over both issues.

The UCU expects employers to negotiate offers regarding both USS and pay and working conditions or face disruption to the end of term and the beginning of the next one, with the ballot running until the 4 November unless the disputes are resolved. 

Jo Grady, the UCU General Secretary, provided the following statement: “University staff propped up the entire sector during the pandemic, but they are now being thanked with huge cuts to their pensions, unbearably high workloads, and another below-inflation pay offer – all whilst universities continue to generate a handsome income from tuition fees.

“The truth is that very well paid university leadership, who manage institutions with bigger turnovers than top football clubs, are choosing to exploit the goodwill of staff, repeatedly refusing to address the rampant use of casualised contracts, unsafe workloads or the shocking gender and ethnicity pay gap in the sector.

“Our members across the UK know that working in a university does not have to be like this and are clear that they are ready to take action to stand up for their dignity, defend pensions and win long overdue improvements to their pay and working conditions. There is still time for university chiefs to resolve a situation which is entirely of their own making, but they must return to negotiations and make credible offers.”

The National Union of Students (NUS) has come out in support of the staff ballot, saying “students will hold employers responsible” if employers do not come to “a negotiated settlement and address the fundamental issues repeatedly raised by staff.”

Larissa Kennedy, the NUS National President, said, “As students, we regularly witness how staff and student’s conditions are intertwined. University management forcing staff onto casualised contracts, cutting their pay, and now trying to cut thousands of pounds from their pensions cannot be divorced from the fact that one in 10 students has needed to access a foodbank to survive the pandemic – these aren’t the actions of a university leadership or an education system that have the interests of staff or students at heart.

“Staff working conditions are student learning conditions and we stand shoulder to shoulder with our educators in fighting for a more just education system. We demand fully funded, accessible, lifelong education where our spaces of teaching and learning belong to the students, staff and communities they exist to serve. Until then, it is entirely in the gift of vice chancellors and employers to come to a negotiated settlement and address the fundamental issues repeatedly raised by staff. If they don’t, students will hold employers responsible.”

Image: Andrea De Santis via Unsplash.com

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